It’s been out only a month, but Brad Kessler’s new memoir is set to go into a second printing. Quite an impressive achievement for any author—and even more striking since Kessler’s book is essentially an elegy to goats.
This past year Brad Kessler FAAR’09 has been the recipient of the John Guare Writer’s Fund Rome Prize, a gift of Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman. It was at the American Academy that he completed Goat Song: A Seasonal Life, a Short History of Herding, and the Art of Making Cheese (Scribner). He also is the author of the novel Birds in Fall (Scribner), winner of the 2007 Dayton Literary Peace Prize. Goat Song, writes Kessler, is “a story about what it’s like to live with animals who directly feed you. I tell of cheese and culture and agriculture, but also of the rediscovery of a pastoral life.”
The saga really starts in New York’s East Village, where Brad Kessler and his wife, the photographer Dona Ann McAdams, were living in a rent-controlled apartment. Kessler was writing fiction and teaching creative writing at the New School. But they never felt at home in Manhattan, especially after renting a farmhouse in rural West Virginia.
Well, that rural retreat burned to the ground. Kessler and McAdams then set their eyes on Vermont, and after five years found a (quite dilapidated) eighteenth century white farmhouse on 75 mostly wooded acres. A decade after moving there, Kessler and McAdams took the plunge and began to raise goats.
Hannah (pictured above with Brad Kessler), Lizzie, Nisa and Pie were the original brood. In time, the operation expands to nine goats, eight kids, and a license to manufacture goat cheese. In Goat Song, Kessler combines lyrical journal entries about the routine motions of herding, milking and cheesemaking with a larger meditation on the culture of pastoralism, and its impact on aspects of the human experience “from our alphabet to our diet to elements of our economy and poetry.”
Indeed, “one of the major themes in the book”, Kessler told the SOF Weblog, “concerns itself with pastoral poetry and song. So finishing up the book in Italy felt like a full circle, as literary pastoral poetry is said to have its origins in Sicily, with Theocritus’ Idylls. Three hundred years later, Virgil reconfigured Theocritus’ original with his Eclogues. Goat Song is my own eclogue, written in Vermont, but finalized in Rome.”
The early press reviews—there have been a lot of them—have been stellar. “Fascinating…magical” (The Economist). “Sensuous and reverent’ (Minneapolis Star Tribune). “Mouthwatering…delicious” (Los Angeles Times). “Elegant and affectionate” (Times Literary Supplement). “Bounteous…transcendent” (Salon).
“Having goats is like having a flock of dogs”, Kessler recently told Salon. “They each have their individual personality. We walk our goats up in the woods just about every day and they follow, they come, they know their names when they want to. If they’re in a good mood or you’ve done something to ingratiate yourself with them they’ll lick you on the cheek. If they’re mad at you they’ll just ignore you. They’re very companionable.”
And in Goat Song, there’s more to making cheese than meets the eye. “Making an aged cheese that takes a long time to reach its perfection is somewhat like the process of writing a novel. You need raw material, you spend a lot of time with it, then you leave it and you go back to it. It has to age and refine itself. Not to stretch the metaphor to the breaking point; there’s a similarity to the crafts, but that only goes so far.”