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Wendell Berry is a poet, novelist, and essayist whose steady literary achievement has earned him wide recognition both as an artist and as a spokesman for contemporary environmental concerns. Since the publication of his first novel, Nathan Coulter (1960), Berry has earned a place as an important American thinker and artist whose philosophy and aesthetics are grounded in a regional, environ mentally sound, agrarian approach to community. Berry’s fiction, as well as his essays and poetry, are closely tied to the farming community of Port Royal, a small town near the confluence of the Kentucky and Ohio Rivers.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Back to the Land
Berry was born in Henry County, Kentucky. After receiving his BA and MA degrees from the University of Kentucky in 1956 and 1957, he held a Wallace Stegner Writing Fellowship at Stanford University in 1958-1959. He remained at Stanford for one year as a lecturer in creative writing and, later, taught briefly at New York University before accepting an appointment as a professor of English at the University of Kentucky in 1964. ”A Native Hill,” one of the essays in Berry’s The Long-Legged House (1969), contains a section in which the writer examines his decision to leave New York City and ”the literary world” and return to Kentucky. Berry writes that he
never doubted that the world was more important to me than the literary world; and the world would always be most fully and clearly present to me in the place I was fated by birth to know better than any other.
Berry operates his Henry County farm organically, returning to the soil all organic matter and cultivating the land with a team of horses. He says that his education as a poet helped him to become an organic farmer: ”Learning to write poetry helped me to see farming as a way of life, not merely as a ‘scientific’ manipulation of techniques and quantities.” He sees a farm and a poem as similar; both are living structures ”of interdependent, interconnected parts that mutually clarify and sustain one another.”
Having chosen to return to Port Royal, Berry chose as well the constant subject of his poetry and fiction—his native community. Within his close circle of family and friends, Berry writes that he learned the ”two halves of a whole relationship to the earth.” Particularly from his grandfather and father came the sense of continuity with and responsibility for the land; and from Nick, a patron black farm worker, a sense of intimacy, the pleasure of “being there.” Old Nick and Aunt Georgie are the focus of The Hidden Wound (1970), a study of the impact of slavery on his native culture and of the contemporary attitudes toward working the land that it has fostered. Berry writes that his memory of these two respected members of the farm has been one of the persistent forces” in his intellectual growth.
Berry’s formative education—as is his art—was drawn from the historical unity of past, present, and future. Linked by this inseparable thread of descent, the resulting body of work is unusually coherent, unified, and consistent. At its core lies a primary humility before the mystery of the world, a belief in the dignity of physical work, and an inevitable, personal responsibility for one’s actions in the world.
Works in Literary Context
In his poetry and prose, Berry documents the rural life style of his native Kentucky. He often draws upon his experiences as a farmer to evidence the dangers of disrupting the natural life cycle and to lament the passing of provincial American traditions. The thematic unity evident throughout Berry’s writings has prompted many critics to praise his control of several diverse genres. Like Henry David Thoreau, with whom he has been compared, Berry is also admired for his pragmatic and even-tempered approach to environmental and ecological issues.
Books like The Long-Legged House combine his strongest qualities as a writer. Like The Memory of Old Jack, this nonfiction work is autobiographical and allows Berry to draw on the particular circumstances of his life that give substance to his arguments. Never does he present himself as an abstract philosopher; what wisdom he dispenses comes from a specific awareness of his life in a particular world.
For Berry, autobiography does not mean confession, self-indulgence, or self-service. The essays in The Long-Legged House, whether concerned with the war in Vietnam or a sportsman’s misuse of the Kentucky River, assume the voice of the Kentucky farmer-artist-philosopher. His arguments are rarely speculative or theoretical; they are the commonsense deliberations of a person looking at the realities of his world. To fragment Berry and treat books like The Long-Legged House as separate from his poetry would do him, and the work, a disservice, for the particularity of perceived detail and the inventive metaphors raise portions of The Long-Legged House to the intensity of poetry. For instance, A Native Hill,” the concluding essay, achieves a rich resolution when the writer lies down in the woods and suddenly ”apprehends the dark proposal of the earth.”
Although he recognizes the comprehensiveness of his form in The Unsettling of America, Berry insists that an argument ”is always tentative,” ”always a little dry, airy, detached even from the truth it is trying to defend.” In short, ”You can learn a lot from a good argument and its form. But an argument cannot make you happy.”
The Fictional Locus
In the tradition of Faulkner and others, Berry creates a mythic landscape from his historical place. Port William, the author’s fictional equivalent of Port Royal, is the home of seven generations of farming families whose lineage reaches back to the early 1800s. The major narratives, however, occur sometime within the early decades of the twentieth century and up to the early 1950s. This represents the final days of America’s traditional farm communities prior to the period when they began to break apart under the influence of technological and economic forces at the end of World War II. Berry’s characters, who are three distantly related families being the Coulters, the Feltners, and the Beechums, farm the rolling hills and bottomlands west of the Appalachians in the lower part of the Kentucky River watershed. Farming there requires special care and attention if it is to remain productive. From this necessity grows his major unifying theme of stewardship, often symbolized as interlocking marriages between a man and his family, his community, and the land.
