For years, I have returned over and over again to the fictional town of Port William, Kentucky, the setting for many of Wendell Berry‘s novels and short stories. I have gotten to know the people and landscape through his vivid descriptions, and at times, I could swear I’ve been there.
But I’ve never felt more a part of the Port William community than when I sat with Ann just feet away from Wendell Berry on Thursday evening, listening to the stories of Port William straight from the horse’s mouth.
He read two unpublished stories from the perspective of Andy Catlett, the linchpin character in his fiction. Though Andy is not featured in every story Berry writes, “his people” are. Andy is introduced in some of the chronologically earlier works as a boy, and so there is plenty of time and space for him to grow and develop through the body of Berry’s work as does Port William itself.
As I’ve always suspected, Berry gave away the farm Thursday night by intimating that when he writes about Andy Catlett, it’s mostly autobiographical. This theory of mine which was all but confirmed by the admission of the author would have been confirmed anyway, as I saw the twinkle in Berry’s eye and heard the lilt in his voice telling about the young boy wiling away an afternoon chasing a young squirrel up a tree. Berry had been up that tree. He had seen that squirrel.
Berry’s nonfiction is about a sense of place as much as his fiction. So it was no surprise that someone asked him about “place” during the question and answer time. How, the young man wanted to know, does a person find a connection to a place when not everyone has the luxury through inheritance of being so historically tied to a geography like the people of Port William, or like Berry himself?
This was obviously not a new question to Berry. And so he answered it by going through the backdoor.
“Today, people seem to be from everywhere and from nowhere,” he started. He described the path that many find themselves on, moving from here to there. If you want to develop a sense of place out of that context, he explained then eventually you are going to have to “stop somewhere.”
We all laughed.
“How do you know where to stop?” he asked us, asking himself. A young man had asked him this once. “I said to him, ‘How do you know who to marry?’ If your contract is serious and generously made, then you will find out if it’s where you should have stopped.”
The program ended with an impromptu reading of “The Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front,” after an audience member’s request. The closing line, “Practice resurrection,” was a benediction to us all as we left the lecture hall.
Wendell Berry was speaking as a Patten Foundation Lecturer at Indiana University this past week in Bloomington. The opportunity to see and hear this hero of mine was accentuated by sitting in the seat behind him during the introductions and by having a chance to meet his dear wife, Tanya, after the program.
Other of my posts about Wendell Berry:
:: A Body and a Place
:: Created to Consume?
:: An Affair of the Art
:: A Sense of Place
:: Smallness of Scale as I See It
:: Think Globally, Act Locally
:: Saving Buttons
:: The Way of Ignorance
:: A New Friend
:: Called to Work
:: The Shalom of Work