On the 50th anniversary of Wendell Berry's book on racism

Berry begins The Hidden Wound by reflecting on personal experience, including stories shared in childhood. Learning about his great-grandfather selling an “unmanageable” slave brought home to him the inescapable brutality, the “innate violence,” of slavery. The violence was systemic, and every slave owner complicit. Even a master who did not want to use cruelty had to exercise at least the cruelty of abandonment: selling the slave into cruelty somewhere else.

As Berry notes, many accounts of Southern culture were unable to face this. The oddly nostalgic bookKentucky Cavaliers in Dixie used “a poeticized, romanticized, ornamental gentlemanly speech, so inflated with false sentiment as to sail lightly over all discrepancies in logic or in fact, shrugging off what it cannot accommodate, blandly affirming what it cannot shrug off.” Looking for models of honest treatment of race, Berry even found much Christian preaching evasive, and much Christian practice hypocritical.

Berry saw racism as something constructed to protect a sensitivity. He compares racism to Puritanism; the two “have meshed so perfectly in the United States” because both are contrived to insulate uncomfortable lies from being exposed by the uninhibited honesty of childlike candor. They deny something in human nature in order to enforce an oppressive code of behavior.

Read all of "Race & Anti-fragility" by Joshua P. Hochschild at Commonweal Magazine.


Thoughts on Wendell Berry's The Memory of Old Jack

At the book's opening, it is September, 1952, and Jack Beechum -- Old Jack -- is 92 years old and has begun to worry his loved ones. He lives at the hotel turned nursing home in town, forced to give up his beloved farm when it became clear he could not manage it on his own. He still rises before the sun, spending the bulk of his day lost in his own memories. So, too, do we. The shifting tenses of that opening paragraph are not a mistake, not evidence of sloppy editing. They are part of the story; they are the story.

Though the book is relatively short, it takes its time. Not at all unlike an elderly family member navigating the journey from the living room to the bedroom, the narrative moves carefully, thoughtfully, and with no unnecessary haste. Through Jack's memory, we trace with him the changes over the years: in farm and town, culture and family. We learn of his pride and ambition and failings; we learn of his heartbreaks and passions and devotion to the land. We see him through the eyes of the loved ones in the present; we learn from his mentors in the past. And we begin to understand what Berry was doing in the opening paragraph.

Read all of "On Invitation and Wendell Berry's The Memory of Old Jack" by Sarah Beth West.


Response to a recent review of Wendell Berry's essays

Instead of this Christian vision, Scialabba calls for “a pious paganism, a virtuous rationalism.” Berry’s early writing did espouse a kind of pious paganism, but Berry ultimately found that insufficient and returned to his Christian tradition and language. As Scialabba’s largely sympathetic review attests, however, Berry’s theological vision remains winsome, attractive even to those who don’t share it. Throughout his essays, Berry pairs his theological, moral arguments with ecological, pragmatic ones. This approach enables him to build common ground with people like Scialabba who don’t share his belief in God.

Read all of "Love Is its Own Justification: Wendell Berry and the Lure of Political Efficacy" by Jeffery Bilbro at Front Porch Republic.


On Wendell Berry and Antimodernism

Wendell Berry is probably the best-known and most influential antimodernist alive today, at least in the English-speaking world. Besides being a prolific essayist, novelist, story writer, and poet, Berry is a farmer in the Kentucky River Valley, an experience that has provided him with his material, his message, and his pulpit. He did not come to farming in midlife, as a novelty or a pastoral retreat. He grew up where he now farms, and his family has been farming in the area for many generations. Farming is the deepest layer of his mind; writing—learned at the University of Kentucky and then at Stanford in a famous seminar with Wallace Stegner—is the upper layer. That upper layer itself is divided: the fiction (a selection was issued last year by the Library of America) and poetry are slow-moving and deep-gauged, beautifully observed and full of interior incident, never loud or didactic. The essays, by contrast, though full of elegantly phrased and powerfully rhythmic sentences, are intensely earnest, aiming not to entertain or even to instruct but to convince and move. It’s been a feat, writing eight or so novels, several books of stories, several more of poems, and hundreds of lengthy essays and occasional pieces, all while managing a 117-acre farm, with only his wife and (occasionally) his children to help him. It’s an equal feat, traversing registers: the droll, meditative equanimity of his fiction, and the ardor, sometimes anger, of his nonfiction.

Read all of "Back to the Land: Wendell Berry in the Path of Modernity" by George Scialabba at The Baffler.


