Solving the Wendell Berry/Ralph Ellison quotation mystery

Dear Quote Investigator: The nature writer and activist Wendell Berry has been credited with a statement about knowing one’s place in the world:

If you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who you are.

Yet, this saying has also been ascribed to the novelist and critic Ralph Ellison. Would you please help clarify this situation?

Quote Investigator: In 1952 Ralph Ellison published the landmark novel “Invisible Man”. During one key episode in the book an old gentleman approaches the narrator to ask directions. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI:

Perhaps to lose a sense of where you are implies the danger of losing a sense of who you are. That must be it, I thought—to lose your direction is to lose your face. So here he comes to ask his direction from the lost, the invisible. Very well, I’ve learned to live without direction. Let him ask.

As the forgetful gentleman approaches, the narrator recognizes him as Mr. Norton who has asked for directions in the past, and the two converse:

“Because, Mr. Norton, if you don’t know where you are, you probably don’t know who you are. So you came to me out of shame. You are ashamed, now aren’t you?”

“Young man, I’ve lived too long in this world to be ashamed of anything. Are you light-headed from hunger? How do you know my name?”

Read the complete article at Quote Investigator.


Wendell Berry's reflections on the events of September 11, 2001

This film uses an interview with Mr Berry that was apparently filmed in 2006.

In response to the events of September 11, 2001, Kentucky author Wendell Berry wrote the essay "Thoughts in the Presence of Fear". Appalshop filmmaker Herb E. Smith matched his words with scenes of Kentucky and interviewed Wendell years later about the process of writing in response to crisis and the essay's continued relevancy. This is the first time Appalshop has made this work publicly accessible. KET shares this piece each year to commemorate the events of September 11, 2001.

 The text of the essay "Thoughts in the Presence of Fear" can be found HERE at Orion Magazine.


On Wendell Berry in California

The fact remains that Berry spent a meaningful part of his life in California, and we might not have Wendell Berry, Kentuckian, without Wendell Berry, Californian. This suggestion requires some extrapolation and we need to pry a little. It is true that he has lived most of his life in Kentucky and written almost all of his published work there. He has been reluctant to write extensively about other places. In the context of his lifelong endeavor to know and belong to his place, this reluctance to write about other places is consistent. He has refused literary tourism and travel writing. He has also refused the notion that travel is essential for broadening horizons: “I myself have traveled several thousand miles to arrive at Lane’s Landing, five miles from where I was born, and the knowledge that I gained by my travels was mainly that I was born into the same world as everybody else.”

But there are exceptions to this. He wrote parts of his first novel, Nathan Coulter, while on fellowship at Stanford from 1958-1960. He wrote an extended essay, The Hidden Wound, over the winter of 1968-1969 while a visiting professor at Stanford, and he wrote his short novel Remembering during winter 1987 while writer-in-residence at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.

It seems fitting that of the other places he has lived, California is the place where he has spent the most time. He lived in the place that has sung the sirens’ song for so many migrants’ hearts for over two centuries, and is the place that represents American wanderlust more than any other. It is an exaggeration, but still illuminating to compare Berry’s return to Kentucky after tasting California’s sweet shores to Odysseus’ choice to return to Penelope and to Ithaca, made more poignant by the choice’s being resolved on Calypso’s island with a goddess, an island, and immortality on offer.

Read the complete article by Matthew D. Stewart at Boom California.


On U. S. theatrical premier of "Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry"

Next Friday (June 30) a film featuring the work of Kentucky’s own Wendell Berry will enjoy its U.S. theatrical premiere at the IFC Center in New York City. “Look and See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry” is a cinematic account of the changing landscapes and shifting values of rural America in the era of industrial agriculture, as seen through the mind’s eye of writer, farmer and activist Wendell Berry, an alumnus and former faculty member of the University of Kentucky Department of English.

The first documentary about Berry, one of America’s most significant living writers, “Look and See” was filmed in and around Henry County, Kentucky — where Berry has lived and farmed since the mid-1960s. Filmmaker Laura Dunn weaves Berry’s poetic and prescient words with striking cinematography and the testimonies of his wife Tanya Berry; his daughter Mary Berry, a UK alumna and executive director of The Berry Center; and neighbors, all of whom are being deeply affected by the industrial and economic changes to their agrarian way of life.

Read the complete article by Whitney Hale at University of Kentucky News.


On the Letters and Friendship of Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder

Say the names Wendell Berry or Gary Snyder in some circles and you will elicit everything from abject worship to ennui. I belatedly came to awareness of both of them in the late Seventies and early Eighties—Berry for his finely wrought essays and stories (I did not have the maturity to appreciate his poetry then) and Snyder for his poems that were so authentically rooted, many of them, in the Cascades and Sierra Nevada. And though I appreciated both writers, and regarded both as exemplars of environmentally conscious writing, it never once occurred to me that they might be friends.

I pictured Berry plowing with mules on his Kentucky farm, and I pictured Snyder in the Sierra, running the ridges like a wolf. I thought of Berry as a student of the Scriptures, working out a biblically based land ethic, and I thought of Snyder as a Beat practitioner of Zen. But in spite of these differences they have been friends for almost half a century, first brought together in correspondence by their mutual publisher, Jack Shoemaker, and kept together all these years through mutual admiration—and sometimes by mutual consternation.

