BASS 2019: Wendell Berry, “The Great Interruption” from Threepenny Review #155

Wood engraving by Joanne Price for the Larkspur Press edition of the story

Wood engraving by Joanne Price for the Larkspur Press edition of the story

….I have more or less suddenly become capable of writing so as to be read by strangers a story that, until then, had only been spoken and heard in my own neighborhood. Behind this now-written story is a lived one that, for a while, could be passed about among people who knew the setting and, so to speak, the original cast. Writing such a story calls for the characters and the situation to be newly imagined, in order to give it the plausibility previously supplied by local tellers and hearers. This can be accomplished by moving the lived story into a fictional community already prepared, as has been done here.

Wendell Berry, Contributor Note

This is it: finally, the Wendell Berry story I greatly enjoyed. I’ve admitted before that although I mostly agree with his viewpoints about the evils of modern (that is, post-WWII) life, I find him annoying, for reasons I don’t quite understand. But here, I was caught up in a story that kept expanding its scope.

It begins with a delightful opening anecdote about thirteen-year-old Billy Gibbs, resident of Port Williams in this summer of 1935.

His life would have been simple if he had been only lazy – or, as he himself might have said if he had thought to say it, only a lover of freedom. But along with the wish to avoid work, his mental development brought him also to the wish to be useful to his parents and to work well, especially if an adult dignity attached to the work. And so he was a two-minded boy.
And so he grew up into usefulness and a growing and lasting pride in being useful, but also into a more or less parallel love of adventure and a talent for shirking.

It’s one of those Tom Sawyer-esque stories about Billy climbing a tree to see what town bigwig Mr. La Vere and his unfamiliar ladyfriend are doing, having driven well into the brush one afternoon, and recognizing the activity as one “enacted by cattle, horses, sheep, goats, hogs, dogs, housecats, chickens…”. Billy can’t quite see, and now that he’s confirmed that this activity is, indeed, something people engage in as well, he wants to be sure to pick up some pointers. So he climbs out a little more on the branch, which of course breaks, dropping him right on top of a startled Mr. La Vere (and, presumably, an even more startled ladyfriend). Youthful vigor and a willingness to disregard the thorns of blackberry brambles allow Billy to escape unidentified, with a story for the ages.

But this story isn’t The Story, and now becomes an exhibit in a story about storytelling:

One mind, and a boy’s mind at that, finally could not contain such a story. But such a story, a story of such high excellence and so rare, could be turned loose in Port William only with some caution beforehand, as one might release an especially exuberant big dog. Billy found that he was not able to tell the story to anybody unworthy of it, which illuminated forthwith all the boys more or less of his generation.
….Billy knew he had a really good one. He wanted to tell it to a real story teller who would recognize its worth. And so he told it to Burley Coulter.

I’m quite impressed with Jake Weber’s blog post analyzing how Billy embodies the characteristics of a writer.

The Story about storytelling mutates once again into an interesting reflection on the synergy between Port William and the story, how when people heard it, they knew the places and people and caught the nuances: “It meant in Port William what it could not mean, and far more than it could mean, in any other place on earth.”

I’m not sure I agree. Or rather, I agree that any story about people and places we know have more impact on us than stories about strangers, since we can fill in so many of the details other readers can only imagine, no matter how well described. But the art of storytelling is in conveying a world to someone not in that world, and Billy – or Berry – has done an admirable job. Billy comes across as a very real, multidimensional person; it’s a story very accessible to outsiders, fairly easy to translate to anywhere. And no, I don’t hear this story and think poorly of Kentuckians, any more than I would if Billy were from the Lower East Side and fell off a trash can watching Mr. La Vere’s urban counterpart in an alcove or parking lot. Maybe this is because I read a lot of different settings, and I’m used to translating experiences, to observing differences without judgment. If that’s the case, damn, let’s get people reading, because we all need to be a lot less critical of each other and realize our experiences truly have more in common than differences.

But Berry’s point is, the story doesn’t sound the same to latter-day residents of Port Williams, either. The Story about storytelling transforms again: he describes how things changed, and now we’re getting into familiar Berry territory as what seemed like a third-person narration is revealed to be first person, with Berry’s long-time Port William alter-ego, Andy Catlett, coming out from behind the curtain:

I heard the story of The Great Interruption only a few times in the years after the war. It was becoming less and less a property of its old community in time and place. Grover Gibbs and Burley Coulter, remarkably, had ceased to tell it. I think it had begun to make them sad. Port Williams by then was losing its own stories, which were being replaced by the entertainment industry, and so it was coming to know itself only as a “no-place“ adrift with every place in a country dismemoried and without landmarks.

I’m not sure we’re dismemoried; I think our memories might come from a different place. Just as the notion of family has evolved and expanded, so has what we share, whether it be over coffee with the people next door, or on Twitter. Yes, there are ways to use Twitter that don’t involve fighting or having your life threatened, but those ways are incompatible with fame, so are less well known.

Maybe it’s the speed with which things change that makes the last century so disorienting. After all, Depression-era Kentucky wasn’t always there; it too was a change from whatever came before it. But that change happened slowly, over decades or even centuries. Now, we get left behind in the space of a single generation. I myself have become far more sympathetic to the anxieties my father’s generation showed back in the 60s and 70s, when I was just a kid, now that I am what was then his age and I feel confused by the gig economy and contemporary comedy and soulless algorithms that run our lives. In twenty years, will today’s millennials be confused by whatever is around the corner?

I enjoyed watching this story zoom out from the initial close-up on Billy to a broader storytelling view, to a broader more sociopolitical view. The last short paragraphs seem to go a little wide of the overall piece, but veers into Berry’s traditional stomping ground, decrying the evils of modernism and the effect of machines and money on rural America. I have to tell you, money hasn’t been all that great for anything, as becomes clearer every day. I even thought of Berry last week when I saw a news story about the current Secretary of Agriculture admitting outright that small family farms would continue to fold: “In America, the big get bigger and the small go out.” Even though I’m well-removed from farming, I took it rather personally, as if he were telling Andy Catlett to quit whining and go get a job at WalMart. So I’m not indifferent to his schtick. I just find it annoying. Few writers have this effect on me. I’ve kind of come to enjoy it, the two-mindedness of it.

A note on the title: BASS lists the story title as “The Great Interruption: The Story of a Famous Story of Old Port William and How It Ceased To Be Told (1935-1978)”. The shorter form is used in the Threepenny Review table of contents (perhaps the subtitle is included in the text itself, but I don’t have access). The Larkspur Press standalone edition puts the subtitle on the cover, but lists the story under the three-word version. I’ve abbreviated it only because such a lengthy title plays havoc with computer-defined fields and Twitter connections. I think it’s fitting that my abbreviation is forced by the machines and modernity Berry rails against, and so I mention it, whether as a nod to him or a smack upside the head, I’m not sure.

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