Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Morning Thanks--Wendell Berry

"Thad Coulter was not a bad man," my grandmother said. "I believed then, and I believe now, that he was not a bad man. But we are all as little children. Some know it and some don't."

That grandma, from Wendell Berry's "Pray Without Ceasing," has a very good reason to call Thad Coulter a very bad man. Coulter spun himself into horror by believing in his son, who went prodigal in such a way as to make Coulter himself--and his farm, his business, his enterprise, and his dream--go completely belly-up. When all of that happened, Thad Coulter hit the bottle and spun out of control, eventually murdering the man he told the cop was his best friend, and doing the deed in cold blood, right there on Main Street. A few days later, he killed himself.

It's a grand story, even though, by way of my own meager summary, it sounds like a dime novel. It's a grand story because Berry brings his own robust faith into it, not by touching it up with boy scout morals, but by fortifying his major characters with verifiable human dimensions.

To my notion, the great stories are human stories. They don't take us away from life--although good literature can and often does; instead, they take us into it. They show us the way, not by offering heroic models of human character or underwriting matchbox morals, but by showing us our own humanity, the fact that, like the grandma says, really, we're all children--it's just that some know it and some don't.

Yesterday, the word was that we've officially entered a recession. Bad times normally mean a return of fantasy--not the genre, but the penchant in stories. We want to run away from life itself because what we're in ain't no picnic. Probably will this time through too, I imagine.

But I think the real stories are the ones that clean us up, the ones who do that by showing us ourselves. I believe it was the novelist Doris Betts who once told me that real Christian writers always find it hard to damn characters. I think that's true, in great part because every last scumbag still has stuck within him or her some flash of the divine--the very image of God.

Last night I read, again, that long short story of Wendell Berry's, "Pray Without Ceasing." What a great night it was. What a great story that is.

This morning, I'm thankful for the real-life witness of Wendell Berry.


Dan said...

Ah, yes, Wendell Berry. He's one of our very best poets, essayists, and short story writers. His novels, though not his strong point, are still worth reading. And just to make sure that we remember that he is thoroughly human, he seasons his mellowed wisdom with some crackpot political ideas. Nonetheless, he's the genuine article and someone for whom I give thanks whenever I pick up his "Sabbaths" poems, or his superb collection of essays on literary topics entitled "Standing by Words", or his ruminations on farming in "The Gift of Good Land".

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