FROM MY COMMONPLACE BOOK: WENDELL BERRY ON PROTECTING THE DEAD

I thought I would take a break from my series on the American Revolution to share the latest entry I have made in my commonplace book. It comes from a book I listened to just a couple of weekends ago as I made the 640-mile-drive from Wheaton to my father’s assisted living home in southeastern Tennessee. I make the trip almost every time the school’s schedule permits. In this case, Wheaton College was on what is known euphemistically around here as “Spring Break.” If the term describes reality in some parts of the country, I’ve learned that it’s mostly a cruel joke in the upper Midwest. There were icicles on the eaves and six inches of snow on the ground as I backed out of my driveway, and I was happy to be headed for warmer climes.

I was also looking forward to listening to an audio book or two along the way. Nothing makes the miles pass as quickly, in my experience. I’ve made this trek more than thirty times since moving to Wheaton, and I’ve long since developed a ritual in which I visit the local library on the day before the trip and check out three or four titles. I’ll listen to the opening pages of each as I’m headed out of town, and before an hour has passed I’ve made my choice and entered into a committed relationship for the duration of the trip.

Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry

The choice was easy this time around. I settled quickly on the 2004 novel Hannah Coulter, by Wendell Berry. I had long heard of Berry, the prolific Kentucky novelist, poet, and essayist, but I had never read anything by him until the previous fall, when I had listened to his 2000 novel Jayber Crow on an earlier trip to see Dad. I’m a historian—not a literary critic—so take this assessment for what it’s worth, but I was enthralled. I think the book is remarkable in three respects: Berry masterfully recreates a place, in this instance the fictional rural community of Port William, Kentucky; he raises eternal questions without preaching or offering simplistic answers; and he crafts what is hands down the most unique love story I’ve ever encountered. Call me a fan.

HannahCoulterAnd so when I found that the library carried another Berry title on tape, I knew that I wanted to listen to it. Like Jayber Crow (and most of Berry’s fiction), Hannah Coulter is set in the tiny hamlet of Port William. Whereas Jayber Crow recreated life there through the eyes of the town’s barber, Hannah Coulter sketches the community through the memories of an aged farm wife. Chronologically, the novel spans the period from the Great Depression through the close of the twentieth century, but the emotional heart of the novel grapples with the personal effects of the Second World War.

Toward the end of her recollections, Hannah relates that she “married the war twice, you might say, once in ignorance, once in knowledge.” She married her first true love, Virgil Feltner, just weeks before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Virgil entered the army in 1942 but didn’t come home, falling at the Battle of the Bulge. In 1948 she married another local GI, Nathan Coulter, who did come home but was forever marked by what he had experienced.

Some of the passages that I have recorded in my commonplace book are there for personal reasons. Hannah’s reflections about her second husband remind me of my own father’s unwillingness—or inability—to share about his wartime experiences. As I have noted before, my dad served in the navy during WWII and saw extensive action in the South Pacific. On the third anniversary of Pearl Harbor, his destroyer, the U.S.S. Mahan, was hit by three Japanese Kamikaze suicide bombers off the coast of the Philippines and sunk. Dad has always been willing to share this much, but no more. What he felt when he heard the crash of the Kamikazes, what he thought when the forward magazine on the Mahan exploded, what he saw as he headed toward the side, what went through his mind when he jumped into the oil-coated bay, what, perhaps, he prayed as he bobbed in the water while the battle continued to rage—these are things that Dad never once offered to share.

And so I was deeply moved to read Hannah’s reflections on Nathan’s half-century-long silence:

He did not talk about it, I understood, because it was painful to remember; and for the same reason I did not ask him about it. . . . Nathan was not the only one who was in it, who survived it and came home from it and did not talk about it. There were several from Port William who went and fought and came home and lived to be old men here, whose memories contained in silence the farthest distances of the world, terrible sights, terrible sufferings. Some of them were heroes. And they said not a word. They stood among us like monuments without inscriptions. They said nothing or said little because we have barely a language for what they knew, and they could not bear the pain of talking of their knowledge in even so poor a language as we have.

