A Conversation With Wendell Berry

4bccd-berry

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.

When the Way of Improvement Can’t Lead Home: A Brief Review of Tara Westover’s *Educated*

Educated Tara Westover

Sometimes the way of improvement leads home. It did for Philip Vickers Fithian, the eighteenth-century son of New Jersey farmers who got an education at Princeton and spent the rest of his short life wrestling with what that meant for his relationship with friends and family in his “beloved Cohansey.”  Fithian eventually returned home, but since he died in the American Revolution we will never know how long he would have stayed.

Wendell Berry left home to become a writer.  He eventually returned to Port Royal, Kentucky and never left.  The conservative writer Rod Dreher went back to LouisianaBruce Springsteen came back to New Jersey.

Sometimes the way of improvement does not lead home, but the newly educated traveler finds ways to stay connected and deal with the psychological and emotional challenges that come with displacement.  Richard Rodriguez’s education led him away from home on a variety of levels, but he spent the rest of his career writing about his family and his “hunger for memory.”  Sarah Smolinksy, the fictional character in Anzia Yezierska’s Bread Givers, got educated and left the tyranny of her father’s immigrant Jewish household in New York City.  Yet she figured out a small way to honor her father and sustain a relationship with him, even inviting him to live with her.

But sometimes the way of improvement can’t lead home.  When Frederick Douglass learned how to read he was exposed to a world of abolitionism and anti-slavery that he never knew existed.  Education led to liberation. (This is why we call it “liberal arts education”). There would be no going back to the tyranny of slavery.

We see all three of these models in Educated, Tara Westover’s memoir of growing up among fundamentalist Mormons on a mountain in Idaho.  Westover had no formal schooling, but managed to educate herself well enough to score a 28 on the ACT and win a scholarship to Brigham Young University.

At first, Westover never imagined that her education would take her somewhere beyond the mountain.  She came home every summer and seems to have fully expected a return to her family.  But education changes a person.  Sarah learned that she was becoming something different–something very unlike her physically abusive older brother, her spiritually abusive father (in this sense, her story is most similar to Smolinsky in Bread Givers), and her mother who rejected science and medicine in favor of “essential oils.”

Through the study of psychology Westover learned that her father and brother might be bipolar.  Through her study of history she learned that her father’s conspiracy theories were built on a very shaky historical foundation.  With the help of roommates, boyfriends, and a Mormon bishop in Provo, she learned that doctors and medicine are good things.  With the help of BYU history professor Paul Kerry (a professor who once showed me around Oxford University), she encountered a world of ideas and learning that she never knew existed.  Kerry, with the help of Cambridge historian Jonathan Steinberg, convinced her that she belonged in this world.

Westover not only survived in this world, but she thrived in it.  She won numerous academic awards at BYU, including a Gates Fellowship to Cambridge.  Her way of improvement led her to a visiting fellowship at Harvard and a Ph.D in history from Cambridge.

Yet the longing of home–of family, of place, of roots–continued to pull her back to the mountain. She spent long months during her doctoral program in a state of depression as she came to grips with how education was uprooting her.  When she to tried to bring light to the dark sides of her childhood, address the tyranny, abuse, and superstition that took place everyday on the mountain, and somehow try to bring the fruits of her liberal learning to the place she loved, her family ostracized her.  The way of improvement could not lead home.  There would be no rural Enlightenment.

Westover’s story is a common one, but rarely do we see the tension between “the way of improvement” and “home” play out in such stark contrasts.

Some Front Porchers Pick Their Candidate for 2020

Buttigeig

What is a Front Porcher?  One way to define a Front Porcher is someone who reads (and generally likes what they read at) a website titled Front Porch Republic.  Here is a description of what the website is all about:

The economic crisis that emerged in late 2008 and the predictable responses it elicited from those in power has served to highlight the extent to which concepts such as human scale, the distribution of power, and our responsibility to the future have been eliminated from the public conversation. It also threatens to worsen the political and economic centralization and atomization that have accompanied the century-long unholy marriage between consumer capitalism and the modern bureaucratic state. We live in a world characterized by a flattened culture and increasingly meaningless freedoms. Little regard is paid to the necessity for those overlapping local and regional groups, communities, and associations that provide a matrix for human flourishing. We’re in a bad way, and the spokesmen and spokeswomen of both our Left and our Right are, for the most part, seriously misguided in their attempts to provide diagnoses, let alone solutions.

Though there is plenty we disagree about, and each contributor can be expected to stand by the words of only his or her own posts, the folks gathered here more or less agree with the above assertions. We come from different backgrounds, live in different places, and have divergent interests, but we’re convinced that scale, place, self-government, sustainability, limits, and variety are key terms with which any fruitful debate about our corporate future must contend. We invite you to read along, and perhaps join the discussion.

