In an interview, Wendell Berry once remarked: “In a truly grounded, locally adapted culture, the artists would be rememberers.” This statement brought up several questions for me:
- How important is art to our sense of memory and belonging in a place or community?
- In what ways can art cultivate a sense of memory?
- Does thinking about the artist as rememberer change the way we think about art?
Before answering these questions more generally, I think it will be helpful, considering that he has taken up this very role of artist as rememberer, to look at Berry’s own artistic contribution in order to see what role he affords memory in community life.
Throughout Berry’s fiction, we find the suggestion that overlapping and connected memories are one of the main ways in which we form a community with other people. For instance, in the novel Jayber Crow, Jayber is constantly recalling stories that he has been told and acquiring the history of the town of Port William through the memories of each inhabitant. Such stories form part of Jayber’s own identity that grows into the place and people of Port William. He says:
My mind had begun to sink into the place. This was a feeling. It had grown into me from what I had learned at my work and all I had heard from Mat Feltner and the others who were the community’s rememberers, and from what I remembered myself. The feeling was that I could not be extracted from Port William like a pit from a plum, and that it could not be extracted from me; even death could not set it and me apart.
The identity of this character and many others in Berry’s novels are directly related to the memories of fellow members and places in the community. Without the passing on of memory by those whom Berry refers to as “rememberers,” the identity of both places and people can be lost.
If identity is associated with the transferral of memories, then this is partly because memory is both rooted in and reinforces the importance of place. Memories are dependent on place to situate them within the wider context of community and time. They become abstract and disconnected from reality when separated from place. The narrator of Berry’s story Are you all Right? says regarding the memory of Art Rowenberry: “It was not that he ‘lived in his mind.’ He lived in the place, but the place was where the memories were, and he walked among them, tracing them out over the living ground.” Here, there is the assumption that the place is what memory is grounded in, both literally and metaphorically. Because the people had such a close relationship with the land, they maintained strong memories of their own and other communities stretching back over time. This served to solidify their views on their own particular community along with their concept of a more universal membership in Creation.
I could highlight countless other examples in Berry’s work that suggest the central role of memory in a placed community life. Hopefully, though, we can at least see in this brief space that memory is central to the way that we conceive of ourselves, our relationships to others, and our relationship to particular places. Berry’s characters acquire a sense of continuity and communal identity through the imaginative activity of remembering not only one’s own thoughts and experiences, but remembering how those experiences are connected to the lives and memories of others.
In part 2 of this post, I’ll address more directly the questions I posed at the onset and explore what the implications are of Berry’s statement on the artist as rememberer. For now, do you agree with Berry’s assessment of the role of memory in community life? Is it helpful to look to literature to think about these issues?