When Anderson Cooper’s mother, the designer and heiress Gloria Vanderbilt, reached her 91st birthday, they began a correspondence, breaking a wall of silence between them. This 2016 conversation covered life in the spotlight, suicide, money, and grieving for a parent and a child. Vanderbilt Died in June at age 95.
Diane invites listeners to join a discussion of “Hannah Coulter” by Wendell Berry. Hannah is an old woman who has experienced much loss but has never been defeated. Hannah is a twice-widowed mother of three. She finds herself reflecting on her childhood, her loves and loss, her children, and her beloved Kentucky farm life. Wendell berry is a renowned poet, author, essayist and farmer. He has set many of his stories, including this one, in the fictional town of Port William. “Hannah Coulter” is the story of the ties that bind a community.
- The Right Reverand Jane Holmes Dixon Retired Episcopal Bishop of Washington, Pro-tempore.
- Jason Peters Professor of English at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois, editor of "Wendell Berry: Life and Work."
- Andrew Wingfield Associate Professor in George Mason University's New Century College, the Director of Mason's BA program in Environmental & Sustainability Studies and author of the short story collection, "Right of Way."
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us, I'm Diane Rehm. Eighty-year-old Hannah Coulter has known great love and great loss. Her devotion to her rural Kentucky farm and community is something she holds onto, even as her children do not. In reflecting on her life, she writes, "This is my story, my giving of thanks." Joining me in the studio for this month's Readers Review, pardon me, of "Hannah Coulter," Jason Peters, he's Professor of English at Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill., he's editor of "Wendell Berry: Life and Work." The Right Reverend Jane Homes Dixon, retired Episcopal Bishop of Washington and Andrew Wingfield of George Mason University, he's author of the short story collection "Right of Way."
MS. DIANE REHMDo join us. These Readers Reviews are so special because we get to hear from you. We are counting on you, the readers, who have put your time, your effort into reading these stories, coming to us with your comments, your thoughts. Join us on 800-433-8850, send us your e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org, join us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Good morning to all of you and welcome.
MR. JASON PETERSGood morning.
REV. JANE HOLMES DIXONGood morning.
MR. ANDREW WINGFIELDGood morning.
REHMAndrew Wingfield, can you give us sort of a brief summary of this plot?
WINGFIELDWell, it's a life story. It's told by Hannah Coulter, as you said, an 80-year-old woman looking back over a life rich in family, in connection to place. A life rich in love, marital love and familial love, but in also life that's had its losses and its pain. And she's telling her story near the end, so she's looking back. And one of the things that's truly remarkable to me about the way she tells this story is the great economy with which she tells it.
WINGFIELDIt's a very life and yet it's told in few than 200 pages and she tells us near the end after her husband has died and that she's spending a lot of time by herself in her home, that what she's doing is thinking this story through and going over it carefully and imagining telling it and I think that the way it's written bears that out, that nothing is out of place, everything is told with the maximum economy. And we read a story that's not very long, but very full.
REHMJason Peters, to have Wendell Berry writing in this woman's voice and doing it so creatively, so successfully, I thought was remarkable.
PETERSIt is remarkable. If I were a novelist, I sure is -- I sure wouldn't try that myself. There's some peculiarities about this book. I tried to work this out once on paper and where that paper is, I guess I'll never know. I lost it, but Hannah, about five different times in this novel, addresses Andy Catlett directly. She stops speaking in the first person and speaks in the second person to Andy Catlett, who would be her nephew. And readers of Berry's fiction know, he, Andy Catlett, is the character most like Wendell Berry. They're both born in August of 1934. In this particular novel, Andy is found crying beside the sideboard at Christmas, 1941, when the presence of war becomes a close reality to the Port William membership.
PETERSAnd so I've -- I've sometimes wondered if what Wendell Berry didn't do is try to get inside the voice of his wife, Tonya, and us what he's heard all his life from her and tell the story through her voice to himself in the person of Andy Catlett. It wouldn't be a very -- it wouldn't be very smart to go into print with that thesis, but I sometimes think that's what -- that's what he did to pull this off.
REHMI think that what we learn, Jane Dixon, about Hannah Coulter's early life is so moving and so touching.
DIXONYes. As she -- as she starts to talk about her life at home and how her mother died when she was 12 and her father is there and her grandmother and her...
