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

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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.


A Response to Some Criticism of Wendell Berry

Given the unpopular and uncompromising stands that Wendell Berry takes, it’s only natural that many readers fiercely disagree with him. Some of these disagreements are simply matters of preference. As one of his stories has it, “It is perhaps impossible for a person living unhappily with a flush toilet to imagine a person living happily without one.” Other disagreements are more substantive and not easily resolved. But any disagreement with Berry should begin with a fair reading of his work—otherwise one is simply battling a straw man. In this respect, I am afraid that even though Tamara Hill Murphy agrees with much of Berry’s vision, her recent essay in Plough Quarterly misrepresents his fiction, claiming that his stories view rural life too nostalgically, glossing over its violence and racism and brokenness.

When Murphy published an earlier version of this same argument, I suggested via Twitter (which is of course the perfect medium for discussing Wendell Berry) that she was overlooking many counterexamples where Port William does indeed suffer from its members’ anger, alcoholism, infidelities, and abuse. But the fact that she’s still making the same argument — and that Rod Dreher, another appreciative and thoughtful reader of Berry, largely agrees with her case — suggests that it may be worthwhile to point out the seamier side of Port William’s history. Because my colleague Jack Baker and I are currently editing a collection of essays on Berry’s fiction, I’ve recently been spending a lot of time in his stories, and these portray a much more multifaceted view of rural life than Murphy’s essay would lead one to believe.

Read the whole article by Jeffrey Bilbro at Front Porch Republic.


Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson, and Mary Berry in Conversation

The 36th Annual E. F. Schumacher Lectures featured Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson in a conversation moderated by Mary Berry, Wendell's daughter and the founding Executive Director of The Berry Center. The conversation took place on Saturday, October 22nd, 2016 at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington, MA.

See also at Resilience.


Wendell Berry will deliver keynote at Writers' Workshop

The 40th annual Workshop will take place July 24-29, 2017.

The Appalachian Writers’ Workshop at Hindman Settlement School, which is Kentucky’s premier writers gathering, provides an opportunity for aspiring and accomplished writers to immerse themselves in a community of people who appreciate Appalachian literature and who hail from or write about the region. This creative community comes to the Settlement to learn and teach the craft of writing through structured workshops and exchange with other writers. Both published and unpublished writers are urged to attend.

Wendell Berry, Kentucky farmer and renowned author, will deliver the Jim Wayne Miller/James Still Keynote Address following a Kentucky Proud “dinner on the grounds” prepared by James Beard Award Finalist Chef Ouita Michel.

Go to Hindman Settlement School for complete information.


Post-Election Thoughts from Mary Berry and Other Environmental Leaders

A number of environmental leaders have spoken to Grist.org. Here is Mary Berry's reflection.

While I deplore the outcome of the 2016 presidential election, I wouldn’t say that I was particularly hopeful about either candidate making much difference in the place I love the most.

My home is farm country in north central Kentucky. It has been in decline through many presidents, both Democrat and Republican. Kentucky’s raw materials have been sold to the highest bidder for most of the last 200 years under, mostly, Democratic governors. So my hope doesn’t lie with politicians and it never has.

I have often needed to try to convince our friends and allies that what they think is happening in rural places is not happening. Symbols are important, but a vegetable garden on the White House lawn does not mean that anything is actually being done to level the playing field for small family farmers. The urban demand for well-raised food is going up as the rural culture is coming down.

Now a man who is a product of television and capitalism has won the presidency, and there is no pretense that he is anything else. Now we know, the cavalry is not coming.

So this my hope, that things will never get so bad that a well-intentioned person can’t do what is right in front of them to do. If they are working on what is right in front of them, then the work is local work.

My father [author and farmer Wendell Berry] says that hope is a virtue. That to have it, we must work at it. He has kept alive in my mind, as we have watched the place we love the most decline, that what we are after is possible, that we don’t win but we don’t lose either, we just keep on.

See all other responses at Grist.