Or you can read this book to learn more about the Front Porch movement.  The website also recommends essays by Patrick Deneen, Mark T. Mitchell, and Bill Kauffman. Back in the day, I also wrote a few things for the Front Porch Republic.

Front Porchers tend to be conservative, localist, and communitarian.  They celebrate limits and community.  They love authors such as Wendell Berry (and agrarians like him) and Christopher Lasch.

And now a few Front Porchers have suggested that South Bend mayor Pete Buttigeig is their guy in 2020.  Here is a taste of Elias Crim‘s essay “Found: The Perfect FPR Presidential Candidate!“:

In our ponderings, the notion of the perfect Porcher candidate naturally has arisen, but I have to report the pickings have thus far been slim. Perhaps that’s because of our pig-headedness in clinging to certain criteria.

To wit: our ideal Porcher president would necessarily be a committed localist. And we’d need some deeds as well as words on this score—none of that armchair agrarian nonsense.

Next, we need someone whose beliefs are a tad more vigorous than that limp phrase “faith-based” implies. I think we’d be looking for someone who self-describes as religious, without necessarily plumping for any one of the Great Traditions. (The old expression Judeo-Christian comes to mind, at the mention of which my friend Joseph Epstein always likes to ask, “So who are these Judeos anyway?”)

As enthusiastic readers of that brilliant madman Bill Kaufmann, we would certainly want an anti-militarist, God help us. Maybe also someone critical of neoliberalism and distributist (in some fashion) in outlook.

If we wanted to get really starry-eyed, we’d hope for someone who’s highly literate—even multi-lingual, now that we’re really getting carried away here.

To my astonishment, it turns out we have a chap who fills this bill—and turns out he’s been living only a few miles down the road from me, happily ensconced in the security of being mayor of that smallish Midwestern city, South Bend. I refer of course to the skyrocketing Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

His public career is a parable of the local boy who went away, made good (and much better than good: Harvard, Oxford, McKinsey, U.S. Navy), and moved back home to get down to work. Buttigieg’s new book, Shortest Way Home (title borrowed from James Joyce), is a sentimental portrait of South Bend beyond the wildest dreams of any civic booster, while also describing how a place-based and “smart city” strategy has completely changed the fate of that previously feckless-looking small city.

That Mayor Pete is also a religious person might surprise some, but they’ll be even more surprised at the enthusiasm and candor with which he discusses his faith publicly, as in this recent appearance

His criticism of NAFTA, the financial system, and our history of perpetual war are standard points now in his interviews and (assuming he announces) will find a place in his public platform.

Read the entire piece here.  This makes perfect sense, although, as Crim notes, I am not sure the Christian Front Porchers will be willing to vote for a gay man.

Trump’s Placelessness

Yesterday Donald Trump got his cities confused.  He thought he was going to speak to farmers in Nashville when he was actually going to speak to farmers in New Orleans.

This seems like an honest mistake.  It is not unusual for people who travel a great deal–businessmen and musicians come to mind–to forget what city they are in.

But Trump’s mistake got me thinking about the way his life is defined by placelessness.  He leaves Trump Tower, the White House, Mar-a-Lago or Bedminster in a limo and drives to a private plane.  He lands somewhere and then takes another limo to a hotel or conference center.  Then he gets back in his limo, drives to the airport, boards his private plane or Air Force Once, and returns home.

Much of his presidential campaign consisted of flying to a city, getting in a limo, driving to an arena, getting back in a limo, and flying back to Trump Tower.  There was little interaction with ordinary people in these towns and cities.  The only time he spends outdoors is on a private golf course.

Trump lives in a placeless world in which he occupies about five or six spaces.  Within these sanitized spaces–the Oval Office, his bed, the inside of Air Force One, his Trump Tower apartment, the backseat of his limo, his room at Mar-a-Lago and Bedminster–he engages the world through Fox News.

Yet, ironically, millions of Americans have turned to him to save their local communities.

Critiquing Liberalism

BerryMap

A map of Wendell Berry’s Port William

Over at The Front Porch Republic, Jeff Bilbro has a fascinating and brilliant review of a conference at Calvin College titled “Faith and Democracy in America: Christianity and Liberalism Rightly Understood.”

Here is a taste:

In early December, the Acton Institute and Calvin College’s Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics co-hosted a conference ambitiously titled “Faith and Democracy in America: Christianity and Liberalism Rightly Understood.” The dueling keynote titles caught my attention. Patrick Deneen was slated to give the first one: “Liberalism is Not Free: The Myths of Religious Liberty.” The next day, Jamie Smith would speak in defense of liberalism: “Thank God for Liberalism: An Alternative History Without Nostalgia.” Since I respect the work of both these scholars and have learned much from their writings, I made plans to attend. The conference didn’t disappoint, though I do wish the format would have allowed for a more genuine back-and-forth between Deneen and his critics. In what follows, I’ll try to avoid too much inside baseball and, rather than attempting to summarize all of the talks, will distill some of the central questions the conference raised for me.

