Wendell Berry's essay "The Poetry of William Carlos Williams of Rutherford" in the winter issue of the Sewanee Review left me feeling let down. Berry at the end swerves to a discussion of the loss of "authentic local speech." In his essay, he portrays Williams as a poet of local speech, who based his work on the community of Rutherford. Berry builds his case well, to a point, but doesn't reach a satisfying conclusion before tacking on his coda about the loss of local dialects, and "also of a perhaps indispensable knowledge, propriety and sensitivity." I had a feeling of disloctaion at Berry's sudden switching of tracks, as if the first part of the essay had just been an enticement to a totally different message.
In the essay, Berry compares Williams to William Faulkner, saying that Faulkner, like Williams, was fated to write about the community in which he was born. They both were haunted by place, and crearted their special language to give witness to local history, culture and passions. Berry, though, doesn't consider how critical Faulkner was of his Mississippi home, its tragic prejudices and ignorance.He also contrasts Williams and Faulkner to a writer like Hemingway, who left home and wrote about the expatriate life in Europe. Of course, Berry is right about Hemingway, but I'll point out that some of Hemingway's most enduring work are his locally based Nick Adams stories, which I still love.
While Berry's nostalgia for local speech has validity, he romanticizes the local, embuing it with a presumed wisdom and care for the land. However, the insular and small-town South through the Depression was known for overplanting and ruining local land. Its communities were crippled by prejudice, violence and hostility for fresh ideas, as Faulkner shows. Disease and ignorance were widespread. Berry doesn't mention Flannery O'Connor, perhaps because her work, while vibrant in local dialect, shows the ruin of this stunted culture. Despite the emergence of local artists such as Faulkner and the Carter family, the local communties were more marked by inarticulateness than poetry, myth and music. Despite Berry's championing of local virtue, the achievement of the Carter family and Faulkner was the result of outside influences and education interacting with local customs and ways of living. Some of the best-known Carter songs were actually not local folk music, but Tin Pan alley works that had slowly come to the mountains. And Faulkner's work was enriched by his interaction with cosmopolitan influences.
Berry is right that value is lost when local language disappears under the influence of mass media and culture. Yet, the local communities of the past also imposed a loss of freedom and creativity on their inhabitants. And, local language was as impoverished as the land and economic opportunities. We should strive to recover what was valuable and enduring in local language and culture, but not over-romanticize the past.