The Unforeseen Self in the Works of Wendell Berry

The Unforeseen Self in the Works of Wendell Berry

The Unforeseen Self in the Works of Wendell Berry

The Unforeseen Self in the Works of Wendell Berry


In this fresh approach to Wendell Berry's entire literary canon, Janet Goodrich argues that Berry writes primarily as an autobiographer and as such belongs to the tradition of autobiography. Goodrich maintains that whether Berry is writing poetry, fiction, or prose, he is imagining and re-imagining his own life from multiple perspectives -- temporal as well as imaginative.

With these ongoing re-creations of his own life through the different vocations that comprise his being, Berry imaginatively shapes his experience into literary artifice. Goodrich identifies five of these vocations -- the autobiographer, the poet, the farmer, the prophet, and the neighbor -- and traces them in the body of Berry's work where they are consistently identifiable in the authorial voice and obvious to the imagination in fictive characterizations. Berry's writings express these "personae" as they develop, partly by intent and partly by chance, and it is this complexity of perspective the enables Berry to write and rewrite his experience in ways that allow him to connect with his readers.

Goodrich's book is organized thematically into five chapters, each examining one of Berry's imaginative voices. Within each chapter, she has proceeded chronologically through Berry's work in order to trace the development in each point of view. Thus, the study opens the possibility of understanding Berry's writings without reducing him. By acknowledging the relationships between different themes and patterns of language in the texts, Goodrich helps the reader appreciate the richness with which Berry writes his life into art.

Whereas others have categorized Berry according to just one of his many facets, The UnforeseenSelf in the Works of Wendell Berry takes account of his work in all its complexity, providing a coherent critical context and method of study. Reconciling the sometimes-contradictory labels pinned on Berry, this vital study


My first reading of Wendell Berry's The Memory of Old Jack turned me inside out. More precisely, it turned me right side out, the right side being at the time submerged. I read the novel in the midst of a concerted effort to become someone else for someone else, and when I came face to face with my own values, affirmed in fiction, my expedition into the novel returned me with unexpected pleasure to myself.

I did not foresee the “shock of recognition” the book would transmit. Such an experience is not uncommon among Berry's readers, as we respond to the sane and somehow familiar voice we hear in his work. Because of the jarringly personal quality with which the story reawakened me, and because of the narrator's obvious affection for Old Jack Beechum, my initial impulse was to read The Memory of Old Jack as autobiography. Berry's provocatively ambiguous title seemed to refer as much to Old Jack remembered as to Old Jack's remembering processes. Accordingly, I wondered if the novel's protagonist was as much a part of the narrator's autobiography as he was a model of an autobiographer himself, remembering and reliving his experience.

At the time, I dismissed my sense that in reading a novel I was reading autobiography. Because the book purported to be fiction, it did not fit my paradigms of autobiography. Further investigation made it clear that any account of a remembered life is at once fact and fiction. Andre Maurois has recognized this truth in his remark that the autobiographer “will do what the novelist does; he will create [his life].” Maurois recognized autobiography not as a genre of its own, but merely as a branch of biography. Sixty years later, Herbert Leibowitz in his Fabricating Lives: Explorations in American Autobiography acknowledged the same novelistic impulse in the autobiographer. Because memory complicates any writer's attempt to retrieve the historical or . . .

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