The truth is I had assigned Berry to my own imagined niche for him as an “agrarian fundamentalist,” using his Kentucky farm as a pulpit from which he could deliver jeremiads about our industrial agricultural system, and what it has done to farmers, food and the environment. He was also too nostalgic, I thought, like a literary John Sloane. And I was at least partly correct in my assignment of this niche: the article that led me to his Jefferson lecture was written by Mark Bittman, the New York Times’ “food columnist.” It had a simple title – “Wendell Berry, American Hero,” but the “new” Berry I found inside wasn’t just writing about agriculture and food. Berry’s lecture, whose preparation had “‘taxed him greatly,’” was about “the costs of capitalism’s abuse of humans and land.” Hmmm…I thought, you don’t hear many people inside the Beltway talk about capitalism “abusing humans,” not even progressive Democrats. Wall Street bankers yes, certainly, they have surely and systematically abused us, but only recently; the whole economic system? No. Bittman then further quoted him saying that “‘the two great aims of industrialism – replacement of people by technology and concentration of wealth into the hands of a small plutocracy – seem close to fulfillment.’” Reading that, I was off to the speech itself, and six of the essays from What Matters, so I could get a better feel of how things have evolved in Berry’s mind.
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