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A British Appreciation of Wendell Berry

His best work is contained in his frequent salvos of essays, which I have been collecting during trips to America for much of my adult life. I first came across his work in a bookshop in Devon, where I was struck by a slim volume with the brutal title What Are People For?. It’s impossible not to wonder about the answer, so I read on and slowly accumulated a small library of books with names such as Standing by WordsThe Long-Legged House and Another Turn of the Crank (Berry is drily aware of his reputation).

He writes at least as well as George Orwell and has an urgent message for modern industrial capitalism, which he considers to be a machine based on greed and short-termism that produces grotesque unfairness and waste – and will lead us, before long, to disaster. It is an apocalyptic message but conveyed with a gentle humour and defiant belief in the possibility of social reform that keep you turning the pages. Yet he can be a difficult sod, fiercely independent and, as the Americans would say, ornery. Back in the 1990s, I wrote to Berry asking him to allow me to edit a selection of his writing to be published for a British audience, preferably by Penguin. He said no. For one thing, he did not want to be published by any of the big houses – he had a strong loyalty to the small, independent San Francisco publisher North Point Press. And there was no question of him coming here to do interviews or publicity or anything like that: he won’t travel by aircraft.

The project died. And now, with Berry in his vigorous eighties, the writer and environmentalist Paul Kingsnorth has finally teamed up with a Penguin imprint to produce an excellent selection of his essays, The World-Ending Fire.

Read the entire article by Andrew Marr at The New Statesman.


On Wendel Berry at The Circe Institute Conference

The event described here took place on Friday, January 20, 2017.

Author Wendell Berry doesn’t leave his Kentucky farm often, but this past weekend he agreed to be our honored guest at the Classical Consortium Conference in Louisville, Kentucky. Amid the gilded cornices and sumptuous chandeliers in the historic Seelbach Hotel, Berry graced us with a delicious reading of passages from his magical novels. Like obedient children we sat, tired, invigorated from a day of stimulating sessions, eager to step into the world of his rich imagination.

The conference on the theme Truth or Nothing marked the first joint event of a group we loosely call the Classical Consortium: Classical Academic Press, CiRCE Institute, Institute for Excellence in Writing, Memoria Press, and Professor Carol. This three-day conference celebrated the quest for Truth in our spiritual endeavors, teaching, and learning. Speakers, break-out sessions, delicious meals, and non-stop, passionate conversation abounded in the corridors, the elevators, the coffee table, and virtually everywhere the rays of those beautiful chandeliers would reach. A magnificent reception welcomed us at the esteemed Highlands Latin School, sponsored by Memoria Press. Then two full days of plenary talks (one by yours truly), breakout sessions, and panels, filled out the next two days. The crowning moment, of course, was the dessert reception and reading of Wendell Berry. Ah yes, life is very good.

Berry understands so much about American culture through his mastery of rural life. He has his finger (and heart) on the pulse of what once were the driving forces of American life. He knows what it means to plant various crops so as to withstand the caprices of nature, to rely on one’s gut and gumption, and to turn to one’s neighbors as they turn to you. He can paint any character you ever could imagine with a fine, gentle brush, and yet these characters are so strong as to be unforgettable.

Read more of this reflection by Carol Reynolds at Professor Carol.


Thoughts on Wendell Berry, that Film, and His Not-Quite-Rockstar Status

Three years ago I had the pleasure to attend a talk between Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson at Cooper Union in New York City (my first time in New York City as an adult, which was a story in itself), moderated by New York Times columnist Mark Bittman. Wanting to quote a particular exchange between Berry and Jackson for a recent post here on From Filmers to Farmers I listened to the audio recording of the event to transcribe what I was after. While I was able to locate the sought after passage, I was aghast to find out that my favourite portion of the entire event was absent from the publicly available recording, something that was relevant to this post you're currently reading. So not only do I unfortunately not remember the lead-up to the particular exchange between Berry and Bittman, but I'm also forced to quote from memory. As I recall:

Bittman: You're a rock star.

Berry [quietly and sombrely]: No.

That got a bit of a giggle out of me. But as my sense of humour's fortune would have it, Bittman wasn't about to give up so easily.

Bittman: Yes, yes! You're a rock star, you're a rock star!

Eschewing an elaborate retort or explanation, and even more quietly and sombrely the second time around, Berry lowered his head, ever so slightly shook it, and once again simply said –

Berry: No.

Well that was just too much for me, and as I kid you not that that was one of the funniest things I'd ever seen and heard in my life, I couldn't help but instantly burst out with an appropriately over-the-top boisterous laugh. Thing is, and as I just as quickly noticed, not a single other person in the entire audience was laughing as well – not even a peep. So just as fast as I started laughing I somehow managed to contain my convulsions, kind of clearing my throat and sheepishly hoping that my tiny outburst could somehow be disguised and confused for a weird sounding cough.

