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Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry: Life and Work

Edited by Jason Peters
Copyright Date: 2007
Pages: 368
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  • Book Info
    Wendell Berry
    Book Description:

    Essayist, social critic, poet, "mad farmer," novelist, teacher, and prophet: Wendell Berry has been called many things, but the broad sweep of his contemporary relevance and influence defies facile labels. With his unique perspective and far-reaching vision, Berry poses complex questions about humankind and our relationship to the land and offers simple but profound solutions. Berry's essays, novels, and poems give voice to a provocative but consistent philosophy, one that extends far beyond its agrarian core to include elements of sociology, the natural sciences, politics, religion, philosophy, linguistics, agriculture, and other seemingly incompatible fields of study. Wendell Berry: Life and Work examines this wise and original thinker, appraising his written work and exploring his influence as an activist and artist. Jason Peters has assembled a broad variety of writers including Hayden Carruth, Sven Birkerts, Barbara Kingsolver, Stanley Hauerwas, Donald Hall, Ed McClanahan, Bill McKibben, Scott Russell Sanders, Norman Wirzba, Wes Jackson, and Eric T. Freyfogle. Each contributor examines an aspect of Berry's varied yet cohesive body of work. Also included are highly personal glimpses of Wendell Berry: his career, academic influence, and unconventional lifestyle. These deft sketches of Berry show the purity of his agrarian lifestyle and demonstrate that there is nothing simple about the life to which he has devoted himself. He embraces a life that sustains him not by easy purchase and haste but by physical labor and patience, not by mindless acquiescence to a centralized economy but by careful attention to local ways and wisdom. Wendell Berry: Life and Work combines biographical sketches, personal accounts, literary criticism, and social commentary. Together, the contributors illuminate Berry as he is: a complex man of place and community with an astonishing depth of domestic, intellectual, filial, and fraternal attributes. The result is a rich portrait of one of America's most profound and honest thinkers.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-7253-8
    Subjects: History, Environmental Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. xi-xii)
    Stanley Hauerwas

    INTHE PRESENCE OF THE PASTSheldon Wolin has a wonderful essay titled “Tending and Intending a Constitution: Bicentennial Misgivings,” which provides categories that make clear the significance of Wendell Berry’s work as well as these essays in this book. Wolin suggests that “tending” and “intending” characterize two persistent modes of thinking about politics that confronted one another during the ratification of the American Constitution. A politics of “intending” Wolin describes as one shaped by the language of contract in which a system of power seeks to ensure a future by bringing all life under a single rational order. A...

  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-xiii)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-11)
    Jason Peters

    IN 1862 EMERSON said that “no truer American existed than Thoreau.” In context the remark was instructive, for it followed fast upon the punning observation that Thoreau “had no talent for wealth” and that “he knew how to be poor without the least hint of squalor or inelegance.”¹

    But out of context—next Friday at happy hour, for example—the remark is inscrutable. We Americans apparently have talent for little else. We seldom depart from the script written for us by the Magic Hand of the “free” market. We don’t excel at any form of consumer restraint, to say nothing...

  6. Ain’t They the Berries!
    (pp. 12-16)
    Ed McClanahan

    WENDELL AND TANYA BERRY have been my friends for over fifty years. Wendell and I got to know each other in graduate English classes at the University of Kentucky in Lexington in the fall of 1956; Tanya Amyx, his fiancée, was a senior English major. I had made a false start at graduate school at Stanford the previous year and had come home to Kentucky in the spring of ’56, chastened for my hubris, and, in a last-ditch attempt to avoid the military draft, had enrolled in a couple of graduate-level summer-school classes at UK. To my draft board’s amazement...

  7. Wendell Berry on War and Peace; Or, Port William versus the Empire
    (pp. 17-33)
    Bill Kauffman

    THE FIRST CASUALTY OF war is not truth—that expires during diplomacy—but the country.

