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.


Interview with Jack Shoemaker, Wendell Berry's publisher

FF: One of your correspondents, Wendell Berry, famously wrote that he would never buy a computer. What do you think he got right, and what wrong, in that stance?

JS: Well, I just re-published Why I Won’t Buy a Computer, I just republished that little book in a pamphlet form. Wendell and I—we spoke this morning!—Wendell and I are working on a very big book, a very big book about racism and forgiveness and a lot of stuff. A five-hundred-page book. It’s going to be a book that a lot of people will look at as a kind of bookend to Unsettling of America, I think. And during the process, we’ve been doing this for about five years, we’ve been doing this really often, likely weekly, for two years—the editing. ...

You know, he writes on a long yellow tablet, by hand. And his wife Tanya types the first draft of the manuscript. And he is devoted to her and to her work and extremely responsive to it. After all these years, she becomes, really, in the process, his first editor. And then they make a typescript, and they used to make carbon copies. Now she goes into town and gets a xerox made and sends it to me. So that initial part of the process is all handwork. If he makes changes, I get substitute pages—in hard copy. I don’t get electronic things. I think we both have just so learned to deal at this pace, and when I’m dealing with my other writers, who are all electronic and they’re all hurry-up-and-wait kind of people, it can seem weird to me, compared to what Wendell and I do with each other, which is to take our time. And to be patient with one another. But it does elongate the process, there’s no question. We spend a long time in this work.

Read the whole Fare Forward interview HERE.


On Wendell Berry's 'The Hidden Wound'

Perhaps the most significant thing in this extended essay, which I felt stands well on its own without the Afterword, is Berry’s courageous acknowledgement of the wound of racism on our national body. It is a wound caused by whites, but one from which whites suffer as well as Blacks. A strength of this work is that he owns his own complicity and his own learning with no “yes, buts.” It is vintage Berry, utterly consistent with other works of his on the dignity of manual work, of knowledge of the land, of caring for place, and of membership in community. What is striking is that Berry here offers a generous vision of community and membership that includes Black and white and the value in the humanity of each person. While Berry downplays systemic issues and may be faulted for this, his integration of issues of race into the larger themes of his work makes this more than merely a writing of place by a rural agriculturalist. It is an essay that discerns the fabric of society we are weaving, the rents in that fabric, and the crucial threads needed for a durable and useful garment.

Read all of "Review: The Hidden Wound" by Bob Trube at Bob on Books.


Revisiting Wendell Berry's "Racism and the Economy" (1988)

In his 1988 essay, “Racism and the Economy,” Wendell Berry addresses these questions [of racial/economic inequality] directly with a clarity probably beyond the reach of the shared metropolitanism of Baldwin and Buckley. He begins by diagnosing the “contagion” of racism as a form of hubris or pride: “The root is in our inordinate desire to be superior – not to some inferior or subject people, though this desire leads to the subjection of people – but to our condition. We wish to rise above the sweat and bother of taking care of anything – of ourselves, of each other, or of our country” (47). This allows Berry to set racism against people of colour in the wider context of the exploitation of cheap labour. In essence, he agrees with Baldwin that the American Dream has been too often built through the sweat of others.

One of the ways we manifest this desire for superiority is in a hierarchy of labour. Many Americans enslaved Africans to do the kind of work they refused to do themselves, “what used to be known as ‘nigger work’—work that is fundamental and inescapable” (48). Berry argues that this impulse to force others to undertake menial work infects even those who push for greater racial equality and hence taints such aspirations. Berry writes,

The “success” of the black corporate executive, in fact, only reveals the shallowness, the jeopardy, and the falseness of the “success” of the white corporate executive…. It only assumes that American blacks will be made better or more useful or more secure by becoming as greedy, selfish, wasteful, and thoughtless as affluent American whites. The aims and standards of the oppressors become the aims and standards of the oppressed, and so our ills and evils survive our successive “liberations.” (49)

In short, the socio-economic order created by European expansionism and racism not only tilts systems and structures against people of colour, it also defines the goals towards which they strive. Though Berry does not explicitly make this connection, fundamentally western economies – and especially corporations – define the beata vita, the happy life, for everyone.

Read all of "Baldwin. Buckley, and Berry on Racism and the World Order" by Mark Clavier at Front Porch Republic.


Wendell Berry files suit to prevent removal of UK mural

The University of Kentucky should halt the removal of a controversial 1930s-era mural that has been at the center of years of race-related, on-campus debate, a national group against censorship and a contemporary Black artist said in a letter to the university.

The National Coalition Against Censorship and Karyn Olivier — the artist who created a 2018 piece meant to contextualize the mural — say that the university shouldn’t take down the Ann Rice O’Hanlon piece that depicts Black workers, possibly slaves, because the mural’s removal would mute Olivier’s accompanying piece “Witness.”

Additionally, a complaint has been filed by renowned Kentucky poet and novelist Wendell Berry and his wife, Tanya, in Franklin County Circuit Court against the University of Kentucky and UK President Eli Capilouto, according to an attorney in the case. The complaint includes a request for an injunction to halt the removal or damage of the O’Hanlon Mural or the “Witness” installation by Olivier.

Read all of "Wendell Berry lawsuit, Black artist try to protect University of Kentucky mural" by Rick Childress and Morgan Eads at Lexington Herald-Leader.