Wendell Berry's 1993 reprinted collection reviewed

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Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community is a departure from reality in that it is hopeful and romantic, and reality is bureaucratic and corporate. In an age when gnostic spirituality and transhumanism are valorized, however, we are quick to call the modest philosophy of people like Wendell Berry untenable. With the lofty promises every sterling new gadget gives us, it’s reflective that it seems impossible to return to a place that had already existed, while achieving eternal youth is likely a work in progress in a California lab. But in creating a fantasy world of the past in the present, the reader must face the prospect of a future that isn’t much different than the physically and spiritually polluted one that Berry pathologized.

Read all of "Poets of Brutality and Redemption" by Marlo Safi at The University Bookman


On Wendell Berry's work (especially the essays)

There is always movement in Wendell Berry’s sentences. He writes about what he has experienced, what he has learned, and always with humility for what he does not know. The natural world is his primary teacher: its rhythms, its largesse, its mysteries. And in the essays, the natural world often reflects how change in humans is also natural, inexplicable and possible. I think this is what many who love his writing appreciate most about Berry, whether they realize it or not. For his Christian readers, this becomes an expansion of what we understand as conversion.

Read all of "On the Road with Wendell Berry" by Jon M. Sweeney at America Magazine.


French reflection on Wendell Berry's thought

Car Berry n’est pas un simple défenseur des intérêts matériels des agriculteurs, ni ne croit naïvement – comme Jefferson – qu’ils sont des citoyens plus vertueux parce que propriétaires ; il défend la qualité du travail des paysans, parce que c’est leur travail qui les rend susceptibles de devenir plus vertueux pour la société. En effet, ils sont intrinsèquement les intendants (stewards) de la nature, cela très précisément parce que leur rapport à la nature n’est pas contemplatif, voire touristique, mais instrumental. Ils sont à la nature ce que pour Péguy les artisans étaient à la matière : ceux qui expérimentent, dans leur travail et pour leur survie, la résistance, la logique propre de ce qui est en face d’eux, de ce dont ils dépendent pour vivre. Un artisan apprend qu’une simple erreur, un petit coup de travers dans son bout de bois ou sa pierre peut rendre caduque toute son œuvre ; il apprend donc à s’adapter à la matière elle-même. Il en va de même pour le paysan qui ne peut pas faire de la glèbe ce qu’il veut, comme il le veut et quand il le veut. Péguy opposait le travail de l’artisan à celui des fonderies, soulignant (peut-être avec un peu de légèreté, d’ailleurs) que lorsqu’une pièce de métal était mal faite, il suffisait de la fondre à nouveau et de la remettre dans le moule.

Read all of “Wendell Berry: paysan, poète et penseur de l’écologie” by Frédéric Dufoing at L'inactuelle.


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.

 


NY Times reviews Wendell Berry essay collection

Now this estimable nonprofit publisher returns with two slablike volumes of his nonfiction in a boxed set, “What I Stand On: The Collected Essays of Wendell Berry 1969-2017.” Together the books weigh in at a forest-pulping 1,674 pages. It’s a lot of Wendell Berry.

It’s vastly too much Wendell Berry, a determined reader soon discovers. Counterpoint Press delivered a saltier introduction to this writer’s work last year with “The World-Ending Fire: The Essential Wendell Berry.” It’s one-fifth the size and, in paperback, about one-fifth the price.

The numbing length of these two new collections do Berry no favors. From the start, he bangs the same themes so relentlessly — the perils of industrial agriculture, the decimation of rural life, America’s blind faith in technology — that one’s eyes begin to cross.

It’s not that Berry isn’t correct to be desperately concerned about these issues, and about the loss of old ways and fine workmanship in general. You can be right there alongside him, at least on the big points, while still being driven to madness by repetition. It’s as if someone has put a bag over your head.

Read all of  "In Wendell Berry’s Essays, a Little Earnestness Goes a Long Way" by Dwight Garner at The New York Times.


A review of Wendell Berry's collected fiction in progress

The long shelf of fiction by Wendell Berry—overshadowed by the colossal green canopy of his poetry and agrarian essays—has been brought into the light by the Library of America. Wendell Berry: Port William Novels and Stories, the first of two volumes that will enshrine the whole of Berry’s fiction, was released early this year and collects four early novels and 23 short stories.

It includes a detailed chronology of Berry’s life and career, including notes on his to-thine-own-self-be-true decision to leave New York in 1965, the year he won a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship, to farm back in his home state of Kentucky. Editor Jack Shoemaker has also provided a map of Berry’s fictional yet very real town of Port William, a 120-year family tree of the four families that live out his stories, and eight pages of notes.

One of the book’s subtitles is The Civil War to World War II, and accordingly, the narrative begins with a story set in 1864, “The Girl in the Window” (2010), and ends with one set in 1945, “Not a Tear,” which originally appeared in 2012 in The Threepenny Review.

Read all of  "The Bard of Kentucky" by Rafael Alvarez at Law and Liberty.