Kristen Johnson, a professor at Western Seminary, articulated the conference’s animating questions when she asked whether Christians can find within a pluralistic space opportunities to live radically faithful lives. The danger, of course, is that a liberal, pluralistic space will so malform Christians that the distinctive character of a gospel-formed life is warped. In Smith’s book Awaiting the King he draws on Oliver O’Donovan to claim that “liberalism itself lives on borrowed capital and is only possible because of the dent of the gospel and the formative effects of Christian practices on Western societies” (17). But as liberalism draws down this moral (and, I would add, ecological) capital, can churches sustain the kinds of vibrant communities and institutions and practices necessary to form virtuous citizens, citizens whose first allegience is to the Kingdom of God? (I pursued this line of questioning further in my review of Smith’s book.)

Several of the speakers sidestepped these difficult questions by defending liberalism’s promises of equality and freedom without reckoning with the growing evidence that American liberalism is increasingly failing to deliver on these promises. Speakers such as Samuel Gregg, William Katerberg, Kristin Du Mez, and others pointed out that women and peasants and racial minorities were oppressed in pre-liberal social arrangements, as if that, in itself, answers Deneen’s critique of liberalism.

To this end, several potshots were lobbed at Wendell Berry as a nostalgic reactionary. It is much easier, however, to make fun of Berry for being nostalgic than it is to respond to his warning that our liberal way of life is causing irreparable ecological, cultural, and moral damage. (Even my three-year-old daughter has mastered the art of criticizing Berry: if I am too engrossed in my writing, she leans toward me and repeats “Wendell Berry is a bad dude,” knowing this is a sure way to get my attention.) Yet there are grave consequences when a culture forms its members to pursue wealth and happiness by cutting themselves loose from place and community and tradition. (One of these, as Comment recently explored, is loneliness, which is just one of liberalism’s fruits.)

These defenders of liberalism’s benefits, then, tend to criticize a straw man rather than actually responding to the arguments of people like Berry or Deneen. Indeed, Deneen himself explicitly acknowledges liberalism’s Christian origins and its good results:

Nor does reflecting upon what follows liberalism’s self-destruction imply that we must simply devise its opposite, or deny what was of great or enduring value in the achievements of liberalism. Liberalism’s appeal lies in its continuities with the deepest commitments of the Western political tradition, particularly efforts to secure liberty and human dignity through the constraint of tyranny, arbitrary rule, and oppression. In this regard, liberalism is rightly considered to be based on essential political commitments that were developed over centuries in classical and Christian thought and practice. (Why Liberalism Failed 19)

In other words, liberalism can be marked by the gospel and still be a political and cultural dead end. As Ivan Illich argued, corruptio optimi pessima.

By not acknowledging this possibility, these speakers largely failed to grapple with Deneen’s argument that liberalism is not, in fact, bringing about genuine freedom or just forms of society. Instead, it is sorting society into a small group of winners and a large group of losers. As Deneen puts it, “Society today has been organized around the Millian principle that ‘everything is allowed,’ at least so long as it does not result in measurable (mainly physical) harm. It is a society organized for the benefit of the strong” (148). Smith has elsewhere made a similar case himself, noting that “the dismantling of cultural jigs makes the poor especially vulnerable.”

Deneen’s book is a tour-de-force.  Berry, of course, is a prophet. 🙂  Both offer powerful critiques of liberalism.  It seems like their arguments and the implications of their arguments need to be engaged with something more than just an appeal to liberalism’s defense of oppressed groups.  I think we need less, not more, of this kind of identity politics, especially when it comes to any discussion about the future of democracy and the common good.  (And I include white identity politics in all of this, which is one of the reasons I  am such a critic of Trump).  Bilbro, Deneen, and Berry are drawing us to things that affect all of us as human beings–environmental degradation (and its impact on the poor), the destruction of places and local economies, the decline in vibrant communities defined by loving one’s neighbor over self-interest, and the “sorting of society between winners and losers,” to name a few. (Of course such universal human appeals like the ones I mentioned above are also part of the Enlightenment liberal project.  This is complicated).

Once could look at this another way.  Bilbro names conference speakers such as Samuel Gregg, William Katerberg, and Kristin Du Mez who “defended liberalism’s promises of equality of freedom without reckoning with the growing evidence that American liberalism increasingly failed to deliver on these promises.”  I was not at the conference, but I have read Du Mez’s paper (which is linked in Bilbro’s essay).  If liberalism has been so successful, then why is it necessary for Du Mez to ask “where are the women?”  I am sure Du Mez would respond to this question by saying that the work of liberalism is not yet done.  Or perhaps she would point to some of the limits of liberalism.  But it does sound like she believes that the liberal democratic order is still the best hope of progress for women and other oppressed groups.  And there’s the rub.  Bilbro, Deneen, Berry (and I would add others like Geneva College’s Eric Miller, Syracuse’s Elizabeth Lasch-Quinn, or Pomona College’s Susan McWilliams to this list) do not think liberalism is, ironically, our best path forward.