    Wendell Berry, the exemplary countryman, a man of place in a world run by the placeless, has chronicled the ways in which war and the preparation therefor drain the countryside and feed the hypermobility that is the great undiagnosed sickness of our age.

    War devastates the home front as surely as it does the killing fields. Soldiers are conscripted, sent hither and yon to kill and maim or to be killed or maimed; their families relocate, following the jobs created by artificial wartime booms. War...

  8. Words Addressed to Our Condition Exactly
    (pp. 34-44)
    Scott Russell Sanders

    IN THE FALL OF 1971, seeing that I was floundering, a veteran teacher who’d floundered himself when he was twenty-five gave me a book by a writer he knew down in Kentucky. “You might find some guidance here,” he said, handing meThe Long-Legged House.

    It was a paperback edition, small enough to fit in a coat pocket, printed on cheap paper, unassuming, not the sort of book one would expect to confirm or change the course of a life. The cover illustration showed a cabin perched on a steep riverbank, with a view across the stream toward green ridges...

  9. The Best Noise in the World
    (pp. 45-47)
    Donald Hall

    THE FIRST TIME I met Wendell Berry, it was 1963 at a literary cocktail party on Riverside Drive in Manhattan. He was young, skinny, wore a dark suit and a necktie—and never smiled. It was during his brief time teaching at an uptown campus of New York University, and I found him intimidating. With his sober stern face, I felt that he was judging us all, and we weren’t coming off well. Maybe I was right, but it is more likely that he was wishing not to be wearing a dark suit with a necktie in a flat over...

  10. Wendell Berry’s Political Vision
    (pp. 49-59)
    Kimberly K. Smith

    FOR MILLIONS OF Americans, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, ushered in a new world—a world in which security, power, and control must necessarily take precedence over our other civic ideals. To me, however, the events of that day were not transformational. I had just finished my book on Wendell Berry when I heard about the attack on the Twin Towers, and I witnessed with the rest of the country the tragic results. But Berry’s vision affected my interpretation of these events: they did not change the world, I thought, so much as force us to confront the...

  11. How Wendell Berry Single-Handedly Preserved Three Hundred Years of Agrarian Wisdom
    (pp. 60-65)
    David Kline

    I WAS BORN and grew to adulthood in a community that has never relinquished the agrarian ideal and that chose in the first quarter of the twentieth century to stay with animal traction for field work, a decision that ensured a community of small farms, worked by families and their neighbors, that was thus largely shielded from the single-minded rush toward mega-agribusiness promoted by the land grant colleges and the mainstream agricultural publications.

    Coming from a family of readers, I read everything that crossed the threshold into our home—a daily newspaper called theCleveland Plain Dealer, farm periodicals such...

  12. Memory and Hope in the World of Port William
    (pp. 66-75)
    John Leax

    MEMORY AND its lively influence have always been central concerns in Wendell Berry’s work. As early as “The Long-Legged House” he wrote, “The approach of a man’s life out of the past is history, and the approach of time out of the future is mystery. Their meeting is the present, and it is consciousness, the only time life is alive. The endless wonder of this meeting is what causes the mind, in its inward liberty of a frozen morning, to turn back and question and remember.”¹ In this early essay Berry’s emphasis is on the present. “It is impossible,” he...

  13. Politics, Nature, and Value in Wendell Berry’s “Art of the Commonplace”
    (pp. 76-87)
    Eric Trethewey

    WHAT IS the relationship between the natural world and the human? To this ancient theologico-philosophical question one might link another: What are the social and political implications at the present time of competing conceptions of this relationship?

    One such conception rests upon a pervasive—in most cases unexamined—faith, based on habitual assumption, that whatever human beings may have in common with other earthly organisms, the differences between the human and natural realms ought to be regarded as paramount in reflections about either. To this way of thinking, the noted nineteenth-century biologist Ernst Haeckel gave the nameanthropism—in Haeckel’s...

