“If Mr. Abbey is not an environmentalist, ” Wendell Berry asks in his essay “A Few Words in Defense of Edward Abbey, ” “what is he?” (WPF, 39). We might well ask the same question about Wendell Berry, and many have. What is he? Complicated enough to elude most attempts to answer the question, Berry's work prompts us to wonder. Noel Perrin, reviewing Berry's 1995 book of essays Another Turn of the Crank, calls him “a prophet, an authentic prophet.” Then, immediately dissatisfied with the limitations of the term, Perrin adds, “He is not a prophet full time. He's also a farmer, a good poet and a superb novelist.” 1. Abbey may come closer to the truth when he nearly reverses this evaluation and pronounces Berry a good novelist, a fine poet, and the best essayist now writing in America. Either way, the categories multiply beyond usefulness.
Berry himself, recognizing their limits, distrusts categories. Asked in an interview to classify himself, he demurs: “I don't much trust those categories, or use them much in my thoughts.” 2. In “Discipline and Hope, ” an early configuration in A Continuous Harmony (1972) of what come to be his major ideas, Berry offers the only classification within which he is comfortable: “What I hope for . . . [is] a chance to live and speak as a person, not as a function of some political bunch” (CH, 87).
Understanding a person requires a more complex question than “What is he?” If we want to understand Wendell Berry as a writer, we might begin by asking, “Who is he?” Berry's response to his own ques-____________________