VOX Profiles Wendell Berry

Berry Farm

Hope Reese has written a nice introduction to Wendell Berry and his place-centered, agrarian ideas.  Here is a taste:

Bill McKibben’s environmental activism was spurred after his wife gave him a copy of Berry’s 1979 essay collection Home Economics, which offered ideas on how we can live a simple and grounded life at home. “There’s no writer working in the English language I admire as much,” McKibben says.

For the author Barbara Kingsolver, he’s something more: A fellow Kentuckian whose writings she turned to, she wrote in an email, “after I left home and learned with a shock that the outside world looks down on us.

“Decade after decade, I keep running up against the bigotry of American mainstream culture against Appalachians, farmers, and rural life, and I always come back to Wendell for solace,” she wrote. “Quietly and without bitterness he brings me home to myself, reminding me that all the ‘hillbilly elegies’ in the world can’t touch the strength of our souls or the poetry of our language.”

Berry is now at work on a book about race, a follow-up of sorts to one he wrote 50 years ago called The Hidden Wound. “The conversation about race has become really degraded,” he says. “It has been reduced to slogans and stereotypes.” His new book will address the removal of Confederate monuments as well as “deal with the persistence of slavery” — Berry’s great-grandparents, in fact, owned slaves — and the idea that this ended when the Emancipation Proclamation took effect, he says.

Read the entire piece here.

Kentucky’s Christian Right Governor Matt Bevin is Out

Bevin 2

Apparently last night’s visit by Donald Trump, Rand Paul, and Mitch McConnell did not help Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin.  As David Axelrod just said on CNN, Trump would not have gone to Kentucky is he did think Bevin was going to win. Well, he lost.

From what I understand, many of Kentucky’s suburban voters are turning away from the Republican Party and toward the new Democratic governor Andy Beshear, who campaigned entirely on local issues and tried to avoid getting entangled in national politics.

Readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home may remember Bevin:

While the above issues might be of interest to readers of this blog, Bevin is unpopular because of his battles with teacher’s unions and his attempt to overhaul Medicaid by requiring recipients to prove that they are either working or volunteering.

When a School Shooting Shifted the National Debate on Guns


Saul Cornell, the best historian on guns and the Second Amendment working today, tells us about an 1853 school shooting in Louisville, Kentucky.  Here is a taste of his piece at Politico:

Though little remembered now, the first high-profile school shooting in the U.S. was more than 150 years ago, in Louisville, Kentucky. The 1853 murder of William Butler by Matthews F. Ward was a news sensation, prompting national outrage over the slave South’s libertarian gun rights vision and its deadly consequences. At a time when there wasn’t yet a national media, this case prompted a legal conversation that might be worth resurrecting today.

And Cornell’s conclusion:

The Ward shooting, and the popular outcry it generated, reminds us that there’s another possible way to view the hierarchy of American rights—one in which the right not to get shot is on par with, and may even outweigh, the right to freely carry a gun and use it. The notion that the Second Amendment overrides these rights and prohibits sensible gun laws has never been the dominant position in American law. Most Americans in the 18th century and many in the 19th recognized this basic fact as fundamental to our Constitutional tradition. It is surely time to restore those other esteemed American rights to their rightful place in our contemporary constitutional debates over the role of guns in America.

Read the entire piece here.

Wendell Berry Defends the University Press of Kentucky


Kentucky governor Matt Bevin wants to close the University Press of Kentucky.  Agrarian writer and novelist Wendell Berry, who lives on a farm in Henry County, thinks Bevin’s budget proposal is “petty and barbaric.”  Writing in the Louisville Courier-Journal, Berry defends the press.  Here is a taste:

In defending the Press, I have in mind the geographic, economic and historical uniqueness of Kentucky. Perhaps no other state is so regionally divided as ours. Perhaps there is no other where the interests of agriculture, industry and urban development have competed so hurtfully. No other state’s experience of the Civil War closely resembled ours, and no others suffered its influences in the way we have. And so our need for books about our land and our people, our history and natural history, our political and economic life, is not going to be adequately served by the great commercial publishing companies, or by the university presses of other states. That need can only be served, and it has been admirably served, by The University Press of Kentucky. 

