In “Writer and Region,” Berry stresses the importance of knowing the community one is embedded in when writing their story. Huckleberry Finn, Berry states, exemplifies this idea by centering the story around the river and other geographical landmarks that help ground the circumstances happening in the 1830s and 40s during Huck’s boyhood days. There is a major flaw that Berry recognizes within the same work when it seems to disconnect from the true elements of the community, such as tragedy and renewal. According to Berry, Mark Twain escapes having to illustrate how the characters within the community suffered and how they would be able to recover and sympathize as a community. Only then can it be proven that this community exists as a self-sufficient and whole body capable of surviving the worst and experiencing a shared struggle. Berry evidences a similar idea in his subsequent essay, “The Responsibility of the Poet,” by stating that poetry that is created must be based on poetry already existing. Similar to how a community influences an author’s work and vice versa, past works influence new ones. In order for a work to be original and demand the attention of the audience, it must serve a purpose–meaning, it must notice a deficiency and seek to correct it. Lastly, Wendell Berry employs a sort of tongue-in-cheek approach in “How to Be a Poet.” He underlines his main ideas in three short stanzas, taking on the appearance of the Commandments with its clear and simple statements. He emphasizes the importance of reflection and intense concentration on one’s deepest, purest observations. “Silence” and “sacred places” are key to achieving the wisdom that results from drawing on all the experiences one is exposed to.
When Berry brings the point home that the community must affect the literature of the present and that the literature affects the culture of the community, I found myself in agreement. It’s true that it’s hard to place the exact influence of literature on the community, but this can be understood when thinking back to certain periods. The spreading of written works during the Enlightenment, Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses detailing his grievances against the Catholic Church, and the ideas that slaves read about that were central to the French Revolution, come to mind when considering the impact that the presence of literature can have on the community. I find it vexing when I finish a book and get the sense of it being “unfinished,” such as when I read The List by Siobhan Vivian and felt that I was not able to see how Bridget and Margo dealt with their personal issues that were recently opened up. It’s the same concept akin to opening up a can of worms when a writer introduces tragedy into the story and does not explicate how the community figures things out about itself in the process and settles back differently.
Class Discussion Question:
Can you imagine writing a story without the elements of the community one lives in?