Printed from:

Welcome to Columbia Magazine  

Tom Chaney No. R720. a review of Hannah Coulter

Of Writers and Their Books, A review of Kentucky author Wendell Berry's Hannah Coulter First printed 23 July 2006.
The next earlier Tom Chaney Of Writers and Their Books column,Calvin Trillin'sHeckuva of a Job

By Tom Chaney

Living in the Absence of the Dead

Wendell Berry continues to astonish me. Whenever I venture in among his ideas and people and language, my response is always that he has gotten it exactly right. Back at the book fair in Frankfort, I stopped by his table to renew old acquaintance and to buy one of his newer books, Hannah Coulter (Shoemaker & Hoard, 2004).

In the last week I began to read and to be transported once again into the Port William membership through the eyes of Hannah Steadman Feltner Coulter as an old woman reflecting on her life within the community of her neighbors. She speaks to Andy Catlett.
When you are old you can look back and see yourself when you were young. It is almost like looking down from Heaven. And you see yourself as a young woman, just a big girl really, half awake to the world. You see yourself happy, holding in your arms a good, decent, gentle, beloved young man with the blood keen in his veins, who before long is going to disappear, just disappear, into a storm of hate and flying metal and fire. And you don't know it.
Hannah came to know her story. "Like everybody's it was going to be the story of living in the absence of the dead." At first she thinks that grief is the thread that holds it together, but comes to know that "love is what carries you, for it is always there, even in the dark, or most in the dark, but shining out at times like gold stitches in a piece of embroidery."

Hannah comes to nearby Hargrave from her childhood home to find work. Leaving an unhappy family -- her ineffectual father Dalton Steadman, his second wife Ivy distant and doting on her two sons -- Hannah comes to live with a friend of her grandmother and does part-time work with attorney Wheeler Catlett, Andy's father, from Port William. She meets and marries Virgil Feltner in 1941 thinking, "I have found my place and my work among them."

That Christmas with the Feltners with whom she and Virgil live seems in her recollection the ending of an old world. The coming war leads to "absolute loss, absolute emptiness" and a new and alien world.

Virgil returns in 1943, they conceive a child, little Margaret, to be born the following year after Virgil is reported "missing in action" after the Battle of the Bulge.

Hannah and Margaret remain with the Feltners becoming a part of the Port William membership.
By kindness I was coming to understand what it meant to be in love with Virgil... He and I had been, we were, we are -- for there is no escape -- in love together. I went into love with Virgil, and of course we were not the only ones there. To be in love with Virgil was to be there, in love, with his parents, his family, his place, his baby. When he became lost to our living love in this world, by knowing what it meant to me I couldn't help knowing what it meant to the others. That was our kindness. It saved us, but it was hard to bear.
As 'missing in action' becomes 'killed' Hannah, the Feltners, and the rest of the membership emerge from the deepest of grief. Hannah "began to trust the world again, not to give me what I wanted, for I saw that it could not be trusted to do that, but to give unforeseen goods and pleasures that I had not thought to want."

Thus she was being prepared for Nathan and for her life with him when that time should come.

"My life with Virgil was a romance, because it never had a chance to become anything else . . . the war separated us from everything else."

"My life with Nathan turned out to be a long life, an actual marriage, with trouble in it. . . . I can remember the troubles and speak of them, but not to complain. I am beginning to speak of my gratitude."

Nathan Coulter returns from the battle of Okinawa and the war -- unlike Virgil and Nathan's brother. Nathan, his father Jarrett, and his uncle Burley work the Feltner place. At first Nathan does not matter to Hannah; then he begins to matter. "I could say he gradually assumed a sort of standing in my eyes."

Together they buy a neighboring place and marry -- beginning their long life together. Two sons are born and grow -- together with Margaret -- all of whom ultimately detach themselves from the membership. "Expectations," Hannah opines, "can be a bucketful of smoke."

Nathan has returned from the war of which he will not speak firmly convinced of his place in the Port William membership whose ideals are at odds with the modern world. In the post war era the new way of thinking is linear -- a man must think of progressing to some better life in a better place. Nathan dislikes the idea of reducing work to a monetary value. The members work together when the need arises. One's tobacco crop is not complete until the neighbors' crops are done.
This membership had an economic purpose and it had an economic result, but the purpose and the result were a lot more than economic. . . . The work was freely given in exchange for work freely given. There was no bookkeeping, no accounting, no settling up. What you owed was considered paid when you had done what needed doing. Every account was paid in full by the understanding that when we were needed we would go, and when we had need the others, or enough of them, would come. . . .

The membership includes the dead. Andy Catlett imagines it going back and back beyond the time when all the names are forgotten. The members, I guess you could say, are born into it, they stay in it by choosing to stay, and they die in it. Or they leave it, as my children have done. And so an old woman, sitting by the fire, waiting for sleep, makes her reckoning, naming over the names of the dead and the living which are the names of her gratitude. What will be remembered, Andy Catlett, when we are gone? What will finally become of this lineage of people who have been members one of another? I don't know. And yet their names and their faces, what they did and said, are not gone, are not 'the past,' but still are present to me, and I give thanks.
I could talk at great length about the members -- Burley, Uncle Jack, and the rest. But that would fill a book as long as this one and not be nearly so fine.

Two observations come to mind. In terms of technique Berry has mastered the art of including stories told over and over by the members. The retelling is a way of affirming the past of the membership -- honoring the memory of those gone and enveloping the young into that company.

The community of Port William is a rich one. Berry has achieved a dense reality during the course of six novels akin and perhaps surpassing that of William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County.

Hannah Coulter is a rich and rewarding story from the pen of a master storyteller.

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at

Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749. Phone (270) 786-3084. email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2011-07-24 08:04:02
Printable: this page is now automatically formatted for printing.
Have comments or corrections for this story? Use our contact form and let us know.


Quick Links to Popular Features

Looking for a story or picture?
Try our Photo Archive or our Stories Archive for all the information that's appeared on


Contact us: Columbia Magazine and are published by D'Zine, Ltd., PO Box 906, Columbia, KY 42728.
Phone: 270.403.0017

Please use our contact page, or send questions about technical issues with this site to All logos and trademarks used on this site are property of their respective owners. All comments remain the property and responsibility of their posters, all articles and photos remain the property of their creators, and all the rest is copyright 1995-Present by Columbia! Magazine and D'Zine, Ltd. Privacy policy: use of this site requires no sharing of information. Voluntarily shared information may be published and made available to the public on this site and/or stored electronically. Anonymous submissions will be subject to additional verification. Cookies are not required to use our site. However, if you have cookies enabled in your web browser, some of our advertisers may use cookies for interest-based advertising across multiple domains. For more information about third-party advertising, visit the NAI web privacy site.