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.