PEN/O.Henry 2012: Wendell Berry, “Nothing Living Lives Alone” from Threepenny Review, Spring 2011

Such settled and decided people are parts of the world, as the unresting, never-satisfied seekers of something better can never be.

Full disclosure: Wendell Berry annoys me (for a ludicrously unfair reason based on old hearsay: I was told he once made a comment to someone I knew that seemed unnecessarily arrogant and imperious), so I came into this an attitude, which the story itself did nothing to dislodge. I have put a lot of effort into seeing the story honestly and without my own filter; I do not think I have been successful.

He admits in his Contributor Notes that it “seems to me to impose some strain on the term story.” I’m ok with that; some non-story stories work for me, others don’t; the failure for me isn’t in the lack of story-ness but in other things. It’s mostly polemic, and hey, that’s what a lot of The Jungle and Magic Mountain is too, back before nonstop narrative forward motion was the order of the day. Jess Row, Seth Fried – some of my favorite recent fiction leans towards polemic, though there’s usually a character involved.

Thing is – I’m in the odd position of basically agreeing with many of his conclusions, and feeling annoyed by them at the same time.

Berry has used the character of Andy Catlett before: a young boy growing up on Kentucky farm during WWII. Here, he uses third person present to describe a reminiscence, lending what is a kind of distance and evaluative quality to Andy’s recounting of his story: “As he looks back across many years from his old age to his childhood, it seems to him….” The narration is a story of a man looking back, one level removed from the looking back, and two removed from the events. Much of it seems like the narrator’s interpretation of Andy’s life, lending the polemic feel.

The main themes are freedom, work, and “being in the world” which is a kind of naturalistic non-industrialized existence:

Andy felt himself in the presence of the world itself; in the world’s native silence as yet only rarely disturbed by the sound of a machine, its darkness after bedtime unbroken by human light, its daylight as yet unsmudged, its springs and streams still drinkable. It was a creaturely world, substantial and alive… In those days he simply lived in it and loved it without premonition. Eventually, seeing it as it would become, he would remember with sorrow how it had been.

His grandparents go back to Civil War times:

For most of their lives the country had been powered almost entirely by the bodily strength of people and of horses and mules, and the people had been dependent for their lives mostly on the country and on their own knowledge and skills.

Andy aspires, even as a small child, to be capable of doing “real” work, not just bringing water to the men who are doing such work:

Andy learned there was a difference between good and bad work, and that good work was worthy, even that it was expected, even of him.He wanted to work, to work well, to be a good hand, long before he was capable. By the time he became more or less capable of work, he had become capable also of laziness. Because he knew about work, he knew about laziness.

He admires the Brightleafs, who are tobacco farmers, the most skilled and hard-working of farmers. And in a lovely turn of phrase, he describes freedom as “an interval with responsibilities at either end.” He sees, in contrast to the modern world, a time and place when people were what they were and didn’t worry about being something else:

It’s chief quality can be suggested by the absence from it of a vocabulary that in the last half of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first would become dominant in the minds of nearly everybody. Nobody then and there was speaking of “alternatives” or “alternative lifestyles,” of “technology” or “technological progress,” of “mobility” or “upward mobility.” …. People did not call themselves, even to themselves, “just a farmer” or “just a housewife.” It required talk of an infinitude of choices endlessly available to everybody, essentially sales talk, to embitter the work of husbandry and wifery, to suggest the possibility always elsewhere of something better, and to make people long to give up whatever they had for the promise of something they might have – at whatever cost, at whatever loss.

Here’s where I have those conflicting feelings. I’ve long ranted against the “just a…” sentence. But do choices necessarily poison the status quo? I’m reminded of one of my favorite quotes, by Charles Du Bos, a Frenchman of roughly the same era as Andy’s grandparents: “The important thing is this: To be able at any moment to sacrifice what we are for what we could become.” Aren’t dreams, aspirations, good things? Isn’t Andy’s aspiration to work an example? Wouldn’t we all be living in caves and dying of impacted wisdom teeth or bear attacks in our 20s if we didn’t think, “Maybe I can do better”?

Which leads to the whole question of industrialization. Running water is a good thing; I love the internet. When the narrator (at most points I’m assuming the narrator is Andy in his older years, but it reads more like authorial intrusion) wonders: “Suppose we had refused to countenance the industrialization of everything from agriculture to medicine to education to religion” I wonder if we can balance out progress and depersonalization, or if without agribusiness and HMOs there could be no WorldWideWeb.

The three-part piece ends with an actual narrative of Andy in one of his brackets of freedom climbing a tree to unsuccessfully chase a squirrel, who leaps easily from limbtip to limbtip to outmaneuver the boy:

What would stay with him would not be his frustration, his failure to catch the squirrel, but the beauty of it and its aerial life, and of his aerial life while he tried to catch it….He had not wondered how, if he had caught the squirrel, he would have made his way back to the ground. It would take him several days to get around to thinking of that. The heights of that afternoon he had achieved as a quadruped. From where he had got to he could not have climbed down with his two feet and only one hand. If he had caught the squirrel, he would have had to turn it loose.

This serves as an effective metaphor for the industrialization theme: now that everything is mechanized, industrialized, and efficient, can we handle it? Or do we have to let it go to get down from the damned tree?