  14. Berry Britannica
    (pp. 88-95)
    John Lane

    I HAVE BEFORE ME the picture of our larder and the four handsome (empty) bottles of bourbon that are standing upon its deep slate shelves. They are labeled Labrot & Graham, Woodford Reserve, and were gifts from our dear friends Tanya and Wendell Berry on the occasion of their visits to our home. Earlier there had been a bottle of Jack Daniel’s and before that something else, but what it was we have forgotten.

    I first met Wendell in 1980—to be exact, on Palm Sunday of that year. A friend had shown me a little publication from the Myrin...

  15. Wendell Berry and the Twentieth-Century Agrarian “Series”
    (pp. 96-111)
    Allan Carlson

    AS AN ANALYST OF the agrarian crisis afflicting twentieth-century America, Wendell Berry comes after a “series” of writers. He chose the wordserieshimself, preferring it oversuccession.He explained that he was unsure “to what extent these people have worked consciously under the influence of predecessors.” Berry elaborated: “I suspect that the succession, in both poetry and agriculture, may lie in the familial and communal handing down of the agrarian common culture, rather than in any succession of teachers and students in the literary culture or in the schools.”¹ A list of these loosely connected agrarian authors might include...

  16. A Citizen of the Real World
    (pp. 113-118)
    Bill McKibben

    IN THE WEEKS and months that followed the attacks of September 11, “God Bless America” became the unofficial national anthem. Soon every ball game paused in the seventh inning so some overblown tenor could belt out the bathetic words that Kate Smith had first made popular—the demand that the Almighty favor “our home sweet home.” The lyrics comforted and complemented, fitting perfectly with the national conviction that we had been singled out for attack because of our goodness, our love of freedom. They were at first a balm, but soon became cheap grace.

    And if there’s anything Wendell Berry...

  17. Sexuality and the Sacramental Imagination: It All Turns on Affection
    (pp. 119-136)
    P. Travis Kroeker

    AT THE BEGINNING OF the chapter simply titled “Bridal” in Wendell Berry’s elegiac novelRemembering,Andy Catlett passes through the airport “Gate of Universal Suspicion” and finds himself reduced. The electronic eye is not merely an abstracting, depersonalizing gaze that admits “passengers” according to the apparent harmlessness of their personal effects. Its more sinister effect is to foster the disembodying gaze of erotic fear and fantasy that comes to replace the loving eye of the soul when the vision of trust has been lost. “Where one may be dangerous, and none is known, all must be mistrusted. All must submit...

  18. A Practical Education: Wendell Berry the Professor
    (pp. 137-141)
    Morris A. Grubbs

    SITTING IN a small circle of graduate students at the University of Kentucky in spring 1988, I entered into a conversation whose questions and attempts at answers are timeless. They continue to serve humanity more essentially, more pressingly, with each passing day. The course was “Readings in Agriculture”; the students were mostly in graduate programs of agriculture and English; the professor was Wendell Berry. Focusing on the links between culture and nature, we read selections by seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century British poets and twentieth-century British and American agriculturalists. Reading them for pleasure and instruction—and for encouragement, as our professor...

  19. An Economy of Gratitude
    (pp. 142-155)
    Norman Wirzba

    IT DOES NOT take long for readers of Wendell Berry’s work to find themselves in a personal conundrum. First, there is usually the admission that his diagnosis of our cultural ills is in many respects correct and that his critique of the industrial mind and its economy is lucid and persuasive. For many, Berry is so compelling precisely because he draws our attention to what (on closer investigation) is obvious and decent but has been forgotten or overlooked: that we live through the kindnesses and sacrifices of others; that our embodiment necessarily and beneficially ties us to agricultural/ecological cycles; that...

  20. Letters from a Humble Radical
    (pp. 156-172)
    Wes Jackson

    IT IS HARD FOR ME to think about Wendell Berry without also thinking about Tanya, his wife, and with no effort my mind runs to their children, Mary and Den, and to Chuck and Billie, Mary’s and Den’s spouses, and then to their children and then to Wendell’s brother, John, and his wife, Carol, and Wendell’s now deceased father and mother and Tanya’s parents and then my children and their spouses and their children and then the characters in Wendell’s novels and the friends we share in common and phone conversations, two, three times a week.