Because we have sustained that press for 75 years with a very modest investment of public money, we have The Kentucky Encyclopedia and Lowell Harrison’s and James Klotter’s New History of Kentucky, books that have the distinction of being indispensable to Kentucky students young and old; and we have in print books by James Still, Harlan Hubbard, Jim Wayne Miller, Bobbie Ann Mason, and Crystal Wilkinson that will be needed by coming generations of literate Kentuckians. Any concerned citizens who want to understand this state as it was and now is, and how it became what it now is, will find themselves immediately and continuously indebted to the University Press of Kentucky. 

Read the rest here.

Wendell Berry’s California Sojourn

Berry Farm

Matthew Stewart is a Ph.D candidate in American history at Syracuse Univesity.  In his recent piece at “Boom California,” he explores the agrarian writer Wendell Berry‘s decision to leave his home state of Kentucky for the creative writing program at Stanford.  As Stewart writes, “The fact remains that Berry spent a meaningful part of his life in California, and we might not have Wendell Berry Kentuckian, without Wendell Berry, Californian.”  Sometimes the way of improvement leads home.

Here is a taste of “Wendell Berry in California“:

At the age of 24, the farmer, novelist, and poet Wendell Berry packed up and left Kentucky for California to join the creative writing program at Stanford in Palo Alto. What he did not pack for the journey was plans to return to Kentucky. Berry had absorbed the notion that homes—particularly homes in the dying rural communities of Middle America—were for leaving, and that, as the novelist Thomas Wolfe said, “You can’t go home again.” Berry would later dispute this received wisdom in several essays and limn the contours of it in his fiction, but it took him careful reflection to get to that point.  From the distance of several decades, these reflections are surprising to revisit since he is so closely tied to his place and has been since 1964. But what if Wendell Berry had just stayed in California like countless Americans before and since?

In a national literature marked prominently by restlessness, roads, and waterways, Berry has written eloquently about placed people, about those who have returned home or never left. Some American escapes have been romantic adventures, some desperate necessities, and some have been both. If the American past has encouraged and even demanded a national literature filled with stories of escape, at times making a romance out of a necessity, Berry has tried through his writing to open up possibilities for an American future that includes not just escapes but returns. Escapes may be riveting, but, whether the perception is accurate or not, an escape implies something deficient about the place and people that caused it. Escapes are not just adventures but fractures.

By rendering wholly, concretely, and imaginatively one place, Port Royal, Kentucky, through both history and fiction (“Port William” in his fiction), Berry has imagined for his readers the possibility of families, communities, and places that make a return more fulfilling, more joyful, and possibly even more romantic than an escape. But he has not just lectured Americans about why they should return to their places, as he did to his. His story is not simply about a return. It is about building places that inspire returns, where duty and desire coexist. He has lived and imagined a return to a place worth preserving; he has practiced an art of return. As readers of his work know, this is not because his place is better than other places, but because it is his, by both birth and choice. To care for a given place does not demand the denigration of other places: “There are no unsacred places / there are only sacred places / and desecrated places.”

Read the rest here.

Not familiar with the work of Wendell Berry?  You should be.  Start here.

Today’s Religion News Service Commentary: “Kentucky’s shrewd move to promote a Christian nationalist agenda”

Kentucky.  Map courtesy of Creative Commons

Regular readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home will be familiar with a longer version of this piece.

Here is a taste of a shorter version syndicated today through Religion News Service:

(RNS) Matt Bevin, the governor of Kentucky, recently signed House Bill 128 requiring the state Board of Education to establish an elective social studies course on the Old and New Testaments.

Kentucky lawmakers believe a course will “provide to students knowledge of biblical content, character, poetry, and narratives that are prerequisites to understanding contemporary society and culture, including literature, art, music, mores, oratory, and public policy.”

Bible courses in public schools are perfectly constitutional. In 1963, the Supreme Court ruled in Abington v. Schempp that mandatory reading of the Bible in public schools as an act of religious practice or devotion was unconstitutional.

