Wendell Berry: “What I stand for is what I stand on”

Berry BrushWendell Berry has a new book out.  It is a collection of essays, short stories, and poetry titled The Art of Loading Brush: New Agrarian Writings.  Brian Barth reviews it at Modern Farmer.

Here is a taste:

In his latest book, The Art of Loading Brush: New Agrarian Writings (available in November from Counterpoint), Berry continues to rage against machines: the laptops and high-tech tractors he believes are causing us to lose touch with each other and our environments. He laments the “dispersed lives of dispersed individuals, commuting and consuming, scattering in every direction every morning, returning at night only to their screens and carryout meals.”

Yes, Berry’s a bit of a curmudgeon, who likens our smartphone obsession to drug addiction and prefers horse-drawn plows to simulated horsepower. He writes longhand before his wife, Tanya, converts the manuscripts on a Royal Standard typewriter. Such anachronistic tendencies, however, point to more than mere nostalgia—namely, a clear-eyed view of the ways in which modern society is wrecking the Earth under the guise of progress. As the journalist David Skinner noted in 2012, “Instead of being at odds with his conscience, he is at odds with his times.”

God willing, the times may have finally swung back around to meet the man. Though Berry would no doubt heap scorn upon today’s $8 heirloom tomatoes and $200 farm-to-table dinners, he did participate in the new documentary Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry, produced by Robert Redford and Nick Offerman. The reluctant subject never shows his face in the film; rather, he shares selections from his work in powerful low-pitched voiceovers. (Visit lookandseefilm.com for information on how to host a screening.) Not coincidentally, the rare photographs on these pages were captured by his intimates: former students and dear friends.

Read the rest here, including a new Berry poem.


An Interview with Wendell Berry’s Daughter

Berry Given LifeMary Berry is the director of the Berry Center in New Castle, Kentucky.  She is the daughter of agrarian writer Wendell Berry.

In this interview at America magazine, she talks about Ragan Sutterfield’s book Wendell Berry and the Given Life.  Here is a taste:

This new book brings your dad’s work to a Catholic audience. What is your opinion of it?

It’s a really good introduction to daddy’s work for people who haven’t read him. I always think when I read what people have written about daddy, it’s very good. But I hope it leads people to read daddy’s work itself.

The book’s chapters cover twelve themes from your dad’s writings: givenness, humility, love, economics, work, Sabbath, stability, membership, the body and the earth, language, peaceableness and prophesy. Could you boil all of these themes down to one sentence?

The importance of daddy’s work, for me anyway, has been to learn to live within the limits I have—to accept the place I have, the work I do, and to be content within it, and not to be always thinking of another place or thing or some distraction, but to always live the life I’ve got. To put it into a sentence: For human beings trying to live sanely and consciously, part of that is learning to accept today, to accept what it offers and be content with the good work it offers.

The book concludes with an afterword featuring an interview of your dad. What did you take away from his words?

The thing I’m most attracted to in what daddy says is that we’re all complicit—I think Thomas Merton says somewhere we’re all part of the giant sham. I think the thing that’s worrisome to me in my travels and talks, as a left-leaning person, is that people think buying some tomatoes at a farmer’s market is enough. But it doesn’t really mean that much: We’ve got some very basic work to do on how we’re living. To understand how we’re all part of this mess involves making a change in how we live.

Although you come from a Baptist family, your father’s spiritual writings have attracted a strong following among Catholics. What explains your dad’s appeal among Catholics and other spiritual seekers?

I think daddy speaks the truth. I’ve always thought that when you hear or read someone who’s speaking the truth, it seems different from everything else going on. Why it appeals in particular to Catholics, I don’t know. But he’s talking about true things, and it’s helpful for people who are seeking true things—it’s pretty clear and easy to understand.

Read the entire interview here.

The Virtue Solution Project


A couple of young upstate South Carolina state lawmakers (one of them claims to be a follower of David Barton) is trying to save the American republic through an extreme and rather dark mix of Christian nationalism, libertarianism (government is “evil”), agrarianism, gun culture (militias), state’s rights, and apocalypticism.