    For several months now...

  21. Wendell Berry and the Limits of Populism
    (pp. 173-191)
    Eric T. Freyfogle

    A CENTRAL THEME IN the writings of Wendell Berry—maybe the most important one—is his concern about relationships and about the practical and moral urgency of mending them. The world that Berry observes is not made up of parts in isolation: of individual people, distinct tracts of land, and natural resources. It is composed of connected elements, and the connections are as significant as the elements themselves. We have neglected these many connections, Berry tells us, in varied powerful ways. We see the world in fragmented terms, valuing its parts in isolation and ignoring or underestimating the bonds. This...

  22. Hemingway’s Nick and Wendell Berry’s Art
    (pp. 192-208)
    David Crowe

    IT SHOULD PROBABLY come as no surprise that Wendell Berry sees his fiction “in conversation” with rather than emulating the work of such writers as Ernest Hemingway and Norman Maclean.¹ After all, Berry is emphatically his own man. And he is in the best sense our American Jeremiah, a prophet who decries the extent to which we have fallen away from a sacred duty—to cultivate God’s creation respectfully and modestly, to build community, finally to rest in the immortality of love.² Berry’s jeremiad has called into conversation, and into question, varying social and economic practices and theories, not to...

  23. At His Desk as on His Land
    (pp. 209-211)
    Hayden Carruth

    PERHAPS THE BEST contribution I can make to this symposium would be an account of how this long, close, important friendship between Wendell and Hayden began.

    Go back to New York in the 1950s. Wendell was a young man from rural Kentucky who felt uncertain about what he should do and how and where he should do it. But he knew he was interested in poetry, and he had the great good sense to become friends with Denise Levertov. What a marvelous thing to happen to a young poet. I was older than Wendell, a little further along in the...

  24. Wendell Berry and the Traditionalist Critique of Meritocracy
    (pp. 212-229)
    Jeremy Beer

    WENDELL BERRY has insisted, vehemently and consistently, that he speaks for no school, no movement, no man but himself.¹ But while Berry speaks for no one but Berry, he would be the last to deny that he writes—and lives—from within particular and overlapping traditions, which he is quick to enumerate and acknowledge. As Kimberly Smith has noted, he takes seriously not only the traditions in which he has found himself embedded but also the very concept of “tradition,” a term he almost always uses in an approbative sense.² To think of him as an “American traditionalist” checks the...

  25. Looking the Technological Gift Horse in the Mouth
    (pp. 230-240)
    Sven Birkerts

    ESSAY-WRITING FOR me is in large part about assembling the elements. I don’t generally get an idea and then go out looking for my supporting instances. Rather, especially with pieces of a more exploratory sort, I find that the process often works in reverse. Aware of a certain pressure, a sense of upcoming inner occasion, I look to see what I’m looking at; I check in to see where the charge is to be found. And usually, given the kinds of things I think about, it’s not in any one place, but dispersed, distributed. Just how this works, I don’t...

  26. Wendell Berry: Agrarian Artist
    (pp. 241-254)
    Gene Logsdon

    I WAS SITTING AT my desk in Philadelphia at the headquarters ofFarm Journalmagazine one dreary day in 1971, watching the clock wind its ponderous way toward five o’clock. At exactly 5:01, I would flee my office and, if I ran, catch the 5:12 train nine blocks away to my home in exurbia where I was pretending to be a farmer on two acres of land. Three hours to go. I was not very happy, and the martini at lunch had not helped matters, except to infuse me with that reckless kind of bravado that could make me say...

  27. Education, Heresy, and the “Deadly Disease of the World”
    (pp. 256-281)
    Jason Peters

    I AM GIVING the commencement address at a highly selective, which is to say highly expensive, liberal-arts college. In a surprising departure from custom, the students pay attention to the person standing in front of them, for despite all convention, and against my one good instinct, I have just said, “Congratulations on your new purchase.”