If this passage speaks to me as the son of one of these “monuments without inscriptions,” a second passage now in my commonplace book speaks to anyone who wishes to take the past seriously. Much earlier in the novel, Hannah shares some of what went through her mind after news arrived of the death of her first husband, Virgil:

Grieved as I was, half destroyed as I sometimes felt myself to be, I didn’t get mad about Virgil’s death. Who was there to get mad at? It would be like getting mad at the world, or at God. What made me mad, and still does, were the people who took it on themselves to speak for him after he was dead. I dislike for the dead to be made to agree with whatever some powerful living person wants to say. Was Virgil a hero? In his dying was he willing to die, or glad to sacrifice his life? Is the life and freedom of the living a satisfactory payment to the dead in war for their dying? Would Virgil think so? I have imagined that he would. But I don’t know. Who can speak for the dead? . . .

It’s a powerful question. Who, indeed, can speak for the dead? In a sense, this is exactly what the historian is called to do, to resurrect the dead and give them voice again. And yet, as Hannah realizes, in our fallenness we will be sorely tempted to make the dead agree with us, to speak for us rather than to us. None of us is exempt. It is a temptation that Christians face just as strongly as the most ideologically driven “revisionist.” And when we succumb to it, however noble our motives, Hannah reminds us that what we are doing is preying on the weak. “I don’t mean to be quarrelsome,” she concludes, “but the dead are helpless. . . . The living must protect the dead.”

6 responses to “FROM MY COMMONPLACE BOOK: WENDELL BERRY ON PROTECTING THE DEAD

  1. This is very sobering. There’s such irony in the fact that those who appropriate the dead (and the blood of the dead) for their own purposes often believe themselves to be serving the dead — perhaps by ignorance, self-deception, or some combination of both. It really is a travesty, to stand on the graves of men while believing oneself to be doing the opposite.

    I’m curious about the scope of this error. Is it committed only when we use the dead for purposes that are clearly self-serving? Or do we also commit the same error when we merely try to interpret the meaning of someone’s death (as the “disinterested” historian might)? Perhaps the biggest danger lies in interpreting the deaths of large quantities of people — e.g. “the Union soldiers died to free the slaves.” Perhaps if we had a written record of an individual interpreting the meaning of his death, before it occurred, that might warrant usage. Even if it is completely accurate, we would still be guilty of using “history as ammunition” if we employ it for some contemporary goal. Which makes me wonder how much of the sin is constituted by slandering the dead, and how much of it is purely the sin of self-service.

  2. Pingback: THE YEAR IN REVIEW: WHAT YOU COULD HAVE READ HERE IN 2015 (BUT PROBABLY DIDN’T) | Faith and History

  3. A great reminder not only for historians but also for literary critics, whose dead subjects have gone to print in their own names. You would think it easier to avoid bearing false witness against someone who speaks for himself — alas, it is not so.

  4. I enjoyed reading this. It reminds me of a couple of things. The first relates to the bit about your father’s reluctance to tell of his war experiences. For me, one of the most moving scenes in the movie “Saving Private Ryan” was toward the end when the “old” Private Ryan is in the Normandy cemetery and we realize that all the horror of his story is completely unknown even to his wife, right down to the fact that she knows nothing of John Miller.

    The second is that if we think too long about those questions that Hannah Coulter asks, it might make patriotic celebrations a lot more complicated. 🙂 At the least, it might make us rethink just how we should celebrate any number of days dedicated to those who have served our country. We’ve got a couple of them coming up. I hope that if you see some items related to these questions proposed by Hannah Coulter over the next few months that you’ll throw ’em out as food for thought.

  5. I enjoyed these thoughts. Last summer we drove to Wendell Berry country, but missed seeing him. – Art Seamans, Emeritus professor, Point Loma Nazarene University

  6. I’ll enjoy sharing this post with my boss at PLNU. He’s a Wendell Berry fan.

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