Another response to Wendell Berry's The Need to Be Whole

Word is going around that Wendell Berry’s The Need to Be Whole: Patriotism and the History of Prejudice has caused something of a scandal. And we can easily understand the dismay: In his latest study of land, culture, and society, Mr. Berry not only argues against pulling down Confederate monuments, but even suggests that some of the Confederates had redeeming qualities. This is hardly a fashionable thesis in the Year of Our Lord 2023, nor is it what we would expect from a writer who received the National Humanities Medal from Barack Obama.

Then again, nobody should have been too surprised by Mr. Berry’s latest remarks. Left-leaning or no, the man has always been idiosyncratic, and has always admitted that his agrarian philosophy owes much to the politically-incorrect Vanderbilt Agrarians of the 1930’s. As Mr. Berry saw fit during his 2012 Jefferson Lecture to quote the poet Allen Tate—author of Stonewall Jackson: The Good Soldier and poems like “Ode To the Confederate Dead”—it should come as no surprise that he disagrees with those who would have Tate “canceled.”

Read all of "Wendell Berry's The Need to Be Whole" by Jerry Salyer at The Imaginative Conservative.

Musician composing songs based on Wendell Berry stories

Matt Wheeler is a singer-songwriter in Pennsylvania who is putting together an album of songs inspired by Wendell Berry's Port William stories. He is interviewed at The Rabbit Room:

I was introduced to Berry’s work through the songwriting of Jacob Zachary back when I was in college in Virginia. Years later, around the time my son was born, I was laid off from my job, and I decided to pick up Berry’s short story collection, The Wild Birds. I was hooked. I proceeded to check out almost every fiction work by Berry that my local library system had.

In his Port William fiction, Berry invites his readers into a rich community, a fictionalized version of the rural community where he grew up and still lives & farms in Henry County, Kentucky. Each story is a portrait of people who belong to each other and to their place. Berry has a way of winsomely portraying the complex, the mundane, and the sacred in the characters he writes. Berry dignifies good work, genuine love for God by loving one’s neighbor, and a right relationship with land and place. There’s just something that Berry can convey about what it means to be human that I’ve found few writers can match.

Among my favorite aspects of Berry’s Port William fiction is the fact that he has been writing about the same community since 1960’s Nathan Coulter and as recently as 2022—Berry turned 89 in August and released two new books last year!—and that there is such continuity. The stories are set in a wide variety of years, from the 19th century to the 2020s, and yet the stories all form a coherent whole. Imagine being able to do that over six decades.

Read all of "Invited into a Rich Community: An Interview with Matt Wheeler" at The Rabbit Room.


Reading Wendell Berry in a Wendy's

I was reading Wendell Berry’s The Unsettling of America while eating my 4 for $4 meal in a Wendy’s. I had never experienced cognitive dissonance so extreme before that moment and I don’t reckon I ever will again.

That moment felt like waking up. With a maybe-chicken nugget sopping with honey mustard between my teeth, I realized just how disconnected from the earth I was. All of a sudden I understood that my relationship with the ground and its produce was mediated to me through layers and layers of abstractions and processes and people, a relationship that, if mapped on to that between two people, could not sustain anything like intimacy and would be doomed to bitterness and failure. So it was between me and the earth under my feet, this separation represented materially by layers of cloth, rubber, asphalt, and concrete. We had a disordered relationship and while it would be easy to lay the blame at the feet of the culture to which I belong, in the end I was an offending party. Whether all the fast food spots in the country closed their doors or continued to sell their genetically modified wares in perpetuity, I needed to say sorry and mean it.

Read all of "Gardening, Wendy’s, and Wendell Berry" by Nathaniel Marshall at The Blue Scholar.

On Wendell Berry's Hannah Coulter and the challenges of staying

One key fictional example of a “sticker” is Hannah Coulter, the eponymous narrator of Berry’s fourth novel. Near the end of a long life, Hannah reflects on her two marriages (one short, one long), the children she raised, and the investments she and her neighbors have made in their homes, their farms, and one another. She treasures the way her life has intertwined with both the community and the land. At the same time, she mourns her fading hope that her rooted way of life will be passed on to the next generation. She worries what will happen after her death to the farm she and her husband Nathan have tended: none of her children or grandchildren cares for it as she does. Watching the world change around her, she observes the emergence of a “boomer” sensibility and expresses her own “sticker” values: “Most people now are looking for ‘a better place,’ which means that a lot of them will end up in a worse one. … There is no ‘better place’ than this, not in this world. And it is by the place we’ve got, and our love for it and our keeping of it, that this world is joined to Heaven.”

