When Harlan Hubbard and his wife, Anna, set themselves adrift on the Ohio in late 1946 in a homemade shantyboat, they began not only a five-year river adventure but a way of life together that was as distinctive as it was unmodern. In his memoir of that trip, Shantyboat: A River Way of Life, first published in 1953, Hubbard wrote: “I had no theories to prove. I merely wanted to try living by my own hands, independent as far as possible from a system of divison of labor in which the participant loses most of the pleasure of making and growing things for himself . . . I wanted to do as much as I could for myself, because I had already realized from partial experience the inexpressible joy of so doing.”

Born in 1900 in Bellevue, Kentucky, Hubbard grew up there and then in New York City, in the years after his father died, returning to his home state to work as an odd-jobs man and a day laborer. His free time went to music, his journal, canoe trips and especially painting, though he was unable to make anything of a success at it, and in general he would have been counted by most of the world as an unsuccessful man when at the age of 43 he married Anna Eikenhout, herself 41, a librarian at the Cincinnati Public Library. It was she, a city girl, who suggested they start on his much-dreamed-of trip by shantyboat. They lived by barter, gardening, fishing, and foraging on their way down the Ohio, and when they met up with a mystified census taker on a Louisiana bayou in 1950, it was with guilt that Hubbard let the man believe his own suggestion of a yearly income of $500. “How many years was it since I had sold that picture for seventy-five dollars?” Hubbard records himself as thinking. But already the simplicity of their life together was unclassifiable.

Their subsequent trip along the Intracoastal Waterway in Louisiana is chronicled in Shantyboat on the Bayous, an unpublished manuscript Hubbard left on his death in 1986 that the University Press of Kentucky has just published. It takes up where Shantyboat left off in New Odeans and tells more stories of traveling, and like Shantyboat is made up of a wealth of details about daily living and people met, with an occasional striking and moving passage that conveys the depth of feeling of this very reserved man. (Hubbard’s best known book is the story of his and Anna’s later years in Kentucky, where they settled in a house they built themselves: Payne Hollow, published in 1974 when the back-to-the-land movement had caught up with them.)

Wendell Berry has written part biography, part appreciation for a man he came to know in July 1964, when on a canoe trip Berry literally stumbled upon the Hubbards’ home. Also a Kentuckian, perhaps as well-known for his conservation work as for his poetry, Berry is as interested as Hubbard was in living a good life, not just describing it on the page, and he is as conscious as Hubbard that “No accomplishment can offset bad living.” For a man who has left so much autobiographical material the job is to fill in the blank spots and clarify, which Berry has done very well. Citing the above aphorism. Berry points out with perfect understanding that “It is this belief, and not his dwelling place or way of life, that identifies Harlan as unmodern.”

Yet it is the unfashionableness of the Hubbards’ life—without electricity and for many years without running water, as much as possible without cash money, which Hubbard disliked; a life they maintained together despite the fact that the grain of their society ran the other way, and despite their friends’ well-meaning arguments in favor of, say, some labor-saving tool such as a power saw—that makes Hubbard’s books such a pleasure to read. He understood clearly what most of us register dimly as irritation at our fax machine or telephone: that laborsaving devices eat up our time, first by their expense, then by their insistence on being accommodated now, or fixed, and finally by their invasion (like the telephone) of our privacy. Harlan Hubbard did not much like his little inboard motor, made necessary by the still water of the bayous, because he felt a slave to it, and he was exactly right.

One of Berry’s very good discussions of Hubbard’s thinking concerns his faith, for in places he sounds Christian, in others anti-Christian. Pointing to one passage in which Hubbard celebrates the coming afterlife, of which he seems so sure, and then to another in which he welcomes the coming nothingness, of which he also seems certain, Berry writes, “The two assertions are inconsistent with each other, but they are not, taken together, inconsistent with the life of faith in this world”—a piece of profound common sense that characterizes all of his comments on Hubbard.

Hubbard has often been compared to Thoreau—whom he in fact admired greatly and read with care—and here again Berry has put his finger on the differences: Hubbard’s is a much plainer style, much homier and much more concerned with daily living. But the greatest difference, as Berry points out, is that “whereas Thoreau went into the woods for two years, the Hubbards went for more than forty.” Nor were they interested in Thoreau’s brand of Yankee asceticism. Their diet was more varied than, probably, yours and mine; they played daily their much-loved Bach and Brahms; they read French and German and a wide variety of books. While living an isolated life they were not hermits; on the bayou trip they mailed one December 175 Christmas cards from Patterson, Louisiana. They did not seek poverty or, like a more modern variety of Thoreau-follower, think that the sole way to live in harmony with the natural world around us is to take only pictures and leave only footprints. What they were interested in was self-sufficiency and the independence of mind which comes with it—that more than anything.

Hubbard thought at one time of naming his shantyboat “Multo in Parvo”—”much in little.” It would have been a good name for a boat so cannily compact as theirs: they carried canned food, clothing, and other necessities, plus painting supplies, books, even a cello, a viola, and a violin, all stored out of sight and safe away. Much in littie is also a phrase that could describe their life. Berry is careful not to idealize the Hubbards: they were not always happy, and their way of living was not without discomfort and trouble and its share of danger. “One never knows, and must always be alert,” Hubbard wrote of shantyboat life and the constant necessity of watching the weather and water; and it was a sharp disappointment to him that his painting was never recognized. But he and Anna were, apparentiy, largely content, and happy in the classical sense. We should all be so lucky.


[Harlan Hubbard: Life and Work, by Wendell Berry (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky) 108 pp., $23.00]


[Shantyboat on the Bayous, by Harlan Hubbard (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky) 141 pp., $19.95]