Most of life is very ordinary. We are children and we are adults. We hope and we love. We work and we play. Most of life is not lived globally, but very locally, in houses or apartments, on streets and in neighborhoods, in towns and in cities—and it is in those places among those people that we live into who we are and what we believe.
One of the reasons that I have chosen to live within the literary vision of Wendell Berry is that he writes about this kind of common life. In every course I teach I require my students to read him and learn, looking over-his-shoulder and through-his-heart as he unfolds a vision of vocation that is formed by the truest truths of the universe, and yet in language the whole world can understand.
After years of schooling and getting the job he had long longed for, Berry decided that his deeper identity was as someone from Kentucky, and that he should return home–a decision that has shaped his life and literature for the rest of his life. Buying into the family farm, he taught writing for awhile at the university, but over time settled into the rhythm that has become his life: husband, father, farmer, writer, neighbor, friend, day after day after day.
It is not a surprise then that his stories are about people a lot like him. Imagining a small town on the banks of the Kentucky River, he has created a universe out of Port William, with its farmers and shopkeepers, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, generationally twined together over a hundred years.
That Distant Land tells these tales as short stories, giving windows into the lives of people Berry’s readers come to know and love. The Old Jacks, the Miss Minnies, the Mat Feltners, the Burley Coulters, the Mary Penns, and the Wheeler Catletts, each one painted with a skillful brush, with complexity and nuance, richness and depth.
Take Wheeler, for example. The subject of several stories, we meet him as a young boy on his way to becoming a young man in the story, “Blood Is Thicker Than Liquor.” As a child he loved his Uncle Peach, his mother’s brother; they would play and laugh, full of pleasure together. But as Wheeler became an adolescent he began to see that Uncle Peach was an alcoholic, and was drunk more often than not. Rather than happy to be in relationship, Wheeler wanted nothing to do with him.
Seeing how his mother troubled herself with Uncle Peach and mourned over him, Wheeler said, bullying her in her own defense as a seventeen-year-old-boy is apt to do, “To hell with him! Why don’t you let him get on by himself the best way he can? What’s he done for you?”
Dorie answered his first question, ignoring the second: “Because blood is thicker than water.”
And Wheeler said, mocking her, “Blood is thicker than liquor.”
“Yes,” she said. “Thicker than liquor too.”
Wheeler goes off to the university, then to law school, and returns home to begin his life as an attorney and a new husband. Mother and son have an important conversation along the way, he now a young man, learning to see the world with both responsibility and love. “’Blood is thicker than liquor,’ Wheeler said to her, no longer mocking, but gently stating the fact as he knew she saw it. ‘Yes,” she said, and smiled. “It is.’”
A hotel clerk in Louisville calls Wheeler one day, asking if someone can come into the city and get Uncle Peach who has gotten drunk, horribly messing up the room. Instinctively, Wheeler says he will come and help his uncle. And he goes off to love his mother’s brother, more because she does than that he does.
He finds Uncle Peach disheveled, and the room torn apart. Cleaning him up, he gives him coffee, and brings him home. But before the train ride is over, Uncle Peach vomits again, horribly and loudly retching in the crowded train car. Wheeler does his best to clean them both up, and upon arriving at the station gets them into the buggy, and takes them back to Uncle Peach’s home, enduring more vomit along the way.
Finally, after this had happened perhaps a dozen times, Wheeler, who had remained angry, said, “I hope you puke your damned guts out.”
And Uncle Peach, who lay, quaking and white, against the seatback, said, “Oh, Lord, honey, you can’t mean that.”
As if his anger had finally stripped all else away, suddenly Wheeler saw Uncle Peach as perhaps Dorie has always seen him—a poor, hurt, weak mortal, twice hurt because he knew himself to be hurt and weak and mortal. And then Wheeler knew what he did need from Uncle Peach. He needed him to be comforted. That was all. He put his arm around Uncle Peach, then, and patted him as if he were a child. “No,” he said. “I don’t mean it.”
The story finishes with surprising grace, and has become a metaphor for life, wherever I find it. When they arrive home, Wheeler decides to stay with Uncle Peach, rather than go home to his new bride. And so after putting the older man to bed, Wheeler climbs in too. As the hours pass, he feels the terrors of Uncle Peach’s mostly sleepless night—but eventually, “Wheeler went to sleep, his hand remaining on Uncle Peach’s shoulder where it had come to rest.”
In this short story Berry offers a window into life for Everyman, for Everywoman. There is no one who does not have, literally or figuratively, an Uncle Peach to love—a person, a place, a community, a culture. In the innocence of youth, Uncle Peach was loveable, but as Wheeler got older, knowing more of the world and of his uncle, the more difficult it was to love him. That Wheeler’s mother loved her brother instructed her son, and he was willing to step into her loves, for love’s sake. But it was not until he began to see Uncle Peach as “poor, hurt, mortal,” that he got into bed with Uncle Peach, and put his hand on his shoulder through the night.
Can we know the world, and still love it? Mostly we decide that we cannot, for lots of good reasons—just like Wheeler. Uncle Peach did not deserve to be loved, and there was no indication that he was ever going to change. Simply said, he was a mess, and whatever he touched became a mess. But in the midst of the mess, Dorie loved her brother, and taught her son to love him too. Knowing what they knew, complicated and complex as it was, they chose to love.
To do that, with honesty and integrity, is the most difficult task in the world. But there are people who make that choice. Not out of grandeur or great ambition, but in the spirit of Berry’s vision, viz. in the relationships and responsibilities of common life, they see themselves as implicated in the way the world is and ought to be. They see themselves as having vocations that call them into life, into the world—into a way of knowing that implicates them, for love’s sake.
(Wendell Berry has recently been named the 2012 Jefferson Lecturer in the Humanities, a great honor for a great man. For more information, click here)