While I of course wondered to myself why nobody in the entire audience seemed to have even snickered (Cooper Union – and the rest of New York City – was full of rock stars?), and more recently have wondered why said portion was edited out (I wanted to see if I could hear my "cough" and what it sounded like!), the more pertinent question is, Why did Berry disagree with being called – appropriated as? – a "rock star"?

This is just the beginning. Read the complete essay by Allan S. Christensen HERE.


Wendell Berry film will show at Sundance

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Film buffs and industry insiders attending the annual Sundance Film Festival in Utah will get a glimpse of Kentucky through the words and vision of one our most notable writers, Wendell Berry. “Look and See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry” will screen in the “Spotlight” section of the renowned film fest on Friday, Jan. 20.

“Look and See,” formerly known as “The Seer,” premiered last year at the SXSW Film Festival in Austin, Texas, to much acclaim, but the time between the two festivals allowed the filmmakers to tweak the film and its title. Directed by Laura Dunn (“The Unforeseen“) and produced by big Hollywood names like Robert Redford, Terrence Malick and Nick Offerman, the film also includes many Kentuckians who worked to get it to the screen, including co-producers Gill Holland, Owsley Brown III and Elaine Musselman.

“Look and See” is a beautiful love letter from Kentucky to the world, alerting people to the changing landscapes and shifting values of rural America. It’s not necessarily a documentary on Wendell Berry, it’s a documentary on his place in the world — his home, his family, his farm and his neighbors in Henry County — and the ongoing plight of farmers today.

To read the much longer article by Sara Havens at Insider Louisville, go HERE.

See the Park Record interview with director Laura Dunn HERE.


More on "The Hole in Wendell Berry's Gospel"

I've received some of the greatest gifts of my writing life since publishing this essay in Plough Quarterly’s winter issue last month. I knew I was taking a risk by critiquing the absoluteness of ideals author Wendell Berry, beloved by me and countless others, promotes in his work. I expected lots of people to disagree. I guessed right. What I wasn’t sure how to calculate is who might actually agree with what I had to say.  I took some comfort in knowing that, at the very least, the journal's editors thought there was some value in what I had to say. With this sort of low expectation, you might be able to imagine my surprise when Rod Dreher wrote an overwhelmingly gracious and eloquent response at The American Conservative.  I read each paragraph carefully, expecting the shoe of disapproval to drop at some point.  It never did.  

I also did not expect the level of grace and thougtfulness from those who wrote objections to my essay. This is not the first time Jeffrey Bilbro has offered me a genial counterargument to my thoughts on Wendell Berry’s fiction.  His response (published at Front Porch Republic) to the Plough article includes a friendly admonition to me for not heeding his earlier advice to become more familiar with the range of characters and conflicts within Berry’s fictional Port William.  He’s not wrong. Although I continued to read a copious amount of Berry’s writing, when Plough contacted me about expanding the essay from its earlier version published at Art House America, I did not take Bilbro’s recommendation to update literary references much beyond Hannah Coulterand Jayber Crow.

Read the complete article by Tamara Hill Murphy at HER BLOG.

For a view of links related to the entire conversation, see THIS POST.


UC Interview with Wendell Berry

Too many of us spend too much time indoors, in front of screens, away from nature. Yet, there’s a consistent sense of wonder about nature in your writing. Can you suggest ways to nurture a stronger sense of Creation care?

A I am sure that the children of my generation benefited from their free roaming — without adult supervision — in the woods and fields. I am sure that we learned a great deal about the natural and practical life of work by playing, and then later working, in the company of other adults at work. 

Now, I seldom see children or young people outdoors. This seems attributable largely to screen addiction. But also, work itself has changed since the time of my childhood. It has become too mechanical, too toxic and too hurried to be congenial. 

You write, “Find your hope . . . on the ground under your feet,” reflecting the idea of acting locally. However, in the face of vast environmental threats, can there be enough local action to bring about the dramatic changes we need?

A I’m not sure. I am only sure that great problems cannot be solved by great solutions. No government, no church, no religious denomination is capable of performing an authentic act of stewardship equivalent in scale to the Normandy invasion or the bombing of Hiroshima. The utterly intractable truth of the matter is that the world is made up of a mosaic of small places, each one unique and, in significant ways, unlike any other. To be capably stewarded or husbanded, each of these places must be known and loved, and therefore possibly known by some particular human with the intelligence, knowledge and skill to use it responsibly. The responsibility pertains to the place itself, and to the humans and other creatures who live on and from it now and forever afterward.

See the interview by Murray MacAdam at UC Observer.


