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    Wendell Berry’s Andy Catlett

    February 10, 2012 by Brandy Vencel

    Anytime I start to think I can write, or that I might qualify as a respectable writer, I read something written by someone who excels, and then I remember why I am only a Mere Blogger. Last week, I began Wendell Berry’s Andy Catlett: Early Travels. I am only a third of the way through, and I am already in love. {My husband always questions my fidelity when I am reading Berry.}

    Berry is interesting to me because he is so simple. He doesn’t spend a thousand pages developing his characters like Dostoevsky. He doesn’t overflow with witty banter like Austen and Wilde. He doesn’t weave intricate, sometimes surprising plots like the Bronte sisters or Dickens. He doesn’t create fantastical worlds like Tolkien, Lewis, or, more recently, Wilson.

    And yet his simplicity is every bit a piece of perfection.

    What can I say? I already told you I am in love.

    Berry shows us his understanding of the human condition:

    For I had not grown, as I preferred to think, into the vaguest semblance of adulthood, but rather into a serious and lasting form of nuisancehood. As even I had noticed, I could not be good at home and at school at the same time, which meant that I was a worry to my parents all the time.

    And his understanding of the minds of small towns:

    Hargrave, though it seemed large to me, was a small town that loved its connections with the greater world, had always aspired to be bigger, richer, and grander than it was, and had always apologized to itself for being only what it was. When school was out, I lived mostly in the orbit of the tiny village of Port William, which, so long as it remained at the center of its own attention, was entirely satisfied to be what it was. 

    He can turn a perfect phrase:

    At the start of the morning you could feel him aiming himself into the day.

    And if you know Berry, you know he writes about a world which once was, but is now lost. And you can feel him mourning, and you enter into mourning with him, because you know that what we received in its place is somehow lacking. It was thought to be an improvement, but on fundamental levels it has not proven to be so.

    Every Berry novel I read {and every essay and poem, too} contributes to the picture in my mind of what was lost, and how. Perhaps that is the most interesting thing. Many worlds have been lost over time, and the fascinating points of the story are often in the how. Take this, for instance:

    Sugar was rationed because of the war, and people were encouraged to drink their coffee without it. Miss Angela, a patriot, did not supply sugar until specifically asked.


    The war changed things. It was changing the world, and it was changing us. I didn’t know it then, but sugar rationing was changing the way we would live after the war. Businesses and restaurants were given larger rations of sugar than households, and this helped to shift the dependence of households from their own kitchens to commercial bakeries. Betty Crocker was the “homemaker” who got the most sugar, and she did more and more of the baking.

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  • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts February 14, 2012 at 4:22 pm

    MHA, I don’t yet own that but it sounds fantastic! I should go make sure it is on my PBS wishlist…

  • Reply Mahers Hill Academy February 14, 2012 at 12:45 pm

    Life is a Miracle is one of his essays. The subtitle is An Essay Against Modern Superstition, and he argues against scientific materialism and the idea that everything can be fully explained in a reductionistic (is that a word?) way.

  • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts February 13, 2012 at 11:49 pm

    Amy-the-second, πŸ™‚ NEVER apologize for long comments around here. I live for them. πŸ˜‰

    I see you read Jayber Crow first, too. I did, though it wasn’t on purpose, it was just the one I came into possession of first. However, I think that I agree with you that it is a great way to get to know the Membership. πŸ™‚

  • Reply Amy @ Hope Is the Word February 12, 2012 at 11:32 pm

    I love WB. My favorites are Hannah Coulter and Jayber Crow. I think my favorite quote is from HC. Here’s a link to my review, if you’re interested. (I love quotes, so maybe you do, too!) It’s the one about her children’s education, and it’s one I take great solace in when I think that our educational choices are ruining our children πŸ˜‰ .

    Oh, and Jayber Crow–I love the quote about the old men he serves as barber. Here’s my link:

    (I’m sorry if it seems this lengthy comment is coming out of nowhere, but I lurk here occasionally and this post finally outed me!)

  • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts February 12, 2012 at 3:08 am

    MHA: I have not read that title. Is it another Port William book? Does it connect with his others (like Hannah Coulter, Jayber Crow, Nathan Coulter, etc.)?

    Rahime: I have found that these were easier books for me to read during baby duty. πŸ™‚ Perhaps they will work for you that way as well? They move more slowly, and I can put them down without forgetting what is going on.

    Sara, I know *exactly* what you mean. πŸ™‚

    Amy, I hope you like him as much as I do. πŸ™‚

  • Reply ...they call me mommy... February 11, 2012 at 11:22 pm

    Adding to my list of someday reads!!!! Can’t wait! πŸ™‚

  • Reply sara February 11, 2012 at 10:56 pm

    Love. love love love. Sometimes I feel like he is so out of my league that I’m not even sure I should be allowed to read his stuff, but then it is so accessible that I can’t not read it.

  • Reply Rahime February 11, 2012 at 6:59 am

    I have a decent collection of Berry books…but unfortunately have yet to read one. Keep meaning to because I KNOW I’ll love them. Need to dive in.

  • Reply Mahers Hill Academy February 11, 2012 at 2:48 am

    I just recently read my first book by Wendell Berry: Life is a Miracle. I’m going to start Hannah Coulter soon, as Cindy recommended that as a good intro to his fiction.

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