Wendell Berry

by Michael Washburn on March 10, 2011

Last week President Obama awarded the National Humanities Medal to nine distinguished recipients. According to the Louisville Courier-Journal recipients included “….novelists Philip Roth and Joyce Carol Oates; historians Bernard Bailyn, Jacques Barzun and Gordon Wood; Library of America founding President Daniel Aaron; biographer and critic Arnold Rampersad; American Council of Learned Societies President Stanley Nider Katz; and Hispanic literature scholar Roberto Gonzales Echevarria.”  It’s quite a crew. The ninth recipient was a farmer.

The farmer, simultaneously the most surprising and most deserving of the lot, was Kentucky’s Wendell Berry, man of letters, agriculturalist, and fierce laureate of the natural world. At 76, Berry’s career spans more than 50 years and includes almost as many books, including novels, essays collections, and poetry. He’s not scientifically inclined, like Bill McKibben; he’s not c arved as specific a niche as Michael Pollan. Rather, he’s a writer. His beautifully wrought prose – subtle, sly cadences informed by the soft hills of his native Henry County  – and his polemical sensibility deliver a clear-eyed, intense conviction best summarized by a quote included in his award citation, drawn from The Unsettling of America: “It is wrong to think that bodily health is compatible with spiritual confusion or cultural disorder, or with polluted air and water or impoverished soil.”

Berry’s receipt of the National Humanities medal was both surprising and deserved for the same reason: Berry is a rare bird in American life. Of course Philip Roth got a medal. Who really cares – didn’t he already have one of those? Roth represents – no, is – a version of the great American novelist, and each of his two primary modes, the philosophical and the political, are what we think about when we think about American fiction these days. But even at his most socially engaged, Roth’s politics are, in every sense, political fictions. Gordon Wood? Bernard Baylin? They’re brilliant historians, true, but in many respects they’re much the same guy: Wood was Baylin’s student, after all. More importantly, they’re academic historians whose idea of speaking to the public is a lofty essay in the New York Review of Books (for instance, see Wood’s essay about Jill Lepore in a recent NYRB. Wood makes an interesting if not so shiny and new distinction between memory and history vis a vis the Tea Party, but the fact that Wood then calls Lepore out for being condescending is a succulent irony.). These guys aren’t the same kind of humanist as Berry, and  Berry is the only one of the recipients that actually practices “humanities” in a living sense, in his creative and discursive work. Roth’s an artist, so is Oates. The historians are, well, historians enmeshed in the frenzy of historiography. It’s all wonderful, all essential, but it’s also essentially different.

This begs several questions, of course. What are the humanities, how are they distinguished from the arts? From academics, even those academics underfunded beneath the banner of the humanities? Is there a difference between something like “vernacular humanities” and “professional humanities? These are questions open to interpretation, to discussion, but I submit that Wendell Berry’s quiet engagement, his personal dialectic between questioning and insisting, are the hallmarks of what we should mean when we entertain the seemingly strange idea of “national humanities.”

It’s a sad thing to admit, but my Berry volumes are languishing in a storage space in East Harlem. In lieu of quoting them, here are a couple of quotes from an interview Berry gave to Sojourners in 2004. He speaks better than most of us will ever hope to write:

What is the measure of progress ? It is possible to measure the progress of the last 200 or 300 years in soil erosion. We can measure it in the rate of species extinction. We can measure it in pollution, in the toxicity of the world. Those things, like power and speed, are perfectly measurable. But we need also to raise the questions that are not quantitative. How happy are people? What do we make of all this complainin g? How healthy are people ? How are love and beauty faring? What do we make of all this doctoring and medication that’s going on all the time at such a great expense? That’s not to deny that this so-called progress has given us things that are worth having. A hot bath every night is a good thing. I affirm that it is good, and wish to record my gratitude. There are other good things, but real harms also have been done.

The serious question is whether you’re going to become a warrior community and live by piracy, by taking what you need from other people. I think the only antidote to that is imagination. You have to develop your imagination to the point that permits sympathy to happen. You have to be able to imagine lives that are not yours or the lives of your loved ones or the lives of your neighbors. You have to have at least enough imagination to understand that if you want the benefits of compassion, you must be compassionate. If you want forgiveness you must be forgiving. It’s a difficult business, being human.