Read Bilbro’s piece here.

WHAT????? Darryl Hart Actually Likes Something I Wrote

Covered Bridge Messia

Messiah College has a covered bridge on campus

Over the last couple of years I have been a regular target of Darryl Hart, professor of history at Hillsdale College in Michigan.  Read all his posts about my work here.

So needless to say,  I was surprised to see that Hart, a Front Porcher, actually liked my recent piece on small towns.  Read his take here.

Some quick thoughts on Hart’s take on my piece:

  1.  Hart includes a picture of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer with his post.  My Italian immigrant grandfather (died a few years ago at the 103) was a Teamster who drove a delivery truck for PBR.  I once won him a PBR glass on a wheel of chance on the Seaside Heights boardwalk.
  2. I had no idea Hart was a student at Messiah College back in the day.
  3. I am from the East Coast, but I am not, nor have I ever been, one of the “coastal elites.”  (See the grandfather and Seaside Heights reference above).

Small Towns: Redux

Mechanicsburg,_PA_Keystone_Marker_1

Some of you read my piece yesterday about small towns.  Frankly, I am bit surprised by the amount of comments and e-mail this post generated.  A few comments:

  1. I appear to have offended all the cosmopolitans.
  2. A few people implied that the post bordered on racism.
  3. Some folks have made important points about the limits of small towns.
  4. The Wendell Berry/agrarian crowd seemed to love the piece.

As for me, I am focused on the big District 3 soccer semi-final game on Monday night!  Rather than debate the pros and cons of small towns, I will just choose to live my life in one!  Go Wildcats! 🙂

At one of the stops on the Believe Me book tour someone asked me if the real divisions in our country are between rural folks and urban/suburban folks.  The heavy response to this post leads me to believe that this may correct.

But I still think that the “way of improvement” can lead “home.”  I still cling to the cosmopolitan rootedness I wrote about in this 2008 book and this 2003 article in the The Journal of American History.

If You Get a Chance to Live in a Small Town, Take It

Caroline last game

Seconds before the lights went out–literally and figuratively–at the Northside “Cage”

I was recently at a conference where I overheard a couple of history graduate students from an Ivy League university complaining about the job market.  This, of course, is pretty commonplace among history graduate students.  The market for tenure-track jobs in the field of history is terrible.

Yet these graduate students were not complaining about the small number of jobs available.  There was a sense of confidence in their speech as they talked about their prestigious advisers and the quality of the graduate programs where they earned their Ph.Ds.  They did not seem overly worried about landing a job.  Rather, their complaints focused more on the fact that so many jobs were located in rural communities in so-called “Red States” where they did not want to live.  Their conversation was infused with the kind of cosmopolitan snobbishness that I often hear in academic circles.  As I listened to them talk, I thought that maybe all those Trump voters and Fox News watchers are correct about the “coastal elites.”

As many readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home know, I have invested nearly my entire career at a small church-related college in south central Pennsylvania.  I chose to work here.  In 2002, I had job offers from a research university, several regional state universities, and a couple of really good liberal arts colleges.  (The job market was obviously much better in 2002!).  I chose Messiah College because I believed in its mission. I still do.  Messiah is not a utopia, but it is certainly a place where I have been able to grow as a scholar and teacher with a supportive administration.  It is also an institution that has been supportive of my wife’s vocation.  We generally like it here.

Messiah is located in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania.  Mechanicsburg is not a very cosmopolitan place.  Many of my neighbors have lived in the town for multiple generations.  Some young people get out of town after graduation and never come back, but many never leave.  We have all the usual problems associated with small towns.  Race-relations could be better.  Drug deals go down in the convenience store parking lots.  The wealthy members of our town cloister in their gated communities.  But this is where we decided to raise our family.

When we arrived in Mechanicsburg our daughters–Allyson and Caroline– were ages four and one.  They attended kindergarten through high school in Mechanicsburg Area School District.  We chose to live in the Mechanicsburg School District as opposed to the larger regional Cumberland Valley School District (with more opportunities) because we wanted a smaller, more intimate community for our kids.  Both of them have thrived in this district and we have never regretted our choice.

Some folks in town who know me may think it is odd that I am writing about the sense of community I feel in Mechanicsburg.  As an introvert, I tend to keep to myself.  I would rather watch my kids play sports seated alone than join a crowd of cheering fans.  I am not very good at small talk.  I coached my girls in basketball when they were in elementary school, but I got disgusted with the politics, the ambitious parents, and the way many of those parents treated the selfless staff of our town’s recreation department, so I stopped.  I have not participated as much in the local life of my community largely because of the time I spend investing in the life of Messiah College.  But I have tried to serve when asked.  I could do better.

