A Review of
Telling the Stories Right:
Wendell Berry’s Imagination of Port William
Jack R. Baker and Jeffrey Bilbro, eds.
Reviewed by Allan F. Brooke II
Rejoice evermore. Pray without ceasing. In every thing give thanks. These are the instructions for telling our stories right, and stories told in this way compel us to tend the splintered life of goodness that shines through the cracks of our wounded world.
– “Introduction,” Telling the Stories Right, xiv
Wendell Berry, respected author and essayist, is also known for his fiction, including eight novels and over fifty short stories which form an overlapping composite history of the fictional Kentucky farming community of Port William, and the “membership” of individuals and families who have lived and died there since the Civil War. The narratives need not be read in order, and the reader will find accounts of the same events from different characters (or the same characters) at different times and with different emphases. Several of the novels focus on a single character (e.g. Nathan Coulter, Jayber Crow, Hannah Coulter, Andy Catlett), and track the whole, or a part of his or her life in the community. Berry’s first novel was published in 1960 and his most recent in 2006, though he has continued to produce Port William short stories up through last year. (Consider the breadth of a life of fiction spanning from To Kill a Mockingbird to The Dog Stars.)
The title of this collection of essays about Berry’s fiction is a phrase used by Hannah Coulter in considering whether the fact that her children had moved away from Port William showed that she and her husband had failed to “tell the stories right.” (xiv). The collection attempts to “testify to the importance and power” of Berry’s fiction and to suggest that it as significant as his poetry and nonfiction.
The book collects twelve essays grouped in three categories: “Narrative Traditions,” “Beauty’s Instructions,” and “Responding to the Stories.” The essays move generally from the academic to the personal, so that the first essay, by Jack R. Baker concerns Berry’s rendition of the ubi sunt tradition (what?) in his fiction, and the last is singer-songwriter Andrew Peterson’s explanation of how Jayber Crow changed his life.
In order, the essays are
- “Re-membering the Past Rightly: The Ubi Sunt Tradition in Wendell Berry’s Fiction” (Jack R. Baker), which examines the membership’s ability and duty to remember those who have gone before us in our communities;
- “Dreaming in Port William: Foreknowledge, Consolation, and Medieval Dream Vision Literature” (Ingrid Pierce), which compares Berry’s use of dream sequences to that of medieval literature;
- “Called to Affection: Exploring the Ecology of Christian Vocation in Port William” (Kiara Jorgenson), which surveys Berry’s treatment of “calling” as a basis for a proper stewardship of the land;
- “Between the City and the Classroom: Stanford, Stegner, and the Class of ’58” (Doug Sikkema), which introduces the reader to Berry’s path (partly with Merry Prankster Ken Kesey!) through various literary circles back to Kentucky—showing him not as a “backwoods naif,” (67) but as a writer fully engaged with the broader literary conversation;
- “Andy Catlett’s Missing Hand: Making Do as Wounded Members” (Jeffrey Bilbro), which looks at Andy Catlett (“the most autobiographical character” in the Port William saga), and which considers how his longing for (physical) wholeness permits him to work in hope of eschatological wholeness;
- “The Gift of Good Death: Revising Nathan Coulter” (Ethan Mannon), which explains how Berry came to revise his first novel and how the revision is informed by Berry’s mature view of “what it means to live and die well” (102);
- “Living Faithfully in the Debt of Love in Wendell Berry’s Port William” (Fritz Oehlschlaeger), which explores how the debt of love (cf. Romans 13:8) may be embraced in the life of membership;
- “Hiding in the Hedgerows: Wendell Berry’s Treatment of Marginal Characters” (Michael R. Stevens), which focuses on the characters who (minor and marginal though they are) populate the background of Berry’s narratives;
- “Kentucky River Journal” (Eric Miller), which describes a few days of Miller’s life musing on Berry’s writing and significance amid the comings and goings of an RV campground in Kentucky;
- “‘The End of All Our Exploring’: Homecoming and Creation in Remembering” (Gracie Olmstead), which weaves Eliot’s Four Quartets into Berry’s fiction and draws lessons for those who explore and yet hope for home;
- “‘I’ve Got to Get to My People’: Returning Home with Jayber Crow” (Jake Meador), which shows how Jayber’s story offers a “hard and demanding alternative” (182-83) to the modern curse of loneliness; and
- “On Resurrection and Other Agrarian Matters: How the Barber of Port William Changed My Life” (Andrew Peterson), which is a deeply personal account of what it means to let the best fiction teach us how to live in truth.
In the midst of reading these essays (and considering this review), I was forced back to the fiction itself, because each of the contributors evidence a deep love for Port William, even as they seem to realize that it can only evoke a life of shalom, not fully model and direct it for all of us.
Conscious of deadlines and other obligations, I picked up Fidelity, a collection of five short stories, not the best place to begin, but a good place to be immersed in Berry’s fictional world. It contains (for me) the most beautiful of all of Berry’s narratives, “Fidelity,” the nearly perfect account of Burley Coulter’s death and the struggle of the membership to tell his story and to pay the debt it owed to him. I remembered again why Berry’s fiction is so important to me.
Telling the Stories Right collects a broad variety of well-written musings on Berry’s fiction. Some are deeply academic, others profoundly personal. At their best, though, each of the twelve essays demand a re-reading of the fiction. Like the best preaching—in which the aim is to turn the hearer back to the Word, and to the God who speaks it—these compositions point us back to the source material.
Recommended for those who have come to love Burley and Mat and Nathan and Hannah and Grandmam and Jayber and Mattie and Jack (and even Troy and Thad) so much that they want to know why they love them; and for those who want to teach others to love these people whom Wendell Berry has made. (For all others, I recommend you start with Jayber Crow, then turn to Hannah Coulter.)
 Baker tells us that “Ubi sunt” means “where are those” in Middle English, as in “where are those who have gone before us?” p. 6.