Oral History, Wendell Berry, and Memory as Membership (II)

“For fifty years and more I have been asking myself, What was he?  What manner of a man?  For I have never been sure.  There are things that I remember, things that I have heard, and things that I am able (a little) to imagine.  But what he was seems always to be disappearing a step or two beyond my thoughts.”  

These words are found at the end of Wendell Berry’s short novel, A World Lost.  They are voiced by the protagonist and narrator, Andy Catlett, who remembers his uncle Andrew’s death, and is now trying to understand his uncle’s life.

When Andy was only 9 years old, his uncle Andrew was shot and killed in their small town of Port William.  Andy recalls standing in awe of his Uncle as a young boy, both out of admiration and alarm for a man who resisted the established routine of the community.  When compared to Andy’s own father, the steadfast lawyer and farmer, Wheeler Catlett, Uncle Andrew’s “waywardness” is evident.  His preference for drink, dancing, and women to whom he is not married, opened Andy’s eyes to a world outside Port William; a town where most men were farmers averse to idleness and prone to integrity.  In short, uncle Andrew’s careless (or carefree) lifestyle presents both a challenge and a threat to the community.  Perhaps this mixture of admiration and alarm is what makes Andy “unsure” of pinning down the “manner of man” that characterized Uncle Andrew.

After the shooting, Andy is left with time, questions and a collection of memories (both his own and those of the community), with which to make sense of this individual and this incident.  Describing the challenge of extracting meaning from memories, Andy states:

“My memories of Uncle Andrew are thus an accumulation of little pictures and episodes, isolated from one another, un-begun and un-ended.  They are vividly colored, clear in outline, and spare, as if they belong to an early age of the world when there were not too many details.  Each is like the illuminated capital of a page I cannot read, for in my memory there is no tissue of connection or interpretation.”

This phrase nicely illustrates the limits inherent in the nature and the interpretation of memory.  Although you might think Andy’s quest for understanding is hopeless, he does not conclude that finding meaning in memory is an exercise in futility.  Rather, Andy starts to accept the limits that memory imposes upon knowledge, and starts to consider “wider limits,” or the freedom within those limits, that calls for imagination.  By doing so, he begins to separate the role of memory in telling a story from its role in understanding a life.  This might sound like mere semantics at this point, but I believe that Andy’s realization of the difference between the two is profound.  Near the end of A World Lost, we read: 

“A story, I see, is not a life.  A story must follow a line; the telling must begin and end.   A life, on the contrary, would be impossible to fix in time, for it does not begin within itself and it does not end.  Within limits we can know.  Within somewhat wider limits we can imagine.  We can extend compassion to the limit of imagination.  We can love, it seems, beyond imagining.  But how little we can understand!”

His initial effort to construct a “true story” of his Uncle, required a neatly packaged and linear account with a beginning and end.  In this story, Andy initially assumes that his Uncles death was the inevitable result of his “wayward” character.  The source of the bullet, (that is, the life outside of Uncle Andrew’s story) does not factor into the demise of the man other than offering the natural consequences for Andrew’s actions.

Only after Andy hears different memories of the shooting does he begin to envision Uncle Andrew’s story within the larger life of Port William.  One man who knew his uncle, remembered that the gunman, a man by the name of Carp Harmon, had his own set of flaws, his own “wayward” character.  At once Andy’s assumption that his uncle’s careless choices in life led to his downfall, is challenged by the choices of someone else’s life in Port William.  He begins to imagine how the story of Uncle Andrew intersected with the story of Carp Harmon.   What emerges is the life of Port William, consisting of a series of interconnected stories, each belonging to one of its members and each impacting the members in ways outside of their own limited understanding.  As it was mentioned in the previous post, remembering becomes a vehicle for “re-membering” the past with the lives of the dead.  Andy now contends,

“The dead remain in thought as much alive as they ever were, and yet increased in stature and grown remarkably near.  The older I have got and the better acquainted among the dead, the plainer it has become to me that I live in the company of immortals.”

I appreciate A World Lost because in it Wendell Berry (perhaps unintentionally) offers insights for the work being done by those of us engaged in Oral History.  For a field that relies heavily on memory, always questioning its reliability or its value, there are lessons to be learned in this intricate narrative that weaves the fragmented memories of Port William together.  Wendell Berry, through his narrator Andy, examines clearly the limits of coming to the complete truth about the life and death of Uncle Andrew through memory, and the act of remembering.  Yet these limits are not meant to crush one’s understanding of the past, but to provide a framework for freely imagining the life, the “membership” as Berry calls it, that lives on in memory.

In responding to the questions asked of himself at the outset of his remembering Uncle Andrew, Andy concludes,

“Whatever he was, Uncle Andrew was more than I know.  In drawing him toward me again after so long a time, I seem to have summoned, not into view or into thought, but just within the outmost reach of love, Uncle Andrew in the plentitude of his being – the man he would have been for my sake, and for love of us all, had he been capable.  In recalling him as I knew him in mortal time, I have felt his presence as a living soul.”

Berry, Wendell, A World Lost. Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 1996.

Questions for the next post on Berry, Oral History and Memory as Membership:

  • What are the limits of imagination when constructing the past?
  • What are the characteristics of “membership” of Port William?
  • How can Oral Historians apply Berry’s ideas of membership to their own analysis of memory?

[Please comment below with questions, or ideas, to help hammer out some of these thoughts I am having on the role of fiction in understanding history]


6 thoughts on “Oral History, Wendell Berry, and Memory as Membership (II)

    • Well, it can be, but it is more than that. I don’t really do a good job in this post explaining Andy’s new understanding about membership, but he begins to see that it involves responsibility for others because it is something that is given rather than something that is earned. Because of this, membership includes the wayward, and it requires loving the wayward, such as his Uncle Andrew.

  1. Hey Dave, great post.
    Have you read Natalie Zemon Davis “The Return of Martin Guerre?” It seems to me you would be quite interested in some of her work; probably you’ve already encountered some of it. Check her (wikipedia) bio here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Natalie_Zemon_Davis

    Also, Theo Plantinga talked a lot about the unreliability of memory and the importance of narrative in our Philosophy of History class; it might be worthwhile to have a look at some of his work; I think most interesting would be his book “How Memory Shapes Narrative.” He has an online webzine called “myodicy” as well.

    • Hey John,

      I have not heard of that author, and so I will definitely check out her work. The work by Plantinga also sounds great. I am going to check out a copy this week. Thanks for reading, and the recommendations.

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