On Wendell Berry's new fiction and the Bible

Having grown up with the King James Bible, the first thing I noticed when I began reading Berry’s Port William stories is how interwoven they are with its cadences. His intimate knowledge of this greatest of English Bibles would not have been remarkable when Nathan Coulter was published in 1960; now, one wonders how many readers actually recognize Berry’s references. The concept of “the membership” itself was described by Burley Coulter in Wild Birds this way: “The way we are, we are members of each other. All of us. Everything. The difference ain’t in who is a member and who is not, but in who knows it and who don’t.” Berry took that concept from 1 Corinthians 12: 12: “For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ.”

The phraseology of the King James is pervasive throughout the Port William record. Berry refers to “groaning and travailing” (Rom: 8) in A World Lost; he describes Andy’s amputated hand as a “help meet” that he misses like “Adam missed Paradise” in Remembering, and Elton Penn’s wife as a “help meet” in How It Went (Gen: 2); Hannah Coulter describes the membership as “those in whom we live and move and have our being” (Acts: 17).

Read all of "Ties that Bind: Wendell Berry, the Bible, and Port William" by Jonathon Van Maren at The European Conservative.


Thoughts on Wendell Berry's new story collection

Had Berry left it at elegy, this book would not be all it is. But he did not. He is as urgent as ever in insisting that we again grasp the truths of the lives and communities whose passing he mourns. He doubts we can survive without them. True, we bandy around the word “community” in every sort of context, knowing it has signified something important we would like to have, or have others imagine we actually do have. But community as written of in this book and remembered by Berry is an all-encompassing reality that shapes our every action with consideration of those around us and the land upon which we depend.

Berry warns us: we cannot survive the absence of living and working as a community.

Read all of "Wendell Berry, Temple Grandin, and the Idolatry of Abstractions" by Shmuel Klatzkin at The American Spectator.


Another review of Wendell Berry's The Need to Be Whole

The Need to Be Whole positions itself as a spiritual descendant of two of these standalones: The Hidden Wound (1970), in which Berry took up the damage wrought by slavery and racial prejudice, and The Unsettling of America (1977), in which he considered the death of the small farm, and more generally the continual destruction of land that was settled even before Europeans arrived in the New World. The new book braids these concerns together, but it lacks a clear rationale: Berry attempts a summing up, but in the process spins out so many arguments and sub-concerns and asides (some of them in this 500-page volume long enough to be books on their own) that his reach towards comprehensiveness risks overwhelming his purpose. Furthermore, some sections, particularly those broadly concerning the Civil War, Robert E. Lee, and Confederate monuments, seem almost designed to spark controversy, though I take Berry at his word when he maintains his sincerity and abiding faith in love as his preeminent value. At the same time, Berry’s writing is marked by a strain of defensiveness I have not previously encountered in his essays, and while this does not necessarily mar the book, it renders it less than what it should be.

Read all of "Wendell Berry’s Peculiar Patriotism" by Benjamin J. Wilson at The Bulwark


Another review of Wendell Berry's The Need to Be Whole

The association between wholeness and the love of a place is at the heart of Berry’s decisive contribution to our national conversation about race in his new book; The Need to Be Whole, Patriotism and the History of Prejudice. In his characteristically prophetic style, Berry delivers a message of biblical simplicity: black and white Americans will remain estranged so long as our lives remain enslaved by an economy which forbids the love of a place and rewards abusing the land and our fellow human beings. But despite an entire economic organization of our society constructed upon rootlessness and the relentness destruction of communities, we must continue to hope, because “[l]ove of country is not yet a possibility foreclosed.”

Read all of "Rage Against the Machine" by Renaud Beauchard at his Limits and Hope/Substack.


On Wendell Berry's economic writings

What would a fair and just economy look like? This isn’t a new question. It isn’t even new since the Great Recession, when reckless speculation proved much American economics was founded on air. People of wisdom and learning have asked that question since at least Adam Smith and Karl Marx, and come no closer to an answer that satisfies everyone. Poet and farmer Wendell Berry suggests we’ve been looking in the wrong direction.

Berry, who has worked the same stretch of Kentucky highland his entire life, grounds his economy in judicious management of resources; and for him, the foremost resource is land. His use of “land” broadly encompasses water and air, forests and pastures, which humans must manage, not merely use. Humans arise from land, and humans create money; any economy that places money first inverts, and thus destroys, the natural order.

America, and the world generally, has fallen under sway of “autistic industrialism,” in Berry’s words, a laser-focused belief that man-made technologies will solve everything. This finds its apotheosis in a financial services industry that sees its dollar-sign output as superior to whatever it places a price on. And it works exclusively through creating ever increasing demands: Berry writes, “Finance, as opposed to economy, is always ready and eager to confuse wants and needs.”

Read all of "Building an Economy From the Soil Up" by Kevin L. Nenstiel at hs blog, WordBasket.


