A Conversation With Wendell Berry

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Amanda Petrusich, a writer with The New Yorker, recently spent some time with agrarian writer Wendell Berry at his home in Port Royal, Kentucky.  Here is a taste of their conversation:

A lot of people now come of age in places that feel like no place—a kind of vague American landscape, sculpted in part by corporations—which occasionally makes me wonder if homesickness, as a human experience, is itself on the verge of extinction.

Well, part of manners used to be to say to somebody you just met, “Where you from?” And I quit asking it, because so many people say they’re from everywhere or nowhere. I’ll tell you a little bit of my history that may be pertinent. My mother was born and grew up in Port Royal, my father about four miles south. Both of their families had lived here since about the beginning of the nineteenth century. When I came to teach at the University of Kentucky, Tanya and I thought we would live in Lexington, and we would have “a country place.” And we hardly had laid our hands to this house, which needed some preservation work, when we realized, we’re not going to have a country place; we’re going to live here. And so we have. We bought this home and twelve acres in the fall of 1964, and moved in, in the midst of renovations, in the summer of 1965. That put our children here, and now we’ve got grandchildren who are at home here. That comes from a decision that we made to be here, and to be here permanently.

Before you moved back to Port Royal, you travelled through Europe on a Guggenheim Fellowship, and you spent some time teaching in New York City. Was there any point at which the choice to return home made you feel anxious?

Of course, but there’s something to being led. My daddy said to me, about five years after I married Tanya, “Well, you’ve got a good girl.” And I said, proudly, “I know it,” and he said, “Well, you don’t deserve a damn bit of credit for it.” And he was right. You see, we don’t have enough sense to make these decisions. Somehow, you just get led to where you’re supposed to be, if you’re willing to submit. The last thing I learned in New York was that I was ruining myself by leaving. I was under thirty, still. People I respected were saying, “Here you are, in the literary capital of the universe, and you’ve got a good job and you’re meeting other writers.” And so I came back here with some fear and trembling, but also a sense of doing the right thing. People give us credit for knowing what we were doing. We didn’t. We came back here because we wanted to. The justification has come in the form of a kind of happiness, but we didn’t anticipate that.

I do remember getting on the Jersey Turnpike when we were coming home. We had everything we owned in a Volkswagen Beetle. I don’t want you to make me sound like some kind of mystic, but, you know, I felt a great, deep relief—as if I was following, at last, my true path. My father identified this great ignorance for me. He was the most determined man I ever knew; in a lot of ways, the most interesting man I ever knew. We were sitting on his front porch when he was about my age now. We were sitting there, totally in the dark, and he said, “Well, I’ve had a wonderful life. And I’ve had nothing to do with it.” After more darkness and silence, I said, “Well, do you believe in the informed decision?” More darkness and silence. “No!”

I envy his certainty!

He understood that a determined life had its limits. “I had a wonderful life and I had nothing to do with it”—well, now I can say that, too. There is this sense of being on your own path.

Why did your peers in New York believe you’d ruin yourself if you returned to Kentucky?

Well, here I was going to the provinces. I was going to put myself under the influence of what one of my friends called “the village virus.”

Which is?

To be narrow-minded. To be what everybody’s saying now about rural America. Racist, sexist, backward. Stupid.

Read the entire interview here.