Magazine article Humanities

The Thing (or Things) about Wendell Berry

Magazine article Humanities

The Thing (or Things) about Wendell Berry

Article excerpt

THAT WENDELL BERRY IS AN ANOMALY IS OBVIOUS TO ALMOST EVERYONE who's heard of him. That he is a hero, even an icon to some, is maybe saying something. I know of no one who so combines the qualities of being literate and down to earth; well educated and unpretentious; demanding and humble; country and sophisticated.

It doesn't stop there. He's never formally studied economics, but, in my opinion, he is a "better" economist - in the sense of smart, analytical, comprehending, comprehensible, and most importantly sensible - than all but a handful of those we encounter at universities or in the press. (And, of course, only a small handful of economists would agree with that statement.)

Perhaps these seemingly contradictory descriptions could apply to people outside of the United States, but to me it makes Wendell uniquely American. Add to this that he is among our best-known, most-adored, most-prolific, and widely admired poets, essayists, novelists (he studied with Wallace Stegner, in a seminar with Ken Kesey and Ernest J. Gaines) and social critics, a writer of almost incomparable breadth.

Did I mention that he is also a farmer, a philosopher, a teacher, an activist? And that he's been doing most of the things that I've mentioned here since the sixties, when he first spoke out against the war in Vietnam? And he continues doing most of them: Nearing eighty, he hasn't slowed down so much as honed his focus. Last year, for example, he was part of a group that sat in at the Kentucky governor's office to protest mountaintop removal for mining.

So why is Wendell Berry not among our best-known national figures? I could be sarcastic here, and say that the answer is simple: He makes too much sense. But we have at least a few national figures who have made sense. The difference is that although Wendell is hardly a shy man, he hasn't sought the spotlight, and he's remained largely in his remote corner of Kentucky. This is because he believes in fidelity not only to family - his grown children and, of course, Tanya, his wife, are there also - but to land. It's also because he likes it there. He's at home, and he believes in being at home.

There's another reason, of course: Wendell is controversial, unique, and not simplistic. You're not going to see him on the Today show or in People magazine. He doesn't speak in sound bites but in leisurely, often literary sentences that, while not at all difficult to understand, require actual concentration and thought, two functions that are sadly in short supply in popular culture.

Let's examine the "controversial" description for a moment. Like so many others who are concerned about the way we raise and process food in this country and in this world, I came to "know" Wendell through his writing about food and agriculture. I don't want to quote Wendell's writings at length here, but I long remembered something I read by him back in the eighties about family farms in which he asked - as I recalled - "Do the people of this country own its land, or don't they?" (The actual quote, which I just looked up, is this: "Shall the usable property of our country be democratically divided, or not?" You can find that in "A Defense of the Family Farm," which was published in 1986 and is in the collection Bringing It to the Table.)

I guess I didn't mention that Wendell is a radical, too. But he's not an oldleft or a new-left kind of radical; he is Wendell. He will argue - and I'm not sure I agree with him on this one, but I wouldn't try contradicting him face to face, because he'd (verbally) clobber me - that college is not the best choice for all of our young people.

He will argue - convincingly, and on this I'm quite sure he's right - that a sustainable, well-tended family farm run by thoughtful people who understand their land will generate more dollars per acre than any kind of industrial farm you can name. He has practical notions about farming woodlands - that is, working lumber as a sustainable and profitable crop - that could change the lives of rural people from Vermont to Minnesota, and of course down through Appalachia. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.