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.

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 and digital technology

Dear Wendell,

I thought of you today, as I do most every day. I was at my computer, writing, switching back and forth between typing words into a Google Doc and consulting various websites, checking facts and data, sometimes finding quotes or stats to copy and paste into the piece. And I remembered, as I sometimes do in such moments, that your experience of writing is nothing like this.

You write as you always do, pencil to paper, in your pleasing penmanship, with Tanya serving as a sounding board and typing it up. You have never used a computer to write. You are not plugged into the Internet. And I believe with every fiber of my being, Wendell, that you and your writing are better off because of this. You are spared the frustrations that come with keyboards and downloads and passwords. Your writing is still deeply sourced, as the eight-page bibliography in The Need to Be Whole attests.

Read all of "Why I Wish I Didn’t Have a Smartphone and Computer (But Probably Won’t Give Them Up)" by Bill Lueders at Front Porch Republic.

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.


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

For more than six decades, a steady breeze of earth-scented essays, novels, poetry, and short stories has tumbled from a small farm in Kentucky’s Bluegrass region, where the writer Wendell Berry, now 88 years old, has made his home. As comfortable with a hoe as with a pen, he has been one of the few intellectuals reminding us that country life is far more complex than its caricature, that industrial progress is nothing of the sort, that living in the country and working with the land can be a path to redemption, that living in the country and working with the land is the path to redemption. His latest book, The Need to Be Whole: Patriotism and the History of Prejudice, is the culmination of a lifetime of thinking and writing, and it is by turns infuriating, brilliant, lazy, startlingly radical, deeply disappointing, and filled with love, even as it seethes with resentment.

Read all of "One of Our Most Beloved Environmental Writers Has Taken a Surprising Turn" by Daegan Miller at Slate.

A path through San Francisco in Wendell Berry's Remembering

Context is important, both for Andy’s walk and for my own. My sabbatical was definitely this essay’s condition of possibility but upon reflection the experiential impact on the text’s meaning was informed not only by walking the streets but also the occasion of marriage. Andy’s relationship with Flora is the bellwether of his connection to the rest of their community, yet she plays a minor role. The story is about Andy’s integration. Not just how he learns to meaningfully participate in his agricultural community after the loss of his dominant hand but how he learns to accept his fears, anger, and insecurities. Remembering is one of my favorite Berry novels, second only to Jayber Crow, because of how it depicts Andy’s transformation. He becomes whole not by resisting the parts of himself that cause him grief and withdrawal but by incorporating them in the most literal sense: allowing them to be part of how he embodies his social and romantic relationships. Andy learns that membership doesn’t come from exiling anxieties but trusting that the love binding together community is capacious enough to both make a home for and reorient wayward traits and maimed bodies toward higher unity. For Andy, integration is the product not of the institution of marriage on its own, but of a broader network of communal memories and practices.

Read all of "Remembering Revisited" by Joseph Wiebe at Front Porch Republic.