The Vocation of Remembering: Wendell Berry’s How It Went

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“ . . . together through ages of the world we have fought the long defeat.” (Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings II. 8.)

Of the things most books have in common, I delight especially in dedications. Whether formal, obligatory, funny, or profound, they can reveal much of an author’s temper and, specifically, the spirit in which a book was composed. Wendell Berry’s dedication to his latest collection of Port William stories, How it Went, is as fine an example of this as I have seen.

“This book is for Den—who defined my task: ‘How to remember, and why.’” All Berry’s books—essays, poetry, Port William stories—are rich in memory, and the hows and whys of remembering; How it Went particularly so. Told from the point of view of an elderly Andy Catlett, one of the Port William membership’s most articulate storytellers, the book distills the refined and telescopic qualities of well-preserved memories like few others.

Like a bottle of wine, a memory will not lie about the land and weather that produced it, but the memory aged fifty years will not be as it was on first impression. It will either gain richness with faithful and judicious storage, or be ruined if abused or neglected.

David Mitchel

A common modern error about memories is that they exist in two kinds: correct or errant (with the second kind comprising the mistaken and the deliberately tampered with). A human’s mind’s eye, however, is a more sensitive instrument than a camera or microphone. And a memory faithfully preserved may yet change over time, as it nestles into new contexts and resonates with other memories. Like a bottle of wine, a memory will not lie about the land and weather that produced it, but the memory aged fifty years will not be as it was on first impression. It will either gain richness with faithful and judicious storage, or be ruined if abused or neglected. Catlett’s mind proves to be—in How it Went as elsewhere—a cellar full of faithfully stored memories, conveying precisely the conditions in which they were born and adding complex resonances gained through decades of reflection. The fidelity of Catlett’s memories, and the preservation of his memories in writing, is also underscored by their telescopic quality. He can remember how he remembered events as a boy or as a younger man, when the memory was fresh from the vineyard, and reflect on that memory itself through how he remembers as an older man.

If you’ve not read any other Berry, or any of the other Port William books, you may be tempted to conclude from what I’ve written thus far that How it Went is so many layers of navel-gazing. Not so; narrator Andy Catlett is a faithful witness of a treasured place and beloved persons. Like all faithful witnesses, he is aware of and accounts for himself, but that is not his object. His object is to convey the essence of the lands and persons he loves. 

And that brings us to the why of his remembering. Port William, its membership, and the nearby countryside and farms are beautiful and fragile. In them, we see the fragility of beautiful things, and the beauty of fragile things, especially when those things are under threat from the acids of modernity and postmodernity. Keeping the memory of them alive is their only protection, their only hope of forming sound human affections and commitments: 

Now, in his latter years, Andy knows that [Alvin Coulter’s farm] could not have lasted as he saw it for very long. And by this he understands how fragile it was, how temporary and passing, in the rush of the terrible century in which he and it had so briefly and so lastingly met. For he has never forgotten it. He could not have forgotten it. 

That day . . . he stood without moving, . . . looking with all his might at the beautifully kept small place that was surely one of the first landmarks or measures of his conscious allegiance, that would never again be far from his thoughts, that no doubt had influenced every right decision he had ever made. (Berry, 28-29.)

It is here that the quality of the memory becomes crucial. When a time, a place, and a community have a fragile beauty that makes them dear, it becomes easy to idealize them, then defend them with reactionary anger. Hannah Coulter once had an eschatological vision of a “new Port William coming down from heaven, adorned as a bride for her husband” (Berry, Hannah Coulter, 43.), but the characteristic memory of the Port William membership does not ascribe to Port William an Edenic age stolen by invaders. The fragility of Port William’s beauty under the sun, “in the rush of the terrible century,” colors its memories with sadness. Those in the Port William membership, no less than the Lady Galadriel of Lothlorien, are well aware that they are fighting a long defeat. But in How it Went, that sadness mingles with generous measures of humor and hope, producing an atmosphere not unlike what Alexander Schmemann called “bright sadness.” It is an atmosphere that, if we could once get our heads into it, would never again be far from our thoughts.

David Mitchel is a small-town lawyer who has represented clients in a broad spectrum of causes, ranging from foster care to business transactions to property disputes to the defense of criminal charges to federal habeas corpus and Civil Rights actions. His passion for literature and story, which he caught first from Tolkien, informs all of this work—which requires patient, careful adjudication of competing stories and creativity to help clients and courts write the rest of the story justly and wisely. David was born and raised near Baltimore, Maryland, went to law school at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, and now lives in central Virginia with his wife Libby and their two young daughters.


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