Recently Eric Miller was a guest on the Solidarity Hall podcast “Dorothy’s Place.”
Miller on Lasch: “You know you’re in the right space for Lasch when you don’t feel at ease but you feel alive.”
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.”
To be narrow-minded. To be what everybody’s saying now about rural America. Racist, sexist, backward. Stupid.
Read the entire interview here.
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 Louisiana. Bruce 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.
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.
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.
It is a two-year degree program with Sterling College in Craftsbury, Vermont and it is run by the Berry Center in New Castle, Kentucky Learn more from Latria Graham‘s piece at Garden & Gun. Here is a taste:
Now, the Berry Center has revived the program with a new educational partner, Sterling College, based in Craftsbury Common, Vermont. The school has a legacy of focusing on environmental stewardship, and though the college is based in the northeast, the Wendell Berry Farming Program will be located in the Berrys’ own Henry County, Kentucky, and a number of Sterling staff will now call this place home.
Sterling students have already done two short sessions in Henry County, in August 2018 and January 2019. They worked side-by-side with cattle farmers, learned from foresters, and spent time gaining an appreciation for the knobs and barrens that dot the landscape. When the new program kicks off in the fall, it will once again be a two-year capstone experience designed for students in their junior and senior years of college. Interested students don’t need to have previously attended Sterling to be considered and can transfer into the program, earning a Bachelor of Arts in Sustainable Agriculture upon completion.
“I believe that Henry County ought to be used as a classroom to instruct young people who want to take up a life of farming,” Mary Berry says.
As part of the program, students will use draft animals to learn more about sustainable farm practices. “There’s a way that working with draft horses teaches farming like nothing else can,” Berry explains. Her father said the same in his essay “Taking Draft Animals Seriously.” Participants will also learn about the economics of agriculture, including studying the history of the Burley Tobacco Growers Cooperative Association, a one-hundred-year-old organization that John Berry Sr., Mary Berry’s grandfather, helped found to provide stability for small farmers in the region. The Berry Center is trying to recreate that approach with its Our Home Place Meat initiative, a cooperative for local livestock farmers through which students will have the opportunity to gain real-world experience.
Read the entire piece here.
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:
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.
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.
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. 🙂
Swanson is played by actor Nick Offerman, who also happens to be a huge Wendell Berry fan. Over at the blog of the Library of America, Offerman reflects on the recent release of Wendell Berry: Port William Novels & Stories (The Civil War to World War II). Here is a taste:
I had the distinct advantage of growing up in an Illinois family that most resembled some of the Feltners and the Rowanberrys and Coulters to be found throughout these tales, but my folk were certainly not entirely innocent of laying claim to a character like Watch With Me’s Thacker Hample either. As I became accustomed to the world of Port William and the comforting cast of country folk inhabiting the acres therein, I was struck by the reverence that Wendell Berry bestowed upon each and every person, no matter how “simple” they might be, from an urban point of view. His understanding of the contribution made by every plain, hardworking person to the general welfare of a community, and thereby the world, moved me deeply.
Here in these stories, you will find a great entertainment. Laced throughout, however, will also be a set of instructions: thoughts on how to treat one another no matter where you live, and how to treat the great gifts of creation amongst which we live and by which we are able to sustain ourselves. If, perhaps, human nature will always turn our heads away from these responsibilities and towards the glitter of a billboard or smartphone, then let these necessary works of fiction serve as our reminders that before we sit down in that rocking chair on the porch of an evening, we best be sure that the chores and the dishes have been satisfactorily done.
Read the entire piece here.
Matt Stewart, a graduate student at Syracuse University and a guy I call a friend, argues that Wendell Berry fans are betraying Berry by using social media. Stewart has published this piece at The Front Porch Republic, a website with a social media presence. Here is a taste of his piece, “Stop Talking About Wendell Berry on Twitter“:
Seeing quotations from Wendell Berry and advertisements for his work on Twitter is as jarring as imagining Burley Coulter spraying Jayber Crow from a Ski-Doo upon his return to Port William. A localist does not have to be a Wendell Berry fundamentalist to see that this is a problem. I will admit to dark visions of starting a fakeWendellBerry Twitter account and trolling anyone that posts about him on Twitter with Marshall McLuhan’s #YouKnowNothingOfMyWork!, but that seems counterproductive…
We don’t need another thinkpiece or Tweetstorm about how baleful is the world that Twitter abets, just as Berry didn’t need another study by the Department of Agriculture to know that industrial agriculture was going to be destructive. We do not need to weigh the pros and cons of Twitter with academic nuance. We localists, those of us who have at one time or many been moved to think and live differently based on our encounters with Wendell Berry, know in our bones that Twitter is not worth any more of our time. I will allow Twitter only one benefit: it is at times funny. But it is not the only platform that allows for jokes. We can even make jokes in person. I would gladly trade all the jokes I’ve heard and enjoyed on Twitter for a world without it, just as I would trade a world where our current president was still just a tabloid star for the cornucopia of satire that his presidency has bestowed as a free gift to the humor leaders of our world.
And then the kicker:
Berry allowed himself a chainsaw, chemical fertilizer, and a tractor on a temporary basis but also committed to feeling productively guilty about such compromises. Let’s allow ourselves the occasional blog, the web journal, and email, and also still commit to weaning ourselves off of them when we can afford to without shirking off too many honest obligations. Our contempt for the world, manifested by our itch to escape to the digital at nearly every moment, is entangling us enough as it is. Fasts won’t cut it. If Wendell Berry can pass on the opportunity to be nominated for a MacArthur Fellowship, we can risk our careers by forsaking Twitter and thinking of it with the contempt it deserves. Tell the publishers that you will not put “the invention of” in your subtitle and that you will not promote your book on Twitter. It is poisonous to our souls and our public, and no consequentialist reasoning can demonstrate otherwise unless you are deluding yourself and Berry’s work has meant nothing to you.