Read all of "Hannah Coulter, the Green Lady, and Me" by Emily G. Wenneborg at Plough.

Nick Offerman writes about his own self & Wendell Berry

I recently recorded the audiobook edition of The Need to Be Whole: Patriotism and the History of Prejudice, the latest work of nonfiction by Wendell Berry, the 88-year-old farmer from Henry County, Kentucky, and acclaimed essayist, poet, and novelist. If you don’t know Berry, some of the central themes in his decades of writing—he has published fifty-odd books—are an awareness of the sanctity of manual labor, and a reverence for the land and the small farmers who are its best stewards. Reading him has long offered me a therapeutic shortcut past a lot of wasteful, distracting consumerism, and to the wisdom of agrarianism, as well as the importance of fidelity to one’s household and community.

Then came The Need to Be Whole, which, in purely technical terms, rocked my fucking socks off. Berry examines our nation’s foundational race problem, which led Americans to increasingly view farming as beneath them—the labor of enslaved people. That persistent ethos, that we should strive to avoid the “dirty” work, has destroyed rural culture, fueled industrial farms, and divided the country.

Read all of "What Wendell Berry Taught Me" by Nick Offerman at Outside.

It goes on: Wendell Berry, Wife, and Typing

This article is a bit of a hand grenade, but it's worth understanding that the argument is still a thing.

While thinking about the problem of the Unfinished Revolution recently, I was reminded of this essay, "Feminism, The Body, and The Machine,” by foolish liberals’ favorite reactionary, Wendell Berry.  Berry wrote an essay, published in Harper’s Magazine, defending his refusal to buy a computer.  He mentioned in passing that he wrote his manuscripts in pencil and had his wife type the fair copy for publication on a manual typewriter.  When confronted with some blowback for making his wife do shit work while he did the fun part of writing, he wrote the linked response.  In the most petulant manner possible, Berry sniffs that his critics judged him unfairly, but he never provides any real evidence demonstrating that his wife was not exploited by their relationship.  

Berry wrote one specific line in the linked piece that demonstrates better than anything else why feminism is stalled and in retreat.  He claims, in the middle of his Peak Privileged White Dude Whine, “I understand that one cannot construct an adequate public defense of a private life.”  This is immediately and effectively contradicted by his own statement that his critics fail to consider a number of other possibilities: “that my wife may do this work because she wants to and likes to; that she may find some use and some meaning in it; that she may not work for nothing.”  He obviously knows that some facts could blunt his critics and yet provides no evidence of any of those things.  Since he mentions that his wife might find some “use and meaning” in doing his shit work, I think it’s worth examining how he describes their respective tasks. 

Read all of "The Unfinished Revolution" by Karen Cox at Daily Kos.

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.

On Wendell Berry's 1977 debate with Earl Butz

[Note: The chronology of Berry's life found at the back of each Library of America volume says that this debate took place in November of 1978. But other evidence contradicts that. I'm pretty sure that the LoA chronology is wrong. tm]

In 1977, two of the most influential figures in the history of American agriculture met at Manchester College in North Manchester, Indiana, to debate two widely differing visions of farming, culture, and the future of American farmland. Wendell Berry, the renowned poet, farmer, and writer defined the difference between himself and his rival, Earl Butz—the Secretary of Agriculture (1971 to 1976) widely credited with setting in motion the rapid consolidation of farmland in the United States—in simple terms. “We may never meet,” said Berry, “because he’s arguing from quantities while I’m arguing from values.” Where Berry saw the widespread loss of community, rural values, and care for the land, Butz saw an opportunity for increased profits. 

The 1977 debate between Wendell Berry and Earl Butz, still relatively unknown next to the rest of Wendell Berry’s oeuvre, provides a fascinating look into the ideology of industrial agriculture and the courage of those who oppose it. The work of farmers, writers, and activists like Wendell Berry inspire the work of Agrarian Trust to radically transform the US food system. The agricultural system built by profit-motivated politicians like Earl Butz, and its destructive effects on our health, communities, and livelihoods can no longer be justified. 

Read all of "Butz’s Law of Economics" by Noah Wurtz at Agrarian Trust

Listen to the debate here: Wendell Berry vs. Earl Butz debate 1977

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.