I thought about my relationship with this community again as I sat in the cold last night and watched the Mechanicsburg Girls Soccer team play their final home game of the season.  It was the second round of the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association’s District 3 playoffs.  The girls won 4-0 over a team from Berks County and advanced to the District semifinals on Monday night at Hershey Park Stadium.  They are now 20-0 and ranked 21st in the nation.  A great story is developing here in small-town Mechanicsburg.  My daughter Caroline plays a minimum number of minutes each game, but she has been an intricate part of a team that is making local history.  She has been playing soccer with many of the seniors on this team since she was eight-years-old.  Some of these girls are her best friends.  Mechanicsburg is Caroline’s community.  This place has shaped her life in so many good ways.

Caroline had mixed emotions last night.  Her team will play again next week and, if things go well, will try to make a run in the state tournament.  Yet the sadness of playing her last game on her home field with her friends was palpable as she walked across the field to meet us.  Her tears were a mixture of joy for the blessing of an undefeated season (so far) and sadness that it was all nearing an end.  I fought them back as well.

Small towns are good things.  If you get a chance to live in one, take it.

Another Post About People Who Tweet About Wendell Berry

Riverside-Drive-Harrisburg-City-Island-1422x711

Some of you will recall this post from last week.  Since my critical review of Matt Stewart’s piece “Stop Talking about Wendell Berry on Twitter,” several other folks have responded to it at the Front Porch Republic.  So far the only person to really defend all of Matt’s piece is Eric Miller.

I actually brought this debate up very briefly yesterday in our live podcast episode, “Flourishing in a Digital World.”  I imagine that my friends Eric and Matt think it is heresy to even consider putting the word “flourishing” together with “digital world,” but this is exactly what we tried to do yesterday at Messiah College.  Frankly, I was blown-away by how our guests connected their digital footprints as historians, writers, community activists, bloggers, social media-users, and story-tellers to particular places and communities.  I hope you get a chance to listen to this special bonus episode of The Way of Improvement Leads Podcast when we release it next month.

In the meantime, I encourage you to read Tara Ann Thieke’s critique of Stewart’s essay: “Alone Together on the Internet.”  Here is a taste:

Wendell Berry was able to reject the computer. I think it was the right decision. But his choice and his work have come to us through the connections he made by going to Stanford and Europe, teaching at NYU, earning himself an audience, and allowing the publishing industry to use the best technology at their disposal (including computers) to make his work accessible. Later on, once he was well-established, audiences were able to hear out his reasoning for preferring the pen to the keyboard (a choice I agree with; most of my writing is first done in notebooks with a trusty blue rollerball pen). The computer was still a fundamental part of the supply-chain connecting Mr. Berry to the reader; we are none of us islands and the supply-chain is inescapable except to true hermits.

And this:

Twitter and social media have allowed me, an arm-chair amateur, to use the system’s tools to advocate for a different vision. While I am surrounded by the cultural consequences of all these wires and flashing screens, these tools have permitted me to find other wandering voices. Do I talk about Wendell Berry on Twitter? Guilty. But I have also started several clubs through Meetup which allows those of us who share these interests to meet face-to-face. Other armchair amateurs, caught in the confines of suburbia, of work, of the ceaseless din of advertising, have found one another through the threadbare wires not closely guarded enough.

We schedule gatherings through Facebook to watch Wendell Berry documentaries. We talk on Twitter and move on to start discussion groups elsewhere; people drive from 50 miles away to come discuss the Inklings, those foes of Mordor, once a month. We gather in an old park to serve the homeless. Imperfect? Always. But Joel Salatin wrote that expecting a first-time cook to bake a perfect cake is as silly as expecting a baby to suddenly stand and walk rather than stumble. Social media, in particular private Facebook groups and Twitter connections, have allowed those of us afraid of stumbling to receive mutual encouragement, advice, and solidarity.

Read the entire piece here.  I guess I identify more as a Wendell Berry evangelical than a Wendell Berry fundamentalist. 🙂

How Can Anyone Hate Wendell Berry?

Berry

How can you hate this man? 🙂

Allen T. Stanton, a United Methodist pastor, hates the agrarian writer Wendell Berry.  Here is a taste of his piece at Faith & Leadership:

On the surface, my town was a picturesque embodiment of Berry’s community. But there’s another part of the story. The local textile mill closed in the 1990s. Ever since a massive flood in 1999, residential streets have sat empty, their houses demolished and never rebuilt after FEMA buyouts.

When I was in high school, tobacco farmers would leave their crops to die in the fields because it was cheaper to let a crop go to waste than to harvest it and not be able to sell it. When Walmart came to town, our small grocery store was forced to close.

My small rural town could also be suffocating. No one expected my dreams to expand beyond the 2 square miles it occupied. Whenever I talked about living in other places, someone would remark, “Oh, you’ll grow out of that. You’ll end up here, like everyone else did.”

