Another consideration of Wendell Berry's latest work

In my observation, conservatives who celebrate Wendell Berry’s ideas deal with the seemingly leftist elements of his thought—his condemnations of corporate power, finance capitalism, and libertarian individualism most obviously, but his highly selective and somewhat distanced engagement with the traditionalist pre-occupations that define so much of our never-ending culture war is perhaps even more important—in a variety of ways. Some downplay those elements, some appropriate them into a post-liberal framework, and some insist that the localist or distributist character of the agrarian beliefs which he holds aren’t in any substantive sense leftist at all, but rather are actually conservative, properly understood. All of these approaches have their value—though given that Berry never makes, in all this massive book exploring prejudices in America, an explicit Burkean defense of prejudice, I am doubtful how far any of them can go in their attempt to claim these ideas of Berry’s as “conservative” in any formal sense. Rather, while The Need to Be Whole will probably never be much read or appreciated by contemporary (and overly statist) socialists, I think his overarching intentions are clearly most at home with anti-capitalist radicals of the left. It is they, after all, who have most consistently lamented the destruction of the commons, and lamented all the divisive consequences which have followed its ruination at the hands of an expansionist capitalism which has, tragically, characterized American history from its beginning; their complaint is Berry’s as well.

Read all of "Thinking About Wendell Berry’s Leftist Lament (and More)" by Russell Arben Fox at Front Porch Republic.

Artists resonate with Wendell Berry's move to a rural place

47 years before them, the poet Wendell Berry also made a choice to move. He resigned from a teaching position at NYU to return home to rural Kentucky. Like Shane and Allison, he was born of, and ultimately returned to the South. His literary friends worried. “I received letters,” he wrote, “counseling me to remain broad-minded and intellectually aware, admonishing that I should be on the lookout for signs of decay in my work and in my mind.”

On the contrary, Shane and Allison’s city friends supported their move, contributing to Habitable Spaces’ fundraising efforts. But once the two settled in, the divide between rural and urban America became apparent in other ways. “There’s not a lot of money for nonprofits in rural areas, which is something we didn’t realize,” said Allison. “Our compatriots in New York and Austin have so much more funding. It’s been a challenge for us. ”

Read all of “'We’re All Rebels Here': Habitable Spaces’ Art & Agricultural Project in Kingsbury" at Glasstire.

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.