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

[Excerpt from my talk at the TOHA conference at Baylor University on 21 April 2012.  Adapted for this blog.]

1. Memory and Membership in the Biography of Berry

2. Membership and Place

3. Membership is Inclusive

4. Oral History and the Place for Imagination


In the last two posts on the topic of Wendell Berry’s fiction and its place in Oral History, I noted that the process of remembering allowed the narrator of A World Lost, Andy Catlett, to situate his Uncle Andrew’s life within the intersecting and interconnected stories all at work in Port William.   As Brent Laytham, in his essay “The Membership Includes the Dead,” argues:  Wendell Berry uses memory to intentionally evoke a sense of membership within the fictional community of Port William.[1]

In this post I want to expand upon Berry’s ability to show how remembering in the present is provides a vehicle for “remembering” the past.  That is, memory provides access to membership.  I want to explore TWO tenets of the membership found in Berry’s fiction:

  1. Membership is Placed – That is, community membership is rooted in a common ground, or a common place to which the members are responsibleIn Berry’s fiction this is the small town of Port William.
  2. Membership is Inclusive  – Just as members are responsible to their place, they are responsible for one another, and this means including the wayward.  It also means including the dead, if we consider that Uncle Andrew, although dead, is made alive through Andy’s memory, and incorporated into the membership.

I:  Memory and Membership in the Biography of Berry

In order to understand Berry’s fictional focus on “memory” and “membership” I’d like to first examine the importance of these elements in his own life.  Also for readers who are not acquainted with Wendell Berry, it is probably a good time to provide a little more information about his life.

Born in 1934, Wendell Berry is the fifth generation of his father’s family and the sixth generation of his mother’s to live in the small town of Port Royal in Henry County, Kentucky.  Despite the deep family ties to this place, Berry uprooted to study Literature at the University of Kentucky.  After obtaining both Bachelor and Master degrees at Kentucky, Berry entered the Creative Writing program at Stanford as a Wallace Stegner Fellow, studying under Stegner himself.  This time heavily influenced Berry’s later fiction.

In an essay assessing the impact of Stegner on his own writing career, Berry recalled that Wallace Stegner “was not only a student of his region’s history, but one of its historians.  History, for Stegner, was immediate experience…[but] it was also memory.  He had the care and the scrupulousness of one who understood remembering as a duty, and who therefore understood historical insight and honesty as duties.”

After Stanford, Berry spent a brief period writing in Europe and later teaching and writing in the Bronx area of New York City.  Although he had risen to a point of establishing a writing career in New York, the goal of many authors, Berry made a conscious decision to return to Kentucky.  Describing this return in a geo-biographical essay “A Native Hill” Berry writes:

“When I lived in other places I looked on their evils with the curious eye of a traveler; I was not responsible for them; it cost me nothing to be a critic, for I had not been there long, and I did not feel that I would stay.  But here, now that I am both native and citizen, there is no immunity to what is wrong.  It is impossible to escape the sense that I am involved in history.”  (A Native Hill)

 With this sense responsibility to the membership of his home town, Berry and his family settled into a farmstead on the Kentucky River, known as “Lanes Landing.”   Since 1964 Berry has remained in this place, both farming the land and writing over 40 volumes of essays, poetry, short-stories and novels for which President Obama awarded Berry with the National Humanities Award in 2010.  On April 23, 2012 he delivered the NEH Jefferson Lecture.

Berry’s own life lessons permeate his writings, leaving his readers with an understanding and a deeper appreciation for the “membership” involved in traditional communities which understand “that a place is shared, and that the people who share the place define and limit the possibilities of each other’s lives.” (The Long-Legged House)

The life of Berry provides a great foundation on which to look at the first tenet of his fictional membership:  The centrality of PLACE.

II: Membership and Place

As mentioned in an earlier post, the setting for most, if not all, of Berry’s fiction is the small farming town of Port William in northern Kentucky. Although the town is fictional, it is situated within the real geography of the United States, and influenced by Berry’s own town of Port Royal in Henry County, Kentucky.

Port William offers what Brent Laytham calls the “common ground,” or the “foundation” on which the “membership rests.” On this shared foundation, Berry indicates that the “members [of Port William] belong to their farms just as much as their farms belong to them.”  That is, they understand their lives in relation to their place, as much as a  in relation to one another.  Any information about Port William is rarely explained outside of the memories of the characters.