I consulted on journalist Andrew Brown’s story at the Charleston Post and Courier about the “Virtue Solution Project” (Apparently my 30-minute conversation with Brown did not yield money quotes).

Here is a taste of his piece:

State Reps. Josiah Magnuson, R-Campobello, and Jonathon Hill, R-Townville — both from tiny towns in the Upstate Bible Belt— are in the process of setting up what they call the “Virtue Solution Project,” a group that is seeking to either save America or survive a societal collapse, which they both believe is likely coming.

The organization is a mixture of religious ministry, grassroots political organizing and disaster prepping. At its core, their movement hopes to save the country by reshaping it to their interpretation of the Founding Fathers’ ideals.

They are advocating that their followers, and offshoot groups, form their own communities that will no longer have to rely on corporate America or the “tyrannical” federal government. They are encouraging neighbors to support “principled men” — such as themselves — who are willing to nullify laws and court rulings they don’t agree with, like abortion, gay marriage, gun restrictions and federal standards for driver’s licenses.

For their members who are not in political office, they advocate doing their part by finding their way onto juries in order to acquit people charged with crimes they personally believe are “unjust.”

If that doesn’t work, they will have “community preparedness centers,” where there will be access to “reading material, tools, food storage, ammo, and more.”

The centers will be there when the economy collapses, a natural disaster occurs, a foreign nation attacks, the federal debt dooms the country or an electromagnetic pulse wipes out the nation’s infrastructure. All are scenarios they have considered.

Read the entire article here.

Wendell Berry Talks to *The New York Times*

BerryThe agrarian novelist Wendell Berry is featured in the most recent “By the Book” series at The New York Times.  Here is a taste of his interview:

What books are currently on your night stand?

My father’s much-marked Bible (King James Version), which I keep there for companionship and to read; Volume 1 of “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” which I enjoy partly for the luxury of reading in no hurry, for I probably will never finish it; also “Venerable Trees,” by Tom Kimmerer, about the surviving trees of the original savannas or woodland pastures of Kentucky and Tennessee.

What was the last great book you read?

“Out of Africa,” by Isak Dinesen, no doubt a “great book,” also a good book. The book I recently read that I most needed to read was “Art and Scholasticism,” by Jacques Maritain.

Read the whole interview here.  Berry didn’t give The Times much to work with.   Classic.

11th Century Farming in the 21st Century

Keith Ferrell, the former editor of Omni magazine, lives on a farm in Virginia.  He works his farm with the tools available to 11th century farmers. 

He tells his story in this essay at Aeon.  Here is a taste:

I arrived in the 11th century through circumstances in my life and career. Purchased in the mid-1990s as a weekend and summer home, a getaway, part of the farm’s attraction was the old barn, already half-converted into living quarters. The downstairs had electricity, running water from a good well, a water heater (an old one, non of these tankless water heater systems had been invented yet), a tub and a toilet, a septic system. There was a range in the kitchen. The place had a phone line, which meant that we had dial-up internet (virtually the only option at the time). The nearest town, Rocky Mount, with just over 4,000 people, was 15 miles away. On clear nights with the lights turned low, the stars came out nearly as brilliantly as they would have a thousand years before.
The first couple of years of ownership had a peaceful pace – peaceful, that is, once I arrived here at the end of a work week or the beginning of a vacation. At the time, I was still editor-in-chief of OMNI magazine, often travelling throughout the country and around the world. My wife was teaching high school. The farm was our weekend refuge, a place for rejuvenation, for gardening and exploring. I left most of the fields in meadow, hiring a neighbour for a few hundred dollars to bring in a tractor and mow them a couple of times a year. I enjoyed watching an experienced farmer drive a tractor dragging a brush hog – a cutter for taking down thickets of briars and small trees. Most people with a weekend farm would have had the sense to buy a small tractor or at least a riding mower. Not me. It would have made sense to buy a four-wheel drive vehicle, too, not to mention a generator for times of power outages, but I never did.