In Distant Neighbors, Chad Wriglesworth has done us the service of collecting and selecting forty years of their correspondence, from 1973 to 2013. In the fall of 2015, I was asked to introduce and interview Gary Snyder at a reading, and I told him before we went on stage that I was halfway through this book. “Wendell and I argued about two things for forty years,” Snyder declared: “Buddhism vs. Christianity, and wilderness vs. agriculture.”

That pretty much sums it up.

Read the whole article by Paul Willis at Education & Culture.


On the Work of the Berry Family and the Berry Center

Mary’s work is steeped in her family’s past in more ways than one. The Berry Center is housed in what was her grandfather’s law office beginning in 1927, an historic building in downtown New Castle. To inform her own practices and the work of the future, important archival work is happening there. Big John was a fervent documentarian. In his career, he kept records of his efforts in law and in farming, as well as proof of the progress and problems around him. His sons followed suit, both continuing to observe the agrarian world where they were immersed. Combined, the efforts of the three offer a keen insight into rural, agrarian life in Kentucky, though much of their work has been lost and scattered in trash bins and forgotten files. But through the Berry Center, their writings are being assembled and organized for pressing work. 

Using the writings of her family members and her own vast experiences, Mary is going to pilot a program she hopes will restore what was lost in her hometown. 

Applying the principles of the Burley Tobacco Program, Mary Berry hopes to make local cattle agriculture thrive. As it stands, Kentucky has the most beef cattle of any state east of the Mississippi. Still, it’s uncommon for family farms to make a living on cattle alone.

The Local Beef Initiative will begin by taking a group of up to six farmers and placing them in a co-op, similar to the one established by the Burley Tobacco Growers Cooperative. Farmers in the co-op will be required to raise the cows on grass and without antibiotics or hormones, in return for access to parity pricing — achieved by maintaining a relationship with a processor and distributor. 

In this scenario, the Berry Center would play the role that the federal government did in the Burley Tobacco Program, putting mechanisms into place, establishing parity pricing, taking the farmers involved out of competition with each other and preventing them from overproducing. 

“My hope is that once we get the Local Beef Initiative going that young farmers who are involved will say to their friends, ‘You know, I've done this with the Berry Center ... and I've made some money. You should have a look.’ You could convince farmers that way a lot faster than any of us could convince them just going and knocking on their door.” 

Read the complete article by Jodi Cash at The Bitter Southerner.


Actor encourages reading of Wendell Berry

But the film perhaps dearest to Offerman’s heart is the one in which he was least directly involved. Offerman co-produced a documentary about his favorite author, Wendell Berry, called “Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry.”

“This is very moving,” Offerman told the audience Tuesday before the screening. “Wendell Berry is my favorite author. I think his work should be required reading, and (if it was), we’d have a lot fewer a------s to deal with.”

Berry, 82, is a celebrated author whose novels, short stories, poems and essays are all devoted to bringing dignity and insight to American rural life, celebrating charity, clarity and the virtue of hard work. He practices what he preaches, having lived most of his life on a small Kentucky farm. He has no television or computer, although he has a telephone, which he often uses to tell people he doesn't want to be involved in their movies.

But Berry eventually agreed to take part in Laura Dunn's terrific, lyrical film. He didn't want to appear onscreen, but his words and his spirit permeate every frame.

Read the complete article by Rob Thomas at The Cap Times.


Whose thought? Wendell Berry's or Ralph Ellison's?

A brief Twitter exchange just now reminds me of an ongoing literary injustice that has bothered me for quite some time. Up until now I’ve just pushed it aside, but it may be time to make some noise about it and perhaps right a bit of wrong.

Here is the exchange:

WB-WS tmtm-twt

The most likely explanation is that Mr. Berry used the line “If you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who you are” in the presence of Mr. Stegner, who then repeated it as a Berry original. In fact, Mr. Berry was probably quoting from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (a very memorable and important moment near the end of that great novel).

If you happen to stumble upon this present post here at MWBoK—and you can shed more light on the origins of this problem, please do so.

Here is Mr. Stegner's "Sense of Place" which opens with the sentence in question.


John M. Berry, Jr. (1935-2016)

I offer my deepest condolences to the Berry family on the death of Former Kentucky State Senator John M. Berry, Jr., Wendell's brother. May he rest in peace.

FRANKFORT, Ky. - John M. Berry Jr., the Henry County lawyer and farmer who led the Kentucky General Assembly's fight to become independent from the control of the governor more than three decades ago, died Thursday at his Henry County home. He was 81.

"John had been ill a long time with ill with a heart problem," his brother, author Wendell Berry, said. "I think it's appropriate to say that he died of old age."

"In our different ways John and I inherited our father's interest in farming," Wendell Berry said. "...We were both interested in land conservation and the issues related to that. We were friends and allies for a long time...He was capable, he was upright, he was considerate."

See more at The Courier-Journal.