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. 

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.

Thoughts on Wendell Berry's new book

The Need to Be Whole elaborates on themes Berry explored in his 1970 book on race, The Hidden Wound. Both argue that racism has a damaging effect on both white people and black people, and that injustices to both races have a deeper cause. He likens the "decline of a small black community in Chicago" to "the decline of the now nearly all-white small towns in my rural county." If both these things are occurring, he says, "then the problem cannot be race prejudice, or only that, but a prejudice of another kind."

He counts Martin Luther King Jr. as an ally in this analysis, saying the civil rights leader's own impulse toward wholeness moved him "from concern for black people to concern for poor people to concern at last for all people, their land and culture." Berry also pulls in the perspectives of others, including writer Ernest J. Gaines, whom Berry knew well, and bell hooks, who visited him at his farm. And while making his definitive life statement on the issue of race, he also explores all of the other issues—including the importance of community, localism, and physical labor—that run constantly through his work. ("Tanya," he relates in the introduction to his 2017 essay collection, The Art of Loading Brush: New Agrarian Writings, "says my principal asset as a writer has been my knack for repeating myself.")

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

Fifth essay from Front Porch Republic on Wendell Berry's The Need to Be Whole

... “The general principle”—equality—“can have no substantial or lasting result if it is not absorbed into the ordinary practice of neighborhood among neighbors.”

Who can argue with this? Anyone who wishes to owes it to their ideals to read Berry’s reflections on his own personal history of prejudice, he who, as a descendant of slaveowners, was “born into customary race prejudice,” as he confesses; he numbers himself among those “who feel they have got rid of the old reflexes, but who know better than to be sure.” If you’ve hoped for a something like a memoir from Berry, you will find his writing in this book as personal, detailed, and autobiographical as anything he’s written. And much of this self-disclosure is in service of his effort to show with historical precision the ways in which movement both away from and toward wholeness in race relations has taken place in his lifetime and in his part of the world. Life in neighborhoods, he concludes, makes possible degrees of healing, conviviality, and solidarity not otherwise obtained; love of neighbor is the best “stay against disorder and ruin.” For Berry, the guiding question must always be, “What scale of living and working permits us to know and value one another as the individual and unique persons we know ourselves to be?” In settings of interdependence, healing has a chance.

Read all of "A Pathway to Peace: Hope in The Need to Be Whole" by Eric Miller at Front Porch Republic.

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

Rather than discussing race in isolation, Mr. Berry argues that our history of prejudice needs to be placed in a larger context. Just as a man suffering from heart disease, diabetes, and obesity would do well to see the connection among his ailments, so too, Mr. Berry argues, we would do well to see our sad history of racial prejudice as one expression of the tendency to exploit—to use up and discard—our land, our animals, and our people. In this sense, though slavery was one especially egregious expression of the tendency to exploit, it has not been the only one. And while slavery and legal segregation have thankfully come to an end, other forms of exploitation have not. Indeed, they have become so ingrained in our culture, so normalized, that most of us don’t perceive them at all.

If the South’s embrace of slavery was one form of exploitation, the industrialism of the North was another. Indeed, one result of the Civil War was the expansion of Northern industrialism into the South. Today we accept the ubiquity of the industrial worldview unquestioningly, as if it were inherent in human culture itself. But Mr. Berry knows better.

Read all of "Wendell Berry on Patriotism & the History of Prejudice" by Justin Naylor at The Imaginative Conservative.


Another look at Wendell Berry's new book

I can’t recall when I read Wendell Berry’s 1970 essay The Hidden Woundfor the first time. But, as a white male from rural north Alabama, I do remember the effects of that initial reading. While my own rearing several decades later didn’t exactly mirror the one described in the book, Berry’s experiences of the far-reaching effects of racial prejudice, racial thinking, and the construction of identities of “race” resonated.

