It might be easiest to define this book by what it is not. It is definitively not a biography of Wendell Berry, which is a good thing, considering how often and forcefully he has rejected the idea of a biography himself. (One of my favorite Berry quotes regarding this is from an interview with The New York Times, when he was asked who he would want to write his life story: “A horrible thought. Nobody. As the only person who ever has lived my life, I know that most of it can never be documented, is beyond writing and beyond words.”) Sutterfield acknowledges this at the outset as well and offers only cursory demographic information. This book is also not a dissertation-style explication of a single author’s work; Sutterfield generally stays away from literary criticism at all. The book is only 150 pages and written in relatively plain language, which also excludes it from the average critical analysis.
Instead, the mission of the book is laid out early and adhered to well: to cast a cohesive vision of what Berry writes about across the breadth of his work, which includes his poetry, fiction, and essays. Sutterfield does spend some time placing Berry’s work in context, and of course any reader of Berry’s knows how important context – specifically place – is to him and his writing. This is the first book I’ve read, to my memory, of this style; writing exclusively about an author and his work, but not attempting to analyze the work in a typical criticism style. I suspect that Sutterfield – a writer, teacher, and naturalist, who is obviously very familiar with Berry’s work – wrote this book for the same reason I would: he loves the works of Wendell Berry. Berry’s writing is uniquely rich and covers ground that is both narrow in scope and endlessly complex, and Wendell Berry and the Given Life seeks to tease out some of the major themes.
Read the whole review by Brent Schnipke at Relief: A Journal of Art & Faith.