DIXONGrandmam. And her father remarries within about a year, I think, to a woman, Ivy, who has two sons whom she is devoted and Hannah's really left out. But it's her grandmother who takes her really as she talks about place, moves her room closer to her grandmother so that they are there with the kitchen and the room upstairs and that becomes their place. They begin early in the morning and her grandmother, she says, teaches her what she need to know from life. And when the time is come, her grandmother sends her forth. It's a beautiful story and she remembers her grandmother through the book.
REHMI thought that moving Hannah to that room above the kitchen, which is the warmest room in the house, sort of usurped Ivy's, the second wife, the stepmother's perhaps predilection to put one of her sons in that warm, comfortable place. She put her where she would know the real warmth that she, Grandmam, was giving to her sort of spiritually as well.
WINGFIELDYes. And I think that Hannah is a person who has had, as we said, hardship in her life and the first big thing is losing her mother. She's also received great kindness and I think that that's what she receives from her grandmam, that anticipation of what her life is going to be like in that family with Ivy coming in with her two sons, whom she favors. And she -- she gives her that place and she also teaches her.
WINGFIELDOne of the things that is to me very beautiful in this book is all the focus on work and the importance of work and the dignity of work and all these jobs that need to be done to -- to run a farm and the way that her grandmam teaches her. And the way in which the grandmam's work is so carefully and lovingly recounted in that chapter where he talks about all the things -- or where she talks about all the things that she learned to do from her grandmam and they turn out to be all the things that she needed to know how to do because she goes on to run a farm herself.
REHMAfter her husband, her second husband, dies, but going back to your point, Jane, when Grandmam finally says to her, it's time for you to move on. She goes -- Grandmam goes to a friend of hers in town and finds a place for Hannah to begin to do secretarial work.
DIXONBut she tells her, the grandmam is very careful about Hannah and her school work as well as the things she learns to do around the home, that she must do that. And when she graduates from high school, she's the valedictorian and she keeps saying that to Hannah. And when she takes her into town to meet Grandmam's old friend, Miss Aura, she stands right there at the door before they go in and she says, this is my grand-daughter. She was the valedictorian. So she gives this young woman, she's given her the know how to do the work that she needs to do. She has also given her the real understanding that she has enormous abilities and in that age, for a woman to do that for another woman, very, very special, I thought.
REHMJason, what is your understanding of how Hannah looks as a young woman?
PETERSThere's a little bit of humor in here pertaining to that. The implication being that young women like Hannah come to their wedding nights and their husband's are surprised at what they find underneath the clothing (laugh). But we know from Hannah that she understands herself later she -- later in life, she understands herself to have been a very beautiful woman and I think it's pretty easy to miss that in this story, at least for me, in part because there's so much beauty about her character and about the way she tells her story.
REHMYou're absolutely right that there is so much focus on character and on strength and on generosity and on giving and receiving that you don't very much think about her physical characteristics. Do you agree, Jane?
DIXONNot exactly, no. Because as Jason said, right in the beginning of the book, the grandmother is saying to her, you can't imagine now, but I was as beautiful as you are and she tells that wonderful thing...
DIXON...about how -- and Hannah says that it must've been that when a woman got married in those days, she'd been so wrapped up that on the wedding night, the husband opens her like a present (laugh).
PETERSAnd says, what's this (laugh) ?
DIXONYes. Exactly. What's this? But she goes on and when she's -- she's with Virgil, she talks about how that part of her life is and then she has that wonderful understanding with Nathan, the way he looks at her. And as she says, when he looked at me first, I wasn't ready to look back in the way that I knew was going to mean something if I did, so those things are through there. They're not as, you know, as pronounce maybe as the character, but he does -- Wendell Berry the, I think, a very lovely way of talking about how people are intimate one with another.
REHMAnd, of course, you mention Virgil, Hannah Coulter's first husband, who dies and we'll talk about that when we come back. Nathan being her second husband with whom she lives for many, many years. Short break now from our Readers Review. We do invite you to join us for a discussion of the book "Hannah Coulter" by Wendell Berry.
