The Place of Imagination: Wendell Berry and the Poetics of Community, Affection, and Identity by Joseph R. Wiebe
Relatively few works of literary criticism have been published covering Wendell Berry's Port William fiction. Beyond the complexity of addressing a living author's still growing fictional world, Berry's essays and poetry lure many scholars away from exclusively examining his fiction. Some may also be reticent due to Berry's less-than-veiled, Twain-like threat in the opening of Jayber Crow to any who would seek the literary within his work. Regardless of why many remain hesitant to engage in extensive literary criticism of Berry's fiction, Joseph Wiebe has proven himself more than willing to do his fair share.
Nevertheless, Berry's thought and work has been receiving a growing amount of scholarly attention. Of these recent volumes, none have been as exclusively focused on Berry's fiction as Wiebe's The Place of Imagination. In The Unforeseen Self in the Works of Wendell Berry (2001), Janet Goodrich examined how Berry uniquely presents his life and thought in his variety of works. Kimberly K. Smith covered Berry's agrarian perspective in Wendell Berry and the Agrarian Tradition: A Common Grace (2003). J. Matthew Bonzo and Michael R. Stevens's Wendell Berry and the Cultivation of Life: A Reader's Guide (2008) examined a wide swath of Berry's work and thought but from a distinctly Christian perspective. Mark T. Mitchel and Nathan Schlueter collected essays in The Humane Vision of Wendell Berry (2011) that consider Berry's influence and impact upon conservative thinking. Most closely aligned with Wiebe's volume has to be Fritz Oehlschlaeger's The Achievement of Wendell Berry. However, while Oehlschlaeger devoted significant attention to Berry's fiction, his focus was admittedly broad. In Wendell Berry and the Given Life (2017), Ragan Sutterfield engaged some of the same topics as Wiebe, but Sutterfield's examination was much more on Berry the man, as [End Page 233] expressed through the totality of his life and work. Few books, if any, have engaged in the specific, extended study of Berry's fiction in the way that Wiebe does with his examination of the role of imagination and the poetics of place in Port William.
Wiebe divides The Place of Imagination into two parts. In the first part, he outlines three specific aspects of Berry's fiction: imagination, affection, and style. After laying his theoretical foundation, Wiebe devotes the second half of the book to demonstrate how Berry's imagination produces affection and how Berry's form of narrative and character development manifests that relationship. Wiebe's primary concern is Berry's use and understanding of imagination as it functions in regards to place and affection. Wiebe helpfully elucidates what imagination is, countering misperceptions that easily arrive from a colloquial use of the word. Rather than ex nihlo creativity, Wiebe sees Berry's understanding of imagination as being indebted to both Samuel Coleridge and William Carlos Williams. From a definitional perspective, imagination is the ordering of what already is into sensible, discernible reality. It is "the faculty that perceives reality" (15) and "by which we perceive and make sense of the unity underlying the world's chaos" (14). For Berry, "To imagine is to see most clearly," and "by imagination, we recognize with sympathy the fellow members, human and nonhumans, with whom we share our place" (15). To imagine is to "recognize the unique qualities of a place in such a way that they are acknowledged" (15) and to perceive "the underlying unity of the world" (16).
While Berry's definition follows Coleridge, it is Williams in whom Berry sees most clearly how imagination works, especially in regards to place. The manner in which Williams's poetics is inseparable from Paterson informs Berry's understanding of how imagination functions and how his creativity is expressed through Port William. Wiebe explores Berry's interaction with Williams's poetics as the catalyst for Berry's local adaptation that engages in an "imaginative activity that opens up a noncategorical, noncompetitive way of seeing the world" (18). This use of imagination guards against the exploitation of both people and place and "gives Berry a way to speak about his singular experience while maintaining his place, not himself, as its horizon of meaning" (19). Wiebe argues that Berry's indebtedness to Williams is seen most clearly in how the "inner dynamics" of Williams's work are "present in Berry's fiction" (28). Just as Williams sought to express fidelity to place through his work, Berry's aim in his Port William writings is, through a series of parables, to "pierce the shallow culture and exploitative economy that cloak his native land so that its genius can be revealed and clarified" (29). Breaking with Coleridge and aligning with Williams, Wiebe argues that for Berry, "imagination, perhaps more than will, is the internal experience that informs us about the character of reality" (156).
