Hannah Coulter. Wendell Berry. New York: Shoemaker and Hoard (imprint of Avalon Publishing Group,Inc.), 2004-2008.
The rise of techno-capitalism has signaled the triumph of the “bourgeois family” and the demise of the “traditional” family. Christian theologian Stanley Hauerwas said that economist Adam Smith was well aware that the “weakening of familial ties would increase the necessity of sympathy between strangers and result in cooperative forms of behavior that had not previously been realized.” Commenting on Hauerwas’s statement, Professor David Crawford of the John Paul II Institute for the Studies on Marriage and family said, “It is not that families would cease to exist, but they would be transformed into the image of the exchange relations that underlie liberal societies.”1
Two aspects of the triumph of the “bourgeois family” have had a profound effect on society: first is the capricious yearning for the so-called “better life,” which has resulted in a highly trained cadre of consumers, and second, an increasing lack of significance attached to the concepts of “place,” and family. These two factors have played an important role in a society that has become acclimated to a rather pernicious spiritual condition that theologian, David Schindler, refers to as “homelessness.” Kentucky essayist, poet, and novelist Wendell Berry has given his readers a glimpse of people who lived the “old ways.” In six novels and twenty-three short stories Berry has created the Port William membership, a group of neighbors who live along the ridges and “bottoms” south of “the river” in and around Port William, Kentucky, a town that never was yet always existed in our hearts.
It was Burley Coulter, a leading participant in the Port William membership, who told of the time when it all went “wayward,” when the idea of “place” came under attack, “And now look at how many are gone . . . the mold they were made in done throwed away, and the young ones dead in the wars or killed in damned automobiles, or gone off to college and made too smart ever to come back, or gone off to bright lights and ain’t going to work in the sun ever again if they can help it.”2 But the Port William membership lives on in the old ones. Surely, they are fewer and fewer in number, but they remember, and they are great storytellers. And, it is the doyenne of the Port William membership, Hannah Coulter, who has told her story.
Hannah Coulter is a novel that is filled with the truth of an inherent wisdom imprinted on the soul. Berry has captured the intrinsic nature of man and it is defined by God, family, community, and “place.” And, it is the “place,” the land, which acts to nurture and keep the whole of it. One element of this novel is Berry’s rejection of the spurious notion that there exits an “equality of the sexes.” Hannah Coulter would no more renounce her interdependence on her husband, Nathan, than she would expect some bureaucracy, and its monthly stipend, to fulfill her responsibilities to her children. Life and living was never just a simple notion of economic determinism. Her life revolved around God, family, community and place, nourished by truth, goodness, and justice. The uncontrived goodness of the membership is best described in how they cared for the elderly. They were not abandoned in their dotage. They were not sent off to a “home.” They were treated with respect and given dignity.
When the Feltner’s became too old to do their work the membership helped them on their farm. The hay and tobacco was always cut, the fences mended, the stock watered and fed. Hannah and Mary Penn and any of a half dozen ladies would help Mrs. Feltner in cooking and cleaning and canning and in whatever chore needed doing. In the end the Feltner’s died in their home, surrounded by their children and their friends. Then, of course, the community participated in a real and ritualized grief, engaging in the act of remembrance, for the Feltner’s were truly loved.
But, Hannah tells her story from an awareness of self and an understanding of community. She always knew who she was, never complaining about a lack of advantages, never engaging in self-pity. She saw the membership, her family, herself, as gifts. Her excellent mind, her good health, the love that surrounded her were gifts and she accepted, and nourished, and cherished those gifts. There was never any need to blindly consume. Her joy and happiness were at the core of her being. And, this attitude, this way of life, was part of the membership.
But then, it is Hannah who can best tell us of her community:
“This membership had an economic purpose and it had and economic result, but the purpose and the result were a lot more than economic . . . the work was freely given in exchange for work freely given. There was no bookkeeping, no accounting, no settling up. What you owed was considered paid when you had done what was needed doing. Every account was paid in full by the understanding that when we were needed we would go, and when we had need the other, or enough of them, would come.”
