The Wealth of an Intimate History: On Wendell Berry’s “Stand By Me”

By John-Paul HeilMay 30, 2021

The Wealth of an Intimate History: On Wendell Berry’s “Stand By Me”

Stand By Me by Wendell Berry

ON HIS WALKS in the foothills outside his hometown of Port Royal, Kentucky, the philosopher and farmer Wendell Berry encountered a metal bucket in the middle of the woods, which had been there since he was a boy. Layers of detritus had accumulated within the bucket — dirt, nuts, leaves, bird droppings, insect corpses. Over time, the bucket had turned this collection into something miraculous: humus, the first layer of topsoil. In a 1990 essay, Berry connected the bucket’s soil-making process to the work of a flourishing human community, a topic Berry’s work frequently considers. Like the bucket, a good community (which, for Berry, means necessarily a local community) collects things: the stories, memories, history, and culture of the people within that community, which its members tell and retell among themselves and to their young. A strong local community produces humans as well as humus, forming the next generation in the practices of the past and instilling in them a respect for and connection to their local land.

Berry’s lifelong ruminations on the theme of human community and its ties to the soil culminate in Stand By Me. This collection of 18 short stories, published individually between 1984 and 2015, traces the decline of the fictional, adjoining Kentucky towns of Port William and Hargrave and the lives of the people within them over the course of a century. Berry’s stories follow a “membership” of connected families, from Port William’s early days in 1888 as a rural outpost on the fringes of civilization up to 1981, by which time real estate companies have bought the farms so meticulously and lovingly maintained by generations of Port Williamites and transformed them into purely functional suburban housing. A deep melancholy pervades Berry’s tales of Port William’s later days, as beloved point-of-view characters die off and, unlike in previous generations, are not replaced in the membership by offspring interested in taking up the hard work of maintaining the land. Instead, the young of Port William flock to cities and universities, where they are made either too rich or too smart to ever consider the life of a farmer. Despite being written decades apart, the last few stories in Berry’s collection consistently portray Port William’s future as dire. These stories, the shared culture of generations of centuries-old families like the Feltners, Coulters, Rowanberrys, Catletts, Proudfoots, and Branches, will soon have no one to remember them. Port William’s bucket is being overturned.

And yet, although they parallel the real-world loss of local culture and history by America’s impoverished rural communities through gentrification and suburbanization, Berry’s stories are neither bitter nor resentful — they are joyful. Laughter and suffering go hand-in-hand for the Port William membership. Even in the face of frontier violence, the Great Depression, the loss of children, spouses, or siblings to World Wars, and a family feud that culminates in a murder, good humor always wins the day in Port William. The happiness of Berry’s characters does not stem from naïveté or a refusal to recognize the seriousness of their situations. One of Berry’s most profound observations about human communities is that the weight of a community’s pain must beget some sort of joy, some form of growing together through love, if the community is to survive.

Burley Coulter, who emerges over several short stories as one of Berry’s protagonists, encapsulates this dichotomy. We first meet Burley in grade school, where he has garnered a reputation as a troublemaker and prankster. Burley’s common sense declines inversely with age; as he grows older, his licentiousness and foolhardy exploits become legendary, concluding in a decades-long scandalous relationship that sires an illegitimate child, Danny Branch. Despite serving as a comic-relief character in the background of previous, more serious stories, Burley, when he becomes the narrator, reveals himself as one of the most circumspect and contemplative figures in the Port William membership. He steps up to become a father figure for his nephews after the death of his sister-in-law and the emotional distancing of his brother, before losing two of those nephews to World War II. The Burley who, in his youth, had mocked the religiousness of his friends, in old age turns (albeit with a mischievous smirk) toward a deep spirituality focused on restitution and justice for those he had harmed. As an old man, he repents that his relationship’s lack of legitimacy prevented it from being taken seriously and, against the initial wishes of his friend and attorney Wheeler Catlett, names Danny his heir. When Burley becomes sick and infirm, Danny and Burley’s other relatives take him to a city hospital. Upon seeing how the hospital dehumanizes Burley, forcing him into a medically induced coma, Danny mounts a daring rescue, kidnapping his father and returning him to Port William, where Burley shares with Danny a brief moment of joyful lucidity before dying on the land he stewarded for decades.

Throughout the collection, Berry reinforces the link between humus and human, showing it to be more than mere analogy. The lives of the Port William membership demonstrate the close ties Berry sees between cosmology and anthropology: for Berry, the way we treat the soil affects the way we treat other people, and vice versa. If we see the land as a means to an end, as something to exploit for the sake of convenience or pleasure, we will see those around us in the same way. In the collection’s final story, “At Home,” Art Rowanberry, one of the last survivors of Port William’s once-numerous farming families, observes that taking even simple consideration of the land’s needs, like not driving heavy machinery over the road except during wintertime when the soil hardens, reduces the injuring of the earth. The story’s omniscient narrator, however, contrasts Rowanberry’s attention to the needs of the soil with his “eventual successors” coming in from the city, “four different owners in twenty-five years, who would wear the road down to a raw wound by driving on it in all weather.”