Wiebe transitions to Berry's local adaptation and how it is illustrative of the affection Berry expects proper imagination to yield. In the context of the historically fractured racial relations in places of agrarian life, Berry sees affection as the "self-critical recognition of one's inclusion in structures of violence against people with whom one is involved" (36). Wiebe uses The Hidden Wound's Nick and Aunt [End Page 234] Georgie to illustrate how Berry sees affection's proper development and function. Grounded in moral imagination, affection serves as motive, "which generates the qualities of character and relational habits that constitute community" (36). The effects are the disruption of habits of pity and the increase of good work. Berry stresses the importance of distinguishing sympathetic affection from pity. Sympathetic affection recognizes union within difference, whereas pity maintains the distance between one and other. "Pity is resignation, culminating in feeling good about feeling appropriately bad" (37–38); affection supports togetherness and prompts work. Work is "not just performing necessary duties but doing so in a way that incarnates affection—the intimate connection with other social and personal worlds" (42). The relation of work to affection highlights Berry's connection of affection to place (including race, land, community, and economy). Before anyone speaks of "sharing a common identity," there must be a distinct and explicit understanding of what it means to be locally faithful, which can only be understood in terms of "intimate, face-to-face relationships that equally share the fate of their mutual place" (53). Although far from explicitly didactic either in intent or expression, Wiebe argues that "Berry's fiction is an instantiation of his affectionate perception of his place that readers can learn from" (158). By providing an example of local adaptation and fidelity to place, Berry's work teaches and exhorts without Berry having to teach and exhort.
Wiebe's chapter on Berry's fictional techniques shows how the roles of imagination, affection, and locally adapted community manifest themselves in Berry's style of writing. Wiebe examines Nathan Coulter, A Place on Earth, "Watch with Me," and A World Lost to demonstrate Berry's progression both in technique and ability to produce art that is locally adapted. Specifically, Wiebe considers Berry's choices in narrative voice as indicative of both Berry's progress as a writer and his personal ability to inhabit his place. Wiebe provides enough summary to allow those unfamiliar with the stories to follow his criticism, which interprets all these texts as following, to varying degrees, the motif of the Good Shepherd.
The temptation to forego Wiebe's prolegomena and dive into chapters as intriguingly titled as "Jack's Mind," "Jayber's Soul," and "Hannah's Body" is almost too much to bear. However, the reader benefits from the preliminary groundwork Wiebe presents in part one, even if many of the connections are not explicitly made by Wiebe until the reader reaches the concluding chapter. However, the reader is not done a great disservice by this omission because the routes Wiebe follows are interesting in their own right and the reader has been amply prepared to begin applying Wiebe's framework independently. It is, however, the influence of the first half of the text over the second that is often implicit rather than explicitly illustrated.
The characters Wiebe chooses to investigate manifest the qualities of a place-based identity. Wiebe argues that aspects of Jack, Jayber, and Hannah "clarify the role a particular virtue and experience has in shaping affectionate perception: Jack's mind shows how wisdom and regret develop the intellect of affectionate perception; Jayber's soul shows how magnanimity and despair shape the psychology of affectionate perception; Hannah's body shows how patience and grief [End Page 235] shape the spatial reality of affectionate perception" (151). Wiebe approaches these characters in distinct ways. Jack is treated as the new Odysseus. Jayber is viewed psychoanalytically as developmentally stunted by perpetual childhood hardship and is Berry's only explicitly unreliable narrator, and Hannah is extolled for her strength and volitional freedom, which are magnified through her affectionate connection to space and place. These three characters all, to one degree or another, give the reader "insight into what fidelity to place means" and, in doing so, help the reader "to better understand the world" (152). Berry does not write allegories, and attempting to extract moral meanings and didactic lessons strips Berry's fiction of the lessons it holds. Read as a series of parables, the stories of Port William "both instantiate Berry's vision of community consciousness as well as make visible his imaginative engagement with the world" (152). "Berry's entire corpus is a life-time's attempt to give an account of affection as a motivation for being in the world" (156).
Wiebe provides readers with a way to faithfully and honestly engage Berry's Port William stories. In reading Berry, many fall prey to the traps of moralizing and allegorizing. Port William, as Wiebe argues throughout, is not Berry's fictional vehicle to enact his agrarian vision. Moral imagination and genuine affection will not allow him to engage in such cultural manipulation. Berry's work illustrates his moral imagination of cultural engagement, but his didactic objective, if he even possesses one, is not necessarily directed towards his readers. Berry offers no template and no ideal; he only invites the reader to witness one iteration of imagination-wrought, affection-laden local adaptation and, as Berry himself was confronted by Williams's faithfulness to Paterson, in the confrontation, to be exhorted to engage their world likewise.
Wiebe's interactions with the three novels with which he engaged at length are interesting and drive the reader back to the original text. While possibly an onerous request of a single volume of literary criticism, the reader is left wondering whether a fuller examination of a broader swath of Port William might have strained the credulity of Wiebe's argumentation. However, the limited scope of example texts could also be considered a positive. Wiebe presents an interesting interpretational framework for Berry's Port William stories, and the initiated reader will have no trouble taking this perspective to other novels and determining if and how it applies to Berry's other volumes.