Hannah could have made different choices. She could have been bitter when her first husband, Virgil-Mat and Margaret’s son-didn’t come home from the war. But Virgil had left her with a daughter, Margaret-named after her grandmother- and Hannah continued living on the Feltner farm just north of Port William. Perhaps, Hannah’s choices had much to do with little Margaret, perhaps they were the result of her moral acuity but surely they pleased the Almighty.
When Nathan Coulter came back from the war he took to farming with his family who were part of the membership and that put him in close proximity to Hannah and her in-laws at the Feltner place. Hannah tells us that, “It was a strange courtship we had. My love for Virgil had begun in a kind of innocence, leading only in time to knowledge. But what was coming into being between Nathan and me was not a youthful romance. It was a knowing love. Both of us had suffered the war. He had fought in it, and I had waited it out in fear and sorrow at home. We both were losers by it, he of a brother, I of a husband. Now we were coming together out of fear and loss and grief, and we knew it.”
But, Hannah is an honest woman, “My life with Nathan turned out to be a long life, and actual marriage with trouble in it. I am not complaining. Troubles came, as they were bound to do, as the promise we made had warned us they would. I can remember the troubles and speak of them, but not to complain. I am beginning again to speak of my gratitude.” As David Schindler has written, “Man is at home, therefore, when he is rightly related to God, to others, and to the world in and through the family. It is within these relations and in their right ordering that he finds his basic place of residence, or truly comes to rest.”3 The Port William membership, even in their most trying hour, always knew a spiritual peace, they always knew “home.”
Hannah tells us of salvation and forgiveness. She may speak freely of these things for she is older now, the last of her generation. She walks with a cane and still treks through the woods remembering, always remembering, “Like a lot of old people I have known, I am now living in two places: the place as it was and the place as it is. As it was it is almost always present to me, with the dead moving about in it as they were: Virgil, Old Jack Beechum, Mat and Margaret Feltner, Joe and Nettie Banion, Burley and Jarrat Coulter, Art and Mart Rowanberry, Elton and Mary Penn, Bess and Wheeler Catlett, Nathan. By the ones who have moved away, as many have done, as my children have done, the dead may be easily forgotten. But to those who remain, the place is always forever a reminder. And so, the absent come into presence.”
Hannah’s life has reached the time of ghosts. Her loved ones, now gone, come to her as they always do. It is a time of great peace for this kind, generous, and loving lady and Hannah understands just how much Port William and its environs meant to her long and blessed life, “There is no “better place” than this, not in this world. And it is by the place we’ve got, and our love for it and our keeping of it, that this world is joined to Heaven.”
There was a time, not many decades ago, when most of America’s population labored on family farms. Back then the primary objective of the American farmer was to be debt free and independent. I was made aware of this “independence” many years ago when my mother-in-law, the daughter of a West Virginia farmer, once commented about her childhood, “We didn’t know there was a depression.”
There was a price for this independence but there were also rewards that transcended wealth or profit and had more to do with the satisfaction of leaving the place better than you found it. It is worth repeating: the idea of “place” is an important factor in thinking about civilization. Techo-capitalism has removed “place” from the sum of the parts that make up “modern” man; it has had a deleterious effect on society, weakening both the family and the community. In restoring to us an understanding of “place” as an important element of well-being, Wendell Berry has also perhaps shown us he is America’s finest novelist. And Hannah Coulter is likely to take its place as a classic.
1. Doug Bandow and David Schindler, eds., Wealth, Poverty, and HumanDestiny, (Intercollegiate Studies Institute, Wilmington, DE., 2003); essay: David Crawford, The “Bourgeois Family” and the Meaning of Freedom and Community. pg. 177.
2. Wendell Berry, That Distant Land, The Collected Stories, (Shoemaker and Hoard, Washington, D.C., 2004) The Wild Birds, pg. 355.
3. David Schindler, “Homelessness’ and Market Liberalism: Toward an Economic Culture of Gift and Gratitude, in Bandow and Schindler, Wealth, Poverty, and Human Destiny, op.cit., pg. 353.