Leisure and Technology in Port William: Wendell Berry's Revelatory Fiction

By Mannon, Ethan | The Mississippi Quarterly, Spring 2014 | Go to article overview

Leisure and Technology in Port William: Wendell Berry's Revelatory Fiction


Mannon, Ethan, The Mississippi Quarterly


THE MORE THAN FIFTY BOOKS WENDELL BERRY HAS WRITTEN INCLUDE eight novels and five volumes of short stories. (1) With this collection of fiction, Berry has lovingly sketched the community history of Port William, Kentucky, from the conclusion of the American Civil War into the twenty-first century. Berry's achievement in creating this fictional place and its people has reminded critics of Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County as well as Hardy's Wessex and even J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle Earth (Core 324; Thomas 86; Stanford 119). Though such comparisons attest to Berry's accomplishment, one must nevertheless note that in terms of renown and scholarly engagement, his essays overshadow his fiction. Indeed, William Major, John Ditsky, and Patrick D. Murphy have each commented upon the predominant critical focus on Berry's essays and the comparative lack of attention given to his work in other genres, especially in fiction. (2)

Even those critics who do take up Berry's fiction often relegate it to secondary status. By grounding the importance and value of his novels and short stories in the way their content reinforces and exemplifies his essays, the methodology of such critics automatically assigns Berry's fiction to a supporting role. For example, in justifying their attention to his fiction, Ian and Margaret Deweese-Boyd make a gesture typical of scholars who wish to expand the critical scope beyond Berry's nonfiction. They argue that his fiction "performs a function that his essays cannot--it serves to embody and exemplify the ideas to which his essays refer" (220). While I do not wish to downplay the importance of Berry's essays and agree that his fiction often complements them, the Deweese-Boyds' approach is problematic for two reasons. First, suggesting that Berry's novels and short stories are valuable only insofar as they illustrate his nonfiction ignores their intrinsic value as literary productions with a different emphasis on aesthetics than his essays. Although one should not discount this issue, this article focuses on the second problem created by subordinating Berry's fiction to his nonfiction: regarding his novels and short stories as only "embodied" examples of his nonfiction blinds one to the ways that Berry's fiction occasionally speaks where his essays do not and, perhaps, cannot. As I argue, Berry's novels and short stories fill in some of the gaps in his nonfiction, occasionally going beyond his essays and exposing the danger of any argument that neglects one or more genres of his writing.

To demonstrate the revelatory value of Berry's fiction, I point out that his novels and short stories contain more thorough and better nuanced articulations of the roles of leisure and technology in agriculture than critics have found in his nonfiction. In section I, I show that Burley Coulter--a recurring character whose preference for recreation over labor challenges our assumptions about the sobriety and work ethic of Berry's ideal farmer--embodies the "leisure ethic" noted as absent from Berry's nonfiction. Section II examines the claim that Berry's preference for archaic technology forces him to universally denigrate all work performed with modern technology and points out several examples from across Port William's history in which archaic technology empowered destructive agriculture. Further, a comparison of two characters from Jayber Crow (2000)--Troy Chatham and his father-in-law, Athey Keith--makes clear that for Berry, a farmer's philosophy is more important than the technology he uses to put it in practice. To conclude, I highlight the ways that these subjects--a farmer's leisure and his or her use of technology--combine to modify our understanding of Berry's relationship to an important literary predecessor. The ubiquitous presence of both agricultural technology and the work of husbandry in Berry's fiction connects his novels and short stories to Virgil's agricultural poem, The Georgics. Although critics have established the Roman poet's influence upon Berry, the latter's writing about leisure and the need for technological limits moves his version of the georgic away from the overzealous encomiums of labor and the regard for tools as weapons of mastery that characterize Virgil's second poem. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

Leisure and Technology in Port William: Wendell Berry's Revelatory Fiction
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen
Items saved from this article
  • Highlights & Notes
  • Citations
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Search by... Author
    Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.