REHMWelcome back. For this month's Readers Review, we've chosen Wendell Berry's book "Hannah Coulter." And here in the studio, Jason Peters, he's Professor of English at Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill., he's editor of the book titled "Wendell Barry: Life and Work." The Right Reverend Jane Holmes Dixon, she's retired Episcopal Bishop of Washington, Pro-tempore. And Andrew Wingfield, Associate Professor at George Mason University and author of the short story collection "Right of Way."
REHMWe invite your calls, 800-433-8850, send us your e-mail to email@example.com. Here's our first e-mail from Sheila. She says, "I'd appreciate your view of how Wendell Berry handles religion in the book. The membership seems to be the spiritual core of the Port William community that centered around the daily exchanges involved in a more material need for our -- for each other rather than any specific religion or rarified sense of spirituality." She goes on to say, "I was almost startled at the end of chapter 22 when Hannah mentions waiting for the resurrection with the others." Jane.
DIXONWendell Berry's a Christian, he's a Baptist and he is one of the -- I think one of the great prophets of our era. Wendell Berry causes the church to look at itself in a very critical way. He -- the main word of -- from the prophets that I learned in seminary is, woe unto you. And Wendell Berry is calling us to look at ourselves as we have desecrated the environment and made peace with many oppressions. In this, I think when he's talking about the membership, for me, that's a real understanding of what community means for him. And that, of course, for me as a Christian person is a very Christian understanding of that, that we are members one of another and we have responsibilities as well as we receive from the other.
WINGFIELDI also think that place is so important in his sense of religion and that the great work of Hannah's life is making a place with Nathan on this farm. It's a pretty run down place when they first buy it. And creating a beautiful productive farm that is their home place and as I said, I think it's -- she sees it as the great work of their lives. And on one of the -- page 83, she says, there is no better place than this, not in this world. And it is by the place we've got and our love for it and our keeping of it that this world is joined to heaven. So I think that -- that to me, the spirituality running through here is how do we make a world here on earth that is a vision of a better world.
REHMI want to go back just slightly because as her grandmam has through her friend Aura gotten Hannah a job, who does she meet but a young man named Virgil. Now, Virgil is the nephew, as I understand it, of Aura. Tell us about Virgil, Jason Peters.
PETERSWell, Virgil is, I guess you would say, very courtly in his manner. He is a kind of young man you don't run into anymore, I guess you could say. And he is -- he's very respectful of Hannah when he meets her and he moves into his understanding of his affection for her, perhaps her awareness of that, very slowly, very deliberately. Excuse me. We know that Hannah's grandmam has told her if any guy tries to get fresh with her, she should say, you try that -- are you ready to try that in front of Grandmam?
PETERSThat would put an end to the advances. But we don't know much about him from this novel except that he is, by today's standards, I guess you could say extraordinary and then he disappears into the war and is finally just plain old missing.
REHMHe is missing, but they have married and she is pregnant with his child. And then he goes missing. She moves in -- Hannah moves in with Virgil's parents who are so kind and generous.
DIXONVery lovely to her. Quite remarkable, I think, for in-laws that they took her in and, as you say, she was pregnant before he left to go into combat. He knew that they were going to have a child so that they knew that as a community, as a membership. And -- but they love her like a daughter and the child is born. Hannah in turns names the little girl for her mother-in-law because she thought Virgil would like that, little Margaret. But the relationship among the three of them, Mr. and Mrs. Feltner and Hannah, is really quite extraordinary for the rest of her life. Even when she marries Nathan and moves out they remain a large amount of support for her, for Margaret and for Nathan.
REHMThere is such a touching moment in that relationship between Hannah and her in-laws when he, the father-in-law, finds Hannah sitting alone in the living room of their home and he walks in and with no preannouncement, puts his hand on her shoulder and says, it's time, it's time, Hannah. You have to move on. And that's when Nathan comes into her life.
PETERSYeah, as I said, I think there are extraordinary acts of kindness shown to Hannah throughout this story. And I think the Feltner's, going back a little bit, one of the things about her relationship with Virgil is that he's a man of standing in that community of a much more established family. And when she and Virgil start to date, there's a real sense that this is not an appropriate match and that she -- because she is from a much more poor background and she gets signals from various people that it's a cause of concern. But ultimately, the Feltners welcome her and give this match their blessing. And then they show her that kind of kindness continually. She becomes a member of the Port William membership through them and she remains one even after their son dies.