Berry’s interest in preserving the character and identity of his native culture generates a rich mixture in his fiction of autobiography and imaginative history. While incidents and dialogue in the novels are often recognizable from his autobiographical essays in The Long-Legged House and The Hidden Wound, the larger history of Port William is the product of an enduring oral tradition, and Berry writes largely from its collective memory. His fiction then is both an exploration and a discovery of the meaning of his own place in his native land and a reconstruction of the collective identity of a community kept alive in the consciousness of its inheritors. Finding this effort in some ways satisfying, and in others limiting, Berry has described his novels as a record of what he considers to be only a partially successful attempt to find, in the words of Edwin Muir, a ”pure image of temporal life.”
Works in Critical Context
Considering Berry’s body of work, Charles Hudson marvels at the author’s versatility and praises him for his appreciation of the plain things in life. ”In an age when many writers have committed themselves to their ‘specialty’—even though doing so can lead to commercial ism, preciousness, self-indulgence, social irresponsibility, or even nihilism—Berry has refused to specialize,” Hudson writes in the Georgia Review. ”He is a novelist, a poet, an essayist, a naturalist, and a small farmer. He has embraced the commonplace and has ennobled it.” Pondering Berry’s message of responsibility to the land, Larry Woiwode states in the Washington Post Book Review: ”If one were to distill the thrust of his thought, it might be, [a]ll land is a gift, and all of it is good, if we only had the eyes to see that.” Berry, Woiwode continues, is speaking with calm and sanity out of the wilderness. We would do well to hear him.”
It was as a poet that Berry first gained literary recognition. In volumes such as The Broken Ground, Openings: Poems, Farming: A Handbook, and The Country of Marriage, he wrote of the countryside, the turning of the seasons, the routines of the farm, and the life of the family. Reviewing Collected Poems, 1957-1982, New York Times Book Review contributor David Ray calls Berry’s style resonant” and authentic,” and claims that Berry
can be said to have returned American poetry to a Wordsworthian clarity of purpose. … There are times when we might think he is returning us to the simplicities of John Clare or the crustiness of Robert Frost. . . . But, as with every major poet, passages in which style threatens to become a voice of its own suddenly give way, like the sound of chopping in a murmurous forest, to lines of power and memorable resonance. Many of Mr. Berry’s short poems are as fine as any written in our time.
Critics generally have found favor with Berry’s fiction as well, both for the quality of his prose and for the way he brings his concerns for farming and community to life in his narratives. As Gregory L. Morris states in Prairie Schooner: ”Berry’s stories are constructed of humor, of elegy, of prose that carries within it the cadences of the hymn.” Although Berry’s writing appeals to a variety of readers, criticism and scholarship have inadequately taken him into account, possibly because his work often appears in what scholars may regard as out-of-the-way places. When Robert Rodale publishes Berry’s poems in Organic Gardening, he does so with full knowledge that many of his readers do not normally look at poems.
The Unsettling of America
It was Berry’s essays that brought him to a much broader readership. In one of his most popular early collections, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, Berry argues that agriculture is the foundation of our greater culture. He makes a strong case against the U.S. government’s agricultural policy, which promotes practices leading to overproduction, pollution, and soil erosion. Dictionary of Literary Biography contributor Leon V. Driskell calls The Unsettling of America ”an apocalyptic book that places in bold relief the ecological and environmental problems of the American nation.” Charles Hudson, writing in the Georgia Review, notes that ”like Thoreau, in his quest for principles Berry has chosen to simplify his life, and much of what he writes about is what has attended this simplification.” David Rains Wallace declares in the San Francisco Review of Books: ”There’s no living essayist better than Wendell Berry. . . . It’s like master cabinetry or Shaker furniture, drawing elegance from precision and grace from simplicity.” Wallace allows that at times, ”Berry may overestimate agriculture’s ability to assure order and stability,” yet he maintains that the author’s ”attempts to integrate ecological and agricultural thinking remain of the first importance.”
- Angyal, Andrew J. Wendell Berry. Boston: Twayne, 1995.
- Goodrich, Janet. The Unforeseen Self in the Works of Wendell Berry. Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri Press, 2001. Merchant, Paul, editor. Wendell Berry. Lewiston, Idaho: Confluence, 1991.
- Basney, Lionel. ”A Conversation with Wendell Berry.” Image: A Journal of the Arts and Religion,26 (Spring 2000): 45-56.
- Gamble, David E. ”Wendell Berry: The Mad Farmer and Wilderness.” Kentucky Review, 2 (1988): 40-52.
- Knott, John R. ”Into the Woods with Wendell Berry.” Essays in Literature, 23, no. 1 (Spring 1996): 124-140.
- Lang, John. ”’Close Mystery’: Wendell Berry’s Poetry of Incarnation.” Renascence, 35 (1982): 258-268.
- McKibben, Bill. ”Prophet in Kentucky.” New York Review of Books, June 14, 1990, pp. 30-34. Snell, Marilyn Berlin. ”The Art of Place: An Interview with Wendell Berry.” New Perspectives Quarterly,9, no. 2 (1992): 29-34.
- Whited, Stephen. ”On Devotion to the ‘Communal Order’: Wendell Berry’s Record of Fidelity, Interdependence, and Love.” Studies in the Literary Imagination, 27 (Fall 1994): 9-28.
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