At the third annual induction ceremony, Berry became the first living author to be welcomed into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame, a recent initiative of the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning, in Lexington, Ky., to honor the diverse and lasting contributions Kentucky writers have made to the literary landscape.
After turning his back on New York, Berry returned to Kentucky, to find, not a state bereft of literary talent, but a cadre of influential writers, such as James Still, Harlan Hubbard, Eugene Meatyard, and Thomas Merton, ready to embrace the Henry County native.
“My point is, in 1964, for a young writer in Kentucky, and in need of sustenance, sustenance was here,” Berry said.
Read more and view video of the complete ceremony at KET
In the spring of 1964,Tanya and I and our children had been living in New York for two years. When my work in the city ended that spring, we loaded ourselves and our belongings into a Volkswagon beetle with a luggage rack on top and took the New Jersey Turnpike south. We were returning to Kentucky — to settle, as it turned out, permanently in my home country in Henry County. On my part, this homecoming cost a good deal of worry. Just about every one of my literary friends had told me that I was ruining myself, and I was unable entirely to disbelieve them. Why would a young writer leave a good job in New York, where all the best artistic life and talent had gathered, to go to Kentucky?
There are no uncontrolled plots” in a person’s life. I have no proof that I would not have done better to stay in New York. But I see that in retrospect my story has gained the brightening of a certain comedy. When I turned my back supposedly on the best of artistic life and talent in New York and came to Kentucky, half believing in my predicted ruin, who was here? Well, among many dear and indispensable others: James Still, Harlan Hubbard, Harry Caudill, Guy Davenport, and Gene Meatyard. All of them I came to know and, I hope, to be influenced by. In 1964 also Thomas Merton was living in Kentucky. I can’t say that I knew him as I knew the others, but I had read The Sign of Jonas when it was published in 1953. Tanya and I, by courtesy of Gene Meatyard, visited Merton twice at Gethsemani and to live here was to feel his presence and his influence. I met Harriet Arnow in, I think, 1955 when I first encountered Mr. Still, at the only writer’s conference I ever attended. Many years later I met her again, spoke to her and shook her hand, remembering from then on her eyes and the testing look she gave me. No book more confirms my native agrarianism than The Dollmaker.
My point is that in 1964, for a young writer in Kentucky and in need of sustenance, sustenance was here. In the fifty years that have followed, the gathering in Kentucky of Kentucky writers has grown much larger. It would take me a while just to call their names: old friends, allies, influences, members, permitting me to be a member, of an unending, enlightening, entertaining, comforting, indispensable conversation. Hy further point is that in 2015, for an old writer in Kentucky and in need of sustenance, sustenance is here. [sic]
Of literary or writerly life in Kentucky I have no worries. It seems lively, various, and dispersed enough to continue, which is all I can presume to ask.
My worries begin when I think of the literary life of Kentucky in the context of the state of Kentucky: a commonwealth enriched by a diversity of regions, but gravely and lastingly fragmented by divisions that are economic, social, cultural, and institutional. These divisions have given us a burdening history of abuse — of land abuse but also and inevitably of the abuse of people, for people and land cannot be destroyed or conserved except together. We all know our history of social and cultural division, from the Indian wars of the 18th Century to legal discrimination against homosexuals in the 21st. And we know how our many divisions, beginning in the lives of persons, become fixed in public and institutional life.
[Elizabeth] Hardwick was one of six inductees at the ceremony, which attracted a standing-room-only crowd that included several acclaimed Kentucky writers likely to be chosen for the Hall of Fame someday.
Four other deceased writers inducted this year were: Hunter S. Thompson (1937-2005) of Louisville, who created "gonzo" journalism; Guy Davenport (1927-2005) of Lexington, a UK professor and MacArthur "genius" grant winner; Effie Waller Smith (1879-1960), a black poet from Pike County whose work filled three books and was published in Harper's Weekly magazine; and Jim Wayne Miller (1936-1996), who taught at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green.
They joined 13 other writers of the past inducted during the Hall of Fame's first two years, including Robert Penn Warren, Thomas Merton, Jesse Stuart and James Still.
Most of the crowd Wednesday was there to honor Wendell Berry, the first living inductee. Berry, 80, of Henry County, has written more than 50 books of poetry, fiction and polemics. In the process, he has become an international icon in the land conservation and sustainable agriculture movements.
As the first living author inducted into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame, Wendell Berry lamented that many fine books the state’s authors have written about Kentucky issues have had little impact on public discussion or policy.
In most ways, Kentucky is too fragmented a state, Berry said in remarks at a ceremony Wednesday night at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning, where he and five writers from the past were inducted into the Hall of Fame.
“This fragmentation is made possible, and continually made worse, by a cloud of silence that hovers over us,” Berry said. “We have in this state no instituted public dialogue, no form in which a public dialogue can take place.
Berry made his way through the room, smiling and shaking hands with colleagues and strangers alike. At 80 years old, Berry is the only living inductee into the Hall of Fame and joined the 18 other members who include authors from Kentucky’s 200 years of rich literary tradition.
“It would need a longer speech than I have for me to tell you what it means to me to be included in the company you have included me in,” Berry said.
Berry stressed the importance of Kentucky writers, the thriving culture and his worries about economic, social, cultural and institutional divisions.
“People and land cannot be destroyed or conserved except together,” Berry said.
Former UK professor Wendell Berry will be the first living person inaugurated into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame on Wednesday, said Jessica Faye Mohler, the marketing and communications director for the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning.
The ceremony will be held in the Carnegie Center at 7 p.m. and will include a speech by Berry, as well as five more inaugurations for Guy Davenport, Elizabeth Hardwick, Jim Wayne Miller, Effie Waller Smith and Hunter S. Thompson, according to the Carnegie Center’s press release.
The Carnegie Center is proud to announce the six inductees for 2015 into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame, including the Hall's first living writer Wendell Berry. In addition to Berry, this year's class includes Guy Davenport, Elizabeth Hardwick, Jim Wayne Miller, Effie Waller Smith & Hunter S. Thompson.
"This year's Hall of Fame inductees are eloquent, inspirational, and sometimes downright outrageous," said Neil Chethik, Executive Director of the Carnegie Center for Literacy & Learning, which created the Hall of Fame in 2013. "All of them have had a profound impact on American Literature."
Chethik said the Hall of Fame organizers were excited to induct the first living writer into the Hall of Fame. "In past years, we honored the pillars of Kentucky Literature going back 200 years," he said. "This year, we wanted to recognize a writer who is still going strong. Wendell Berry's mastery of fiction, nonfiction and poetry -- and the worldwide impact of his agriculture writing - made him the overwhelming choice."
When the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning announced plans in July to select the first living member of its Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame, I wrote that the process should be a search for Wendell Berry.
Kentucky has many fine writers working today, but none can match the range, craftsmanship and international acclaim of Berry, 80, who writes and farms in Henry County, where his family has lived for five generations.
So the Carnegie Center's announcement this week should come as no surprise. Berry will be inducted into the Hall of Fame at 7 p.m. Jan. 28 along with five deceased writers, who will be identified that night.
The Very Rev. Ian S. Markham, Ph.D., dean and president of Virginia Theological Seminary, and the Rev. J. Barney Hawkins IV, vice president for Institutional Advancement at VTS, visited Wendell and Tanya Berry, on their farm in Port Royal, Kentucky on Thuesday, August 21, 2014. The Dean’s Cross for Servant Leadership in Church and Society Award was presented to Mr. Berry at this time.