REHMWhat that told me was that Hannah Coulter represented herself as a person of character, as a person of conscience, as a person of caring and that was why it became, not only for the love of their son, Virgil, but for recognition of who and what she was that the Feltners could take her in.
WINGFIELDWell, you'll notice that what Mr. Feltner does is give Hannah permission to marry again.
WINGFIELDAnd what we see Hannah doing at the end of the novel is giving permission to Virgie to re-inhabit the life on the farm. And this is an element of generational continuity in the novel I think is interesting, mainly because we don't see it very often anymore. The young seeking the permission of the old and the old understanding that their permission must at some time be given.
REHMNow, Virgie -- explain who Virgie is.
WINGFIELDWell, Virgie is grandson who is wayward. We were invited to suppose has done some pretty bad things.
REHMAnd to mixed up in drugs, alcohol, people of...
WINGFIELDAnd just to...
WINGFIELD...and just to finish the job, he has long hair, too...
WINGFIELD...which has to be cut. But it's an element of a story that Wendell Berry is interested in, the story of departure and return. And most of us know only the story of departure. Those of us in the studio here live far from the places we were born, most of us.
REHMExcept for me.
WINGFIELDExcept for you.
REHMYeah, except for me.
WINGFIELDBut the return part of the story is the one that Berry is really interested in and he gives us this prodigal -- to go back to the e-mail question, he gives us a retelling of a prodigal story here, prodigal son, in a novel that is full of the language of the Old and the New Testaments, to remind us that departure is a necessary part of growing up, but return is the part of the story that we don't often remember.
REHMI cannot, for the life of me, believe that no one in this audience has read "Hannah Coulter" and that no one has called in as yet to talk about "Hannah Coulter." And I am thinking that perhaps you are more interested in the conversation than you are in providing your own questions, comments, but please feel free to join us, 800-433-8850, send us your e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org, join us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Here's a comment on Facebook from James who says, "Wendell Berry remains for me one of the most articulate, insightful and compassionate writers in modern American literature. In the last several years, I've found myself returning again and again to his incredibly prophetic essay, 'What Are People For?'
REHMIn fact, given our current economic troubles, our total lack of same public discourse and our inability to find value in our fellow human beings, Mr. Berry strikes right at the heart of the matter. Do we really care about our fellow Americans or have we reduced each other to the status of mere functionaries?" Really quite a comment, Jane Dixon, that gets really to the heart of what this novel is all about.
DIXONWell, he has a phrase that he uses in there and I've not read his other novels. I know some of his essays and poems, but he talks about the room of love. And for me, that's sort of the beginning for me of his theological understanding.
REHMThere's a part you want to read.
DIXONYeah, there's a part I would like to read. I kept going back to this. This is -- this is, of course, Hannah talking. "I began to know my story then. Like everybody's, it was going to be the story of living in the absence of the dead. What is the thread that holds us all together? Grief, I thought for awhile? And grief is there sure enough, just about all the way through. From the time I was a girl, I have never been far from it, but grief is not a force and has no power to hold. You only bear it. Love is what carries you. For it is always there, even in the dark and most in the dark, but shining out at times like gold stitches in a piece of embroidery.
DIXONSometimes, too, I could see that love is a great room with a lot of doors where we are invited to knock and come in. Though it contains all the world, the sun, moon and stars, it is so small as is to be also in our hearts. It is in the hearts of those who choose to come in. Some do not come in. Some may stay out forever. Some come in together and leave separately. Some come in and stay until they die and after. I was in it a long time with Nathan. I am still in it with him. And what about Virgil? Once we, too, went in and were together in that room. And now in my tenderness of remembering all again, I think I am still there with him, too. I am there with all the others, most of them gone, but some who are still here who gave me love and called forth love from me. When I number them over, I'm surprised how many they are."
REHMThe Right Reverend Jane Holmes Dixon reading from Wendell Berry's book "Hannah Coulter." And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Hannah Coulter is the book we've chosen for this month's Readers Review. I hope you'll join us, 800-433-8850, send us your e-mail to email@example.com. Let's go first to Knoxville, Tenn. Good morning, Peter, you're on the air.
PETERGood morning. I have to admit, I haven't read "Hannah Coulter," but...
