Monday, April 25, 2016

Diction, Syntax, and Community in the Writings of Wendell Berry

Diction, Syntax, and Community in the Writings of Wendell Berry
The manner in which people speak says much about them. Speech patterns can indicate everything from age to region of origin, level of education and socio-economic status to religious ideology, and much more. People’s choices of words are referred to as diction and how they order these words is known as syntax. Diction and syntax combine to give a person a unique voice. Authors utilize this fact to create literature that is incisive and lasting, and Wendell Berry is a perfect example. In his Port William writings, Berry utilizes the tools of diction and syntax in order to explore the inherent tensions in and vast opportunities of living in human community.

As a literary device, diction focuses on “the choice of words and style of expression that an author makes and uses in a work of literature” and it “can have a great effect on the tone of a piece of literature, and how readers perceive the characters” ("Diction Examples and Definition - Literary Devices"). Writers are well aware of the importance of diction. Curzan and Adams note that “(c)hoosing the right words for calculated effects is at the heart of writing” (292). Writers use the tool of diction to help create a universe for their characters to live within and for their readers to visit. Word choice is supplemented well with word order, so diction is a tool that works best with a properly focused syntax. The denotative meaning of words is essentially stagnant and limited, but the connotative meaning can be manifold. Syntax plays an important role in that helpful ambiguity. Berry is a superb example of a novelist who makes the most use of variations in speech patterns, especially in his Port William writings. Port William is a community of Berry’s creation, and through his novels and short stories, Berry guides his audience through a century’s worth of happenings and characters from this small, refreshingly unremarkable, Kentucky town. Scott Slovic notes that, “Berry's writing…is strikingly unflamboyant and unelaborate” (116). Berry perfectly conveys the simplicity of Port William through his use of language. That is not to say that Berry’s writing is flat, lacking nuance, or single-layered. Variety in diction and syntax helps Berry to fashion a world that is authentic in regards to types of people as well as its positioning in both time and space. Short stories “The Lost Bet” and “The Dark Country” along with the novel Jayber Crow cover seventy-five years of this history. Berry’s use of language is crucial to the effectiveness of these tales. Whether it is to create third-person narrators who are not only omniscient but also timeless (as in “The Lost Bet” and “The Dark Country”) or to fashion time-specific, region-specific, ethos-specific characters that confront, challenge, and develop the protagonist and the reader, Wendell Berry masterfully uses the form and structure of language to illustrate the difficulties and blessings of communing with others, “a community that extends through time in spite of death” (Laytham 173).
Berry uses diction and syntax to accomplish much. One of the effects of his use of language is the way he distinguishes his characters one from the other, and gives background and context to them simply through their manners of speech. His character Jayber narrates a memory of being accosted by a drunk that illustrates this well:
But he didn’t go away. He pecked on the front window, put his face close to the glass, and reviled me. He called me a “clabber-headed stray,” an “orphan three days shy of a bastard,” a “damned low-down hair barber” —and meaner names. This delighted the several big boys who were passing the time with me that evening, but it did not put more joy into my life. And then the next morning here came Fee the first thing, easing his head in through the door as though expecting me to cut it off with my razor. He had overnight achieved that state of sobriety in which, racked by pain and sorrow, he wished to be unconscious or perhaps dead. When he finally looked up at me his little red eyes filled with tears. “Jayber,” he said, “Could you forgive an old son of a bitch?” “I could,” I said. “Yes, I can. I do (7-8).
Berry’s choice of words for his characters clearly distinguishes Jayber from the drunk man. Jayber narrates the event with a calmness and clarity displayed by his use of language. What is of interest as well is that Fee’s speech is still distinct from Jayber’s after the incident. He asks with a heartfelt simplicity, “Could you forgive an old son of a bitch?” and Jayber responds eloquently, “I could…Yes, I can. I do.” Beyond revealing the manner in which a drunk man attacks his enemy, Berry gives Jayber a timeless voice ringing with the wisdom of hindsight.
            Berry’s short story, “The Dark Country,” also makes these socio-economic distinctions between characters, even if the differences are between lower-class and upper lower-class. The main character, Tol, approaches a clerk at a store to make a purchase. While there is much more to the conversation than what appears on the surface, it is linguistically interesting due to the sharp class-distinctions that exist between the two men and can be inferred by each one’s manner of speech. Tol begins,
"Two bushel of navy beans, if you go' em, please sir."
"I don't customarily sell them by the bushel, Timothy," the proprietor said, "but I believe I can let you have them."
"I'd be mighty obliged," said Tol (142).
Berry chooses to have his protagonist speak in a base manner and the “proprietor,” whom Tol is in conflict with, speak at a much more proper level. Beyond providing background on the characters, this use of language encourages the reader to view Tol as the underdog and, especially in the context, root for the pretentious shopkeeper to get his comeuppance. This interaction also highlights a quality of Berry’s writing. The characters are distinguished from each other, but even the loftiest of characters still exhibit speech patterns that set them in a particular region and timeframe-except for the narrator. Berry’s narrator is characterized by a Standard and erudite English that, especially in the context of his characters, gives him an aura of timelessness to go with his omniscience. Leading in to the previous exchange, the narrator sets the scene as such: "Tol's eyes were set under bristly brows, and were much wrinkled at the corners. Mostly there was great candor in them; you could look through them right into his mind” (142). The loftiness of the speech is a stark contrast to the shopkeeper and Tol.
