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Frank1
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Book review: 'Nathan Coulter' by Wendell Berry
Feb 11th, 2015 at 10:59pm
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Posted to libertynewsforum on 2/11/15

Book Review & Commentary/Meditation on themes 2/11/15
Nathan Coulter by Wendell Berry

Yes, I know, now that I am writing book ‘reviews’ everyone is waiting on my previously announced review of Jayber Crow…its coming, its coming.  Nathan Coulter is shorter, which is why I am starting with it.  I suppose this is not nearly so much a review as it is a collection of my thought on the work in question.  Thus, many spoilers are contained in case anyone was intent on reading the book.  Then again, I find ‘spoilers’ are more a problem with works that are meant to generate a sense of forward moving tension, a work that is a ‘thriller’ perhaps.  As this work is nothing like that, ‘spoilers’ probably would not ruin the reading experience.

So, to the book.  Nathan Coulter, a novel by Wendell  Berry, is not actually much about the eponymous character, but rather about the people around him, namely his grandfather, his father, his uncle Burley Coulter, and his brother Tom; there is also somewhat less about one Jig Pendleton, who lives in a shanty boat down on the River and spends his time reading the Bible cover to cover while waiting for the Lord to come to him.

As the jacket cover review of the book by the San Francisco Chronicle says, it is “spare, elegant, and eloquent.”  It is also short, with the particular copy I read coming in at 117 pages.  The book is told in the first person by Nathan, and it is mostly a collection of events in the lives of the aforementioned characters during the time of the Nathan’s childhood, with some sparse commentary on these events from Nathan.  For anyone who reads Berry it should go without saying that all the characters are members of the Port William community, or as Berry prefers to call it the “Port William Membership.” 

The main theme of the book, at least that this humble personage took from it is that people are what they are and cannot be otherwise.  I will detail how the story presents this theme and then comment on it. 

Nathan’s grandfather’s life (who is simply referred to as ‘grandpa’ throughout the book) is defined by his ownership of his farm and his work on it.  In our modern technological society where machines have helped to create abundant leisure, not only for the elite, but also for the common man, we might say that grandpa “lived to work” with the implicit assumption that it would have been better if he had “worked to live.”  But this division of our activities into “life” (which means ‘leisure’*) and “work,” with the former  viewed as superior to the latter, is not part of Berry’s worldview.  Rather, in Berry’s rural Kentucky world ‘work’ and ‘life’ are not divided completely from each other but exist on a continuum, they bleed into each other, and depending on the character are in some cases practically a unified whole; of course some characters work harder than others, but none of them have the strict dividing wall between work and life that is so common to most of us.

Perhaps to outline how this wall of separation between ‘work’ and ‘life’ came into being will help to make clearer what I am talking about.  Traditionally people lived where they worked.  This should be obvious in the case of farmers, but it was also true for many artisans and shop keepers who more often than not had their living quarters attached to their place of work.  Contrast this to the modern for whom working and living quarters are usually completely separate; that is, we work someplace and live someplace else.  Often it may be many miles between where we live and where we work.  We think nothing of living in one community and working in another, in fact we often prefer this arrangement to its opposite it seems.  Such working and living arrangements as are now common were practically unheard of before the invention of the automobile as should go without saying.

So one of the big modern dividing walls between life and work is that we so often live and work in different places; but this alone does not explain the modern devaluing of work completely.  Surely our general dislike of work comes from the fact that so few of us are involved in truly creative work.  Traditionally almost every single member of society was involved in some type of creative endeavor.  Craftsman created their crafts, farmers were involved in the creative process of turning a piece of land into fertile and sustainable farmland.  The intellectual elite was involved in the always creative process of preserving, teaching and commenting on the traditional wisdom of their religion/culture, etc.  By the contrast, many or most of us moderns are involved in work that involves little creativity and even when it does it is often highly circumscribed by various superiors.  For us, the whole idea of ‘creativity’ is that it is a special faculty, possessed by a special few, who are very lucky if they actually find work that enables them to use this very special faculty.  For so many of us, our work is not a true ‘vocation’ in the traditional sense, but is rather simply something we suffer through so we can have money to ‘live’ when we go home. 

