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ETHAN MANNON Mars Hill University Leisure and Technology in Port William: Wendell Berry’s Revelatory Fiction THE MORE THAN FIFTY BOOKS WENDELL BERRY HAS WRITTEN INCLUDE eight novels and five volumes of short stories.1 With this collection of fiction, Berry has lovingly sketched the community history of Port William, Kentucky, from the conclusion of the American Civil War into the twenty-first century. Berry’s achievement in creating this fictional place and its people has reminded critics of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County as well as Hardy’s Wessex and even J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth (Core 324; Thomas 86; Stanford 119). Though such comparisons attest to Berry’s accomplishment, one must nevertheless note that in terms of renown and scholarly engagement, his essays overshadow his fiction. Indeed, William Major, John Ditsky, and Patrick D. Murphy have each commented upon the predominant critical focus on Berry’s essays and the comparative lack of attention given to his work in other genres, especially in fiction.2 Even those critics who do take up Berry’s fiction often relegate it to secondary status. By grounding the importance and value of his novels and short stories in the way their content reinforces and exemplifies his essays, the methodology of such critics automatically assigns Berry’s fiction to a supporting role. For example, in justifying their attention to his fiction, Ian and Margaret Deweese-Boyd make a gesture typical of 1 I do not include Three Short Novels (2002) in this tally since it collects three earlier novels, nor do I count revisions. I do count That Distant Land: The Collected Stories (2004) because, even though it reproduces earlier work, it also includes previously uncollected stories. 2 Major notes that “Berry’s copious fiction and poetry deserve even more critical attention than they receive” (16). Ditsky makes a similar point when he comments that Berry is “better known as a poet and essayist” than as a novelist and short story writer (1). Finally, Murphy points out that “overall [Berry’s] fiction has been slighted by critics, who tend to define him as either an essayist or a poet rather than a multigenre author” (26). Murphy goes on to say that even ecocritics as venerable as Lawrence Buell have marginalized Berry’s novels and short stories. 172 Ethan Mannon scholarswhowishtoexpandthecriticalscopebeyondBerry’snonfiction. They argue that his fiction “performs a function that his essays cannot—it serves to embody and exemplify the ideas to which his essays refer” (220). While I do not wish to downplay the importance of Berry’s essays and agree that his fiction often complements them, the DeweeseBoyds ’ approach is problematic for two reasons. First, suggesting that Berry’s novels and short stories are valuable only insofar as they illustrate his nonfiction ignores their intrinsic value as literary productions with a different emphasis on aesthetics than his essays. Although one should not discount this issue, this article focuses on the second problem created by subordinating Berry’s fiction to his nonfiction: regarding his novels and short stories as only “embodied” examples of his nonfiction blinds one to the ways that Berry’s fiction occasionally speaks where his essays do not and, perhaps, cannot. As I argue, Berry’s novels and short stories fill in some of the gaps in his nonfiction,occasionallygoingbeyondhisessaysandexposingthedanger of any argument that neglects one or more genres of his writing. To demonstrate the revelatory value of Berry’s fiction, I point out that his novels and short stories contain more thorough and better nuanced articulations of the roles of leisure and technology in agriculture than critics have found in his nonfiction. In section I, I show that Burley Coulter—a recurring character whose preference for recreation over labor challenges our assumptions about the sobriety and work ethic of Berry’s ideal farmer—embodies the “leisure ethic” noted as absent from Berry’s nonfiction. Section II examines the claim that Berry’s preference for archaic technology forces him to universally denigrate all work performed with modern technology and points out several examples from across Port William’s history in which archaic technology empowered destructive agriculture. Further, a comparison of two characters from Jayber Crow (2000)—Troy Chatham and...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2689-517X
Print ISSN
0026-637X
Pages
pp. 171-192
Launched on MUSE
2020-02-27
Open Access
No
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