These socioeconomic distinctions are seen in “The Lost Bet” as well, along with the transcendent voice of the narrator. From the very beginning, the narrator has voice distinct from the characters: “Burley Coulter is bone-tired, thirsty, hungry, lost, and entirely happy. He has his worries and his griefs, but for the time being they are not on his mind, nor is his workaday life. All that is eight or ten hours behind him, a long time yet ahead of him, and a world away” (“The Dark Country” location 257). Berry uses specific words and a specific ordering that simultaneously creates the character of Burley and the narrator in the minds of the reader. Berry builds a list of negative modifiers (“bone-tired, thirsty, hungry, lost”) to a crescendo of a superlative positive (“and entirely happy”). This contrast encourages the reader to realize that, although many of the townspeople are plain spoken, simple, and prone to error, the narrator is wise and worthy of trust. He can to tell the reader what is “eight or ten hours behind” Burley and “a long time yet ahead of him, and a world away.”
However, this narrator is not merely beyond the people of Port William. He is also intricately invested in the lives of the people being reported upon, and at times, while his language remains distinct from that of the characters, it does become a bit more like theirs.
Burley got up and brushed off his knees. He set off slowly down the branch. The dogs had gone that way, it was downhill, and one direction was as good as another. He took his time, listening and looking about, breathing and savoring the rich air. Because he was in no hurry, because any direction was as good as another, because it was a good place without a wrong turn anywhere, every breath brought smells that he sorted and recognized, that brought the country into him.(Location 264)
All of these traits are displayed in an interesting fashion when Berry utilizes a first person narration, as he does in Jayber Crow. Jayber’s omniscience is one of hindsight. His immanence is due to the fact that he is narrating his own life but with the transcendent tone of one who is removed from the action by the very fact that it has all come to pass. These characteristics are richly displayed by Berry’s choice and use of words:
The barber I patronized was a large, clumsy man named Violet Greatlow, whose shop was in the living room of an old brick farmhouse on the edge of town. Violet had married past middle age a woman as large in girth though not so tall as himself, and the floor of the shop was always strewn with the fruit of his loins and various playthings. Violet was always saying, “Honey, sweetheart, watch out of the way now so Daddy don’t tramp on your little laigs.” I enjoyed the homey atmosphere, and I found Violet a source of endless wonder and delight. I never told him I was a fellow barber, and if he knew he never said so. He wasn’t much of a listener, not a great payer of attention to things outside his head (168).
The voice of Jayber is incredibly distinct from that of Violet. In fact, this is true of everyone Jayber encounters. Berry has been criticized for giving such an erudite voice to a virtually uneducated orphan-turned-barber, but the criticisms are without merit. Ignoring the fact that there is no reason to hold to a prejudice that precludes elevation without formal education, Berry’s purpose in giving Jayber the voice that he does is to vest him with a timeless wisdom that transcends his temporal bounds but to do so in a way that keeps Jayber immanently involved in the lives of the people that surround him. That Berry does perfectly.
Words can often convey more than what the words simply mean. The choice of words tells much about a person. Y’all, you guys, and all of you convey the same basic meaning, but each term has hidden inside in itself a treasure of meaning and information. The words an author chooses to put into the mouths of his or her characters, and the manner in which these words are arranged, reveal more about the characters than pages and pages of biographical data ever could. Beyond revealing truths about the characters, diction and syntax unveil the context of the character’s lives and the setting of the drama that will unfold. Wendell Berry’s Port William writings are a perfect example of this. Berry uses diction and syntax to create characters and a world that at the same time feel common and unique, fantasy and reality. John Leax notes that, “(t)o encounter Port William is to encounter murder, infidelity, waywardness, sloth, and greed. It is also to encounter love, mercy, faithfulness, forgiveness, and redemption. It is a community that is changing, constantly coming into being as it is remembered and narrated” (67). Above all, Port William is a community, and Wendell Berry invites the reader to simultaneously enjoy a trip to a foreign land and a trip home. The community (in every sense of the word) of Port William that Berry creates is the reason that so many return to his words so often.
Works Cited
Berry, Wendell. Jayber Crow: A Novel. Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 2000. Print.
---. “The Dark Country.” A Place in Time. Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 2001. Kindle Locations 254-290. Kindle AZW file.
---. “The Lost Bet.” That Distant Land: The Collected Stories. Washington, D.C.: Shoemaker & Hoard, 2004. 137-144. Print.
Curzan, Anne, and Michael Adams. How English Works: A Linguistic Introduction. New York: Pearson/Longman, 2006. Print.
"Diction Examples and Definition - Literary Devices." Literary Devices. 2014. Web. 10 Apr. 2016.
Leax, John. “Memory and Hope in the World of Port William.” Wendell Berry: Life and Work (Culture of the Land). Ed. Jason Peters. U of Kentucky, 2007. 66-75. Print.

Slovic, Scott. Seeking Awareness in American Nature Writing: Henry Thoreau, Annie Dillard, Edward Abbey, Wendell Berry, Barry Lopez. Salt Lake City: U of Utah, 1992. Print.