Eric Miller on Wendell Berry’s Fiction

Check out the recent edition of The Cresset for Eric Miller‘s essay, “Technology and Human Renewal in Wendell Berry’s Port William.”  Miller focuses predominantly on Berry’s 1967 novel A Place on Earth to illustrate how “the technical advances of the West” have threatened our “deepest experience of well being.”  Here is a taste:

To begin with, in Berry’s judgment the entire modern way is premised on a manner of regarding and relating to the material world that will prove unequal to the challenge of correcting its own disintegrating course. Berry, famously, sees disaster of the greatest proportions looming. This is an argument he has made searchingly and repeatedly in his essays more so than in his fiction, and with particularly compelling force in his commentary on agriculture. “There is no longer any honest way to deny,” he wrote in 1985, “that a way of living that our leaders continue to praise is destroying all that our country is and all the best that it means. We are living even now among punishments and ruins.”
But as this judgment intimates, Berry is not simply concerned to alert us to material damage at the level of the “environment.” Rather, Berry is decrying a loss of spiritual proportions, a loss, we might say, of intimacy and attunement: the loss of intimacy with one another, and the loss of attunement to our fundamental material-spiritual condition—the attunement that makes intimacy and renewal possible. To Berry, modernity’s elaborate infrastructure, instantiated in minute and grand ways, wars against the humility we must acquire to embrace a “properly subordinated human life,” a life capable of grief and joy. Indeed, the modern pathway for him has emerged from the audacious, unseemly attempt to bypass a reckoning with who we actually are: embodied creatures rather than ethereal gods. Evading primal, ­participatory encounter with what Berry finds himself calling “the Creation,” we lose ­contact with ourselves, with each other, and so become not fruitful but barren—destructively barren.

Evangelicals, Stickers, Boomers, and Small Towns

The deeper I go into academic life the more I lose touch with the passions that led me to pursue a professorial career in the first place.  After reading Jake Meador’s recent essay in Christianity Today, a part of me wants to leave academia, move to a small town, and pastor a local Protestant congregation. I think I could be happy doing this.

In “Why We Need Small Towns,” Meador draws upon the work of Rod Dreher, Wendell Berry, and Wallace Stegner to encourage evangelical pastors to think about pursuing vocations in small places.  It’s a great piece.  Here is just a taste:

Of course, American Christians know something of the little way. The evangelical movement has always had its share of what novelist Wallace Stegner famously called “stickers.” In the words of Wendell Berry, a student of Stegner’s, stickers are people who “settle, and love the life they have made and the place they have made it in.” America’s first great theologian, Jonathan Edwards, spent much of his life serving in a single small parish. Presbyterian theologian B. B. Warfield spent nearly his entire adult life in Princeton, New Jersey, where he taught at the university and cared for his sick wife. The late Dallas Willard taught and ministered in the same philosophy department for nearly five decades. Just recently, my pastor interviewed a dozen fellow pastors who have served in Lincoln, Nebraska, for over a decade. All of them are committed to staying at their churches indefinitely.

But, like so many Westerners, we don’t always practice the virtues of the little way in our communities. Evangelicals are a people of megachurches, national conferences, city-centric thinking (which often comes with derision for small-town life), and ever-expanding religious empires, be they church-planting networks or the Twitter feeds of celebrity pastors. Consider just one example: the rise of video preaching and podcasting, and the cultlike following they have generated around certain leaders.
The point is not to demonize cities or the prominent ministries that grow out of them. God does work through these and other large endeavors. Indeed, if stickers have always been a part of American evangelicalism, so too have their more ambitious counterparts, the “boomers.” In Stegner and Wendell Berry’s use of the term, boomers are people driven by dreams and ambitions. They are always moving to the next project, always imagining a new idea or movement to pursue. If Ruthie Leming was a sticker, Rod Dreher is a boomer (or has been for much of his life, at least).
Boomers have a long tradition within evangelicalism as well. George Whitefield was our first celebrity preacher, traveling all over the country to lead revivals that drew hundreds to thousands of attendees. Much of 19th-century evangelicalism was marked by the spirit of revivalism, a boomer movement if ever there was one. And today’s U.S. megachurches—which have exploded in number in the past few decades—certainly reflect a boomer ethos, and their bigness has its value. For example, the 6,000-person congregation has resources that my 350-person one could never dream of. It would take us years to raise a mercy fund that the megachurch could raise in one week. Impressive buildings, major missions campaigns, and citywide revivals all have their place.