My freshman year of college, I was surrounded by people from elite prep schools. During orientation, one dorm mate said, “You went to a poor rural school; I went to one of the best prep schools in the nation. How are we both at the same college?”

It was insulting, and I became desperate to prove that I belonged. I worked to drop, or at least soften, my thick Southern accent. Each assignment became a competition, and not just about the grade. I wanted to show that I could do the work faster, more efficiently and with less apparent effort than my classmates.

“Rural” became something to escape.

Read the rest here.

I love Berry, but I think this is a fair assessment.  Sometimes you need a way of improvement before return home.  (By the way, The Way of Improvement Leads Home is now selling for 77% off).

Some of Wendell Berry’s Port William Novels Are Now Part of the Library of America

berry LOASpeaking of rural America

You can now read Wendell Berry’s Nathan CoulterAndy Catlett: Early TravelsA World LostA Place on Earth, and a bunch of short stories from Berry’s fictional town of Port William in one place!  Congrats to the Library of America for releasing this collection!

Here is an overview:

For more than fifty years, in eight novels and forty-two short stories, Wendell Berry (b. 1934) has created an indelible portrait of rural America through the lens of Port William, Kentucky, one of the most fully imagined places in American literature. The river town and its environs are home to generations of Coulters, Catletts, Feltners, and other families collectively known as the Membership, women and men whose stories evoke the earthbound pleasures and spiritual richness of what Berry has called the three-dimensional life, a time before industrial agriculture, pervasive technology, and unrestrained consumerism began to unravel the deep bonds of community that once sustained small-town America.

Taken together, these novels and stories form a masterwork of American prose: straightforward, spare, and lyrical. Now, in an edition prepared in consultation with the author, Library of America presents the complete Port William novels and stories for the first time in the order of their narrative chronology, revealing as never before the intricate dovetails and beguiling elegance of Berry’s larger construction. As one of his narrators puts it: “their stories are all added finally into one story . . . bound together in a many-stranded braid beyond the power of any awl to pick apart.”

This first volume, which spans from the Civil War to World War II, gathers the novels Nathan Coulter (1960, revised 1985), A Place on Earth (1967, revised 1983), A World Lost(1996), and Andy Catlett: Early Travels (2006), along with twenty-three short stories, among them such favorites as “Watch With Me,” “Thicker than Liquor,” and “A Desirable Woman.” It also features a newly researched chronology of Berry’s life and career, a map of Port William and a Membership family tree, and helpful notes.

Jack Shoemaker, editor, is Editorial Director of Counterpoint Press, publishing the work of Wendell Berry, Gary Snyder, M.F.K. Fisher, Evan Connell, Robert Aitken, Anne Lamott, Jane Vandenburgh, and many others. He has worked with Berry for more than forty years.

 

Big Patriotism vs. Small Patriotism

Neighborhood

I resonated with Bonnie Kristian‘s attempt to understand American patriotism in the context of this whole NFL-American flag mess.  She uses Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings to describe a “small patriotism”–something akin to hobbit Frodo’s love of the Shire.

Here is a taste:

Small patriotism is the love of home because it is home. It is the comfort of familiarity, the sigh of relief we give on completing a long journey, however pleasant. Big patriotism is all abstract ideals and national mythology, easily bent to fit any political agenda. It is centered on the state, not the people, and certainly not any concrete community in which we are thoroughly engaged.

Small patriotism loves one’s neighborhood for one’s home, and one’s city because it holds the neighborhood, and one’s state, region, and country as the city’s host. Big patriotism is a top-down phenomenon, anchored in the self-declared glory of government and the idolatrous liturgies of civil religion. When small patriotism thinks of America, it conjures an image of some local vista and the people who populate it. Big patriotism pictures the hulking forms of federal monuments and the grim grandeur of war.

Small patriotism is particular, but never competitive. Its love of what is good about our place never needs to falsely exalt that good into best. “Once you have realized that the Frenchmen like café complet just as we like bacon and eggs — why, good luck to them and let them have it,” C.S. Lewis wrote in The Four Loves. This sort of patriotism “produces a good attitude towards foreigners,” he noted, for “[h]ow can I love my home without coming to realize that other men, no less rightly, love theirs?” Their love in no way detracts from mine, for we are not in competition. Neither wants to conform the other to its image, for it is the difference that makes each home beloved. Conquest is unnecessary and unwelcome.

Read the entire piece here.

I think Kristian’s “small patriotism” is what we have witnessed recently in places like Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and the rest of the Caribbean in the wake of hurricane season.  It is the kind of home-love that we see in Wendell Berry’s Port William Membership.  It is the kind of “faithful presence” that James Davison Hunter writes about in To Change the World.  It is the kind of patriotism that I wrote about in The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America.  Here is a small taste:

The writer Wallace Stegner once said that ‘no place, not even a wild place, is a place until it has had a poet.’ Philip Vickers Fithian was Cohansey’s poet.  He was a patriot in the classical Greek sense of the word–a lover of his terra patria, his native land (p.10).