« Last Edit: Feb 15th, 2015 at 7:30pm by Frank1 »  


To say homo sapiens, is to say Homo religiosus; there is no man without God. ~Frithjof Schuon
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Re: Book review: 'Nathan Coulter' by Wendell Berry
Reply #1 - Feb 11th, 2015 at 11:00pm
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My comments on work so far may seem to concern only men, but traditionally the role of the housewife was also a creative role, as Berry has pointed out in some of his essays.  Like most men, housewives also lived where they worked which should be obvious from the term ‘housewife’.  The housewife was not the oppressed, stupid and unskilled drudge that feminism portrays her as, rather she created in multiple ways, making not only food for her family, but also clothes, quilts and similar items as well as being skilled in the various food preservation techniques that were necessary for a household before the advent of refrigeration.  In addition she was often a gardener and attendant to ‘yard animals’ like chickens and pigs, as well as having enough knowledge of the work of her men as to be able to help them if necessary.  So as one can see the role of the traditional housewife was a very active, creative and necessary role.

So back to grandpa Coulter: his life and his work on his farm were inseperable, they were a unified whole and he worked hard and relentlessly.  Grandpa’s son (and Nathan’s father) Jarrat (who is simply referred to as ‘father’ throughout the book) is simply a younger version of grandpa.  Father at one point makes a statement about himself that would apply equally well to grandpa.  Father tells his sons that they wouldn’t be able to recognize the country without him working in the middle of it.  This statement reveals the absolutely intimate connection between a good farmer and his land.  It also reminds me of something I once read about an Iroquois Indian and his son.  The son left the tribe to go get the white man’s education, and on his first trip back to the tribe he went out with his father in a canoe; his father asked him what he was and he variously replied ‘a man,’ ‘an Iroquois,’ etc. until his father finally began pointing to the surrounding natural environment and saying “those rocks are you” and “those trees are you” etc. 

But I digress…

So father and grandpa are defined by their ownership and relentless worklife on their farm.  Grandpa’s other son, Burley, Nathan’s uncle, could not be more different than grandpa and father.  Whereas the latter two are defined by their ownership of and work on the land, Uncle Burley doesn’t want to own anything and only works when he has to.  Because of this, grandpa can only view Burley as a disgrace.

Uncle Burley does not inherit grandpa’s farm, father does, but he does help on the farm when needed.  He is not a bad worker but is rather a good help, yet he does not desire to work in the way that grandpa and father do, and when at work he gets himself through it with humor, always ready, in both mind and posture, to turn their work activities into something to joke about.

So is Burley just a slacker character with few good qualities to admire, a mere comic foil for the more noble and hard-working characters of grandpa and father?  Not at all.  As we have been discussing on this forum, strict adherence to superficial, or ‘conventional’ morality, while not bad, is also not an infallible sign of a good character or ‘heart,’ and likewise to break the rules of conventional morality is not a sure sign of an evil character.

Uncle Burley certainly takes liberties with the conventional morality of his time and place, but he has other good qualities.  One of Burley’s best qualities is his persistent good humor, which I believe points to both a lack of pride and a ‘good heart.’  Whenever grandpa gets on Burley because Burley would rather fish and hunt coons than farm, or grandma gets on him for being a ‘sinner’ who drinks and at times fights, Burley just responds with a smile or a joke. 

Burley does not pridefully flaunt conventional morality, (which is as bad as having a self-righteous pride in ones adherence to conventional morality) rather Burley simply is who he is, he likes good moonshine and a lazy day of fishing, and his behavior is not intended to shock.  Neither is Burley bothered by guilt for his behaviors (obsession with ones guilt can become its own type of sin).  Spending too much energy obsessing over his sinful nature is one of the problems with ‘Jig’ who we will get to later.

Burley in fact becomes somewhat of a surrogate father to Nathan and his brother Tom when their mother dies.  Their father buries his pain in an ever fiercer work drive and Uncle Burley provides the boys with a more approachable adult male figure than their father is capable of being.  Burley takes Nathan fishing and raccoon hunting among other activities.  Burley is also friendly to and accepting of the basically crazy, Bible-thumping character of Jig Pendleton. 