Herman Husband

Herman Husband

Ken Owen’s excellent post at “The Junto” reminded me once again of Herman Husband.  I remain fascinated by his story because his life intersects with so many of my scholarly interests, especially agrarianism, Quakerism, the American Revolution, evangelicalism, and millennialism.  Last night I read Wythe Holt’s essay on Husband in Al Young, Gary Nash, and Ray Raphael’s Revolutionary Founders and found it to be a helpful introduction to his life.

I know that William Hogeland, Marjoleine Kars, Terry Bouton, and Woody Holton have all studied Husband, but I am wondering if anyone is working on a biography of him?  Moreover, I am wondering if there is enough material to pull one off.  I guess I will have to head to the interlibrary office and order a copy of Mark Haddon Jones’s 1983 Northern Illinois dissertation.

Did Feminism Kill Home Cooking?

Progressive food writer Michael Pollan thinks so and he is not the only progressive who does.  There is even a small movement of “punk neo-feminist housewives” who are reclaiming the role of homemaker.

Writing at The Atlantic, Emily Matchar argues that the current craze with all-natural domesticity–backyard chickens, localism, farmer’s markets, urban knitting circles, home births, and homeschooling–can result in progressives having some “very odd attitudes” about gender.

Here is a taste:

It’s hard to know what to make of all this. Crunchy progressives are arguing that quitting your job to become a homemaker is a radical feminist act, far-right evangelicals are talking about “women’s empowerment” via Etsy, lefty liberal writers are excoriating the First Lady for hating to cook, and dyed-in-the-wool conservatives are giving birth in their bathtubs with midwives and self-hypnosis tapes.

Both sides of the political spectrum turn to domesticity for many of the same reasons: distrust in government and institutions from the EPA to the public schools to hospital maternity wards, worries about the safety of the food supply, disappointment with the working world, the desire to connect with a simpler, less consumerist way of life.

The fact that domesticity is so appealing speaks to the failure of these systems. Until these things are fixed, I predict we’ll see an increasing number of people from all parts of the political spectrum deciding to go the DIY route with their food, their homes, their children. And yes, this will mean more progressive people opting for lifestyles that seem uncomfortably retro. But maybe too we’ll see Rush Limbaugh at the farmer’s market.

Wendell Berry’s NEH Jefferson Lecture

Last night the Kentucky poet, fiction-writer, and activist Wendell Berry delivered the prestigious National Endowment for the Humanities Jefferson Lecture.  According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, Berry delivered a “scathing critique of the industrial economy and its toll on humanity….”  At the end of the lecture, NEH chairman Jim Leach said, in jest, “the views of the speaker do not necessarily reflect the views of the United States government.”

Read all about it here.

Catholics and Family Farms

Have Catholics neglected agriculture?  Apparently so, according to St. Paul Seminary professor Chris Thompson.  Here is a taste of an article about Thompson, agriculture, and Catholicism from the Catholic News Service.

When St. Paul Seminary professor Chris Thompson recently went searching for the top agriculture programs at U.S. Catholic universities, what he found — or, rather, what he didn’t find — shocked him: There aren’t any.

He made the discovery after receiving an invitation to present a paper on developments in American agriculture over the past 50 years at a conference in Rome in May.

“There seems to be no presence of (agriculture) as a focused discipline or professional formation in (any of the 244) Catholic universities across the board,” he said in an interview at the seminary, where he is academic dean.

“That’s how I became the expert,” he added with a laugh.

In addition to serving on the board of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference, Thompson has given lectures and participated in conferences on Catholic social thought regarding the environment. He also is slated to teach a seminary course on the topic in the fall.

“There’s this odd lacuna, this odd blind spot in Catholic higher education in agriculture,” Thompson told The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. “How can it be that the single largest economic force in the country has no presence or standing in the modern Catholic university?”