PETER...I was greatly inspired by Wendell Berry on having read "Home Economics," "The Wild Birds" and "The Memory of Old Jack." And I just mentioned to the lady who answered that they had changed my life. I had lived in New York and worked there for many years and on reading Wendell, moved to Tennessee, bought a 10-acre farm and I've been very happy with the inspiration that he brought to me.
REHMThat is quite an endorsement, I must say. Jason Peters.
PETERSWell, he moved to Kentucky, not Tennessee, but he was in New York and was a director of composition at New York University in the Bronx and started missing cow pies, I think, and decided to go home. And everybody told him, no, you can't. If you do that, you'll never be a writer. If you leave New York City, you'll never be a writer. And these people were right if you ignore the 50 books he wrote since he left….
PETERS...New York City. But it's a good comment. I heard Scott Russell Sanders, the Indiana writer, who is a fine writer in his own right, say that Wendell Berry is the most important living writer to him right now and Peter, I don't think you're alone. I think a lot of people out there would point to Wendell Berry as the most important living writer to them, a man whose books have changed their lives.
WINGFIELDWell, I think that when I think of Wendell Berry, one of the things we haven't talked about is the importance of World War II in this novel, although it's a huge pivot point in the story and there's a sense that everything changed then.
WINGFIELDAnd Gary Snyder, another writer I admire, talks about life since World War II as the slow motion explosion of expanding world economies. That globalization has changed everything and has especially changed rural communities where people live together and farm together and I think Wendell Berry has given us a way of thinking about this explosion and seeing it close up.
REHMAndrew Wingfield of George Mason University. Short break, we'll be right back.
REHMWelcome back. We're talking about Wendell Berry's novel "Hannah Coulter." From the e-mails and comments we're getting, many people seem to have read his essays and have been inspired by them. Fewer of you seem to have settled on "Hannah Coulter," one of his novels. There is a companion novel which was written, what, 30 years earlier, Jason Peters, "Nathan Coulter." Totally different.
PETERSWell, the main difference being the narrative voice.
REHMOf course. One a man, the other a woman, but something different about the character as well. Well, here's an e-mail from Patrick, who says, "One of the most intense and terrifying passages in all contemporary literature is the chapter entitled Okinawa in "Hannah Coulter." The chapter consists of Hannah's efforts to imagine Virgil's experience in the Pacific Theater of World War II. What is the purpose of this chapter? Does it indicate a deeper message that Berry hopes to convey about war, modern or otherwise?" Andrew.
WINGFIELDI think it does work on more than one level. One, Hannah's immediate motivation is to, as the e-mail suggests, imagine herself into the place of her husband, Nathan, who's died and who never really spoke...
REHMWho's Virgil who died in the second World War.
WINGFIELDBut Nathan is the one who was in Okinawa and came back.
REHMAh, forgive me.
WINGFIELDAnd so, yeah, fought in...
WINGFIELD…Okinawa and we only know that he witnessed and perhaps did terrible things there, but he won't speak about it. And he's not a man of many words. Part of her grieving, I think, is to learn about Okinawa and take herself there, but it's -- so that's part of it. I also think that it's -- as I said, I think that Berry seems to really be interested in the ways in which this war changed things, but the thing that is most striking to me about that chapter is that Hannah imagines what it was like for the people of Okinawa who are farming people that she feels a connection with and there's an incredible passage, if I could read a little bit...
WINGFIELD...before she -- where she says, "Before that spring, Okinawa had been a place of ancient country villages and farming landscapes of little fields perfectly cultivated. The people were poor by our standards now, but peaceable and courteous, hospitable and kind. They hated violence and had no weapons. They made music and sang when they rested from their work in the fields. It was a land of song and dance."
REHMReally chokes me up. You wanted to say something, Jason.
PETERSWell, this -- this chapter was the most arresting of all the chapters in this book the first time I read it. and I think Andrew has spoken well to the issue of place here, not only in his most recent remark, but previously in the show. I think the -- one of the things to remember about Berry's fiction is war is the backdrop of fiction. What goes on in the Port William membership goes on in the backdrop of war. And that is either war as we understand it usually, World War I and World War II, or it's the wayfaring practices of an economy, whether that be in mountaintop removal or whether that be in aggressive large scale farming, we are waging war on people and on place and this is a novel that is -- that takes place very seriously.