But what many fail to recognize is that Abington v. Schempp did not completely remove the Bible from schools. Consider Supreme Court Justice Tom Clark’s majority opinion:

“It might well be said that one’s education is not complete without the study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization. It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its religious and historic qualities. Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistent with the First Amendment.”

If Kentucky has every constitutional right to hold “objective,” content-oriented Bible courses, why was it necessary to pass HB 128?

The passing of this law has little to do with the United States Constitution. It has everything to do with politics.

Parts of HB 128 should raise red flags. The wording suggests that the course should move beyond the study of the Bible in its ancient context. It requires educators to apply the Bible’s teaching to current events and assumes that the Bible informs virtually every area of American culture.

Read the rest here.

Note to the Students: Profs Work Late During Final Exam Week

KY Building

Some students will do just about anything to get an “A” on a final exam.

The Lexington Herald Leader is reporting that a University of Kentucky student climbed through ceiling ducts to a professor’s office to steal a statistics exam.  Unfortunately for the student, the professor was working late.  It was 1:30 a.m.

Here is a taste:

According to UK Police, UK statistics instructor John Cain had been working late in his third floor office in the Multidisciplinary Science Building on Rose Street on Tuesday night. About midnight, he left to get something to eat. When he returned about 1:30 a.m., he tried to unlock the door, but it was blocked by something.

“He yelled out that he was calling the police and then the door swung open and two young men ran down the hallway,” recounted UK spokesman Jay Blanton.

Shortly after police arrived, one of the students returned and confessed. Henry Lynch II, a 21-year-old junior majoring in biosystems engineering, gave police an earful, including that he’d climbed through the building’s air ducts to the ceiling above Cain’s office and dropped down into the room, then unlocked the door and let in his friend, sophomore Troy Kiphuth, 21, who was not in Cain’s class.

Lynch also told them he had already tried to steal the exam earlier that evening around 6 p.m., but couldn’t find it. And, he said, it wasn’t the first time: Earlier in the semester, he’d successfully stolen another exam from Cain’s office, but he assured officers that he had not shared the answers with other students.

Read more here

HT: Scott Jaschik at Inside Higher Ed

A Baptist Pastor and Church History Professor in Kentucky Defends the NEH


Robert Penn Warren

John Inscore Essick is a co-pastor at Port Royal Baptist Church in Henry County, Kentucky and teaches Christian History at the Baptist Seminary of Kentucky.  But more importantly, he is a regular reader of The Way of Improvement Leads Home!  I am pleased to see him taking to the pages of the Louisville Courier-Journal to defend the humanities in light of Trump’s recent budget proposal.

Here is a taste of his op-ed: “We’ll Be Poorer With Trump’s Cuts to Arts

In 1961, a hundred years after America’s deadliest war began, distinguished Kentuckian Robert Penn Warren wrote that the Civil War left a “gallery of great human images for our contemplation.”

In the years since the beginning of that bloody struggle, novelists, poets, artists, photographers, filmmakers, playwrights, musicians, teachers and historians have worked to help us contemplate the impact of the Civil War on us individually and collectively.

Since 1965, their contemplative work has benefited from funding by the National Endowment for the Humanities and National Endowment for the Arts. As you may have heard, both of these federal agencies are slated to be defunded under President Trump’s proposed budget. As Bill Goodman recently noted in his op-ed, however, the positive impact of these agencies far outweighs their minimal budgetary cost.

Thanks to the NEH, for example, we have Ken Burns’ excellent and very popular PBS documentary, “The Civil War” (first broadcast in 1990 and rebroadcast in 2015). PBS funding, by the way, is also threatened by President Trump’s proposed budget. How many Kentuckians were among the nearly 40 million viewers to experience Burns’ award-winning examination of the Civil War?

Continuing on the Civil War theme, a grant from NEH made it possible for 80 Kentucky teachers to attend a week-long workshop examining new scholarship on border states during the Civil War.

