Christina’s World, 1948
Egg tempera on gessoed panel
I recently read an article that, astoundingly, asserted that the work of Wendell Berry created unsustainable fantasies regarding the goodness of rural life. Such a claim surprised me. To assert that Berry’s fictions are, well, fictions would not have been surprising (albeit, uninteresting); but to assert that his fictions are misleading, that they somehow idealize the rural, is shocking. Au contraire!
After all, who writes a less idealized rurality than Berry? (Perhaps whoever it was that wrote “Chicken Fried.”) What can be less idealistic, at any rate, than this quote from Jarrat Coulter?:
You work on this damned old dirt and sweat over it and worry about it, and then one day they’ll shovel it in your face, and that’ll be the end of it.” (Wendell Berry, Nathan Coulter, 90)
What can be less idealistic than Jayber finding himself faced with Health Department codes and requirements and having to close his business? What about the effects of the broader world upon Port William?:
More even than television, the interstate brought the modern world into Port William. More even than The Economy and The War, it carried the people of Port William into the modern world. It was a thing of unimaginable influence… The interstate dwarfed [Port William] in scale and made light of its needs. Fuel, money, and people gathered to the interstate as water gathers to the river.” (Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow, 282)
What can be less idealistic than that?
It is Berry who introduces us to the goodness of rural life, but he never writes his fictions with the intent of fantasy. If there is something “fantastic” about his fictions, it is their magical realism, their sacramental mysticism, not some perverse illusory fantasy. Lest we forget, the daughter of Troy and Mattie Chatham is literally killed by the addiction to speed that comes with the dawn of automobiles, just as Port William is slowly choked by that same commitment, manifest in the Interstate. There is no idealism here. Rather, there is a shocking (and prophetic) realism.