I guess there is not too much to say about Jig other than that he used to be a farmer, with a wife and kids, but the Lord called him away from farming and now he lives by himself in a shanty boat down by the River, fishing and reading his Bible.  Jig is also, as mentioned earlier, obsessed with his ‘sinful nature.’  He can be a real bore if allowed to start ‘preaching,’ but Burley talks with him about fishing and also drinks with him at times.
« Last Edit: Feb 12th, 2015 at 6:30pm by Frank1 »  


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Re: Book review: 'Nathan Coulter' by Wendell Berry
Reply #2 - Feb 11th, 2015 at 11:02pm
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So I said that I think the major theme of the book is that people are what they are and cannot be othwerwise.  This theme is perhaps best illustrated by Nathan’s comments on a fight between his brother Tom and his father when Tom is in his late teens.  Everyone is out harvesting the tobacco crop and father starts to egg the boys on about how they want to move faster than their old man but they just cannot do it.  After a water break, Tom and father start in on two separate rows at the same time.  Tom manages to keep up for a while, with father mocking him the whole time, but eventually Tom makes a few mistakes and begins to fall behind and father says something along the lines of “Yep, these boys just barely weaned can’t keep up with the old man.”  At this point Tom stops working and charges at his father, who proceeds to thrash him, and the fight ends with father straddling his son and slapping him in the face while laughing and calling him a ‘goddamned baby.’

After this fight Tom leaves the farm and goes to work for someone else with the intent of saving up enough money to eventually own his own farm.  Tom later reconciles with his father and I believe it is understood that the fight was a necessary event, that in order to grow into his own man Tom had to have some sort of ‘break’ with his father: classic teenage rebellion stuff really, even if the event was forced to a large extent by father.  As to the situation, Nathan comments: “We were the way we were: nothing could make us any different, and we suffered because of it.  Things happened to us the way they did because we were ourselves.  And if we’d been other people it wouldn’t have mattered.  If we’d been Mushmouth of Jig Pendleton or that dog with the roman candle tied to his tail, it would have been the same; we’d have had to suffer whatever it was that they suffered because they were themselves.  And there was nothing anybody could do but let it happen."

This idea that we ‘are who we are’ goes pretty deep if one thinks about it a little and it is an idea that I think we have abandoned to a large extent.  Rather than telling men that they are here with a rather defined set of skills, suited for a particular vocation, we tell them that they “can do whatever they want to do.”  But this conventional wisdom is not true, only God is possessed of infinite possibility, while the rest of us each must work within a defined set of possibilities, both inherent in our very being and also defined by the time and place in which we live.  We can ‘grow into’ our possibilities and in that way we change over the course of our lives, but we cannot transcend our given possibilities**.  We know we cannot change our material  bodies (or at least we could not before modern surgical techniques), we cannot make ourselves tall if we are short or male if we are female, etc.  We also cannot change our more interior qualities, but rather, as I said above, we can only ‘grow into’ them.  One can use their given abilities or not use them, but their potential will be with one regardless. 

The concept I am getting at may be well illustrated by a consideration of the art of musical improvisation.  Non-musicians may think that improvisation is bounded by nothing, that it consists simply of a musician giving reign to their emotions.  But a musician knows otherwise.  A musician knows that what they can play when improvising is in fact bounded by the structure of the music they are improvising over, by the music’s key, its chord structure, its meter, tempo and rhythms, etc.  A great musical improviser can do much creative work within these constraints but a novice improviser, who does not fully understand the constraints of a piece and the possibilities inherent within those constraints may unknowingly break them and for the listener the result is music that doesn’t sound ‘good’ or ‘correct’, for one reason or another depending either on the constraints broken or on a too minimal use of the possibilities inherent within said constraints.  The same thing happens when an individual, for whatever reason, attempts to break out of the set of possibilities inherent in their very being: chaos results for both them and often those around them as well.

So I think I am done now: that’s Nathan Coulter and its themes, ‘spare, elegant and eloquent’.  I give the book my highest rating, five flasks of moonshine for Burley, Jig and Big Ellis to drink down by the River on a summer’s eve.



*One should note here that our modern concept of leisure is very different from the ancient one.  First off, in the ancient world few commoners had any leisure, and those who had leisure used this time to cultivate themselves in prayer and study, as is recommended in Ecclesiastes.  This is completely different from our modern concept of leisure as “time to relax and/or entertain myself”. 

**At least not outside of some special divine intervention
« Last Edit: Feb 12th, 2015 at 6:34pm by Frank1 »  


To say homo sapiens, is to say Homo religiosus; there is no man without God. ~Frithjof Schuon
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