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.

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 Grief of Staying Home

Boonton

Andrew Sullivan reflects on place and rootedness in an age of globalization:

I’ve always been unusually attached to places. It’s one reason I still call myself a conservative. Travel doesn’t attract me. I’ve now lived in the same loft in D.C. since I bought it, in 1991 (apart from an ill-fated year and a half in New York City); I’ve spent 20 consecutive summers in the same little town at the end of Cape Cod, and have no desire to go anyplace else. Even when I go home to England, I tend to spend around half my time near where I grew up.

I wouldn’t go so far as Malcolm Muggeridge, who famously said: “Travel, of course, narrows the mind.” (Don’t you love that “of course”?) But I would say that the reverse can also be true. Staying put allows you to really get to know a place deeply at different times and in different seasons, to capture, often serendipitously, a small detail you’d never seen before, or arrive at a street corner and suddenly remember that this was where you first met an old friend.

But staying home brings grief with it as well. Everything changes, and when your beloved tree at the end of the street is cut down, or a new Safeway replaces the corner baker, or, more fatally, the factory that used to be the linchpin of the place lies empty and crumbling, it stings and wounds and demoralizes. When I’ve visited my own hometown in England, so much is the same. And yet, on closer inspection, many of the once-vibrant shops are selling secondhand clothes, or given over to real estate offices. My old church has a broken window where the rain comes in. The services have dwindled to near nothing. Maybe it’s being away for so long, but it seems familiar and yet a little empty, as if something in it has somehow died, a continuity somehow lost….

In America, as Charles Murray has shown in his extraordinary book, Coming Apart, the young and the smart and the talented — the people who would once have formed the core of these small towns — have long since fled to distant colleges and cities. They don’t come back. They would once have been the police chief or the town librarian or the school principal. They once helped make the town a well-run place with a clear identity, where the same families and networks lived together, died together, belonged together. These connections have attenuated … as economics supplants culture, as efficiency erases the individuality of inefficient places, as Amazon rips the heart out of shopping districts, as the smartphone removes us from physical space, and as many more immigrants and their culture alter the feel of a place in ways that disorient those with memories and loyalties.

Read the entire piece here.

It is easy to disparage the working white people who think Donald Trump is their savior. We want to write them off for being overly nostalgic about the local world that globalization has taken from them. Murray captures this sense of loss better than any other writer. (Too bad Middlebury College students did not see it this way).  This sense of loss is real.  Too often we are oblivious to the pain that comes in the midst of social change.  Sometimes such pain manifests itself in anger.  Sometimes such pain manifests itself in sadness. And sometimes it manifests itself at the ballot box.

I tried to write about all of this in the context of the eighteenth century in my book The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America.  For Fithian, modernity and its trappings–ambition, education, self-improvement–often existed in tension with a love of home, sense of place, and local “relations.”  This tension was not only a fixture of early American culture on the cusp of modernity, but it exists for many Americans in the 21st century as well.

The Democratic Malaise

revoltThis morning I picked up my copy of Christopher Lasch’s 1995 book The Revolt and the Elite and the Betrayal of Democracy and started reading it again.  I am still trying to process it all from the perspective of the so-called age of Trump, but here is a relevant passage from the Introduction.

p. 5-6: Thanks to the decline of old money and the old-money ethic of civic responsibility, local and regional loyalties are sadly attenuated today…Advancement in business and the professions, these days, requires a willingness to follow the siren call of opportunity wherever it leads.  Those who stay at home forfeit the chance of upward mobility.  Success has never been so closely associated with mobility, a concept that figuted only marginally in the nineteenth-century definition of opportunity…Anbitious people understand, then, that a migratory way of life is the price of getting ahead…The new elites are in revolt against “Middle America,” as they imagine it: a national technologically backward, politically reactionary, repressive in its sexual morality, middlebrow in its tastes, smug and complacent, dull and dowdy.  Those who covet membership in the new aristocracy of brains tend to congregation on the coasts, turning their back on the heartland and cultivating ties with the international market in fast-moving money, glamour, fashion, and popular culture….The new elites are at home only in transit, en route to a high-level conference, to the grand opening of a new franchise, to an international film festival, or to an undiscovered resort.  Theirs is essentially a tourist’s view of the world–not a perspective likely to encourage a passionate devotion to democracy.

As I read this passage I began to wonder how much the ascension of Trump is really a story that can be explained through the lens of “place.”  Healthy democracies often require face-to-face engagement in public spaces where ideas can be exchanged in civil ways. Sadly, it is hard to find these kind of spaces in America today.  Ambitious kids in search of the American dream no longer seem to find that dream at home, unless, of course, home is on the coasts.  They go off to college and never come back, depriving the communities that raised them of the intellectual resources and skills in informed, evidence-based conversation that are necessary for democracy to function at the local level.  (This, of course, assumes that they are getting these skills and resources from college.  With the rise of professional programs at the expense of the humanities this kind of education is no longer a given).