Since that first reading, I have re-visited the volume personally at least five times and taught it to students at both Canisius College and the University of Kentucky three other times. Perhaps because of my own scholarly interests and training, it stands as one of my favorite of Berry’s essays. I must admit, however, that I have always struggled with satisfactorily locating The Hidden Wound within and alongside the Kentucky farmer’s other writings. The Need to Be Whole: Patriotism and the History of Prejudice alleviated (or at least begins to alleviate) that struggle. Despite some imprecision in his treatment of the ways “race” intentionally serves to limit and to define others, Berry situates the thoughts from his earlier essay on prejudice and racial thinking more fully alongside the other major themes of his thought, offering his readers something of a whole tapestry of his ideas.

Read all of "Identity and Integration: A Whole Lot of Wendell Berry" by Richard A. Bailey at Front Porch Republic.

Another view of Wendell Berry's new book

The Need to Be Whole is a necessary book. It reclaims the challenge of talking publicly about racial prejudice from oversimplification and rhetorical violence. (I have more hope for private conversations.) He quotes his late friend William Hull to say that in argument we must seek “clarity rather than victory.” Well, this book is almost 500 cantless pages of work towards clarity. It can’t be easily summarized and covers a lot of ground. But as Mr. Berry examines race prejudice in his own life and in his country’s history, he wants us to realize that America’s race problem is part of a wider practice of waste and exploitation, of both people and places. And in this we are all complicit.

Read all of "Seeking Clarity: Wendell Berry's New Book on Race" by Katherine Dalton at Front Porch Republic.

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

Over a half century ago and in reaction to the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., a young Wendell Berry penned a very personal essay on race relations in American history entitled The Hidden Wound. His central argument was that the institution of black slavery had fractured and distorted American whites as well as blacks, if in different ways. Berry has now returned to the question of America’s racial past in the much larger and more ambitious volume The Need to Be Whole: Patriotism and the History of Prejudice.

As expected, Berry cuts his own path of historical interpretation. On the one hand, he accepts in a way the key premise of The New York Times’s “1619 Project” which places black slavery and its consequences at the very center of American consciousness and history. However, he gives this focus a twist, locating the primal American sin in a somewhat different place. On the other hand, he agrees in a manner with the report of the presidential “1776 Commission,” released in the waning days of the Donald Trump administration, holding that white racism is not the major source of national woes. All the same, he condemns the American project for another sort of systemic subversion of its ideals of both liberty and equality.

Read all of "Patriotic Work: Wendell Berry’s The Need to be Whole: Patriotism and the History of Prejudice" by Allan Carlson at Front Porch Republic.

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

For Berry, there are no autonomous people and no isolated social problems. Thus, while acknowledging that “it is obvious that race prejudice or white supremacy is the original and fundamental mistake in the European conquest of this country,” he sees questions of structural racial discrimination as part of a larger discussion about an economy founded on the abuse of the land and its inhabitants: displacing Native people, depleting the soil, destroying landscapes with extractive industries, and targeting the small family farm for extinction. “We need to remember,” Berry writes, “that we solved the one great problem of slavery while ignoring every issue raised by our manner of doing so, and that when the slaves were ‘freed,’ we resorted to an industrial system that exploits and enslaves people in other ways for other purposes, leaving them stranded and hopeless.”

Read all of "Labor, land, and racism" by Brian Volck at The Christian Century.

Russell Moore on Wendell Berry's possible response to Lee statue removal

Around the time that I had sent my response to the student, I was out at the poet and novelist’s farm, where at his kitchen table I awkwardly brought up the subject of Lee. I say “awkwardly” because I was quite sure that Berry would disagree with my counsel. After all, I had just read a defense he’d made of Lee, and I was sure he would think that the picture’s removal was one more example of a mobilized and rootless modern society that refused to even remember the past.

Other than the one essay, however, I really had no reason to guess his response. Berry, after all, is an agrarian writer but decidedly not in the strain of “moonlight and magnolias” Southern agrarianism, which at best whitewashes and at worst romanticizes the violent white supremacist caste system of old Dixie. To the contrary, he has written poignantly on the “hidden wound” of white supremacy and the damage it has done.

Read all of "Good Riddance to the Robert E. Lee Statue" by Russell Moore in Christianity Today.