The Agrarian Recovery of the Human Person

Last night I read a great essay by social critic Allan Carlson entitled “Wendell Berry and the Agrarian Recovery of the Human Person.” It appears in an equally great book: Figures in the Carpet: Finding the Human Person in the American Past, edited by Wilfred McClay (Eerdmans, 2007).

Carlson writes about Berry’s attempt to build an alternative culture to the liberal capitalism, individualism, competitiveness, and bourgeois sensibilities that define the world today. He wants “small economies built on productive households.” He has “rejected American nationhood, embracing instead a local patriotism celebrating his small corner of rural Kentucky.” (Berry lives on an 85 acre hillside in Kentucky where he farms and writes). He summons his readers “back to the burdens and responsibilities of wifery, husbandry, marriage, and community building.” Carlson describes his alternative culture as “anti-materialist, self-sufficient, localist, communal, familistic, and agrarian.”

Carlson writes from a conservative or traditionalist perspective. (I should add here that Berry is loved by both liberals and conservatives). He connects Berry’s ideas to the kind of “distributionism” of G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc as well as the Vanderbilt agrarians of the 1930s who wrote I’ll Take My Stand.

Carlson writes: “In one respect, Berry rejects here the idea of a universal human nature. Ties of place and memory mean that the nature of the human person will take on different characteristics in different places. To be human is to be in one of these local particular settings.” Such a rooted and place centered view of human nature leads Berry to reject the universalism of nationalism. As Berry once said about Port William, the fictional community he created in his many novels and short stories: “No more can I think of Port William and the United States in the same thought…A nation is an idea, and Port William is not.”

Carlson’s essay is a worth reading. He likes Berry and has spent the better of his career promoting some of his ideas about the place of the family in American life. But if you want to experience Berry without the so-called “middle man,” go pick up one of his novels or collection of essays and experience his radical ideas for yourself. I recommend starting with Jayber Crow.

4 thoughts on “The Agrarian Recovery of the Human Person

  1. Jefferson's agrarian vision for America was trampled by industrialism, and look at the mess we're in.

    Of course, there was no stopping it. But hyper capitalism, scion of industrialism, appears to be unsustainable. Cracks are developing in the edifice.

    Whatever the case, I'm persuaded that to live one's life within the agrarian paradigm is far better than blindly submitting to the industrial way.

    My point being, Jeffersonian agrarianism may be a long forgotten tradition for the mainstream, but there is a remnant that, even in this modern age, sees and understands the wisdom inherent in the agrarian way of life…and deliberately pursues it to the best of their ability.

    That's my opinion.


  2. Tim: I tend to agree with you on this. I do not think localism will ever be a successful political project in America. Pragmatically, it simply will not fly in a nation committed to the eighteenth-century ideal of progress and upward mobility. Let's face it, Hamilton won, making Jeffersonian agrarianism a long-forgotten tradition.


  3. I've been trying to get through *Figures in the Carpet* for about a year now. You've given me another reason to pick it up again sooner rather than later. Sadly, I've never read a piece of writing by either Berry or Carlson.

    On another note, I wonder about the productivity of engaging too much in Berry's romanticism (best word?), which reminds me of all those contributors at Front Porch Republic. It's not that there's anything at all wrong with considering the good side of localism/parochialism, but is it best engaged as a a political or a-political endeavor? What I mean is this: localism seems like a positive cultural/social project, but politically it seems dangerous at times. Nesting (not surrendering) one's political autonomy in larger structures is like insurance: you can draw on it when times are bad, but you regret paying in during abundance. – TL


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