Thanks to the NEA, since 1969 the nonprofit arts and education center Appalshop in Whitesburg in Letcher County has been chronicling the history, folklore and artistic traditions of Appalachian Kentucky. Appalshop’s work includes, among other things, the cataloging and preservation of 1.8 million feet of 16 mm black-and-white film, 4,000 hours of video, and 2,500 hours of audio. Because of NEA funds, Kentuckians are working to tell the story of Appalachia, challenge stereotypes of Appalachia, support efforts for justice and equity in Appalachia, and celebrate the diversity of Appalachia.

Robert Penn Warren went on to write that “[h]istory cannot give us a program for the future, but it can give us a fuller understanding of ourselves, and of our common humanity so that we can better face the future.” For more than 50 years the NEA and NEH have been helping us contemplate who we have been and who we might yet be. Given our current political climate, this is a time to renew and reaffirm our financial commitment to efforts at fostering empathy, understanding and virtue. If passed, President Trump’s proposed reduction in national funding for the arts and humanities will erode our ability to contemplate the gallery of human images from our past, present, and future, and we will be the poorer for it.

The Author’s Corner with Craig Thompson Friend

AlongtheMaysvilleRoad.jpgCraig Thompson Friend is CHASS Distinguished Graduate Professor of History and Director of Public History at NC State University. This interview is based on his new book, Along the Maysville Road: The Early American Republic in the Trans-Appalachian West (University of Tennessee Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Along the Maysville Road?

CTF: I came across a map exhibited at the Kentucky Historical Society. Drawn by Victor Collot, a French traveler, “Road from Limestone to Frankfort in the State of Kentucky” (1795) is upside down—north is down and south is up. I wanted to know why, and that initial and rather simple inquiry gave rise to a dissertation about American settlement along an old buffalo trace during the “frontier” stage of Kentucky’s history, roughly the 1770s through 1812. The road provided me a stage on which to examine how themes of the Early American republic—republicanism, democracy, urban development, evangelical Christianity, and nationalism—shaped the construction and evolution of American communities and cultures. It also allowed me to imagine these themes as more fluid and mobile, traveling up and down the road with politicians, preachers, merchants, common people, slaves, church-goers, and thousands of migrants.

When I transformed the dissertation into a book, however, I recognized that its story needed to extend into the 1830s with the buffalo trace’s evolution into the Maysville Road which, in 1830, became the focus of President Andrew Jackson’s internal improvements veto. So, I researched an entire other book, taking the story from 1812 to 1836. This allowed me to incorporate themes that had not fully evolved in the earlier story—racial slavery, refinement, the rise of a middle class. I came to realize later, with the completion of my second monograph Frontier Kentucke, that intellectually I had been constructing a narrative bridge from the “frontier” to the “Old South” in Kentucky’s history. By stopping in the 1830s, however, I failed to grasp that thematic possibility at the time.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument Along the Maysville Road?

CTF: Along the Maysville Road, American settlers competed to shape communities and cultural landscapes through “large interwoven patterns of cultural transformation” (those themes of Early American Republic which I previously listed). Those contests framed the values, beliefs, and aspirations of the Americans who settled along the road, manifesting in the evolution of the road itself and culminating in the political battles over its internal improvements.

JF: Why do we need to read Along the Maysville Road?

CTF: So often, “frontier” histories are formulated as stories on the margins, on the borderlands of the American nation. I imagined the old buffalo trace and its settlement as reflective of the new nation’s cultural evolution as Philadelphia.

Maybe a better reason to read it, however, is to see how a historian evolves in his thinking. I think our profession expects us to hatch from graduate school fully advanced in our understanding of the past and how to apply that knowledge to anything that we study. A discerning eye will uncover in my book, however, a clear evolution in historical thinking between the pre-1812 chapters (first conceived for the dissertation) and the latter chapters (added for the book). Not all of us bloom fully with the first monograph, or even the second. Now, twenty years into the profession, I am more excited than ever about what I want to say about the past.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

CTF: As I note in the acknowledgements to Along the Maysville Road, I decided I’d be a historian in eighth and ninth grade. I had yet to imagine how I would be a historian, but there was no doubt that I would somehow practice history as a career. It’s a testament to the power of inspiring teachers who can excite students about history and make it relevant to their lives. When I graduated college, however, I was unprepared to move on to graduate school. Instead, I began teaching in public schools, which required continuing education credits for renewal of my teaching certificate. At one of the continuing education programs, when I heard another inspiring educator, Theda Perdue, speak on the Cherokees and racialized enslavement, I had my “conversion experience” and realized that I wanted to become an American historian, researcher, writer, and teacher at the collegiate level.   

