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.

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.

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.