One of the best things about a good piece of literature is its ability to construct a whole world, a world where you can become attached to its places and people, a world where you can imagine possibilities other than those normally evident in real life. A good book can change the way you perceive things. It can make the world extra-ordinary. This is exactly what Wendell Berry’s “Membership of Port William” fiction does. As you can tell by my previous blog posts, I love reading Berry’s work—his fiction, poetry, essays—it doesn’t really matter to me. The reason why he comes up today is for the final installment of our “giving thanks through art” series.
When you read all of Berry’s work, an attitude of thanksgiving is present throughout. In his fiction, this attitude is expressed most clearly in the themes of hospitality and gift in the community of Port William. The community exists in many layers, and Berry explores how these various layers work together through hospitality—gifts given and received by both insiders and outsiders to the community. Because this theme is so prevalent throughout his body of work, it may be best to look at just one of his short stories for an example of this, though if you read the books (which I always recommend!), the theme will make itself fairly evident.
In the short story, A Jonquil for Mary Penn, we see, though still in its beginnings, the interaction and hospitality of fellow members within a community. Mary Penn, feeling sick, though not telling her husband Elton before he leaves for his day’s work, lets her thoughts pore over the last year of their marriage, their relationship with each other, and their new place in the community of Port William. She thinks about how in this community people helped each other do work, taught each other crafts or skills, and generally contributed to the livelihood of each household. “Here, in this new world,” she thinks, “neighbors were always working together.” This reciprocal giving and taking between neighbors forms what we see as the heart of their membership. Such acts of service are seen as gifts for each other, which are both given and received in thanksgiving and love.
The story concludes with just such a gift, freely received by Mary. While sick, Mary goes to sleep in a cold and lonely house. However, when she wakes, the kettle is on, the house work for the day is done, and a friend from the community is sewing in her living room. She realizes that Elton, thinking of her sickness, has stopped by a neighbor’s house to ask for someone to look after her in his absence. This act, both Elton’s willingness to ask a neighbor and the neighbor to freely give of her time, shows the reciprocal nature of love and service in the membership. Mary’s response is the most freely accepting of this love. Asked whether she is all right, she merely replies, “Oh, I’m wonderful,” and then goes back to sleep. We receive no indication of the need to return the favor, though other hospitable acts will no doubt happen in time. The neighbor’s presence is a gift both offered and received only in love.
Berry’s work makes us understand the importance of gifts responsibly given and received in community, and this is part of what thanksgiving is all about. Maybe we will be thankful for the gifts we have, and, if we can, reciprocate with hospitable actions and attitudes which cultivate community and love.