Andy Catlett, Philip Vickers Fithian, and Place

This morning I finished Wendell Berry’s Andy Catlett: Early Travels. (You can read my previous post on this novel here). It is a short, moving and simple story of a nine-year old boy developing an affection for a place that will last throughout his lifetime. (By mere coincidence, the novel ends on New Years Day, 1943).

What I love about Berry is how he completely inverts the common narrative of how a young boy “comes of age” in America. If you are looking for a Ben Franklin or Horatio Alger “coming of age” story here, you will not find it. How refreshing!

When Andy Catlett “travels” (ten miles by bus) he goes from his parents’ house in Hargrave (which Berry describes as a town “with the modern ambition to be what it was not”) to Port William. Andy does not “find himself,” like Benjamin Franklin did when he left Puritan Boston for Philadelphia, in a big city filled with opportunities and possibilities. Instead, he “finds himself” in the context of a place–a community with no real “prospects,” but a community nonetheless. Andy “comes of age” in a place that, by the standards of modern progress, is on the way out. There is no future in Port William. But rather than rejecting the limits that such a rural and agricultural town places on his life, Andy embraces those limits and finds real happiness in Port William. This is a place in which he can invest himself.

As I read Andy Catlett, I could not help but think about the eighteenth-century “coming of age” of Philip Vickers Fithian. Though Fithian was a bit more ambitious than young Andy, he also maintained a deep connection to his “beloved Cohansie,” the small Delaware Bay communities nestled along the Cohansey River in what today is Cumberland County, New Jersey.

Here are a few passages from The Way of Improvement Leads Home:

Philip Vickers Fithian loved springtime on the Cohansey. As winter bid its farewell to the village along the river, Philip rejoiced in the morning sounds of birds keeping “a continual round of engaging music.” His soul was refreshed by the “feathery choir” of the bluebirds singing their “melody to God of nature on account of the approaching spring.” Even the frogs on the riverbank caught his attention as they filled the evening air “with their shrill and deafening voices.” From his bedchamber window Philip could see peach, apple, and cherry trees coming to life on his family’s farm. “The Spring now displays its gaiety and exalted grandeur in bloom and pride,” he wrote in May 1767; “the Apple and the Cherry trees are in the extremity of their glory, and the Trees of the wood, arraying themselves in green.” Delaware Bay’s southwesterly breezes felt fresh and warm. Indeed, spring was the time of year when Philip reflected most intently on the virtues of home.

The writer Wallace Stegner once said that “no place, not even a wild place, is a place until it has had a poet. Philip Vickers Fithian was Cohansey’s poet. He was a patriot it he classical Greek sense of the word–a lover of his terra patria, his native land.

As he grew in intellect and learning and, as we will see, was exposed to a kind of life outside of Cohansey that few of his neighbors and none of his ancestors had ever experienced, the beckoning of home would become that much greater. As a child of the Enlightenment and one of the region’s first native-born college graduates, Philip could have easily transcended–culturally, geographically, intellectually–Cohansey’s warm confines. However, he also knew that his pursuit of self-betterment was held in check by what Karl Marx would later describe as “the circumstances directly encountered, given, and transmitted from the past.” In an eighteenth-century world where young people started to believe that self-improvement was possible, Philip realized that the limits imposed by the past anchored him and had just as much impact on who he was and what he would become as did the optimism of the Enlightenment stream from which he would drink so deeply.