Read the rest here.   Perhaps more Catholics need to rediscover Luigi Ligutti.

American Georgics

If you are like me, and are interested in writings about place, land, American history, and community, then I would encourage you to pick up a copy of American Georgics: Writings on Farming, Culture, and the Land.  I have not read it yet, but it looks like a great collection of primary sources on the agrarian tradition.  It is published by Yale University Press and edited by Edwin C. Hagenstein, Brian Donahue, and Sara Gregg.

The reader includes essays by: Crevecouer, Alexander Hamilton, John Taylor of Caroline, James Madison, Edmund Ruffin, Jesse Buel, Lousia May Alcott, Susan Fenimore Cooper, Henry David Thoreau, Willa Cather, Liberty Hyde Bailey, Henry Wallace, H.L. Mencken, Ignatius Donnelly, Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom, Wes Jackson, and Wendell Berry.  It also contains an extensive bibliography.

This would make a great textbook in a course on American agrarianism, American cultural history, or even something on the Jefferson tradition in America.  I hope to get my copy soon.  When I do, you can expect another blog post–maybe even a series of posts on these writers.

Wendell Berry Receives His Humanities Medal

The Louisville Courier-Journal reports on Wendell Berry receiving the National Humanities Medal from Barack Obama.  Here is a taste: 

Berry said later that it was a memorable day.

“Not like any other one I’ve had,” he said in an interview.

“To have my work honored is a satisfaction … because my work has been to so large an extent an effort to promote good care of the land. And, of course, I’m still actively in efforts to do that. I’m glad for whatever notice that effort can receive.” 

He said the president whispered to him during the ceremony that he admired his poetry. 

“I’ve never had a president say anything to me before,” Berry said, adding that Obama, in fact, was the first president he has met. 

He said he had one more opportunity to talk briefly with Obama during a picture-taking session with the medal winners. 

“I asked if he got paid extra,” Berry said. “He said this was better than some things he had to do. It was a kind of pleasure.” 

He said he also thanked the First Lady for promoting gardening and better food and food production. 

“I thank you for that (White House) garden,” he told her. 

Berry is a well-known activist in his home state. Just last month, for example, he participated in a three-day protest in the state Capitol to protest strip mining practices.

Wendell Berry Rips the Modern Research University

The other day we wrote about Wendell Berry’s decision to remove his papers from the University of Kentucky. Over at Science Insider Berry explains his decision.

Berry uses this interview to chide his alma mater:

The University of Kentucky aspires to be a top research university. But you believe land-grant universities like Kentucky have gone astray in their mission.

W.B.: The Morrill Act [which in 1862 established what became a vast network of so-called land-grant colleges and universities] says they’re to give [money] “to the endowment, support and maintenance of at least one college where the leading object shall be, without exclusion of other scientific and classical studies … to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the pursuits and professions of life.”

I think [UK] has gone astray first with its long emphasis on research instead of teaching. If you promote research, which can be quantified, and make it the paramount issue with promotion and tenure and salary raises, then you diminish the standing and importance of teaching necessarily, which can’t be quantified. … Administrators have to find a way to reward professors for teaching.

And so the University of Kentucky has for some time had a program to become a top-20 research institution. Every sizable university in the country has that program, as if the present top 20 is going to stand back while the others pass them. I don’t think that’s going to happen for most of them. Well, let me not speculate.

The issue for me is that the University of Kentucky has a mandate to look after the country people and the rural landscapes. [It’s] promoting a research agenda that is without standards. Will it do harm to our people here, or will it be of some use? I can’t discover that there is any such standard by which the effectiveness or usefulness or beneficence of the research can be judged. They’re going to take the [research] grant money and do what they are asked to do with it.

I’ve raised an issue … with the president’s promotion of a program he calls STEM: science, technology, engineering and mathematics. This is not conformable to anybody’s idea of a liberal education. This is a curriculum entirely devoted to technical subjects.

Q: One might argue the best way to help “country people” is to prepare them for this new [science-based] economy we have.
To prepare them for city life.

