Back Nick Offerman: Wendell Berry’s works are a multi-plattered feast

In honor of Library of America’s recently published Wendell Berry: Port William Novels & Stories (The Civil War to World War II), we’re pleased to offer the following tribute to Wendell Berry by his longtime reader and admirer Nick Offerman.

Nutshell version:

You are in for a treat like no other, the kind of treat you want to last a long time, like a good massage or a soaking rain. Now skip this further twaddle and get to the book.

Slightly longer version for those who enjoy prolonging the anticipation of pleasure:

Port William Novels & Stories
(The Civil War to
World War II)
Wendell Berry’s works are, perhaps, the literary equivalent of one of the farm tables from his own stories, laden with robust dishes of every stripe, from savory to sweet to salty, all to be washed down with spring water, lemonade and buttermilk, or perhaps a little firewater if our luck holds. And the analogy doesn’t end there, either, because that multi-plattered feast is surrounded by smells, by raucous laughter and talk, roosters and roof-drumming raindrops, or at other times by silence, solemn and gravid.

The gift of Mr. Berry’s yarn-spinning is in how his work delves deeper and deeper, proceeding to tell you about the origins of the table itself, complete with the details of its earnest maker, as well as which joints are sound, and which might eventually give out due not to any fault of the craftsperson but to an unseen pitch pocket hiding inside one of the large stretcher tenons, weakening the joint with a natural, hollow cavity. And he’s still not done because he will then proceed to delineate the history of the oak tree from which the table’s boards were hewn, decades ago, and what was going on in that particular corner of the woodlot the day that tree was felled.

The table linens get the same treatment, as does the salt cellar, and . . . well, I imagine I’ve made my point. Attempting to apprehend the scope of his vision leaves me literally slack-jawed, tuckered out, and dumb.

He has garnered adoration and accolades for his poetry, his essays and his fiction, but in a general sense no distinction need be drawn between these genres. All of his writing thrives on the ground water of his common sense and his affection for his place on earth and the inhabitants of that place. In the eight decades and counting Mr. Berry has been paying attention, he has witnessed his species genuflecting to the modern fashion of keeping pace with the ever-increasing proliferation of consumer goods and services. By maintaining a lifestyle that eschews that sensibility by simply choosing not to go any faster than necessary, he has maintained a perspective rife with wisdom by which we can all prosper and thrill.

Every story and novel from Wendell Berry’s fecund imagination is set in the same fictional Kentucky town of Port William and is inhabited by the members of the same set of families and neighbors that he affectionately refers to as the “Membership.” By exploring the lives of these citizens with an ever-deepening vision as they procreate and pass away across the decades, cultivating beautiful crops and dependable children, even as others among them stumble and err, leaving gaping scars in the earth or in the family trees, Mr. Berry paints a lush pastiche of humanity with all of her glowing attributes as well as her foibles.

Wendell Berry signs a copy of Port William Novels & Stories (The Civil War to World War II) at the Berry Center Spring Open House in New Castle, Kentucky, on March 24, 2018. (Virginia Berry Aguilar/The Berry Center)

I had the distinct advantage of growing up in an Illinois family that most resembled some of the Feltners and the Rowanberrys and Coulters to be found throughout these tales, but my folk were certainly not entirely innocent of laying claim to a character like Watch With Me’s Thacker Hample either. As I became accustomed to the world of Port William and the comforting cast of country folk inhabiting the acres therein, I was struck by the reverence that Wendell Berry bestowed upon each and every person, no matter how “simple” they might be, from an urban point of view. His understanding of the contribution made by every plain, hardworking person to the general welfare of a community, and thereby the world, moved me deeply.

Here in these stories, you will find a great entertainment. Laced throughout, however, will also be a set of instructions: thoughts on how to treat one another no matter where you live, and how to treat the great gifts of creation amongst which we live and by which we are able to sustain ourselves. If, perhaps, human nature will always turn our heads away from these responsibilities and towards the glitter of a billboard or smartphone, then let these necessary works of fiction serve as our reminders that before we sit down in that rocking chair on the porch of an evening, we best be sure that the chores and the dishes have been satisfactorily done.


Actor, humorist, and woodworker Nick Offerman is the author of Good Clean Fun: Misadventures in Sawdust at Offerman Woodshop (2016), Gumption: Relighting the Torch of Freedom with America’s Gutsiest Troublemakers (2015), and Paddle Your Own Canoe: One Man’s Fundamentals for Delicious Living (2013). In 2011 Offerman received the Television Critics Association Award for Individual Achievement in Comedy for his performance as Ron Swanson on TV’s Parks and Recreation (2009–2015.)

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