REHMOr we are waging war on people's souls as she perceives one of her sons having chosen a profession that never made him happy. She thought he was going to choose to stay on the farm. He gets an education. He decides to go off and become part of a huge firm, but he's never really happy.
WINGFIELDI think to me, the Okinawa chapter is the most powerful and terrifying. I think the most painful moment in the book is the scene where Caleb, the younger son, who loves to farm and who his parents have identified as the one who may well come back from college and take over the farm and become -- you know, live his life as part of the Port William membership.
REHMHe didn't even like education to begin with, but they felt he needed to go to college.
WINGFIELDThat's right. They felt -- they took that responsibility very seriously that all three of their children would go to college, without realizing that that meant that none of the three would probably come back. And that's what happens when Caleb comes back to see his parents after he's graduated and his father starts to talk about his plans for where he'll farm and how this will go and that son becomes more and more uncomfortable and let's his parents know that that's not part of his plans. Deeply painful moment. Very short scene, but deeply painful.
REHMLet's go to Salt Lake City, Utah and to Brian. Good morning, sir, you're on the air.
BRIANGood morning. Thanks so much for talking about this wonderful book today.
REHMIt's our pleasure.
BRIANI just -- I just wanted to say that so much of Wendell Berry, so much of his work addresses the dissolution of community and community in its most concrete sense. And I just feel that from reading "Hannah Coulter," it was my first Wendell Berry book and I found in it a type of community that I had always fantasized about and I wished I had been raised in Port William because I think that it's a community of proximity where you are a member of the community by virtue of the fact that you live there, that you are there.
BRIANAnd I think we've gotten away from those types of communities. And I know Wendell Berry writes a great deal about that in his other books and essays and it's just -- it's made a big impact on my life in terms of how I view the type of community that I want to be involved in and how I want to be involved in my community and not just sort pick the individuals that I wish to be in my community, but that I embrace the people who are here.
REHMThat's a lovely way to put it. Jane Dixon, you and I were fortunate enough to meet back in 1967 at St. Patrick's Church where -- here in Washington where we began to create our own community and embrace such a large group of wonderful people.
DIXONI have to be very careful here, Diane, that I'm not going to preach, but when this gentleman calls in and says that he would like to be part of a community, I wanna say to you, go to your mosque, go to your synagogue, go to your church, go someplace where people care about one another. As Diane said, Diane has lived here forever, but my husband and I came here and we had no blood relatives, as Wendell Berry would understand that, and we knew that to have a community, we had to reach out. We wanted our children to be a part of that and to have these friends who helped us raise our children.
DIXONSo as I say, my preaching today is that there are those places where it can happen, but it has to be intentional. One has to want it badly enough. And she really speaks to that in the book about some come and some go, but some stay forever. And so that is my -- that's my word to you this morning.
REHMThanks for calling, Brian. Let's go to La Grange, Kentucky. Good morning, Marybeth, thanks for joining us.
MARYBETHThanks for having me. Well, I just was really glad that you chose a book from Kentucky. I live about -- I live in the next county over from Wendell Berry and didn't know it until I went to read the book for the Readers Review and look at the author and saw he was from Henry County. As I was reading the book, I was able to -- it was like reading about where I live and I could really connect with the land and being close to Louisville and Cincinnati and the Ohio River and a lot of the issues going on, turning farms into subdivisions and, you know, the loss of the beauty of the land and people going and that kind of thing. It really -- I was able to connect with that.
WINGFIELDYeah, I think that Berry is a writer of place. He has invented a place, Port William, and devoted a tremendous amount of his literary attention to it, to populating it and taking us to it. And in that sense, he's like some other authors. William Faulkner did that, I think, in a very different way, but he's given us a place that is enduring. And I think one of the really wonderful scenes in the book that I take with me is when after Nathan has died and Hannah's alone, she's visited by a man who grew up in the community, Carey Rowley, I believe is his name, and he's become a real estate guy and he's thinking, okay, Hannah's there all by herself, she can't plan to stay.
REHMCan't possibly plan to stay.