See also: "Removing an offensive mural from the University of Kentucky isn’t ‘racial justice’" by Karyn Olivier at The Washington Post.
 
 
See also: "Students’ Calls to Remove a Mural Were Answered. Now Comes a Lawsuit" by Julia Jacobs at The New York Times.
 
 
 
 
 
See also "UK's plan for Memorial Hall mural dishonors honest thought" by Wendell Berry at Lexington Herald Leader (22 December 2022).
 
 

On Wendell Berry and bell hooks in place

Berry, a white agrarian-activist-author born in 1934, left his remote central Kentucky farm life to pursue education which ultimately led him to New York City where he was poised by his thirties for literary success as a professor at New York University. 

hooks was born in 1952 and her childhood roots were in Hopkinsville, Kentucky soil but transplanted to Southern California for college. She hoped, as an African American girl raised in racial segregation, to find a more accepting climate for community. Studying English at Stanford University, she garnered success as a writer and activist and, a couple of decades after Berry, found her feet planted in New York City with diverse community and career dreams. 

Berry and hooks are kindred although not kin. Their careers took them to the biggest apple from which an American can bite. Yet upon arrival they found it lacking sustenance. So, independently from each other, Berry, then hooks, made their way back to Kentucky. Berry’s Bluegrass State homecoming in 1965 planted him in Port Royal where he has farmed and written an impressive canon of essays, poetry, and novels. 

hooks, partly inspired by Berry’s agrarian essays, decided to depart New Yorck and make Berea, KY, a town begun by abolitionist pastor John Fee in 1850 as a place for blacks and whites to dwell in community, her home in 2004.

Read all of "Berry, hooks, and the Courage to Live Small" by Rusty Woods at Fathom.


Review of Wendell Berry's Collected Essays in The Nation

Over the years, he has called himself an agrarian, a pacifist, and a Christian—albeit of an eccentric kind. He has written against all forms of violence and destruction—of land, communities, and human beings—and argued that the modern American way of life is a skein of violence. He is an anti-capitalist moralist and a writer of praise for what he admires: the quiet, mostly uncelebrated labor and affection that keep the world whole and might still redeem it. ...

Berry defined his themes in the years when environmentalism grew into a mass mobilization of dissent, the civil rights movement confronted white Americans afresh with the country’s racial hierarchy and violence, and the Vietnam War joined uncritical patriotism to technocratic destruction—and stirred an anti-war movement against both. He was part of a generation in which many people confronted, as young adults, the ways that comfort and seeming safety in one place could be linked, by a thousand threads and currents, to harm elsewhere—the warm glow of electric lights to strip mining, the deed of a family farm to colonial expropriation and enslavement, the familiar sight of the Stars and Stripes to white supremacy and empire.

 


A Response to Some Criticism of Wendell Berry

Given the unpopular and uncompromising stands that Wendell Berry takes, it’s only natural that many readers fiercely disagree with him. Some of these disagreements are simply matters of preference. As one of his stories has it, “It is perhaps impossible for a person living unhappily with a flush toilet to imagine a person living happily without one.” Other disagreements are more substantive and not easily resolved. But any disagreement with Berry should begin with a fair reading of his work—otherwise one is simply battling a straw man. In this respect, I am afraid that even though Tamara Hill Murphy agrees with much of Berry’s vision, her recent essay in Plough Quarterly misrepresents his fiction, claiming that his stories view rural life too nostalgically, glossing over its violence and racism and brokenness.

When Murphy published an earlier version of this same argument, I suggested via Twitter (which is of course the perfect medium for discussing Wendell Berry) that she was overlooking many counterexamples where Port William does indeed suffer from its members’ anger, alcoholism, infidelities, and abuse. But the fact that she’s still making the same argument — and that Rod Dreher, another appreciative and thoughtful reader of Berry, largely agrees with her case — suggests that it may be worthwhile to point out the seamier side of Port William’s history. Because my colleague Jack Baker and I are currently editing a collection of essays on Berry’s fiction, I’ve recently been spending a lot of time in his stories, and these portray a much more multifaceted view of rural life than Murphy’s essay would lead one to believe.

Read the whole article by Jeffrey Bilbro at Front Porch Republic.


Review of Wendell Berry's "Andy Catlett: Early Travels"

A particularly notable theme in this book is that of race, discussed more explicitly here than anywhere else in Berry's fiction. It is discussed in Andy's interactions with the black families that live and work on both his Grandparents' farms, and his musings upon the nature of those relationships. The narrator speaks of living in the context of difficult race relations, yet "living as ourselves in it" (57). It is an important distinction--though their time is inescapable, it is possible to be selves that do not condescend to that time. 

The commentary Berry offers on race through the narration of the elder Andy is particularly interesting, discussing racism as a "malevolent convention": "I have learned to understand the old structure of racism as a malevolent convention, the malevolence of which is hard to locate in the conscious intentions of most people. It was a circumstance that was mostly taken for granted. It was inexcusable, and yet we had the formidable excuse of being used to it" (75). The narrator, in grief, speaks more to that "being used to it" on the following page: "What is hardest to get used to maybe, once you are aware, is the range of things humans are able to get used to. I was more used to this once than I am now" (76).

Red more of this review by Joel Pinckney at Goodreads.