Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson, and Mary Berry in Conversation
Wendell Berry at The Land Institute

On Wendell Berry's idealistic fiction

When I read Berry’s poems and essays, I sense he and I are kindred spirits. I, too, care about preserving the good, true, and beautiful in a hellbent civilization. On the other hand, when I read Berry’s fiction, I begin to suspect he would not much approve of me. I read as if I were an adolescent who is constantly objecting “Yeah, but…” to the author’s often narrow view of the good life and his criticisms of anyone who wanders off the path. I can be contrarian, too, Mr. Berry.

I read about the Coulters and the Proudfoots and the Branches and perhaps his most beloved protagonist, Jayber Crow, as if I know them personally, and often I find they don’t represent themselves altogether truthfully. Maybe I feel close to them because two generations back both sides of my family lived in Port William–type villages in the center of New York State. When Mr. Crow moves to his final home on a riverbank, I feel like he’s speaking my family dialect. I know exactly the “substantial sound” of an anchor line plunking into the bottom of a boat, and the language of a single fish slurping from the surface of a still pond. I know it because, by the grace of God and kindly grandparents, I’ve spent countless childhood days on a quiet waterfront. But also, I know it because it’s embedded in my genes from my grandfather’s generation, who lived in a small village dotted with pastures and bubbling brooks.

The dissonance with Berry occurs when I consider other family tales buried under the agrarian beauty. These are stories of shattered relationships, addiction, job loss, abandonment, mental illness, and unspoken violations that seem to separate my kinfolk from the clans in Port William. In Berry’s fictional village, readers occasionally witness felonies, infidelity, drunken brawls, and tragic deaths, but all of them seem to be told in a dusky, warming light.

Read the whole article by Tamara Hill Murphy (no relation) at Plough Quarterly.

Read Rod Dreher's reflections on "What Wendell Berry Gets Wrong" at The American Conservative.

Read Jeffrey Bilbro's response, "Does Wendell Berry Have Rose-Colored Glasses?" at Front Porch Republic.

Read Matthew Loftus' response, "What Wendell Berry Gets Wrong about Wendell Berry" at Mere Orthodoxy.

Read Jake Meador's response, "The Abolition of Troy Chatham" at Mere Orthodoxy.

Read Rod Dreher's response to Jeffrey Bilbro in "Defending Wendell Berry" at The American Conservative

Read Tamara Hill Murphy response to all of the above in "A Few More Words on the Hole in Wendell Berry's Gospel."

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