Hunting for Reasons to Hope: A Conversation with Wendell Berry
Bush, Harold K., Jr., Christianity and Literature
Interviewer's Note: Much of Kentucky around Louisville is fairly flat, but as we venture eastward toward Henry County, where Wendell Berry's farm is located, little by little the land takes on a more rugged and hilly aspect. By the time we turn off the freeway, heading due south onto a curvy two-lane country road, it almost seems mountainous. Berry's farmhouse is set upon a hillside, overlooking the road and a wide river valley beyond it. Arrivals must pull up the steep driveway toward a dusty, heavily-used pickup truck. On the hillside next to the house is a flock of sheep; large bees hum lazily past. It is hot and steamy, the week after Independence Day 2006, and besides the bees almost nothing is stirring on this Sunday afternoon. Getting out of the car, looking upward toward the quiet house, the first sign of life we see is a small, friendly black dog, unleashed, that approaches us with winsome tail wagging away. A large man, decked out in work shirt, soiled trousers, and heavy boots, appears on the white porch, raising an arm and shouting a welcome. We climb up the hill toward Wendell Berry and his wife, Tanya, expecting to enjoy a full afternoon in the company of one of our nation's legendary writers and activists.
Some of the great discoveries of my graduate education, back in the early 1990s, were the various works of Wendell Berry. I remember specifically the peaceful feeling I got when I read the first poem from his collection, Sabbaths (1987): "I go among trees and sit still. / All my stirring becomes quiet / around me like circles on water." I was immediately drawn into the calm beauty of the forest by the calm beauty of Berry's controlled yet seemingly effortless language. I also recall a distinct feeling of empowerment after reading a few of his essays early on. Among them was the wonderfully titled "The Joy of Sales Resistance," the preface to Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community (1992), which prophetically spelled out in very simple terms some of the persistent themes of his writing over many decades. I went on from there to become an avid reader of Wendell Berry, and it was quite an honor finally to meet him during the 2005 MLA Convention in Washington D.C., where he was presented with the Conference on Christianity and Literature's Lifetime Achievement Award. During that luncheon, I was struck mostly by his thoroughly endearing sense of humor. Here was a man, I learned very quickly, who still loves a good story and a knee-slapping laugh. We swapped tall tales and puns like hungry fur trappers in the Old Northwest. I was so drawn to him that I found the pluck to ask him if it might be possible to visit him come spring or summer, and interview him at his Kentucky farm, to which he graciously said yes. What follows is some of the talk we had on that humid summer afternoon, seated in his kitchen under a ceiling fan ("it's the coolest place on the farm," said Tanya), with both of our wives in attendance and taking part in the conversation as well--which seemed fitting for a bright and welcoming country kitchen.
HKB: When I look at the list of past winners of the Lifetime Award for CCL, I see names like Czeslaw Milosz, Denise Levertov, Wayne Booth, Richard Wilbur, Cleanth Brooks. I wonder how it feels to be named with authors of that caliber?
WB: Of course, those are people I respect very much. Denise Levertov I knew and loved. Well, it's very confirming to have people respect your work. On the other hand, I can't say that my chief motive in the work is to be honored. That's not something I can afford to think a great deal about. I have to think about what I'm doing and what I have ahead of me, what's required of me, or what seems to be required of me. Being honored is not something I'm willing to allow to take up a lot of room in my mind. But it's confirming; it's like a foothold maybe, and I'm grateful for it.
HKB: How do you see your contribution to the flow of American literary history, or how do you fit into American literary history as a whole? …