I appreciate Matt’s convictions here. But as someone who also appreciates Berry and someone who has also written for the Front Porch Republic (and The New Pantagruel), I find social media a wonderful outlet for the kind of “cosmopolitan rootedness” I wrote about in my first book, The Way of Improvement Leads Home. I guess I will not be invited to any gatherings of Berry fundamentalists anytime soon.
This does not come close to the greatest acknowledgments section of all time (a story we broke here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home), but it is interesting. Jennifer Polk, a history Ph.D who now runs the website Beyond the Professoriate, thanked her favorite band in her doctoral dissertation. She is now asking others to share any unusual words of gratitude from the acknowledgment page(s) of their dissertations.
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.
Library of America just released an anthology of Wendell Berry fiction: Port William Novels & Stories: The Civil War to World War II. As part of the release, LOA has released Berry’s thoughts on the work of some of his closest literary friends. Here is a taste:
Ken Kesey. We were together in the Stanford seminar in 1958–59 and a good many times from then until his death. Our ways of living and working were very different, but I owe him for friendship, much kindness, much laughter, and a number of insights that have been confirming and necessary to my own life and work. It matters that he was another writer who went home.
Denise Levertov. With characteristic generosity she wrote me a letter in 1958 about a poem I had published in Poetry. There was some correspondence from then until we met in New York in the fall of 1962. We lived as friends and neighbors in New York City. I have great respect for her work, and a big debt to her.
Wallace Stegner. I met him of course when I went to Stanford in 1958. He taught the writing seminar in (as I remember) the spring of 1959. He was an excellent, practical critic and teacher, and I have remained under that influence. After I returned to my own country to live, I began to be very much affected and influenced by his responsibility, as writer and advocate, to his country. My debt to him is probably greater than I know.
Read the rest here.
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.
You can now read Wendell Berry’s Nathan Coulter, Andy Catlett: Early Travels, A World Lost, A 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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
To the Editors:
Since the 2016 election, urban liberals and Democrats have newly discovered “rural America,” which is to say our country itself beyond the cities and the suburbs and a few scenic vacation spots. To its new discoverers, this is an unknown land inhabited by “white blue-collar workers” whom the discoverers fear but know nothing about. And so they are turning to experts, who actually have visited rural America or who previously have heard of it, to lift the mystery from it.
One such expert is Nathaniel Rich, whose essay “Joan Didion in the Deep South” offers an explanation surpassingly simple: over “the last four decades,” while the enlightened citizens of “American cities with international airports” have thought things were getting better, the “southern frame of mind” has been “expanding across the Mason-Dixon line into the rest of rural America.” As Mr. Rich trusts his readers to agree, the “southern frame of mind” is racist, sexist, and nostalgic for the time when “the men concentrated on hunting and fishing and the women on ‘their cooking, their canning, their ‘prettifying.’…”
This is provincial, uninformed, and irresponsible. Mr. Rich, who disdains all prejudices except those that are proper and just, supplies no experience or observation of his own and no factual and statistical proofs. He rests his judgment solely upon the testimony of Joan Didion in her notes from a tour of “the Gulf South for a month in the summer of 1970.” Those notes contain portraits of southerners whom “readers today will recognize, with some dismay and even horror” because (as Mr. Rich seems vaguely to mean) southerners have not changed at all since 1970. The Didion testimony alone is entirely sufficient because she “saw her era more clearly than anyone else” and therefore “she was able to see the future.”
What is remarkable about Mr. Rich’s essay is that he attributes the southernization of rural America, and the consequent election of Mr. Trump, entirely to nostalgia “for a more orderly past,” without so much as a glance at the economic history of our actual country. The liberals and Democrats of our enlightened cities, as Mr. Rich rightly says, have paid little or no attention to rural America “for more than half a century.” But it has received plenty of attention from the conservatives and Republicans and their client corporations. Rural America is a colony, and its economy is a colonial economy.
The business of America has been largely and without apology the plundering of rural America, from which everything of value—minerals, timber, farm animals, farm crops, and “labor”—has been taken at the lowest possible price. As apparently none of the enlightened ones has seen in flying over or bypassing on the interstate highways, its too-large fields are toxic and eroding, its streams and rivers poisoned, its forests mangled, its towns dying or dead along with their locally owned small businesses, its children leaving after high school and not coming back. Too many of the children are not working at anything, too many are transfixed by the various screens, too many are on drugs, too many are dying.
In a New York Times Op-Ed, A. Hope Jahren writes: “Farm policy hasn’t come up even once during a presidential debate for the past 16 years.” But the problem goes back much farther than that. It goes back at least to Eisenhower’s secretary of agriculture, Ezra Taft Benson, who instructed American farmers to “get big or get out.” In effect that set the “farm policy” until now, and thus sealed the fate of the decent, small, independent livelihoods of rural America. To that brutally stated economic determinism I know that President Clinton gave his assent, calling it “inevitable,” and so apparently did Mrs. Clinton. The rural small owners sentenced to dispensability in the 1950s are the grandparents of the “blue-collar workers” of rural America who now feel themselves to be under the same sentence, and with reason.
It is true that racism, sexism, and nostalgia have counted significantly in the history of rural America until this moment. But to attribute the approximate victory of Mr. Trump only to those “southern” faults, and to locate them only in rural America, is a driblet of self-righteous ignorance.
Port Royal, Kentucky
Here is Rich’s response.