Hannah Coulter Human Condition Essay

This novel portrays a countercultural way of life that never loses its appeal when contrasted with the world’s alternatives. Nathan Coulter, after witnessing the atrocities of World War II, returns home to Port William, Kentucky, a small farming community where he vows to earn his livelihood, raise a family, and do the work he loves. He compares the tragic destruction and wanton killing of war to the abiding love of family and neighbor in a small-scale farming life committed to the preservation of civilized traditions, the bonds of extended families united in a common history, and the culture of a simple domestic life as opposed to the accumulation of wealth and social mobility: “And this place, more than all the places he had seen in his absence, was what he wanted. It was what he had learned to want in the midst of killing and dying, terror, cruelty, hate, hunger, thirst, and fire.” Hannah, the woman Nathan marries, also shares his ideals and values. Hannah observes that just as Nathan was located “where he wanted to be,” she too considers herself a member of Port William for life. The families in Port William have no aspirations of financial prosperity, affluent lives of sophistication and travel, or worldly honors: “Members of Port William aren’t trying to ‘get someplace.’ They think they are someplace.” The story affirms the home as the center of civilization.

Committed to their vows of indissoluble marriage and a home of stability and permanence, Hannah and Nathan resolve to establish a place of hospitality and charity in the world and to create in their hearts “a kind of life that is the opposite of war.” Purchasing a neglected old farm in need of many repairs that resembles “the house of a lonely old widow after her funeral,” the Coulters rely on each other’s mutual love to build their humble lives into a loving family and the culture of a home: “When a man and woman give themselves to each other, they have a light between them that nobody but them can see.” Nathan and Hannah do not mind the hard work and long days “as long as we could be together.” They do not view their simple abode as a first home to be outgrown in later years when they can afford a more commodious, elegant place. The Coulters abandon the idea that “there is a better place somewhere else.”

They compare their home to putting their feet into familiar, comfortable shoes. As the couple looks back over the years they have invested in their home, farm, and family, they see abundance, fruitfulness, and a rich harvest of human happiness. Hannah reflects, “Love in this world doesn’t come out of thin air. It is not something thought up. Like ourselves, it grows out of the ground. It has a body and a place.” The Coulters marvel at the oneness of their love and relish the fondest memories: “And I remember especially how much we belonged to each other then, how complete we seemed with our fire and our meal, what a unit we were, and the pleasure of it.” All this fulfillment and contentment they feel take time, effort, dedication, and an investment of their lives in the values they cherish, preserve, and wish to perpetuate. Nathan and Hannah with other farming families in Port William participated in a common life they called “the membership,” a bond of friendship and loyalty among families bound by affection a sense of solidarity. Farmers exchanged work and never accepted wages for labor given or received: “There was no bookkeeping, no accounting, no settling up. What you owed was considered paid when you had done what needed doing.” This culture of the home, the love of place and land, and the long, deep friendships that united the community of Port William instilled in Hannah and Nathan a great sense of life’s blessings and the goodness of the Lord.

As they enter middle and old age, they discover that the traditions and heritage they love do not easily continue into the next generation. Their children do not wish to continue the story of their parents, belong to the “membership,” or earn their livelihoods on the land. Unlike their parents who gratefully accepted their lot as a valuable legacy, the new generation feels the urge of career, wealth, and social mobility. While Hannah learned to find contentment in her simple life and modest standard of living, her children have ambitions that divert them from the culture of the home and place bequeathed to them. They do not take comfort in Hannah’s wisdom: “What would it have been to have had a different life with a different man? You will never know. That makes the world forever a mystery, and you will have to be content for it to be that way.” Instead the Coulter children imagine their futures as a search for a better place and a more prestigious career. Restless, they decide to “move on” and to “move up” with the benefit of higher education to find a better life and a newer place. The Coulter children, who do not quite grasp Hannah’s wisdom when she says “The chance you had is the life you’ve got,” begin to inhabit a different world and culture than the one they inherited.