    In this annual little fantasy of mine the parents snicker, a few colleagues (the ones listening) smirk, and the administrators mark me for the RightThink Reeducation Seminars.

    “Pending remittance of all dormitory and parking fines, the college, upon recommendation of the faculty, will confer upon...

  28. Wendell’s Window and the Wind’s Eye
    (pp. 282-286)
    James Baker Hall

    THE SUMMER AFTER Wendell and Tanya were married, before they moved into quarters befitting his first teaching job at a Baptist college with mandatory daily chapel, they lived in a cabin on the Kentucky River bank—with kerosene for lamplight and butane for cooking and for heating water, which had to be hauled in a few gallons at a time. There wasn’t enough elbow room in that cabin for more than a change of clothes, if you could find berth enough between the bed and everything else to get into them, but it was rendered spacious by the great excitement...

  29. The Art of Buying Nothing
    (pp. 287-295)
    Barbara Kingsolver

    FOR YEARS AND YEARS, I resisted acquiring a cell phone. When people asked for my “cell number,” I always thought that sounded like a prison address, and I was relieved not to have one. I heard how useful these devices were, how handy, but I also saw them turn many ordinary humans into harebrained drivers, antisocial boors, and helpless natterers. I didn’t feel I needed technical assistance toward any of those goals. Finally my colleagues became so amused or puzzled by my backwardness, they could not refrain from asking what world-shaking event it would take for me to get one....

  30. Fidelity
    (pp. 296-298)
    Katherine Dalton

    WHEN I WAS in my twenties I came home to Kentucky to visit one fall and was invited by my father to a supper hosted by one of his old friends. I had then been living in Connecticut and New York City for several years. Everyone else at the party had come straight from riding and was dirty and tired and in a good mood, and as this was my father’s crowd I was the youngest there by several decades and hadn’t seen most of these people in years. So it surprised me a little to notice, after a half...

  31. Wendell Berry and the Alternative Tradition in American Political Thought
    (pp. 300-315)
    Patrick J. Deneen

    INTHE UNSETTLING OF AMERICA, Wendell Berry described America as a nation with two fundamental “tendencies.” These two tendencies were set in motion by the earliest European settlers in America and continue to define the fundamental worldviews of most contemporary Americans—and, increasingly, the modern world. The “dominant tendency” was manifested as a proclivity toward mobility and restlessness that aimed at maximum extraction of resources and accumulation of profits from the bounty of the new continent. Berry acknowledges that this worldview was dominant because it was “organized” at the very inception of the settlement of the new continent. However, Berry...

  32. A Long Shelf
    (pp. 316-318)
    Jack Shoemaker

    I HAVE LONG THOUGHT that a publisher, if he or she performs properly, ought to be virtually invisible. A publisher’s job is to bring forward and to make public the work of a writer. We should stand behind the spotlight, and the light itself ought to be trained on the writer and the book. And I am not myself a writer, so my discomfort here is doubled. But I have decided to think of this short note as simply another act of publication, to make public my profound debt to Wendell Berry, an opportunity too rare to ignore.

    In 1969...

  33. Afterword
    (pp. 319-324)
    George Core

    THE MOST GENERAL statement that one can make about Wendell Berry and his literary accomplishments is that he is a man of letters. He is a southern writer, of course; and in his lifetime there have been many men of letters in the South. I instance the leading Vanderbilt agrarians in this connection: John Crowe Ransom, Donald Davidson, Allen Tate, Andrew Lytle, and Robert Penn Warren, all of whom wrote successfully in several modes. All but Lytle were good poets. All were superb essayists and their essays, like Berry’s, were not only literary but polemical, and they forged not only...

  34. Chronology
    (pp. 325-328)
  35. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 329-334)
  36. List of Contributors
    (pp. 335-338)
  37. Index
    (pp. 339-350)