The memories of Port William are best captured in That Distant Land, a volume of 23 short stories, each offering a snap shot of life in the small town across five generations.  The first story in the collection involves the memories of Matt Feltner, a young boy who would eventually become the grandfather to the previously mentioned, Andy Catlett.  Mat remembers straying off into Port William when “his grown-ups were occupied and he was curious and active” and peering into the blacksmith shop, or looking into one of the saloons.  Describing the significance of these memories to the life of Port William, Berry writes:

“[Mat] was beginning his long study of the town and its place in the world, gathering up the stories that in years still far off he would hand on to his grandson Andy Catlett, who in his turn would be trying to master the thought of time:  that there were times before his time, and would be times after.  At the age of five Mat was beginning to prepare himself to help in educating his grandson, though he did not know it.”

At the end of the collection, Berry describes this “education” of Mat’s grandson in a scene between aged Mat and Maraget Feltner and Andy Catlett, at this point in time, their grandson.  The scene exists as a memory of Andy’s who is an older man, and it resonates with the moments that oral historians encounter by eloquently describing the pattern of remembering that interviewers often witness in their interviewees.

Andy, listening to his grandparents  share memories of Port William, recalls:

“It was usually easy enough to get them started, for they enjoyed the remembering, and they knew that I liked to hear.  [They] would enter the endlessly varying pattern of remembering.  A name would remind them of a story; one story would remind them of another.  Sometimes my grandmother would get out a box of old photographs and we would sit close to the bed so that my grandfather could see them too, and then the memories and names moved and hovered over the transfixed old sights.  …In their talk, the history of Port William went back and back along one of its lineages until it ended in silence and conjecture, for Port William was old than its memories.”

In both of these short stories, Berry captures a generational transmission of memories (i.e. stories) as the memories of Port William pass from Mat to Andy.  The stories illuminate not only the membership of individuals within Port William but also the membership of the Port William as a place within the World.  The understanding of Port William through the passing down of memories is not a linear, clean cut story, but rather, it is living memory with no clear beginning or end.  Berry summarizes this idea nicely through the barber of Port William, the protagonist in his novel Jayber Crow, writing:

“Port William had little written history.  Its history was its living memory of itself, which passed over the years like a moving beam of light.  It had a beginning that had forgotten, and would have an end that it did not yet know.  It seemed to have been there forever.”

So what does it mean for Oral Historians to capture “living memories” of places?

Lessons for the Oral Historian:

I find that Berry’s fiction exists not only to preach about the importance of place, but to expose the consequences of dis-placed, or uprooted lives.  In our increasingly mobilized and industrialized world there is a tendency to jump from place to place often failing to understanding the responsibility that a “placed” membership requires.

Berry’s fiction challenges readers to understand their own places by creating a membership where members take this responsibility seriously.   He makes real the life of Port William by embedding its life with the memories of its inhabitants.  Their memories, or their stories, give life to the small town.  Oral Historians can learn from this model by creating projects that not only preserve oral memories, but embed them into the places they are rooted in, thereby making them “real” as well.

Without Common ground, authentic membership is not possible. Yet Berry shows that common ground does not necessarily create authentic “membership.” Rather, such membership is a product of taking responsibility for the members of your place.  This brings us to the second tenet of “Membership,” that is, its Inclusivity:  bringing together the stories of the Wayward.

III: Membership is Inclusive

 A recurring challenge for the fictional characters in Berry’s Port William is determining who belongs to the membership of the town.  Often this theme is communicated in stories that outline varied reactions towards “wayward” individuals who appear to threaten or to disrupt the ideal unity of its membership.

For instance, in the previous post in this series, we examined Andy Catlett’s struggle to understand the place of the “wayward” uncle Andrew in A World Lost.

Another example of this is found in That Distant Land, in the short story “Thicker than Liquor.”  This story involves Andy’s father, the lawyer, Wheeler Catlett, in his thirties.  The story begins as he receives a phone call that his Uncle Peach is incapacitated in a nearby town.  Wanting to be home with his wife, rather than driving in the opposite direction to claim responsibility for an Uncle that he loathes, he eventually decides against the former impulse and heads out to pick up uncle Peach.  During the drive he engages in a process of remembering, bringing to light episodes of his Uncle’s waywardness.  In each episode he recalls his mother’s unconditional love for this man.  Considering that his mother has passed away, Wheeler realizes that among the things he inherited from her was this relationship with her wayward brother.  If he did not assume the responsibility of this relationship, then Uncle Peach would be lost not only to his family, but to the membership of the community.

