Comments about a book by Wendell Berry … (2006)

Filed in Gather Books Essential by on June 6, 2007 0 Comments

The book itself is not a worldbeater, but some of its
passages were amazingly thoughtful and reflective.
The book is Andy Catlett: Early Travels by
Wendell Berry (2006). Andy is a ten year old boy
leaving his small town to go to a slightly bigger one
where many of his relatives live, going by himself
on a bus and the book covers what he learns that
summer somewhere in the South.The book is quite
short, 140 pages, but it seems to me quite profound
at several levels.

Three passages from the book particularly struck
me. The first comes from the chief character Andy's
talking with an older black lady about her life and
her people (in the summer of 1944). Her name is
simply Aunt SarahJane. "But not everything she
told me came from the realm of wonder. She also
spoke that day, as she often did, of the rights her
people had been promised but had never been
given. She was my first preceptor in the matters
of race and civil rights. Because I had always
listened attentively to her, everything she said
struck in. She made me feel responsible, for I knew,
as she required me to know, that I was a product
of my culture; but I felt it vaguely, for I could not
precisely locate in myself the cause of the injury.
I had no ill will toward her or Dick (her husband),
or in fact toward any of the black people I knew,
and besides, if I were greatly to blame, why was
she so nice to me?

Both the sense of responsibility and the perhaps
necessary vagueness have stayed with me until
now. Starting probably with those conversations
so long ago with Aunt Sarah Jane, I have learned
to understand the old structure of racism as a
malevolent convention, the malevolence of which
is hard to locate in the conscious intentions of
most people. It was a circumstance that was
mostly taken for granted. It was inexcusable,
and yet we had the formidable excuse of being
used to it. It was an injustice both accommodated
and varyingly obscured not only by daily custom,
but also by the exigencies and preoccupations of
daily life. We left the issue alone, not exactly by
ignoring it, but by observing an elaborate etiquette
that permitted us to ignore it. White people who
wished to think well of themselves did not use the
language of racial insult in front of black people.
But the problem for us white people, as we had to
finally understand, was that we could not be
selectively complicit. To be complicit at all, even
thoughtlessly by custom, was to be complicit in
the whole extent and reach of the injustice. It is
hard for a customary indifference to unstick itself
from the abominations to which it tacitly consents.
But we were used to it. What is hardest to get used
to maybe, once you are aware, is the range of things
humans are able to get used to. … " (75-76)

(there's another two paragraphs to this thread that
are also quite moving and thoughtful, but these two
paragraphs were what struck me when I read the book
a month ago)

The second passage is only a paragraph. "The sense
of a longer, older history that came to me in my ancestral
houses came mostly from my grandmothers, both of
whom had lived in the early years of their marriages
with their mothers-in-law, my grandfathers' mothers.
Both of my grandmothers, despite their remarkable
differences in character, never complained of that state
of things, but they seem to have done a great deal of
listening. Their own memories included the memories
of the older women, and they spoke familiarly of
lifetimes not their own. And so in both houses I knew,
before I knew what to think of it, a history that seemed
to me ancient and that included much sorrow: memories
of hard births, hard work, epidemics, deaths of children,
debt and worry. And always back there in the mists of
time, hardly imaginable and yet immediate as an odor,
was the Civil War and the violence and personal
vengeances, tawdry and deadly, that it had perpetrated
in the little towns and farm neighborhoods of our part
of the country." (110-111)

Two other paragraphs also struck me, perhaps because
I myself am getting older, and this tale is being told by
a narrator recalling a boy's time, and a boy's life. "Time
is told by death, who doubts it? But time is always halved -
for all we know, it is halved – by the eye blink, the synapse,
the immeasurable moment of the present. Time is only the
past and maybe the future; the present moment, dividing
and connecting them, is eternal. The time of the past is
there, somewhat, but only somewhat, to be remembered
and examined. We believe the future is there too, for it
keeps arriving, though we know nothing about it. But
try to stop the present for your patient scrutiny, or to
measure its length with your most advanced chronometer.
It exists, as far as I can tell, only as a leak in time, through
which, if we are quiet enough, eternity falls upon us and
makes its claim. And here I am, an old man, traveling as a
child among the dead.

We measure time by its deaths, yes, and by its births.
For time is told also by life. As some depart, others come.
The hand opened in farewell remains open in welcome.
I, who once had grandparents and parents, now have
children and grandchildren. Like the flowing river that is
yet always present, time that is always going is always
coming. And time that is told by death and birth is held
and redeemed by liove, which is always present. Time,
then, is told by love's losses, and by the coming of love,
and by love continuing in gratitude for what is lost. It
is folded and enfolded and unfolded forever and ever,
the love by which the dead are alive and the unborn
welcomed into the womb. The great question for the
old and dying, I think, is not if they have loved and been
loved enough, but if they have been grateful enough for
love received and given, however much. No one who has
gratitude is the onliest one. Let us pray to be grateful to
the last." (119-120)

Berry is a widely published writer of fiction, poetry and
essays, some forty books altogether, and lives in Henry
County, Kentucky. This little book seemed to me worth
sharing, if only for the three passages I quoted. VMS

 

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5 foot 11 inches, full white beard, thinning once dark now almost silver hair, thin (135 pounds), scarred arms, one thumb partially stationary from an early stab wound, brown eyes

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