Q: But you don’t need to be in a city to do science or technology.
They can live in the country and be city people by means of their computer. But what we’re doing here is ignoring the economic value of landscape and doing very little to protect it. I’ve been helping the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, promote their 50-year farm bill that would address in agriculture, for example, the issue of land leased, soil erosion, toxicity, and the destruction of rural communities and the cultures of husbandry.

Q: What was wrong with the University of Kentucky naming its building the Wildcat Coal Lodge?
I want to mention another issue before we get to the coal. The University of Kentucky owns a forest called Robinson Forest. For many years that forest has been unlogged. And very careful records have been kept about water quality and so on. Recently, the university decided that the forest had to produce an income and they contrived of an experiment that required logging part of it. A number of years ago they sold the coal rights on part of it and strip mined it. [But] logging is going on all over this state. They can do a logging experiment without resorting to logging this forest if they wanted to.

They dealt very poorly with those who opposed the project and wanted to talk to them about it. I was a member of the opposition. Then the issue of the Wildcat Coal Lodge came up. I have been an opponent, in my writing and in other ways, of surface mining. … The university has never taken a stand on the issue, … but when they accepted a $7 million gift from the coal industry and named their dormitory the Wildcat Coal Lodge, that meant that they had explicitly come out as an ally of the coal industry. That meant I can’t be an ally of the university anymore, obviously …

This is a heartbreaking thing for me. The university is an alma mater. I have two degrees from the University of Kentucky. I taught there. They have honored me. I have friends there; I have friends that are currently teaching there. And so this is a break that feels to me like a family disruption.

Can Walmart Save the Family Farm?

According to Corby Kummer in the current issue of The Atlantic, it is a distinct possibility.

I can’t believe I am saying this, but Walmart may have finally gotten its act together–at least in terms of its produce section.

Kummer writes:

I started looking
into how and why Walmart could be plausibly competing with Whole Foods, and found that its produce-buying had evolved beyond organics, to a virtually unknown program—one that could do more to encourage small and medium-size American farms than any number of well-meaning nonprofits, or the U.S. Department of Agriculture, with its new Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food campaign. Not even Fishman, who has been closely tracking Walmart’s sustainability efforts, had heard of it. “They do a lot of good things they don’t talk about,” he offered.

The program, which Walmart calls Heritage Agriculture, will encourage farms within a day’s drive of one of its warehouses to grow crops that now take days to arrive in trucks from states like Florida and California. In many cases the crops once flourished in the places where Walmart is encouraging their revival, but vanished because of Big Agriculture competition.

"A mixture of deference and awe and deep suspicion"

As many of my readers know, I am a bit of a Wendell Berry fan. I am currently reading my way through Andy Catlett: Early Travels (2006). It is another Berry masterpiece about the fictional community of Port William, Kentucky. I have grown to love this place over the years, even if it does only exist in my imagination. I remember a former student telling me that Berry’s Port William novels made him nostalgic for a kind of place he never experienced and probably never will.

The novel centers around nine-year-old Andy Catlett. During his Christmas vacation in 1943 he sets out for his grandparents’ by bus, for the first time alone. Andy lives in Hargrave, a town about ten miles from his grandparent’s farm in Port William. The trip will not take long, but Andy and his grandfather take it very seriously.

Upon his arrival, he joins a group of farmhands on his grandfather’s farm as they all gather together to strip tobacco. Present in the stripping room is Dick Watson, his grandfather’s black laborer; Jess and Rufus Brightleaf, tenant farmers and brothers; and, of course, his grandfather. Andy’s arrival quickly becomes the focus of conversation among the men and young Andy loves the attention.

Here is what ensues, as narrated by Andy:

Well, Dick, Jess Brightleaf said, “looks like you all met that bus all right. I reckon you got there in plenty of time.”

Dick laughed his laugh–“Ho, ho, ho!”–that meant he wasn’t going to tell all that he might. “Yessir, Mr. Jessie. We was out at the pike wasn’t even day yet.”

