- Telling the Stories Right: Wendell Berry’s Imagination of Port William ed. by Jack R. Baker and Jeffrey Bilbro, and: Virtues of Renewal: Wendell Berry’s Sustainable Forms by Jeffrey Bilbro
Wendell Berry scholarship is growing, both in depth and breadth, and this is a cause for rejoicing. 2018 saw the addition of two book-length examinations of Berry’s work, each shedding light on Berry’s writings and his readership. Jack Baker and Jeffrey Bilbro edited a collection of essays analyzing and responding to Berry’s fiction, while Bilbro released his own volume focused on the development of virtues throughout Berry’s writing. Complementary but distinct, these two volumes cover a lot of ground.
Telling the Stories Right collects essays from sources spanning the spectrum of Berry’s readership, and the topics covered are just as diverse. The collection is broken into three parts: “Narrative Traditions,” “Beauty’s Instructions,” and “Responding to the Stories.” Jack Baker begins the first section by addressing the criticism that Berry’s work is nostalgic, using the Ubi Sunt tradition and the genre of elegy to counter that criticism by undermining the presupposition that nostalgia, at least in the sense in which Berry engages in it, is inappropriate. Ingrid Pierce examines the role of dreams in Port William, using Andy Catlett (The Oracular Dream), Jayber [End Page 468] Crow (The Prophetic Vision), and Mat Felter (The Enigmatic Dream) as examples. Kiara Jorgenson sets Berry’s representation of vocation in the tradition of early Protestantism. Jorgenson presents multiple examples of calling in Berry’s fiction which are rooted in place, given rather than discovered, and inter-generational (45). Doug Sikkema concludes the first section of essays by looking at Berry’s relationship with Wallace Stegner and the Stanford MFA program, including a comparison with another standout Stegner pupil, Ken Kesey. Sikkema includes a comparison of Berry’s Jayber Crow with Stegner’s All the Little the Live Things, demonstrating key differences between Berry and his teacher.
In the second section, Jeffrey Bilbro reflects on Berry’s most autobiographical character, Andy Catlett, and the effects of both Catlett’s dismemberment and re-membering. Bilbro argues that “we can practice the virtue of hope” by recognizing “our wounded state” (86) and “making do” (82). Ethan Mammon looks at death in Port William and how the revision of Nathan Coulter brings an early example of Berry’s work more in line with later Port William writings and Berry’s thought as a whole. Fritz Oehlschlaeger examines the stories of Port William to see how Berry creates a context where communal responsibilities are not impositions to be resented but are “the chosen duty of remaining in the debt of love” (107). Michael Stevens completes the second group of essays by looking at how Berry represents marginal characters in his fiction. Stevens uses the metaphor of hedgerows full of assorted creatures to illustrate how Berry fills his novels with a panoply of marginal characters who, while not necessarily filling a lot of pages, have a tremendous influence on the overall ethos of Port William.
The final section of this collection focuses on a variety of personal responses to Berry’s stories. Filtered through the lens of letters Berry has received, Eric Miller recalls his own time on the river interacting with the real lives of everyday people. Jake Meador describes how Berry’s work led him to forsake the cosmopolitan life of his youthful dreams and return to live faithfully in his familial homeland. Finally, Andrew Peterson explains how Jayber Crow almost turned him into a Kentucky farmer, but a better reading of it prompted...