Their daughter Margaret is not coming come. Their two sons will not continue their father’s life of farming. Their son Mattie studies electric engineering and communications technology and moves to the West Coast. Hannah feels forgotten (“we were left behind”) and unimportant because he calls only occasionally and rarely visits. Hannah feels more and more like a stranger to her son and find finds fewer topics of conversation to share with him. Her grandchildren—playing video games and watching television—show no interest in any aspect of the farm and feel no excitement about seeing a new calf, fishing in the pond, or discovering a hawk’s nest: “They don’t know the things that I and their daddy have known since before we knew anything.” Even though their son Caleb once expressed a desire to follow in his father’s footsteps, study agriculture in college, and then return home, his life at the university engages him in research projects and makes him reconsider his future, especially when he hears compliments like “Caleb, you’re too bright to be a farmer” and “Caleb, there’s no future for you in farming.” Finally Caleb announces his plans after graduation. He will not return home to the farm because “I’ve been offered a scholarship to a graduate school.” Heartbroken, Hannah and Nathan lament, “And so they were gone, all three. And so they still are gone.”

From Hannah and Nathan’s perspective, what Caleb gains in his new career of professor does not compensate for his loss. Nathan and the men who belonged to the “membership” never saw themselves as “employees” under a “boss.” They relished their life of independence and self-reliance: “Freedom, to him, was being free of being bossed and of being a boss.” Instead of joining the membership of farmers who exchange work, Caleb is belonging to “the world of organization,” a situation that is “a life of beginnings without memories” and “a life that ends without being remembered.” Hannah and Nathan foresee the future of their children as employees reaching retirement age and being “cast out of place and out of mind like worn-out replaceable parts, to be alone at the last maybe and soon forgotten.” The Coulters’ son-in-law Marcus also disappoints them and their daughter Margaret with his decision to divorce his wife for the sake of “fulfillment” and freedom. Unlike Hannah and Nathan he is not serious about his vows, commitments, and responsibilities that demand a lifetime of fidelity. So Hannah grieves over a beautiful way of life she and Nathan lived that they cannot transmit to the next generation—a way of life she sees dying except for a few exceptions like Danny and Lyda.

On the other hand, Danny and Lyda Branch never felt unqualified or uneducated because they never received college degrees because of “the education they got outside of school”—how to manage a household, raise crops and vegetables, care for animals and livestock, tame horses and mules, hunt and fish, and know the arts of beekeeping, cooking, and preserving. Unseduced by the promises of higher education and the American Dream of rags to riches, Danny and Lyda lived “a sort of futureless life” without anxieties about the future: “They aren’t going any place, they aren’t getting ready to become anything but what they are, and so their lives are not fretful and hankering.” The Branches never felt guilty about not being able to provide college educations for their children. The people of Port William in Hannah’s generation never suffered this modern malaise, the by-product of “the big idea of education” which always promises “the idea of a better place. The Coulters lament the fact that the generation of their children will have no memories of the good old times to relive and relish as they recollect a lifetime of experience.

Nevertheless, because Nathan and Hannah lived in tune with Mother Nature’s wisdom and God’s laws, the wisdom they gained does not just fade or die because of the inevitable changes in society or technology or the latest temptations of the world. Although wars, suffering, and injustices always mark the human condition, something permanent and eternal lingers to draw the heart and soul to the innermost goodness that dwells at the center of reality. Hannah’s grandson Virgie, a young man without purpose, direction, and meaning to his life, returns to Port William with a determination to recapture a lost way of life inspired by the example of his grandparents: “I want to be here. It’s the only thing I really want to do. I found that out.” It all makes perfect sense to Hannah: “When you have gone too far, as I think he did, the only mending is to go home.” Modernity has gone too too far in exaggerating career over family, in glorifying freedom at too great a cost, in glamorizing education at the expense of living and true happiness, and in clamoring for self-fulfillment without recognizing all the blessings and graces of marriage and home.

Mitchell Kalpakgian, Ph.D. has completed fifty years of teaching beginning as a teaching assistant at the University of Kansas, continuing as a professor of English at Simpson College in Iowa for thirty-one years, and recently teaching part-time at various schools and college in New Hampshire. As well as contributing to a number of publications, he has published seven books: The Marvelous in Fielding’s Novels, The Mysteries of Life in Children’s Literature, The Lost Arts of Modern Civilization, An Armenian Family Reunion (a collection of short stories), Modern Manners: The Poetry of Conduct and The Virtue of Civility, and The Virtues We Need Again. He has designed homeschooling literature courses for Seton Home School, and he also teaches online courses for Queen of Heaven Academy and part-time for Northeast Catholic College.

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.

Leaving 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.

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.

Tagged asHannah Coulter (2004), Wendell Berry

By Mitchell Kalpakgian

Dr. Mitchell A. Kalpakgian is 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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