The one good thing about teaching (I’ve heard there are others–vicious rumors, I contend) is I get to introduce my students to the work of Wendell Berry. Berry is an academic, but he is also a farmer. He is a cultural critic, yet also an agriculturalist who creates rather than just deconstructs. He is neither a liberal nor a conservative (though he is often misread as being one or the other by, well, one or the other), and he is the author of numerous novels, poems, essays and children’s books. I didn’t discover Berry until I was in my first year of graduate school, but I quickly made up for it. While I was at Duke it seemed as if I averaged reading one Wendell Berry book per class. It didn’t matter if the class was on Kant or Kierkegaard, those professors found a way to sneak in a Berry text.
Republicans are now the party of the traditionalist, pious lower middle class. That is not the demographic group that built Reaganism. While the voter base remains uncomfortable with big government, it has rejected, bit by bit, the corollary of the cold war years, that the only alternative to big government is the unregulated free market. Something similar happened in the last decade, when the Iraq war revealed that Republicans were not the unanimous supporters of military action that their leaders assumed. Opening its ears to Mr Berry’s style of conservatism will not guarantee Republican victories. But it would be an advance on the odd and obsolete idea that the natural carriers of the conservative message are venture capitalists.
I spent a beautiful Sunday afternoon in December talking with Wendell Berry at the kitchen table of his Henry County farmhouse. He told me he was hard at work on an essay. "I'm in need of a lecture," he said.
America was in need of a lecture, too. Last Monday, Berry gave it.
The National Endowment for the Humanities chose the Kentucky farmer, poet, essayist, novelist, activist and philosopher to give the 2012 Jefferson Lecture at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. It is the federal government's highest honor for scholarly contributions to the humanities.
It’s been a Berry-filled week, in the aftermath of his Jefferson Lecture last Monday, which I’ve yet to read in full. For one, there was an affectionate puff piece in the NYT, a fine introduction to the man, and of course on Tuesday I drove over the hill for my bi-monthly fill of Lynchburg’s Wendell Berry book club. Maybe more on that club, and why I like it despite some inevitable disagreements, some other time…
“Manifesto” is my favorite poem, and it’s a pleasant coincidence that I’m keeping it in my pocket today because there are a couple lines in the poem that seem especially appropriate for this occasion. Berry writes: “Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias. …// Put your faith in the two inches of humus / that will build under the trees / every thousand years.”
To me these lines are about taking the long view, about the importance of resisting the tyranny of the urgent over the important. They also make me think about what it means to do “good work.” Planting sequoias means starting good work we won’t see the end of. It means doing that good work with fidelity, humility, discipline, and even a kind of reverence, judging our work not by the goals of the quick profit or unrestrained growth, but by the standards of flourishing.
In 1907, Berry’s grandfather traveled to Louisville to watch the sale of the family’s annual tobacco crop. After paying for the costs of commission and transportation, there was no money left for the family. Many farming families in Kentucky have been affected by the monopoly of the American tobacco company who early on set prices it would pay farmers without fear of competition or consequence.
It was with this example the lecture laid out the problems of an economic model propelled by prospect with disregard to the philosophy of affection towards economy. Affection can be a term used to describe worth that exists within a responsibly conserving and respectful economy. In Berry’s speech, he conveyed this as an economy where value is placed on all things and humans have a nondestructive relationship with the world and their place in it. He said the alternative of placing value on prosperity without responsibility has left us subject to the perils of the market place.
In the last two posts on the topic of Wendell Berry’s fiction and its place in Oral History, I noted that the process of remembering allowed the narrator of A World Lost, Andy Catlett, to situate his Uncle Andrew’s life within the intersecting and interconnected stories all at work in Port William. As Brent Laytham, in his essay “The Membership Includes the Dead,” argues: Wendell Berry uses memory to intentionally evoke a sense of membership within the fictional community of Port William.
In this post I want to expand upon Berry’s ability to show how remembering in the present is provides a vehicle for “re-membering” the past. That is, memory provides access to membership. I want to explore TWO tenets of the membership found in Berry’s fiction:
- Membership is Placed – That is, community membership is rooted in a common ground, or a common place to which the members are responsible. In Berry’s fiction this is the small town of Port William.
- Membership is Inclusive – Just as members are responsible to their place, they are responsible for one another, and this means including the wayward. It also means including the dead, if we consider that Uncle Andrew, although dead, is made alive through Andy’s memory, and incorporated into the membership.
The sensibility of Wendell Berry, who is sometimes described as a modern day Thoreau but who I’d call the soul of the real food movement, leads people like me on a path to the door of the hillside house he shares with his wife, Tanya, outside of Port Royal, Ky. Everything is as the pilgrim would have it: Wendell (he’s a one-name icon, like Madonna, but probably in that respect only) is kind and welcoming, all smiles.
He quotes Pope (“Consult the genius of the place in all”), Spenser, Milton and Stegner, and answers every question patiently and articulately. He doesn’t patronize. We sit alone, uninterrupted through the morning, for two or three hours. Tanya is at church; when it’s time, he turns on the oven, as she requested before leaving. He seems positively yogic, or maybe it’s just this: How often do I sit in long, quiet conversation? Wendell has this effect.
Follow the VIA link to read the rest of this fine article.
The 17 contributors to The Humane Vision of Wendell Berry help those who do not know Berry, or know him only in one or two of his dimensions, to understand what this farmer, poet, essayist, and novelist has been about for the past four or five decades. They make wanting to read him, if not actually meet him, irresistible.
A few of the contributors have serious issues with some of Berry’s positions. D.G. Hart takes issue with him for his rejection of organized religion. Several others point to Berry’s lack of attention to the good of politics, especially what co-editor Nathan Schlueter calls “formal mediating institutions,” and Schlueter himself comes closer than anyone to an outright rebuke of Berry for his disregard of “the original sin narrative, with all that it implies” in his pacifism.
But the criticisms do not question Berry’s central premises so much as they ask whether, for example, regular church attendance is not like caring for a growing crop or tending sheep. Why can’t structures of governance be informed by the same kinds of particularity and integrity that characterize the farmers Berry admires? One thinks of the Founding Fathers, often farmers themselves.