WINGFIELDAnd yeah, why would she stay by herself there? So I think I'll come in and find out what the plans are. And so she has this meeting with Carey and it's the one time -- we were talking before the show started about Berry's sense of humor. And evidently, in company, he's a wonderful joke teller and a very funny man. There are funny characters in this story. Burley Coulter is very funny and there's a lot of whit, but it's very quiet and it's usually Hannah telling about somebody else.
WINGFIELDBut in this moment, we see her whit where she just can't help herself. She has to zap him when he's about to leave after she tells him her plan is to put the land in trust. She, you know, crushes his hopes there, but then she tells him, you know, you're getting a little overweight, you better watch what you eat 'cause I'm very busy on this farm and I don't want to have to break my routine to go to your funeral. That is...
REHMIsn't that something.
WINGFIELD...something that we haven't seen from her...
WINGFIELD...until the very end of the book...
WINGFIELD...a diabolical whit.
REHMYeah. And now let's go to Jack in Richmond, Ind. Good morning to you, sir.
JACKGood morning to you. And I wanted to talk about my kids and see if you would recommend this as a book for my adult children, but first of all, I have to say that this gives me bragging rights 'cause I can tell them I'm the first one in the family to be on "The Diane Rehm Show."
JACKWe're all NPR fanatics. Can you hear me okay? I'm on a headset.
REHMSure can. Go right ahead.
JACKOkay. What I'm wondering is being in my mid 50s, the last kid goes off to college of our four children next year, so we'll be empty nesters and I'm kind of like Hannah at her point in life, I'm finding myself reflecting on my life and the raising of our kids. I've never read Wendell Berry, I've never read this book. This is the first I've ever heard of the man. I think -- my kids, I admire the heck out of them, they're bright, they're extremely creative people, they forge their own lives very well in the world, they make their relationships.
JACKBut I think something that I got from my dad that we've not really given them is that sense of being connected to the land. My dad grew up on a farm, so he transferred a lot of that to me. The idea of work that you mentioned, about work every day, work having a value and a dignity to it, you lose some things from generation to generation. I'm not sure that that is something that's really transferred to my adult children.
REHMSo what do you all think? Is this a book that might inspire? What do you think, Jason?
PETERSWell, excuse me, I think that it is a book that will inspire adult children. I recommend all adult children read it. I recommend all adults and all children and all people read it. You're right. We don't have a meaningful connection with the sources that sustain us anymore. Most people think food comes from a grocery store and as a consequence, we're seeing terrible soil depletion in this country, aquifer depletion. And I think one of the best things that parents can do is direct their children back to the soil or to the sources that sustain them and remind them that we live precariously on this planet and we have some housekeeping to do if we wish to continue to live.
REHMJason Peters and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Here's an e-mail. She says, "How I only wish I had gained from Wendell Berry's work before I entered my later years. However, it's never too late to be touched. Mr. Berry and I are from the same home county in Kentucky. He is a true treasure and an inspiration to me as I continue to learn about my culture. I'm hoping you will speak to the strength of Kentucky women, non-pretentious, solid women throughout time." Andrew.
WINGFIELDI don't know if I'm a good authority on Kentucky women, but I think Hannah embodies a lot of virtues. I have a friend who is a philosophy professor and he told me uses Wendell Berry's novels to teach virtue philosophy, has students think about what virtues various characters embodies, steadfastness, caring, courage, forbearance. And I think that Hannah is a woman who has many virtues that are admirable. She is steadfast, she's incredibly attentive and caring, she's diligent, she's a very hardworking person and she recognizes the dignity of work and she believes in community. And not only being nurtured by community, but nurturing community in her own turn. So if she's an emblematic Kentucky woman, then I think Kentucky has a lot to be proud of.
REHMJane, I would say that there are many women from all walks of life who are represented in the strength of Hannah Coulter.
DIXONI would certainly agree with that. And one of the things that I would hope that we as women do for one another as her grandmam did for her and she is doing with the young woman at the end of the book, mentoring, that she -- that we tell each other over and over again that we can be what we believe we can be.
REHMThe Right Reverend Jane Holmes Dixon, Jason Peters, Andrew Wingfield, thank you all so very much for a beautiful discussion of "Hannah Coulter" by Wendell Berry. I highly recommend it. Have a great Thanksgiving holiday, everybody. Enjoy, be safe. Thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
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