On Wendell Berry’s Hannah Coulter

A poignant novel told from the point of view of a widowed young wife who lived during the Depression and World War II, lost both her parents at a young age, endured the great loneliness of loss, enjoyed a brief marriage until she lost her husband in the war, Hannah Coulter portrays the goodness and beauty of a traditional way of life that has become foreign in modernity. Recovering slowly and eventually remarrying, Hannah begins a new life with her husband Nathan, raises a family on a modest farm that demanded great labor from both husband and wife, and learns that love is stronger than death no matter the tragic nature of the human condition. Hannah Coulter spans the life of the main character from the time of her childhood to old age lived in Port William, Kentucky—a close-knit farming community where love of neighbor, charity, and kindness create a human culture centered in the bonds of lasting, endearing human relationships. The novel is not a mere chronology of events but a testimony to a way of life committed to the love of place, of the land, of family, and of the enduring human values that make life rich and abundant, not in material wealth or resources, but in the fullness of joy and love that overflows from the goodness of human hearts.

In her childhood Hannah suffered the loss of her mother at age twelve, experienced an unhappy life with a stepmother who “lived up to the bad reputation of stepmothers,” and turned to her grandmother (“Grandmam”) for comfort and love—a woman to whom she was profoundly indebted for teaching her all the valuable virtues of hard work that served her for a lifetime: “And I learned all the skills she knew, which turned out to be all the things I would need to know after I married Nathan in 1948.” Grandmam taught Hannah to work in the kitchen, in the dairy, in the vegetable garden, and with the animals, instilling in her granddaughter not only frugality and industriousness but also a value for education: “You’ve got to learn your books … You’ve got to keep at your studies.” Hannah understood and learned right from wrong at an early age from a beloved teacher.

Berry CoverLeaving home and working as a secretary, Hannah again confronts the void of loneliness in a new town where she lives with an acquaintance of Grandmam. However, soon she is courted by the lawyer (Virgil Feltner) for whom she works as secretary and then marries. As they plan their marriage and think of building a home, Virgil is summoned for duty in the war as Hannah lives with his parents until his return. Living in this period of anxious waiting, “a time between times, almost a no-time,” Hannah and the Feltners hear the dreaded news of Virgil “missing” in action. Once again Hannah suffers the weight of intolerable grief: “Perhaps, possibly, very likely, I was a widow with child by a man now dead, and this child of my love living inside me had become half an orphan before it could be born.” Even as a young wife Hannah learns wisdom from her many sorrows, reflecting “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, or most in the dark, but shining out at times like gold stitches in a piece of embroidery.” Hannah’s baby daughter Margaret and Virgil’s parents console her during this heartbreaking period in her life.

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Hannah ponders the human condition and sees her life as a room or a heart with many doors. Some people enter the room but leave shortly like her husband Virgil killed in war; some come in and stay a long time like her second husband Nathan; some come, stay, and die like her parents but still remain though physically absent. Hannah wonders at all the people who have entered this room of love—her heart. She marvels at the great multitude of all who have blessed her with their love in its many forms. This keen awareness of love’s reality in the midst of tragedy helps her overcome the inconsolable sorrow that afflicts her to the point where she utters “I thought I could cry forever.” Hannah’s baby girl was entering this room of love with its many doors: “The living can’t quit living because the world has turned terrible and people they need and love are killed…. The light that shines in darkness and never goes out calls them back again into the great room.” Hannah’s grandmother, Virgil’s parents, her child, and second husband Nathan bring this light into the darkness of her room.

Blessed to live in a small farming community with deep roots in the land and long family histories, Hannah experiences the strong bonds of extended families unsparing in the works of mercy that charity performs. She observes, “In Port William, back then, nobody was exactly nothing to anybody.” Because of the neighborliness and charity of the farming families in which everyone knows something about everybody and people are noticed and valued, Nathan Coulter, a veteran of the war who lost a brother in combat, and Hannah do take notice of each other: “As just as slowly as he became a presence to me, I became aware that I was present to him.” Fearing change, feeling disloyal to her first husband, and appreciative of the kindness of Virgil’s parents in whose home she and her daughter have lived (“Mr. and Mrs. Feltner had been parents and friends to me, a refuge in time of trouble”), Hannah nevertheless feels she is “going to waste” and senses that a new person had entered the room of love: “It was my life calling me to myself. It was the light shining in darkness calling me back into time.” The Feltners too sense Hannah’s deepest needs and longings: “But, my good girl, you’ve got to live.”