JF: What is your next project?

CTF: I have three projects underway—a monograph, a textbook, and an edited collection.

The monograph is a biography of Lunsford Lane, an African American born in Raleigh, North Carolina, in 1803. He purchased his freedom in 1835, worked to purchase the freedom of his wife and six children, was tarred and feathered by a working-class mob, and run out of the state. In 1842, he wrote a narrative that was widely read among northern audiences, and that is as much as most people knew about Lane. There is so much more, but I will save those revelations for the book.

The textbook is a collaboration with Jim Klotter on a revision of The New History of Kentucky. I am finding it quite a challenge to sustain the spirit of Lowell Harrison, who originally collaborated with Jim on the original edition and who passed away in 2011, and reshape the narrative to reflect the most recent scholarship and my own interpretation of early Kentucky.

The edited collection is another collaborative project with Lorri Glover, with whom I have produced two previous collections. This time we are creating Rewriting Southern History, a worthy successor to John Boles and Evelyn Nolen’s masterwork Interpreting Southern History (LSU, 1987) and the equally pivotal predecessor Writing Southern History, edited by Arthur Link and Rembrandt Patrick (LSU 1967).

JF: Thanks, Craig!

Some Quick Thoughts on the Kim Davis Case

In case you haven’t heard, Rowan County Kentucky Clerk Kim Davis refuses to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples because it violates her Christian beliefs.

I appreciate Davis’s religious-inspired convictions about marriage.  As long as religious liberty is part of the American ideal, she should be able to promote and practice these views without government persecution.  I understand her moral dilemma and realize that the Obergfell decision on same-sex marriage has caused much anxiety and confusion for the defenders of traditional marriage.  Davis is a woman of faith who is trying to find the best way to honor her deeply-held religious convictions.

But I don’t think Davis has much legal ground to stand on here.  I have no doubt that the Supreme Court will eventually need to hear a case that pits same-sex marriage against religious liberty, but I don’t think this will be that case.  Davis works for the state and thus must enforce the laws of the state.  She does not work for a church or a religious organization. 

As a historian, the Davis case leads me back to a question I have been thinking about for a long time: Is America a Christian Nation?  Even if one argues that the United States was founded as a Christian nation, it is very hard to make the case that it still is a Christian nation today.  The United States does not privilege Christianity and thus (in the wake of Obergfell) does not privilege traditional Christian views on marriage.  In this sense, the United States is a secular nation.  Many of my fellow evangelicals will cringe when I use that term.  By secular I do not mean that religion cannot contribute to the public good or should in some way be eradicated from American life.  I am simply saying that religion is not the basis for the laws of the United States.  

Mark Silk has some interesting thoughts on the Davis case at his blog, “Spiritual Politics.”  Here is a taste:

No doubt, Christians have long been faced with a dilemma regarding obedience to civil law. On the one hand, there is Jesus’ oblique response to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,” and Paul’s more specific:
“Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.”
On the other hand, the Early Church valorized its martyrs for defying Roman authority and Protestant theologians found ways to work around the Pauline prescription. Kim Davis is at once a governing authority and a person rebelling against governing authority.
For government employees in America — be they county clerks, public school teachers, or members of the military — religious liberty is conditioned by functioning in a governmental capacity. The longstanding American answer to any conscientious objection they may have was stated straightforwardly by Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kennedy, in his famous speech to the Houston Ministerial Association 55 years ago this month:
“But if the time should ever come — and I do not concede any conflict to be remotely possible — when my office would require me to either violate my conscience or violate the national interest, then I would resign the office; and I hope any conscientious public servant would do likewise.”
More recently, Justice Antonin Scalia took a similar position regarding a judge unable to uphold a law he or she conscientiously opposes.
“[I]n my view the choice for the judge who believes the death penalty to be immoral is resignation, rather than simply ignoring duly enacted, constitutional laws and sabotaging death penalty cases. He has, after all, taken an oath to apply the laws and has been given no power to supplant them with rules of his own.”

