Saturday, January 20, 2018

A Half-Pint of Old Darling

Wendell Berry (b. 1934)
From Wendell Berry: Port William Novels & Stories (The Civil War to World War II)

“Heaths Ferry, above Carrollton, Ky,” c. 1920. One of several postcards published and sold by W. L. Gaines, a prominent pharmacist in Carrollton during the 1910s and ’20s. In Berry’s fiction, the town of Hargrave resembles Carrollton, which was originally called Port William. Berry in turn used Port William as the name for the fictional version of Port Royal, located near his birthplace. Scan courtesy of 72 Scrapbooks.
During the past half-century Wendell Berry has published eight novels and nearly four dozen stories—all set in Port William, a rural Kentucky river town much like real-life Port Royal, located in Henry County near his birthplace. Spanning 150 years, from the Civil War–era setting of “The Girl in the Window” to the twenty-first century, Berry’s fiction is home to generations of Coulters, Catletts, Feltners, and other families collectively known as the Port William Membership, women and men whose lives evoke a time before industrial agriculture, pervasive technology, and unrestrained consumerism began to unravel the deep bonds of community. Port William, writes Berry, “was without pretense or ambition, for it was the sort of place that pretentious or ambitious people were inclined to leave. It had never declared an aspiration to become anything it was not.”

In a recent interview with Library of America, Berry described the residents of his fictional universe—and of the real one:
My people here, so far as I know them, have been talkers and storytellers. Conversation has been, with them, a prominent art. They have remembered the stories of sorrow, which they can’t forget. They have treasured the funny stories because they have needed, and loved, to laugh. The native stories here, as I heard them, were never long, but they were carefully made, shaped for strength, told in the course of both rest and work.
Now, for the first time, in a two-volume edition prepared in consultation with the author, all of the Port William novels and stories will be published together in the order of their narrative chronology. The first volume, collecting four novels and twenty-three stories and taking the residents of the town to the closing year of World War II, has just arrived from the printer.

Although many of Berry’s stories are known for their wit and humor, seven of the more amusing tales present the farmer Tol Proudfoot and his wife Miss Minnie, and they were collected in 1994 in the whimsically titled volume Watch With Me and Six Other Stories of the Yet-Remembered Ptolemy Proudfoot and His Wife, Miss Minnie, Née Quinch. Opening in 1908, when Tol courts Minnie, a local schoolteacher, the collection carries the couple through three decades of laughter and marriage. In a 1998 interview the poet and essayist John Leax remarked to Berry that these stories have a “tall tale quality” that is not as overt in his other Port William stories. Berry hesitantly agreed that “there is certainly a layer to the reality of Port William” that might be described in such a way. He added, “Nevertheless, it reassures me to know that behind many of the imagined events of those stories lie real events. And I am fully serious about some of the events, particularly the acts of compassion.”

In one of the stories, “A Half-Pint of Old Darling,” Minnie and Tol take their horse and buggy to the country seat of Hargrave. Somewhat unexpectedly, politics takes a front seat. There’s an upcoming election for state representative and, like the rest of Americans, Port William residents are still dealing with the repercussions of two new constitutional amendments: the Eighteenth Amendment prohibiting alcoholic beverages, which took effect on January 16, 1920, and the Nineteenth Amendment, prohibiting both states and the federal government from denying citizens the right to vote based on sex, ratified on August 18.

Curiously enough, most of the stories about Tol and Minnie were originally published in The Draft-Horse Journal (“The World’s Foremost Heavy Horse & Mule Publication”) in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Berry explained in the interview with Leax that the magazine “has been a good home for my work—because Maurice Telleen, who until recently was the editor, has been for the last twenty-five years a steadfast friend and ally in the great cause of agrarianism. And I dearly love to be read by the readers of The Draft-Horse Journal. However, I never try to write for a specific audience.”

Notes: Old Darling whiskey was produced by the only whiskey distillery in Carroll County, whose country seat, Carrollton, is the basis for Hargrave. Founded in 1873, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (page 131) was an organization that supported the Eighteenth Amendment; worked for reform in women’s suffrage, labor, and sanitation; and supported international missionary work. The Irish proverb on page 138, beginning “These will come to no good end” is often erroneously believed to be from the Bible. “Old Joe Clark” is a southern folk song (c. 1900) chronicling the life of Joseph Clark, a Kentucky mountaineer and moonshiner. “Soldier’s Joy” is a fiddle tune of Scottish or Irish origins dating from the 1760s.

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Ptolemy Proudfoot and Miss Minnie did not often take a lively interest in politics. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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