In their marriage Hannah embraces the outlook on life Nathan formed from his encounter with the sordid realities of war. Discovering a love of home, family, place, and land, he resolves to live and settle in Port William for a lifetime. Unlike the secular culture at large, the inhabitants of Port William do not follow the way of the world. They do not aspire to rise socially or economically, to win fame or status, or to climb some corporate ladder. They were not striving to “get someplace” because “they think they are someplace.” Hannah and Nathan vow to build a life of love amid the tragedies of war, an enduring love for a lifetime in the midst of all the erratic vicissitudes of fortune and politics. They believe that “there can be places in this world, and in human hearts too, that are opposite to war. There is a kind of life that is opposite to war, so far as this world allows it to be.” For them this place and this life begin with an old home with all the marks of neglect—grass not mowed for a year and no pathway to the door of the house, broken windows and peeling wallpaper, and barns in need of repair. To Hannah and Nathan this humble place is not a “starter home” to be outgrown and sold in a few years but a lifetime investment. Nathan often reflects, “Most people now are looking for ‘a better place,’ which means that a lot of them will end up in a worse one.” Hannah too embraces this ideal of a permanent place with deep roots, a long history, and an abode built by the work of human hands and hearts full of love: “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.”

This noble life that Hannah and Nathan created, however, is not easily continued, preserved, or transmitted to the next generation as they learn when their children mature, marry, and seek employment. The Coulters knew and proved that love originates in a physical location and signifies an association with a real place filled with a sense of belonging, memories, and bonds of affection and loyalty. They knew that a human life of happiness does not depend on big tractors, enormous debt, upward mobility, and an affluent style of living. As Hannah in retrospect surveys her life story, she laments the loss of the traditional, cherished way of life she and her husband cannot transmit to their children. While encouraging the education of their children, the Coulters underestimated the hidden temptations of modernity. They soon learn that education promises mobility, uprooting, and erratic change–“the idea of a better place somewhere else. In order to move up, you have got to move on.” Hannah and Nathan wanted to cure their children of the restlessness and dissatisfaction that modern education and the pursuit of career breed. They wanted to provide their children with an ancient wisdom that instilled a simple contentment with the humble portion of life allotted to them: “…you mustn’t wish for another life. You mustn’t want to be somebody else.” For Hannah St. Paul’s words provide the right instructions: “Rejoice evermore. Pray without ceasing. In every thing give thanks.”

To be educated in the modern world, however, alienates many graduates from their families, homes, and past. It tempts them with a worldly idea of success, burdens them with exorbitant debt that complicates their lives, and diverts them from the permanent things that bless and enrich a person’s happiness. Hannah’s fondest hopes and dreams are simple: to see her children educated and live near their parents, to know them as companions, neighbors, and friends, and to participate in the lives of her grandchildren. “But that doesn’t happen any more, and you know better than to hope too much.” Families have become strangers, have no common shared experience, and discuss no familiar topics of conversation. Grandparents have difficulty relating to the modern lives of their grandchildren who visit the farm but prefer to watch television and play video games than see a hawk’s nest or fish in the pond. Children and grandchildren who visit the Coulter farm “don’t know where they are,” and “They don’t want to k now.” The traditional life of a Kentucky farmer and the blessing of a close-knit family rooted to the land and to a harmonious way of life no longer have appeal to the younger generations who protest, “But, dad, I’m not going to stay here. I’m not going to be coming home. I’ve been offered a scholarship to a graduate school.” Somehow the younger generations have lost all interest in the stories of their parents or feel no special gratitude for the patrimony bequeathed to them, especially the stories that never give any hint of needing more chances, wishing for a better life, or hoping for a better place or home.

These eternal permanent things that older generations want to transmit to the young never actually disappear or die, however. As the world changes and Hannah and Nathan witness fragmented families, uncommitted marriages with broken vows, a loss of continuity between the generations, and young people pursuing professions that are not vocations, they see the critical difference that separates these two ways of life. The people at Port William in Hannah’s generation participated in “the world of membership” where friendship sustained and enriched everyone’s life in customs like “work-swapping with our kinfolks and friends” whereas the new generation belonged to “the world of organization” where relationships are reduced to employer and employee. To belong to a membership means that a person is remembered, cherished, and valued forever; to join an organization is “a life that ends without being remembered,” reaching old age and then realizing that a person is like “worn-out replaceable parts, to be alone at last and soon forgotten.”

The novel ends as it began—a young man, the grandson of Hannah and Nathan—realizes he needs to receive the inheritance of his family: “I want to be here and farm. It’s the only thing I really want to do.” Hannah compares him to a man lost at sea who finally reaches his country: “When you have gone too far as I think he did, the only thing is to come home.” Although the cost of education, self-aggrandizement, careerism, and modern marriage have all gone “too far,” the truth Hannah and Nathan discovered in Port William remains as steadfast, attractive, and enduring as the marriage, farm, and family that they built from humble beginnings to last for a lifetime and for future generations.


  • Mitchell Kalpakgian

    Dr. Mitchell A. Kalpakgian (1941-2018) was a native of New England, the son of Armenian immigrants. He was Professor of English at Simpson College (Iowa) for 31 years. During his academic career, Dr. Kalpakgian received many academic honors, among them the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar Fellowship (Brown University, 1981); the Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship (University of Kansas, 1985); and an award from the National Endowment for the Humanities Institute on Children’s Literature.

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