Nathan Coulter by Wendell Berry: A review

My husband read this book recently and recommended it to me. I had just featured one of Wendell Berry's poems in my Poetry Sunday post, so I decided to put it ahead of the other books in my queue and read it.

Nathan Coulter was Berry's first published book. It came out in 1960. It was also introductory to his "Port William" series which now stretches to ten books, the latest of which came out in 2012. It's a very short book, easily read in one sitting, or, as in my case, two relatively brief sittings.

The book tells the story of the coming of age of a teenager named Nathan Coulter who lives with his older brother, Tom, and his parents on a farm in Kentucky. The major crop of the small farm is tobacco. The time frame of the events described is never really made clear but it seems to be perhaps sometime in the 1930s. It's apparent that this is a very poor area and the people who live there, the Coulters and their neighbors, are just barely getting by.

The book begins and ends with a death. We learn early on that Nathan's mother is ill, but we never learn what is wrong with her. Everything is seen through Nathan's eyes and he evidently did not know. No one explained anything to him. It wasn't that kind of family.

The boys go to bed one night and during the night Nathan hears some commotion in the house and the sound of a voice that he recognizes as the doctor. He drifts back to sleep. In the morning, when the boys get up, they find their grandmother in the kitchen. She informs them, without preliminary, "Your mother is dead." Then they sit down to breakfast.

This is a family that seems short of every emotion except anger. There is no lovingkindness, no tenderness here. It is a harsh land and it breeds harsh people. The very worst thing one can do is show any weakness or any emotion.

The book describes the daily life of the growing boys as they ramble over the woods and by the streams that are part of the local environment and as they help with the production and harvesting of the family's crop of tobacco. After their mother dies, they go to live on the adjoining farm with their grandparents. Nathan gives no indication that any of this has any psychological impact on him.

During the harvest of the tobacco, the boys' father begins to cruelly taunt his older son until the son finally reaches a breaking point and attacks his father. After their fight, the boy packs a bag and leaves the family holdings with no indication as to where he is going. One is reminded of any number of examples in Nature of sons being expelled from the family group when they reach a certain age. In fact, the organization of this community seems very close to Nature, "red in tooth and claw".  

The language of Berry's novel is poetic. In fact, the book, which is really more novella than novel, reads much like an epic poem for me. A particularly bleak and depressing epic poem. The events described include cruelty to animals as well as humans and it was difficult for me to read for that reason. This is no doubt a true depiction of the kind of rural community that is the novel's setting. I grew up in a place not so very different from that and I can attest to the accuracy of its atmosphere but that doesn't make it any more pleasant or nostalgic to read. All the beauty of Berry's poetic language cannot sweeten the experience.

The language is lyrical and the descriptions of the land and of Nature make the reader feel as though she is there. The plot is simply the day to day life of a young boy growing up in the bleak rural Kentucky landscape of the 1930s. The development and exposition of the characters are nonexistent and women characters are almost entirely missing. This is a novel more about atmosphere than about character. 

My rating: 3 of 5 stars



  1. I hope that the authors and the publishers appreciate the great work you do on their behalf in reviewing these books.

    1. You are very kind, David. I love reading and reviewing the books that I read.

  2. I had no idea that Wendell Berry wrote novels, let alone ten of them. Do you think you will read more of his novels?

    1. I think it is unlikely. My reading list grows daily and it is daunting to think that I'm never going to catch up. This one did not "grab" me sufficiently to make me consider adding the sequels to my list to clutter it further!

    2. I just finished "Nathan Coulter," and I agree that the cruelty to animals was an issue for me, as well...nearly causing me to stop reading the book. The book, I felt, was just short of "dark." That said, I DO encourage you to read "Hannah Coulter!" I found it poetic, as you say, and full of pathos, but beautiful, too...and there is no cruelty that I recall. Having just now finished "Nathan," I am seeking out the meaning of the book -- I think the hardness of life is much of it....and the fallenness of Man...That we're going to be cruel, hard on one another, etc. because we are fallen people, and there's nothing we can do about it. Berry says that about 2/3 of the way through the book. And I want to read more novellas about this community.

    3. The poetry could not redeem the depiction of cruelty for me. I'm glad that I read the book, but I don't think I'll be reading more books by Berry.

  3. If you thought this book was cruel or dark, then I'd imagine you might think that about thousands of book. This book was far from being cruel or dark, in my opinion. His book Jayber Crow is the best in the Port William series, high quality writing about simple, small town life.

    1. You are entitled to your opinion. I've already expressed mine.


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