Wendell Berry on his literary friendships

In the course of collaborating with Wendell Berry on the chronology for our new collection of his fiction, Port William Novels & Stories (The Civil War to World War II), we persuaded him to elaborate on an initial set of notes regarding his fellow writers and teachers through the years. The results appear below, as a Library of America web exclusive.

Hayden Carruth. I first encountered his work in May of 1964. He first wrote to me in response to my poem “Meditation in the Spring Rain," I remember. But I don’t remember the year. After that we visited back and forth several times and carried on a lively and (to me) very valuable correspondence as long as he lived. I love him and his work very much.

Harry Caudill. In 1963, when I was living in New York and knew I would return home, Harry published Night Comes to the Cumberlands. I read it in the summer of that year. It showed me what it might mean to be a responsible Kentucky writer living in Kentucky, and it affected me deeply. Gurney Norman introduced me to Harry and Anne Caudill when I visited him in the summer of 1965. Harry (until his death) and Anne, Tanya and I became close friends and did a good deal of visiting and talking. Harry opposed the coal industry in coal country, pretty much face to face. He was, and he remains, a landmark.

See all of Mr. Berry's comments at Library of America.

Essay on Wendell Berry's fiction published

“Theological Voices in Wendell Berry’s Fiction” by Jane M. Schreck, professor of English at Bismarck State College is published in the current number (volume 21, issue 5) of Religion and the Arts from Boston College.

According to Dr. Schreck, "The article examines the theological thinking Berry articulates in his essays and aligns his ideas with those expressed by characters in his short stories and novels."

[Correction: A previous version of this post misspelled Dr. Schreck's name.] 

Artwork based on Wendell Berry novels

Artist Micah Bell has produced a unique set of prints and writings inspired by the novels of Wendell Berry. They will be available for pre-order beginning tomorrow, November 7. See more information at Micah Bell Art.

The Membership 


  • 8 limited edition art prints by Micah Bell - printed on 100% handmade, recycled paper in an edition of 100. Signed, numbered, and stamped.
  • 8 writings by artists, authors, and musicians based on the featured books and prints: David Dark, Brooke Waggoner, Stu Garrard, Sandra McCracken, JT Daly, Wesley Bates, Flo Paris Oakes, and Robert Campbell
  • 1 writing by Micah Bell
  • 1 Port William logo nickel lapel pin
  • 1 Port William Membership Member keychain
  • All prints are protected in a plastic covering and collected in a custom box adorned with Port William logo designed by Micah Bell

Conversation about Wendell Berry

Ragan Sutterfield discusses Wendell Berry's work and ideas with Nathan Foster in this Renovaré podcast.

Wendell Berry is the kind of writer that when you read his work it can change the way you live. Ragan Sutterfield, author and Episcopal priest in training, talks this week about Berry, sabbath, and permaculture—working with God’s order instead of manipulating the world to our own ends.

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 and others inspire songs

The Vision was inspired by a powerful poem written by Wendell Berry that speaks deeply to my feelings about the earth, in all of its destruction and possibility. Upon meeting Wendell two times at his farm, I was amazed at how comfortable I was sitting with him and his amazing wife Tanya. I enjoyed his simplicity and how he cuts to the quick with no hesitancy or apology.

I looked this poem over and again the words that would become a song came to me and I arranged it without much effort. I usually channel poetry arrangements, but since Wendell is alive and well, I wanted to honor him and what I perceived to be his intention as clearly as I could. I did work on it more than other poems, nonetheless, it pretty much arranged itself.

I tend to select poems, melodies, and arrangements that are complex and a bit gut-wrenching and hard to sing. This one takes a lot of air! It also takes a bit of courage to sing because of the state of the world. I love the harmonies John and I do on this one.

Listen to the music and read more by Donna and John Paul Wright at The Thread in the Quilt.

Reflections on a new study of Wendell Berry

Wiebe, who teaches religion and ecology at the University of Alberta, argues that Berry’s fiction, particularly the Port William stories, reveals that learning to belong to a place is a process that requires the work of imagination and affection. The goods of rural life, according to Wiebe, are good only insofar as they “participate in a healthy social imagination of the place in which they are performed.” Imagination, more than technique or tradition, is the formative capacity that most influences human action and communal life. More than advocating for a new system of local agricultural practice, Berry’s writing reveals his struggle to reckon with the inextricable link between land and people, particularly as that struggle is enacted through his family’s involvement in the legacy of racism.

For Wiebe, the ultimate value of Berry’s fiction is its poetics—its ability to re-form human life through the work of the imagination. “The work of imagination is a work of self-interrogation,” not a head-in-the-clouds escapism. Imagina­tion asks that we see a thing for what it is and, in so doing, acknowledge the claim the thing makes upon us. This work of self-interrogation begins, for Berry, in the return to his native Kentucky, which compels him to reckon with the ways he and his family violated the relationship of land, place, and people by the forcible removal of the Shawnee people and the enslavement of African Americans who worked the stolen land. “Berry’s racial concerns are central to his agrarianism.”

Read the whole article by Kathryn Bradford Heidelberger at The Christian Century.

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.

A Review of "Wendell Berry and the Given Life"

If I could, I would thrust a copy of Wendell Berry and the Given Life by Ragan Sutterfield into the hands of everyone I know. Here’s why:

Sutterfield’s book is a terrific introduction to an esteemed man of letters. Wendell Berry is a poet, novelist, essayist, conservation activist, and pioneering agrarian who advocates for sustainable agriculture. Thus Berry is a man whose legacy is equally remarkable for his literary writings as well as for his pioneering work and continuing leadership in the field of responsible agrarianism. If you patronize local farmer’s markets, or if your default setting inside grocery stores is to choose local organic produce, then you have Wendell Berry to thank.

Sutterfield maintains that Berry’s work is important because it speaks to our moral integrity at the same time as it addresses our mortal future. You might say that Berry is Rachel Carson 2.0. Berry brings science, generations of farming history, startling literary brilliance, and a deeply Christian point of view all to bear on discussions of the conservation crisis. On one level, it is crucial for more people to hear Berry’s clarion call to rewind our culture, to back away from industrialism, purely in the interests of survival. On another level, Berry speaks to our moral culpability in the ruination of families, communities, and the planet as a result of our failure to obey the most basic of God’s directives to love thy neighbor.

Sutterfield argues that Berry is a sage, a lamenting prophet who connects the dots between how we live and the state of our souls. Was this what God intended when he handed over his creation to us? Is this the role we were meant to play as caretakers? Sutterfield distills a diverse body of work published over the course of nearly sixty years; in so doing, he performs the invaluable service of making the ideas of a great Christian thinker more accessible to a wider audience.

Read the whole review by Maura Zagrans at The Catholic Book Blogger.

Review of "Wendell Berry and Higher Education"

Two literary critics take the writings and speeches of Wendell Berry as a touchstone for a critique of higher education. Each chapter follows a tight structure: an analysis of Berry’s fiction; discussion of how the themes of his fiction apply to higher-education reform; practical suggestions for students, instructors, and administrators; and an excerpt from Berry’s poetry that brings each chapter to a close. The book’s first three chapters, which together encompass the book’s first part, titled “Rooting Universities,” possess both charm and utility. They describe a new vision for higher education, one in which imagination and context trump specialization and fragmentation, attention is given to logical language that eschews jargon and is inclusive of all types of people and ideas, and the benefits of physical work contribute to intellectual development.

Read the complete review at Publishers Weekly.