And Yet More on The Wendell Berry Critique

Jake Meador at Mere Orthodoxy is the latest to add his thoughts to an ongoing critique of Wendell Berry's thought as embodied in his fiction. This round of writing began with Tamara Hill Murphy, was seconded by Rod Dreher, countered by Jeffrey Bilbro, and reasserted and extended by Matthew Loftus. Meador begins his own response to Murphy with this: 

Plough has recently published one of the better versions of a critique of Wendell Berry that is fairly common and fairly tiresome. The author, Tamara Hill Murphy, has a great many kind things to say about Berry but then says that Berry’s work is characterized by a naive idealization of the agrarian past and a romanticism about it that obscures the dark corners of that world.

Murphy makes the critique helpfully concrete (and stark) when she writes,

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. …

Berry’s body of work lauds an unadulterated ecosphere. How does he reconcile glossing over (or at least hiding from his reader’s view) the ugly dysfunctions that often prosper alongside the natural beauty of such villages and pasturelands? The stories I grew up hearing and observing provide an alternative cast of characters to the Port William community. I’ve seen firsthand not only the ornery nature of such characters but also the ingrown thinking that sometimes flourishes in out-of-sight locales. For example, there’s the good country farmer I watched with my own eyes fist-beat his son. They seemed to keep their farm by the mad farmer’s standards, but that did not make them good. I tiptoe around extended family members who fought their whole lives like Jayber Crow to avoid answering to “the man across the desk,” yet leave a trail of fractured relationships in their wake.

To be sure, if this critique were an accurate portrayal of Berry’s fiction, it would be rather devastating. But it fails on two fronts. First, it simply doesn’t account for the body of Berry’s work. Second, it fails to recognize the underlying philosophical critique Berry is making which is basically the same critique made explicitly by Lewis in The Abolition of Man and implicitly by Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings.

See, again, all of "The Abolition of Troy Chatham" by Jake Meador at Mere Orthodoxy.

UPDATE (1.9.17) See, also, Rod Dreher's response to Jeffrey Bilbro in "Defending Wendell Berry" at The American Conservative

UPDATE (1.14.17) Tamara Hill Murphy responds to all of the above in "A Few More Words on the Hole in Wendell Berry's Gospel."


More on The Wendell Berry Critique

Tamara Hill Murphy’s Plough essay, The Hole in Wendell Berry’s Gospel, is well worth reading even if I disagree with much of it. She gives two principal concerns: The first accusation is of papering over the flaws of rural life and the second regards the weaknesses of Berry’s total moral and economic vision. The first accusation is very contestable, the second goes in the wrong direction. Rod Dreher, in his post on the subject, suggests that maybe Wendell Berry is wrong about Wendell Berry– and I agree with him!

In regards to the first issue, I think it is hard to look at Berry’s fiction and not see significant wrestlings with human frailty and wickedness. Jeff Bilbro explores these at some length, but I’ll chime in with my favorite story, “Watch With Me”. This story describes how the members of Port William try to prevent a mentally ill man from killing himself and while it has a happy ending it does not hold back from the realities of life. There is plenty that may be glossed over, but the stories with a romantic glow are matched by the ones full of tragedy.

See the complete article by Matthew Loftus at Mere Orthodoxy.


New Studies of Wendell Berry for 2017

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2017 will bring us a trio of new books that promise some fresh considerations and applications of Mr. Berry’s work.

Wendell Berry and The Given Life by Ragan Sutterfield is due to arrive in March from Franciscan Media.

Berry presents us with the sort of coherent vision for the lived moral and spiritual life that we need now. His work helps us remember our givenness and embrace our life as creatures. His insights flow from a life and practices, and so it is a vision that can be practiced and lived—it is a vision that is grounded in the art of being a creature.

Jeffrey Bilbro and Jack Baker have co-written Wendell Berry and Higher Education: Cultivating Virtues of Place that is forthcoming from the University Press of Kentucky in June.

Drawing on Berry’s essays, fiction, and poetry, Jack R. Baker and Jeffrey Bilbro illuminate the influential thinker’s vision for higher education in this pathbreaking study. Each chapter begins with an examination of one of Berry’s fictional narratives and then goes on to consider how the passage inspires new ways of thinking about the university’s mission. Throughout, Baker and Bilbro argue that instead of training students to live in their careers, universities should educate students to inhabit and serve their places.

The Place of Imagination: Wendell Berry and the Poetics of Community, Affection, and Identity by Joseph R. Wiebe is scheduled for February from Baylor University Press.

Wendell Berry teaches us to love our places—to pay careful attention to where we are, to look beyond and within, and to live in ways that are not captive to the mastery of cultural, social, or economic assumptions about our life in these places. Creation has its own integrity and demands that we confront it. In The Place of Imagination, Joseph R. Wiebe argues that this confrontation is precisely what shapes our moral capacity to respond to people and to places.