A review of Wendell Berry's How It Went

If you’ve not read any other Berry, or any of the other Port William books, you may be tempted to conclude from what I’ve written thus far that How it Went is so many layers of navel-gazing. Not so; narrator Andy Catlett is a faithful witness of a treasured place and beloved persons. Like all faithful witnesses, he is aware of and accounts for himself, but that is not his object. His object is to convey the essence of the lands and persons he loves. 

And that brings us to the why of his remembering. Port William, its membership, and the nearby countryside and farms are beautiful and fragile. In them, we see the fragility of beautiful things, and the beauty of fragile things, especially when those things are under threat from the acids of modernity and postmodernity. Keeping the memory of them alive is their only protection, their only hope of forming sound human affections and commitments.

Read all of "The Vocation of Remembering: Wendell Berry’s How It Went" by David Mitchel at The Rabbit Room.


A Consideration of Wendell Berry's The Need to Be Whole

Daunting to summarize, not only is this Berry’s longest work, it seems destined to be regarded as a kind of career capstone and magnum opus. While prompted by the topic of race, like The Hidden Wound this book encompasses all of the themes Berry has explored over decades of writing about place and membership, culture and agriculture, economics and education. He draws on literary analysis and historical scholarship, on personal anecdote and long friendships, and of course on his careful attention to language, his sense for pacing and poetry, his knack for making profound points in plain, direct speech.

The central theoretical theses include a need to clarify different senses of “race prejudice” and to distinguish patriotism from nationalism. Individual passages will draw attention from different kinds of audiences. The book is attuned to current events—BLM, #MeToo, Supreme Court drama, and pandemic response—but eschews polemic. There is a subtle and relevant perspective on the civic significance of Confederate monuments. Examining the cases of William Faulkner and Mark Twain, Berry shows the unavoidable complexity in the taboo of “the n-word” (which Berry himself had employed, in The Hidden Wound, to challenge the way Americans racially trope “menial” work, though he avoids the word here). Even more than in The Hidden Wound, Berry shares autobiographical accounts of his indebtedness to Black neighbors, friends, and colleagues. Thomas Friedman and Paul Krugman are targets of criticism; but Berry risks discriminating appreciations of Robert E. Lee and John Calhoun, not far from a fond homage to his late friend Ernest Gaines.

Read all of "An American Augustine" by Joshua P. Hochschild at Front Porch Republic. 


More thoughts on Wendell Berry's The Need to Be Whole

While Berry says the reaction so far to The Need to Be Whole, out Oct. 4, as opposed to the blowback he got from early readers, has actually been mostly positive, the book is decidedly not an exercise in public relations. Berry decries slavery while arguing that the motivations of the South were not all malevolent, just as those of the North were not all noble. (To wit: Lincoln's 1862 admission: "My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery.") He posits that the term "slavery" is equally applicable to the life circumstance of some people today, including "highly paid professionals who cannot escape work they consider demeaning or destructive."

Berry stakes out these positions defiantly and with conviction, shrugging off the possibility of a hostile, maybe even legacy-damaging response. As he remarked when my wife, Linda, and I visited Wendell and his wife, Tanya, on their Kentucky farm last fall, "It's too late for it to ruin my entire life." He gave Tanya credit for this witticism.

Read all of "Beyond Good and Evil: On Wendell Berry's Brave New Book" by Bill Lueders at Common Dreams.


On Wendell Berry and Sin in The Need to Be Whole

There are many reasons why we may be hesitant to use religious language in public debates about racism or other contentious topics, but Berry thinks there is no substitute for naming the sacredness of creation and our obligations to the Creator. In a culture where some people take God’s name in vain by speaking it “with ostentatious piety or blabbingly or too often,” Berry struggles to find the language necessary to speak of God with the reverence due him. Many who invoke God’s name most explicitly blaspheme him most flagrantly. Yet awkward though it may be to rely on theological language in public discourse, Berry sees it as necessary to account for the deep gravity of the wrongs we commit against one another, against creation, and against the Creator.

Read all of "Media-Friendly Sins of Other People" by Jeffrey Bilbro at Plough.


A look at Wendell Berry's new story collection

How It Went: Thirteen Late Stories of the Port William Membership is a collection of short stories covering the long life of Andy Catlett, one of the most enduring members of Port Williams. Through these thirteen stories, Berry covers the life of Andy from his youth to his preparation to join the whole Membership of Port William. Covering the years 1945-2001, Andy comes of age and experiences the post-World War II reality and the changes that followed, first as a naïve youth and then with the earned introspection of age. In this way, Andy serves as a kind of bridge, experiencing in himself the challenges that pull at the very fabric of life in Port William and by extension our own world.

Read all of "A Wandering Review of Wendell Berry's How it Went" by Ryan Hanning at Change & Challenge.