ADDENDUM:  Since I wrote this post earlier this morning, Davis has been found in contempt of the Supreme Court and arrested.  It seems as if she had one of two option.  She could either resign as county clerk or go to jail in an act of civil disobedience.  She has chosen the latter.

ANOTHER ADDENDUM:  Charles Haynes of the Religious Freedom Institute of Newseum Institute offers a  possible compromise.

The Author’s Corner With Richard Traylor

Richard C. Traylor is Professor of History at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas.  This interview is based on his new book Born of Water and Spirit: The Baptist Impulse in Kentucky, 1776-1860 (University of Tennessee, 2015).

JF: What led you to write Born of Water and Spirit?

RT: A few different influences led me toward this project as it began in my doctoral work.  First, long ago when I read Nathan O. Hatch’s The Democratization of American Christianity, I was skeptical about how his arguments applied to all the religious groups he analyzed.  But from my previous research on Baptists, I thought his overall argument worked best for that group in the early national period.  Even so, the broad, interpretive nature of that work made it difficult to pointedly examine how Baptist expansion might have been due to their democratic commitments.  Though several good works on Baptists on the nineteenth century existed, none seemed to capture how the free and fluid institutional structure and the democratic spirit of the Baptist movement propelled their growth and success in the early nineteenth century.  Second, another classic work from the 1990s, The Churching of America, 1776-1990 by Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, helped me think about how of all the “winning” traditional religious groups in the Second Great Awakening, the Baptists were the one which continued to “win” throughout the twentieth century.  Thus, there needed to be a focused work exploring just how the Second Awakening was worked out on the ground among the Baptists and what characteristics strengthened and weakened their growth in the period.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Born of Water and Spirit?

RT: The fluid structure and democratic ethic of the Baptist movement which derive from an emphasis on believer’s baptism, an individualistic ethic, a privileging of the local church, and an egalitarian view of the clergy—all of which I collectively label “the Baptist impulse”—have proven to be the movement’s greatest strength and the source of its most terrible struggles.  Kentucky offers an excellent, representative site for understanding who the colonial Baptists had been, who they were becoming in the early national period, and who they would become after the Civil War.

JF: Why do we need to read Born of Water and Spirit?

RT: The early nineteenth century was a vibrant and exciting time of change in American life from so many different angles, not just in religious life.  I appreciate any book which can remind readers of this fact.  This work captures the contribution Baptists made to that optimistic era.  I hope scholars and students of early American history will appreciate the way this book seeks to help flesh out who the Baptists were from their own words and stories.  Part of this work also reveals how the Baptists in this period transitioned from a grassroots, upstart movement toward a more refined and institutionalized group.  I think readers, even modern Baptists, might learn something about how turbulent that process was and the costs that came with such a change.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

RT: As a kid, when the American bicentennial happened, I think I was infected with a fascination for the American past.  But coming to history as a profession was a slow process in my 20s as I increasingly realized I could make a career at something I enjoyed.

JF: What is your next project?

RT: I’m torn between two projects right now.  I’ve long believed I would dig deeper into the lives of one of the Baptist ministers in Kentucky that I mention in Born of Water and Spirit.  I’ve done a little bit of research along those lines and I think it would be a great follow up project.  But recently, I’ve become enthralled with a project connected to where I find myself these days: West Texas.  Perhaps I can do both eventually. 

JT:  Thanks Richard!

What Rhymes with Alison Lundergan Grimes?

Mitch McConnell is pulling out all the stops.

It did not take long before the Kentucky senator took to the offensive against Alison Lundergan Grimes, his opponent for re-election in 2014.

Grimes announced her candidacy for the Kentucky senate seat held by McConnell on Monday.  The McConnell camp responded with one of the strangest campaign videos I have ever seen.

But don’t take my word for it.  Watch it here:

After watching this I think Grimes has a chance.