Something occurred to me as I was working on this post: I wondered if the piece is meant to be ironic, like “The Road Not Taken,” which generations of high-school students have been lead to misunderstand. I should think about this a little more before putting it out there, but it seems to me there’s enough irony in the story to allow for that conclusion.
Irony #1:

In his later years Andy Catlett has tried to use appropriate hesitation and care in speaking, in any way particularly personal, of the diminishment of the world. He dislikes hearing old men, including himself, begin sentences with such phrases as “In my day” and “when I was a boy.”

Oh, don’t we all? It’s a kind of in-joke, we all do it. And then of course the narrator proceeds to tell us exactly how and why it was better back then, though he does soften it a bit:

…it was not a time that a person of good sense would consider “going back to.” But that time, to the end of the war and a while after in that part of the world, had certain qualities, certain goodnesses, that might have been cherished and enlarged, but instead were disvalued and discarded as of no worth.

Isn’t that the way with the current world, too, that there are qualities to be cherished and kept? Political correctness might be a joke, but it comes from a well-meaning place and starts people thinking in terms of why they use certain language, why it is offensive to some people, and whether it truly reflects their views. The internet is full of porn, but it’s also full of literature and art and science and connection (though this last can be debated). The narrator misses that dual quality of the present time, so focused he is on the past.
In any case, Andy goes ahead with “When I was a boy” in spite of his awareness of the annoyance value.

There’s also the irony of the Brightleafs admired so for farming tobacco (more disclosure: I’m an ex-smoker). It’s a complex issue for those who grew up in tobacco country, who see their way of life, their family businesses, dissolving. And I think it’s true that historically, smoking was an occasional thing; chain-smoking and two-pack-a-day habits weren’t really part of the landscape until the last half-century, perhaps due to a combination of marketing, the desire for greater and greater profit, and nicotine manipulation by industrialized agribusiness intent on increasing profits. Maybe what I’m reading as irony is really rage, that something as work-and-craft intensive as tobacco farming has been demonized, when tobacco farmers are as much victims as the people on the PSAs with tubes in their throats.

And then there’s the irony that Andy was of the generation that seems to have ruined life, in the view of the narrator. While in his older years he’s telling us, “No one will ever have it as good as I had it” he’s also telling us it was on his watch things went downhill. So why the f- is he scolding me? (Wow, I’m taking this way too personally, y’think? I’ve been kind of pissy towards a lot of stories lately; I seem to be, as they say, “in a mood.”)

But back to irony: no, I don’t think it’s irony. He’s dead serious, and that’s underlined by the earnestness his Contributor Notes:

It belongs to a stretch of new work attempting to deal directly and explicitly with what I see as the paramount change in my time and place: …. Life here has become increasingly mechanical. Machines of various kinds now dominate work and economy, and also the thoughts and aspirations of the people. I would like, as so far as I am able, to understand what is implied by this.

I think I’m looking, through irony, for a way out, a way to not take this story at face value. While I agree with a lot of the negatives of modern life, I resist the notion that it’s a good thing a child born on a farm will not, should not, cannot dream of doing anything but farming. I also see a certain narrowness of focus in this paean to childhood: what about the kids who aren’t sons of farmers? It seems to me we’ve all bought into the myth of the “good old days” but they weren’t so good for some people. And the Industrial Revolution started in the nineteenth century, not the mid-twentieth – there were people already living highly mechanized lives in cities; he seems to feel it only matters when it filters down to his farm.

Maybe it’s as he says: there are things of value in modern life, with all its mechanization, too, which should not be cast off in an attempt to recapture what was good about the past. I’ve seen Food, Inc. – I’m not going to defend agribusiness. But when I go to buy an apple and I have to decide between the Monsanto version or the local, organic variety (when available – buying local in Maine means potatoes and beets six months of the year), it might depend on whether I have four times as much to spend. I can rail about doctors who look at the computer screen instead of the patient, but when your kid has leukemia or your mother has a stroke or you have four of six high-risk factors for breast cancer, chemotherapy and TPA and computer-guided stereotactic biopsies don’t seem like the enemy.

I’m taking this story way too personally to be objective about it. just got my back up early on, triggering extraordinary (even for me) defensiveness. Maybe I’ll just admit it wasn’t my cup of tea and move on.

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12 responses to “PEN/O.Henry 2012: Wendell Berry, “Nothing Living Lives Alone” from Threepenny Review, Spring 2011

  1. Pingback: Wendell Berry: “Nothing Living Lives Alone” (PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories 2012) « Fail Better

  2. Karen, it’s taken me too long, but I’m finally catching up to you on the PEN/O. Henry stories. I’ll say these two things, here: (1) Berry acknowledges that there are some good things to industrialization and, as you say, does attempt to distance himself from the cheesy “Well, things were better in *my* day” approach; (2) what you identify as a split between earnest and ironic writing, I describe as being a strain in Berry’s too-precise prose, which is determined (ironically, ironically) not to give the reader any damn freedom at all. (Hence that “authorial intrusion” that bugs us both.)

    Anyway, more here: http://shortaday.wordpress.com/2012/06/05/wendell-berry-nothing-living-lives-alone-peno-henry-prize-stories-2012/

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