When Andy Catlett, one of Berry’s most frequent narrators, loses his hand to a harvesting machine in “Dismemberment,” he alienates himself from the community around him, including his own family. Concurrently, the injury prevents Andy from cultivating his land. Though Berry’s narration makes clear that the Port William membership was ready to come to his aid, Andy at first tries to cultivate the land alone through “mechanical contrivances and devices thought up in the night” to fix his arm and make himself whole, “which by day more often than not would fail. […] He worked at and with the stump of his arm as if it were inanimate, tying tools to it […] or using it forthrightly as a blunt instrument.” Andy reduces his own existence to the status of a tool, a piece of technology working the land. What breaks Andy out of this self-imposed isolation is his realization that he cannot master the world and that he is not his own person. He cannot dismember himself at will from those around him. In reestablishing his connections with the membership and his land, Andy discovers “the wealth of an intimate history, belonging equally to him and to his ancestral place, [welling] up in him as from a deep spring.” His existence is a gift he has attempted to reject, whose value he has tried to define for himself based on what he can produce rather than who he truly is: a person worthy of the love of his community, which values him not for his efficiency but simply because he is Andy.

Through the lens of Port William, Berry affirms a metaphysics that sees existence — of the land, of the self, of family and community — as an extravagant gift, something so valuable it could never be repaid. None of Berry’s characters who meditate on the overflowing good of the lives they have received doubt that God is the giver of those gifts. Although most of the Port William membership is Christian (Berry rarely specifies a denomination), the vision of God Port Williamites see in their lives floats free from any particular doctrine or dogma. Instead, God is simply love. Characters encounter this love, the love that has willed them into existence through their families, their land, and their history, in moments of self-transcendence. Art Rowanberry looks back on his time as a soldier in World War II, considering the near brush with death that discharged him from service and realizing that, from that moment on, “he knew his life was a gift, not so probable as he had once thought, and yet unquestionable as that of any tree, not to be hoarded or clutched at, not to be undervalued or too much prized. […] It was a life now simply to be lived.”

In “The Boundary,” Andy Catlett’s grandfather Mat Feltner (whose childhood in the 1880s we see in the collection’s first story, “The Hurt Man”) walks through the woods on the edge of his farm in 1965, losing himself in his memories and his land. Mat attempts to return home to his wife Margaret, whom he knows is waiting and worried about him; his journey mirrors classical epic and is reminiscent of Berry’s use of epic tropes in his Port William novels Hannah Coulter (2004) and Jayber Crow (2000). On his way, Mat meditates on Margaret’s first affirmation of love for him and realizes that “everything that has happened to him has come from that — and leads to that, for it is not a moment that has ever stopped happening; he has gone toward it and aspired to it all his life, a time that he has not surpassed.” In a land marked by decades of memories now made unfamiliar by the onset of dementia, Mat takes in his surroundings and concludes, “I am blessed. […] I could stay here.”

The line between time and eternity blurs often in Port William. The bounds of the town’s membership go beyond death: persons long dead exert frequent and considerable influence in the lives of Berry’s characters. In “Pray Without Ceasing,” Andy Catlett, looking back from 1990 on the death of Mat Feltner in 1965 (shortly after Mat’s return from the woods), concludes that “the past is present also. And this, I think, is a part of the greater mystery we call eternity.” This mystery makes Mat as present to Andy in death as he was in life, and it is tied to the soil itself: Andy feels the presence of the “unknown,” prehistoric past in the layers of dirt on Port William’s roads. As one considers these layers, he thinks, “you work your way into the interior of the present, until finally you come to the beginning in which all things, the world and the light itself, at a Word welled up into being out of their absence. And nothing is here that we are beyond the reach of merely because we do not know about it.” While waiting by his grandfather’s deathbed, Andy learns how Mat’s beloved father, Ben, was shot and killed in 1912 by one of his closest friends, Thad Coulter. In the wake of Ben’s death, a lynch mob arrived at the Feltner household, ready to hunt Thad down and string him up if Mat gave the word. Mat refused, honoring his father’s memory and his friendship with the Coulters. Andy realizes that Mat’s decision resonates up to the present day. Because of the Coulters’ relation to the Catletts, without Mat’s heroic forgiveness, Andy would never have been born.

Berry’s common themes of death, time, and eternity, the land and what it sustains, the goodness of existence and the love that wills all things into being, all converge in Stand By Me. For Wendell Berry, Heaven is not a place on Earth — but the earth, and human communities like Port William, may have a place in Heaven.


John-Paul Heil is a PhD candidate in History at the University of Chicago. He lives in Emmitsburg, Maryland, where he is an adjunct professor of History at Mount St. Mary’s University and an educational intern for Good Soil Farm, LLC, a community-supported and regenerative agriculture farm.

LARB Contributor

John-Paul Heil is a PhD candidate in History at the University of Chicago, completing a dissertation on the intellectual history of virtue in the Aragonese court of Renaissance Naples. He recently received a Fulbright research grant for the 2021–’22 academic year to conduct research in Modena, Italy. He lives in Emmitsburg, Maryland, where he is an adjunct professor of History at Mount St. Mary’s University and an educational intern for Good Soil Farm, LLC, a community-supported and regenerative agriculture farm.


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