Wendell Berry answers some questions

Ragan Sutterfield asked Wendell Berry six questions. Here are two of them.

The idea that our lives are “given” comes up often in your writing. What does it mean to be given? How does it change how we live in the world?

I use the word “given” in reference to this world and our life in it. Two things are implied: first, that we ourselves did not make these things, although by birth we are made responsible for them; and, second, that the world and our lives in it do not come to us by chance.

Saint Bernard of Clairvaux once wrote: “The way is humility, the goal is truth.” Your own work reflects a similar understanding. How does humility help us recover the truth about the world and ourselves?

If you think, as I do, that the truth is large and our intelligence small, then a certain humility is implied and is even inescapable. As for my own humility, I am not very certain about the extent of it. I know that I had my upbringing from people who would have been ashamed of me if they heard me bragging on myself like a presidential candidate, and I am still in agreement with them. However, I seem to have a good deal of confidence in the rightness of my advocacy for good care of the land and the people. Without that confidence, I don’t think I could have kept it up for as long as I have.

Read the other four questions at American Catholic Blog. The complete interview can also be found in Ragan's very good book, Wendell Berry and the Given Life.


Review of Sutterfield's book on Wendell Berry

Like Berry’s own writings, Sutterfield’s book follows a symphonic structure: Throughout its 12 brief chapters, themes emerge, develop in new contexts, and find creative resolution. It is perhaps helpful to understand Sutterfield’s exploration of a given, creaturely life as having four main movements. The first considers Berry’s understanding of coherent, loving communities. Berry always works as an amateur—in its etymological sense of lover—whether he is tending his small Kentucky farm or writing poems, essays, and fiction. In all its varied forms, his work models the humility and love that characterize neighborly economies.

As finite creatures, we are always acting from a place of inescapable ignorance. Too often, Americans arrogantly seek to overcome this ignorance, but Berry proposes instead that we limit the scale of our actions and endeavors to fit our work into the fundamental patterns of creation. Such proper humility enables authentic love. Because love cannot be abstract, we can never love globally but must, like the Good Samaritan, tend our wounded neighbor.

Read the whole article by Jeffrey Bilbro at Christianity Today.


Nick Offerman discusses his interest in Wendell Berry

Popular perception of actor Nick Offerman will forever be colored by his turn as Ron Swanson on “Parks and Recreation,” where his adoration of breakfast food tempered his virulent libertarianism into a lovable if gruff patriarch for Leslie Knope and the rest of the Pawnee Parks Department. 

The homespun wisdom offered by Swanson may have an unexpected inspiration: the writings of Wendell Berry, the Kentucky writer and farmer who’s spent decades warning of the danger that technology posed to culture, particularly in rural America. In this extended podcast interview, Offerman talks about his decades-long obsession with Berry, his own career as both an actor and woodworker, and the enduring value of craftsmanship.

Listen to the discussion at To The Best of Our Knowledge.


On Reading Wendell Berry's "A Meeting"

But the poem I like to recite the most is Berry’s “A Meeting”:

In a dream I meet
my dead friend. He has,
I know, gone long and far,
and yet he is the same
for the dead are changeless.
They grow no older.
It is I who have changed,
grown strange to what I was.
Yet I, the changed one,
ask: “How you been?”
He grins and looks at me.
“I been eating peaches
off some mighty fine trees.”
It’s a poem that everybody can recognize and interpret on several levels. It’s about death obviously, but it’s also about memory and belonging, about how we grow older and estranged to what we once were. It also confronts how death may take away a lot of things, but it will not take away your stories. It’s about permanence, then, and joy, even in the face of death. It does all this in such a simple, powerful, direct manner that it always takes my breath away. The poem reminds me of two rivers meeting each other: These two friends have gone long and far, and yet somehow they have come back together in a landscape of imagination.

Read the entire piece by Colum McCann at The Atlantic.


Advance Review of "Wendell Berry and the Given Life"

This was a wonderful book by Ragan Sutterfield (author of the great book Farming As A Spiritual Discipline) on the life and work of Wendell Berry. Berry has had an immense impact on a diverse group of people. He is often quoted by spiritual writers, has influenced the agricultural world, and is an award winning writer in multiple genres. For all of this, Sutterfield calls Berry an amateur. Berry calls himself the same. But sutterfield reminds us that the word amateur has, at its roots, the meaning “for the love of it.” Berry does what he does out of love. Interestingly, his love stands in stark contrast to what much of the Western world loves and as such is seen as a prophetic (Ch 12). The author also makes strong parallels between Berry and St. Benedict. Thought the two are very different in many respects, they are after much of the same things when it comes right down to it. The author delves into this during the first chapter and it is very interesting (though I wish he had gone a little further with it). [sic]

Read the complete article by Phil Aud HERE


Paul Kingsnorth introduces Wendell Berry

About 18 months ago, out of the blue, I was offered something of a dream assignment. Penguin, the publisher, was looking to put together the first British collection of essays by the now-venerable American writer Wendell Berry, and they thought I would be a good person to make the selection, and write an introduction. Would I be interested? Of course, they would understand if I was too busy.

Needless to say, I was not too busy. I have been reading Wendell Berry for over 20 years, on and off, and have found him a constant source of nourishment and inspiration. It’s always difficult to explain exactly what you like about a writer, but Berry combines an earthy wisdom, an unashamed traditionalism, a love of his fellow man and passionate resistance to those who would desecrate the Earth which is his subject. It’s a combination I like. Also, to adopt his idiom, he has a damn fine way with words. I’d say he’s a writer who should be read by anyone wanting to find their place, or even figure out how to think about it, in an ever-churning age.

Read the whole article by Paul Kingsnorth (and Mr. Berry's "Damage") at Resilience.


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.


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."


New Studies of Wendell Berry for 2017

Wb17abc

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.