The Achievement of Wendell Berry: The Hard History of Love

The Achievement of Wendell Berry: The Hard History of Love

The Achievement of Wendell Berry: The Hard History of Love

The Achievement of Wendell Berry: The Hard History of Love

Excerpt

To attempt a work of literary criticism devoted to the writings of Wendell Berry might seem foolhardy. After all, Jayber Crow has warned critics off in no uncertain terms in the “Notice” posted “BY ORDER OF THE AUTHOR” at the beginning of the novel bearing his name: “Persons attempting to find a ‘text’ in this book will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a ‘subtext’ in it will be banished; persons attempting to explain, interpret, explicate, analyze, deconstruct, or otherwise ‘understand’ it will be exiled to a desert island in the company only of other explainers.” At least the critic is not to “be shot,” as he no doubt deserves and as Mark Twain threatens at the outset of Huckleberry Finn. In self-defense, I can think of only two things to say. One, regarding exile, is to remind Berry of his own poem “Dante,” from Given: “If you imagine/others are there/you are there yourself.” The other is to say that while this is a work primarily of literary criticism, it is also one of affection that seeks to be faithful to what Berry has himself said the work of criticism should be.

Berry concludes his 2004 essay “Imagination in Place” with a brief paragraph that richly suggests his moral commitments as a writer and human being and offers a standard by which to judge his work: “I have tried (clumsily, I see) to define the places, real and imagined, where I have taken my stand and done my work.” He speaks of making “the imagined place of Port William” in an “attempt to honor the actual place” where he has lived and then, “by means of the imagined place,” learning “to see [his] native landscape and neighborhood as a place unique in the world, a work of God, possessed of an inherent sanctity that mocks any human valuation . . .

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