He would tell me later that Grandpa had been talking about meeting the bus for two or three days. That I would be coming by myself was a matter that he had taken very seriously. That my father would have entrusted me alone to such a contraption as a bus had not met Grandpa’s approval. He did not understand internal combustion as a motive force, and he regarded it with a mixture of deference and awe and deep suspicion.

“Ay Lord,” Grandpa said, “there was the little thing with his satchel, come all that way by himself.” He spoke as if he had witnessed an event of great pathos and wonder, never mind that at my age he would have ridden so far on horseback alone and thought nothing of it.

Jess Brightleaf looked around at us, amused, and said “Uncle Marce, looks like the boy has fattened up right sharply.”

“Aw,” Rufus said, “he swells up that way ever’ winter.” He turned around and, grinning squeezed experimentally my thigh above the knee. “Ain’t that right, Andy?

“A many a good biscuit has gone down that boy,” Jess said. “He eats so much it makes him poor to carry it.”

“Yaaaa-hahaaa!” Rufus said. “The boy traded legs with a grasshopper and got cheated out of a ass.”

“Well,” Jess said considerately, “he’ll grow. He’ll fill out. We’ll get him up here with us next summer and work him hard and put some of that fried chicken and a few biscuits into him, you won’t know him by fall.

So they greeted me, made much of me, gave me very astutely my credit rating, and so reminded me how much, how much more than they knew, I wished to grow and fill out and do work worthy of my dinner. When all their backs were turned again, I felt for myself the place where Rufus’s hard handprint still lay on my thigh, and I had to acknowledge that it was sure enough a rather grasshopperly appendage.

This is classic Berry!

Can We Talk About the Virtues of the South Without Being Racist?

The scholars affiliated with the Abbeville Institute think that we can.

I had never heard of the Abbeville Institute until I read this essay about it in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Named after the birthplace of John C. Calhoun, the Institute attracts scholars “devoted to a critical study of what is true and valuable in the Southern tradition.”

Here is a brief description:

“…its work is more philosophic in nature, namely to explore the metaphysical image of things human and divine to which the Southern tradition bears witness. This includes seeking to understand the value of those features of community that promote an enduring and humane order: the importance of private property, place, piety, humility, manners, classical liberal studies, rhetoric, and the importance of a human scale to political order. We are interested both in what those values intimate for our own time, and in how they came to be features of the Southern tradition.

“Community,” “place,” “piety,” “humility,” and the “importance of human scale to the political order.” I am in favor of discussing all of these things. I believe in all of these things. And if the southern agrarian tradition extols these things then I think there are definitely some qualities worth considering in the southern agrarian tradition.

But can we affirm these kinds of ideals as they were championed in the context of southern history without also embracing the slavery and racism that came with them? For example, I often find myself strangely attracted to the pro-slavery arguments of people like George Fitzhugh because they provide such a scathing critique of the evils of northern capitalism. In this sense, I find the work of Eugene Genovese on the white antebellum southerners very appealing. At the same time, however, Fitzhugh’s actual defense of slavery disgusts me. It is, after all, a defense of slavery.

I wonder: Does a criticism of Abraham Lincoln, like the one I recently made, make one a “Lincoln loather?” Does the fact that I am even open to the idea that the southern tradition can teach us something make me a racist? I hope not. But this seems to be the general tone of the Chronicle piece. I would like to think that I could learn something from anyone–even a slaveholder. (This, after all, is what I preach to my students. The study of history requires empathy and understanding before moral condemnation).

Is Genovese right when he said in his Massey Lectures at Harvard: “Rarely these days, even on southern campuses, is it possible to acknowledge the achievements of the white people of the South…”? (A quote, I might add, featured on the Abbeville Institute webpage). Or is Heidi Beirich of the Southern Poverty Law Center correct when she described the Abbeville Institute as a group of scholars who are trying to “revise the history of the South in favor of whites”?

These are not easy questions to answer. But let me direct you to the political Left’s embrace of southern agrarian, Wendell Berry. As far as I know, Berry is not a racist, but his fiction and non-fiction certainly reflect a “southern agrarian” understanding of place and community. Yet Berry is praised by the Left for his critique of corporate and consumer capitalism and his commitment to the environment and the land. I have yet to hear him criticized for being too connected to the southern agrarians.

