Pushcart XL: Wendell Berry, “The Branch Way of Doing” from Threepenny Review, #139

For a further wonder, Danny and Lyda seem to have understood from the start that they would have to make a life together that would be determinedly marginal to the modern world and its economy….
Marginality, conscious and deliberate, principled marginality, as Andy eventually realized, was an economic practice, informed by something like a moral code, and ultimately something like religion. No Branch of Danny’s line ever spoke directly of morality or religion, but their practice, surely for complex reasons, was coherent enough that their ways were known in the Port William neighborhood and beyond by the name of Branch. “That’s a Branch way of doing,” people would say. Or by way of accusation: “You trying to be some kind of Branch?”

~~ Story available online at Threepenny Review

Berry has been writing stories about Andy Catlett, something of an alter ego, for more than 50 years. His Port William is as real a place as any you’ll find on a map. Every time I read one of these stories, I find an Aesopian flavor to it: each story has a moral. For some reason, this annoys me greatly, even though I tend to agree with the morals encapsulated therein.

In this case, the moral is marginality. Not the kind of marginality so many face unwillingly, but a more voluntary kind. A dropping out of, or a refusal to join in the first place, the rat race, to not buy into success that feeds on and produces consumerism. In the case of the Branch family, that voluntary marginality includes a set of nine unspoken tenets, like “Be happy with what you’ve got. Don’t be always looking for something better” and “Unless you absolutely have got to do it, don’t buy anything new.”

I’ve often said I hate money. That isn’t accurate, of course, at least not to the extent the Branches take it. I’m not going to go hunt my dinner, and don’t get between me and my internet service, and I do buy new things more than used. I’m perfectly happy wearing boring, cheap clothes until they fall apart, and I can’t think of anything more distasteful than the current atmosphere in which the purpose of the population is to buy stuff so other people can buy stuff, or the “grow or die” principle that seems to be running rampant in business now.

Of the source and the reasons for this Branch fastidiousness, Andy is still unsure. For himself, he has finally understood that, however it may be loved for itself, money is only symbolic, only the means of purchasing something that is not money. To live almost entirely, or entirely, by purchase, as many modern people do, is to equate the worth of every actual thing with its price. The symbol thus comes to limit and control the thing it symbolizes, and like a rust or canker finally consumes it. And so buying and selling for money is not simply a matter of numbers and accounting, but is a dark and fearful mystery.

So I understand the Branches. I agree with a lot of their tenets, and I think a lot of us would be happier if we embraced more of them. I understand knowing who you are and accepting the limits that brings. I just wish Berry weren’t so damn smug about it, particularly when he must’ve wanted something better than tobacco farming or he wouldn’t have gone to Stanford’s creative writing program. Yes, that’s a snotty interpretation on my part, and it’s likely it’s rooted in something other than the text, but the fact is, I never read an Andy Catlett story without feeling scolded by fictional people who have been idealized beyond all credibility.

However, I do think it’s an excellent idea to give rural literature a solid place in the American collection. So, even though it isn’t really my style in tone or content, I’ll appreciate Berry’s work for that.

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