While Lasch’s juxtaposition of the “elite” and the “people may be a bit contrived, I think he does have a point.  If time allows, I will try to develop some of my thinking along these lines and post some more stuff from Revolt of the Elites.  I want to reread Revolt alongside J.D. Vance’s celebrated Hillbilly Elegy.

Stay tuned, and thanks for thinking with me on this front.

Does the Way of Improvement Still Lead Home?

9e36b-boyer

After a fifteen month sabbatical I have returned to my day job.  Earlier this month I resumed my role as chair of the Messiah College History Department.  The week has been filled with meetings related to this charge.  On Tuesday I return to the classroom.  The wheels of academic teaching and (low-level) administration–committee work, meetings, planning department social events, writing syllabi, holding office hours, etc.–are always churning.  I have yet to hear about a reentry program for faculty who have been on leave.  (If you know about one I would like to enroll!).

As I prepare for the new academic year at Messiah College I revisited an essay I published in The Cresset back in 2011 titled “Does the Way of Improvement Lead Home?: Rooted Cosmopolitanism and the Church-Related College.”

Here is a taste:

So is cosmopolitan rootedness possible in the academy? Can the way of improvement lead home? Can we think of our vocation and our work in terms of serving an institution? Our natural inclination is to say something similar to the comments in the aforementioned blog discussion. I can be loyal to an institution as long as the administration of the institution remains loyal to me. Fair enough. Administrators must be sensitive to the needs of their faculty, realizing that institutional loyalty is something that needs to be cultivated over time. But this kind of rootedness also requires faculty who are open to sticking it out because they believe in what the institution stands for—whatever that might be. (This, of course, means that the college or university must stand for something greater than simply the production of knowledge). It requires a certain form of civic humanism—the ideological opposite of Lockean contractualism—that is willing to, at times, sacrifice rank careerism for the good of the institution.

So what does this have to do with Christian scholar-teachers and students at church-related institutions? What is it about a church-related college that might lead a professor to remain loyal? Or, to ask a related question, one that transcends the professoriate, what is it about being a Christ-follower that might lead one to want to pursue an intellectual life in a particular place?

Church-related colleges are by nature rooted in a particular Christian tradition. At many of these colleges, the religious tradition is palpable, and this informs the sense of place. It is hard to be at Valparaiso University very long without breathing the Lutheran air. At my own institution, Messiah College, a school rooted in a mix of evangelicalism and Anabaptism, the confessional and liturgical air is not as thick, but a clear sense of place manifests itself in the praise songs emanating from the chapel during Thursday night “Powerhouse” worship or the feeling around campus each Spring when 2,800 students take a day off from classes to perform acts of service in the surrounding community. The absence of an American flag speaks volumes about the kind of place that we are. The prayers and devotional thoughts before class give the college a sense of distinctiveness.

Of course, at many, if not most, church-related colleges the intellectual life of the community is grounded in a particular theological understanding of the world. When at their best, church-related colleges offer a truly Christian education that combines the spiritual, liturgical, and theological commitments of a tradition with the life of the mind. The interaction between deeply held religious conviction and the pursuit of knowledge brings vibrancy to the educational experience of students and the intellectual lives of faculty. Church-related colleges are places where the tensions between particular loyalties to faith and the cosmopolitan pursuits of learning result in much creative energy.

Yet at times, the religious convictions that inform the missions of our institutions can become suffocating, especially for those faculty or students who may not share in the so-called home tradition. Commitment to a place defined by a specific way of thinking about the world can be stultifying.  This is why church-related colleges need people from outside the tradition. For some colleges and universities, this might mean having non-Christians who are good citizens and sympathetic to the school’s mission add their perspectives to the mix. For other church-related colleges or universities, it may mean faculty who come from Christian traditions that are different.

For those rooted in the tradition, these “outsiders” can help the confessional insiders think more deeply about their core convictions. For those who are not from the tradition, there is much to learn from the so-called religious guardians of the place. I have learned a lot from the members of the Brethren-in-Christ Church and other Anabaptists who teach at Messiah College. The Anabaptist flavor of the place has shaped the way I think about and teach American history, a subject that by its very nature raises questions of nationalism, war, and justice. I have become a more thoughtful Christian and scholar by imbibing as much as I can from the religious convictions that inform the place where I teach. There is a level of intellectual engagement that I am not sure I would find at a non-church-related school. Cosmopolitan rootedness can make the church-related college a vibrant and energetic place to work.

Over the course of the last few days I have been wrestling with the ideas in this piece.  Do I still believe them?  And if so, to what extent?

Perhaps readers may find the piece helpful as the new school year gets underway and we once again start to think about our relationship to the institutions in which we teach and serve.