Wheeler begins to understand that the membership of Port William must include the wayward.  By binding himself to this sense of membership he is responsible for sharing in their suffering, for forgiving them for the disunity they bring, and for showing them their place within the membership.  As one character who also was a wayward member of Port William, teaches Wheeler:

“The way we are, we are members of each other…the difference ain’t in who is a member and who is not, but in who knows it and who don’t.” (Burley Coulter, in The Wild Birds)

Like his son Andy, Wheeler initially believes that unity of Port William has no place for the disunity of the wayward.  Both father and son engaged in a process of remembering, which allows them to understand the reality that membership runs deeper and wider than they want to believe.  Remembering allows the Catletts to imagine the interconnected life of Port William’s membership, and incorporate the memory of the dead into the life of the town.

When Andy finally allowed the uncertainty of uncle Andrew’s life settle in his mind, he says “I have felt his presence as a living soul.”  He begins to imagine Port William as the “company of immortals.”  According to one author, Berry’s characters all pass through death in order to live on in the “membership’s memory” informing them in the present.  In short, remembering in Berry’s fiction is also a process of re-membering the present with the life of the past.

What can Oral Historians take from this aspect of Berry’s membership into their own projects?

Lessons for the Oral Historian: 

In addition to our culture of placeless-ness, there is an indication that many individuals are feeling increasingly isolated from one another.  A recent article entitled “Is Facebook Making us Lonely” notes the irony of our age where loneliness is growing just as fast as social networks are expanding.

Robert Putman’s recent book, Bowling Alone makes  a similar observation, outlining the recent collapse of social communities.  In both works, there is the underlying argument that our digital communities differ because online membership, although quite inclusive, does not involve responsibility for other members.  We invite, like, or block “friends” in order to manage our community in ways that do not work offline.

Berry’s fiction therefore, reminds us of a central ecological principle: that no life exists in isolation.  In all his stories, the members of Port William remind each other, and at the same time us, that we are given belonging, placed on common ground, bound together and thus, live each day in a membership to which we are responsible agents.

This can be seen as a call for Oral Historians to incorporate the wayward.  That is, to see no life as insignificant in the history of a place.  Just as we need to assume responsibility for one another, we need to assume responsibility for the stories of all members.  In this way Berry teaches us about the role of memory in the stories we hear.  He also teaches us about the place for imagination in the projects we create.

IV: Oral History and the Place for Imagination



The literary imagination of Wendell Berry, evident in his fiction, provides a framework for envisioning our own projects.  Many historians might shudder at the term “imagination” when referring to their craft because history is meant to be an objective, or at least as objective as we can make it with the available material, narrative of the past.  Imagination on the other hand, implies a degree of “making things up.”

Wendell Berry refutes this idea of imagination by citing William Carlos Williams who once stated that imagination had the ability “to refine, to clarify, to intensify that eternal moment in which we alone live.”  Berry adds to this definition the idea that imagination in literature is a “changing force” because “it does not lead one away from reality, but toward it.  It can be used to show relationships and to reunite the ‘old facts’ of history.”  In short, imagination is “the ability to make real to oneself the life of one’s place…

Looking at membership of Port William as placed, involving the wayward, and where the dead are made alive, it is evident that this powerful understanding of imagination lies at the heart of Berry’s fiction, in both function and form.  The function of his fiction to make real the life of one’s place.  The form of his fiction, that is the way the story is told, is a mosaic of fragmented memories woven together in the life of a membership.  And in this membership created through the power of Berry’s imagination, “the local becomes universal.”

In the next post:

A look at  Concordia University’s Center for Oral History and Digital Storytelling and their Memoryscape projects that embed memories into place in imaginative ways!



[1] Brent Laytham, “The Membership Includes the Dead,” in Wendell Berry and Religion:  Heaven’s Earthly Life eds. Joel James Shuman and L. Roger Owens, (Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky, 2009), 173- 189.


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