I wonder if Berry might be a model for embracing what is best of the southern tradition while at the same time rejecting its immoral dark side.

Was Philip Vickers Fithian an Agrarian?

Granted, he was no Wendell Berry, but Fithian wrestled greatly with his connection to land and place. He loved his “Cohansey” home in southern New Jersey home and never found a cosmopolitan life completely satisfying. He believed that to be truly human one needed to be connected to a piece of earth, family and friends, and a religious faith.

I learned a lot from Berry and his fellow agrarians as I was writing my book on Fithian, The Way of Improvement Leads Home. (I even slipped “Jayber Crow” into the acknowledgements!). You could say that agrarianism of the Berry variety was the “theory” that informed a good portion of the book.

Here is a piece I wrote a while ago over at The Front Porch Republic which explores more fully the moral question at the heart of my book: “Does the way of improvement leads home?”

Does the Way of Improvement Lead Home?

First, let me extend my greetings to the readers of the Front Porch Republic. I have been following conversations here at FPR since it launched earlier this year and find myself resonating with its mission. So needless to say I was quite flattered when Jeremy Beer asked me to take a turn as a guest blogger.

I am guessing that part of the reason I was asked to join this impressive group of writers was because my book, The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009), touches on themes near and dear to the heart of this on-line community. On one level, The Way of Improvement Leads Home is a traditional academic monograph. It is being reviewed in all of the important scholarly journals and, as a contribution to eighteenth-century historiography, it offers a new way of thinking about the Enlightenment in America and its relationship to Christianity, the Revolution, and everyday life. I argue against the predominant view in my field that “rural Enlightenment” is an oxymoron. By examining the life of an ordinary eighteenth-century farmer—the prolific New Jersey diarist Philip Vickers Fithian—I show how ideas permeated the hinterlands and influenced grain-growers in remote locales.

On another level, I have been pleasantly surprised that The Way of Improvement Leads Home is finding a readership among those interested in questions related to place and community. This book tells the story of a young man of great ambition who embraced the new opportunities that Enlightenment progress and self-improvement had to offer. Fithian drank deeply from the well of modernity, but his “way of improvement” was by no means a smooth one. Modern opportunity often conflicted with his strong and abiding passion for “home,” a term I use broadly in the title to describe his longings for his family farm on the banks of New Jersey’s Cohansey River, his desire for friendship with his future wife, his love with those he called “friends and relations,” and his deep sense of evangelical Calvinist piety.

In the messiness of everyday life the Enlightenment ideal was often impractical. It demanded a style of living that only a handful of elite intellectuals could attain. Max Hilbert Boehm, writing in 1932, reminded us that cosmopolitanism has always existed in “compromise with nationalism, race consciousness, professional interests, caste feeling, family pride, and even egotism. However, it is precisely these tensions that make Philip’s story so interesting. His attempt at easing them is the focus of my book, the very essence of what I have described as Fithian’s “rural Enlightenment.”

My study of this ordinary farmer argues that a modern life could be lived locally—even in rural and remote places where the dominant social institutions were churches, where modern and naturalistic explanations of the world often merged with theological convictions held by people of faith, where the lines between ambitious self-improvement and Christian vocation might sometimes be blurred, and where circles of friends improved themselves through conversation amid the regular demands of the agricultural calendar.

I thus hope that the moral argument of this book might shine through some of my more academic historiographical musings. Philip Vickers Fithian reminds us that cosmopolitanism, that “great” product of modernity, has always existed in compromise with local attachments. Fithian was a member of the republic of letters and a citizen of a particular place. If true republicans were also true world citizens, then Fithian’s cosmopolitan spirit was nurtured within the context of his Cohansey River home, complete with the social networks of friends, relatives, and loves that came with it.

I hope this was an appropriate way to begin my one-month stint at the Front Porch Republic. In a world of cosmopolitan ambitions that lead to social mobility, geographical mobility, and a general sense of placelessness, my hope and prayer is that sometimes the “way of improvement” might lead us “home.”