mark lymer March 11, 2011 at 10:20 am

first – thx Christa for putting this on facebook! and now thx for you and all for bringing to my attention Wendall Berry. Since I’m in AZ, it is very unlikely I’d be reading the Louisville newspaper. How long ago was it that JC Oates committed suicide, and just now a medal? So will have to read some of his stuff. I gave most of my books to my high school last year; now I use the library. I typ read technical stuff for my profession. started the LEED certification (‘green’) reading last night, 600 pages of tedious charts and figures, and lecturing, etc. with lots of scientific references. I won’t get LEED certified (lots of reasons), but at least I will know what all the hub-bub is about. (I’ve been active in alternative building materials for over 15 years, prefer ‘passive design’) So what really got my attention was your quote, especially about non-quantitative questions and metrics. When I’m in a real conversation about politics, America, etc., not shouting at each other, (i only shout at referees, umpires and computers) I like to back track or suggest that we talk about we think is a ‘civilization’. If we start there, with some kind of description, maybe we can agree to it as a ‘goal’ and then start to formulate a strategy to get there. Think we have a really good start on strategy in the US with the Constitution and Dec of Independence, etc. But the goal has been obfuscated by lots or rhetoric, shouting and of course, capitalism. Barry is talking about that in your quote, I think. Words like happiness, compassion and community are what lead us toward a better description of a civilization. Ok, I know I should read a bunch more on this stuff, (my last philosophy class was in ’77, and i stopped reading linguistics in ’82) but if I don’t read the LEED docs, on computer, which i hate books on computer, then I won’t know it, and you certainly won’t be reading it, my little contribution to things like mitigation of soil erosion on a construction site won’t happen.

mark lymer March 11, 2011 at 10:22 am

oops, Wendell. -a prof in arch was a Wendall B., wonderful man.

Jeff McMahon March 11, 2011 at 12:12 pm

What you’re getting at—vernacular vs. professional humanities—might also be described as practical vs. academic or pragmatic vs. epistemic humanities—but my Oxford New American Dictionary, and this is why I love this dictionary, intervenes to say, Hey, keep it simple! It’s literature vs. learning: “learning or literature concerned with human culture, esp. literature, history, art, music, and philosophy.”

I’m not sure the distinction you’re making between Berry and the other medal recipients is perfectly clean, but I appreciate it, and I’d like to try to further it. These cuts will be unfair, but if so, let’s refine them:

Wendell Berry makes literature, he makes it the way the soil makes life—peanuts, say—and in making literature he makes more and better human culture. Those other medal recipients, when we look at them as you ask us to do, as historians, critics, philosophers, scientists, they’re making learning. They’re making learning out of literature, the way Jiffy takes peanuts and makes peanut butter. And in making learning, they’re making more human culture too.

It’s hard to comment on your piece, Mike, because you’ve already got it all up there. As you say: Berry is a farmer. The others take the kind of stuff he grows and they chew it.

Michael Washburn March 11, 2011 at 12:34 pm

hey there Jeff,
i endorse your comment. in fact, i think your final two graphs should be substituted for my blog post.

cynthia newberry martin March 11, 2011 at 1:36 pm

This kind of interchange is what makes blogs great. Michael, nice piece, and Jeff, I love the image of Wendell Berry making literature the way soil makes life…

Jeff McMahon March 11, 2011 at 3:40 pm

There’s another important point in the blog post, though, Mike, and it’s in my favorite of your sentences:

“I submit that Wendell Berry’s quiet engagement, his personal dialectic between questioning and insisting, are the hallmarks of what we should mean when we entertain the seemingly strange idea of ‘national humanities.”’

There’s a good argument for this dialectic as a hallmark of America’s national humanities. In place of that good argument I’ll offer, just off the top of my head, Whitman singing “there shall be no difference between them and the rest.” And Nelson Algren arguing that “literature is made upon any occasion that a challenge is put to the legal apparatus by a conscience in touch with humanity.”

Rudy Thomas March 21, 2011 at 10:03 am

Wendell Berry is an icon for many authors, poets, and farmers. His recent trip to the White House was made to protest the coal mining practice of mountain top removal. Should a poet be politically involved? Should a farmer be concerned with the soil.

Yes…

Wendell Berry has been reviewed by The New York Times Book Review, The Christian Science Monitor, The Baltimore Sun, The Bloomsbury Review and an ever-growing list of national, regional, state, and local review sources. In spite of the fact that he gave up a literary life in New York for a career as an educator, author/poet, and farmer of a hillside farm in Kentucky, his receipt of the National Humanities medal is long overdue.

I have waited for years for Wendell to be the next poet laureate of Kentucky. Two University of Kentucky writing teachers, Hollis Summers and Robert Hazel, inluenced Wendell Berry, Ed McClanahan, James Baker Hall, Gurney Norman, and Bobbie Ann Mason. Those teachers did not create a movement such as The Fugitives, the literary movement spawned at Vanderbilt University during the 1920’s, but the five students were made to believe that a life devoted to literary ambitions was actually achievable. Robert Hazel advised his students that if they seriously wanted to write, then they had to go away from Kentucky and experience something of the world. Those five students form a literary community that currently stretches over decades–connected by place, by Kentucky.

I opened my copy of Collected Poems by Wendell Berry just now, and the poem on page 248 that jumped out reaffirmed the life-long commitment to writing as expression and profession, art and calling. The calling that began in the 1950’s–in a place like Kentucky–has five produced world-class writers, with Wendell Berry at the head of the stream.

The poem I read was written for Gurney Norman and published in a volume entitled The Wheel in 1982. Gurney Norman, after a two-year stint as Poet Laureate of Kentucky, will be replaced by a new poet laureate on April 25, 2011 when The Kentucky Arts Council presents Kentucky Writers’ Day, a celebration of the Commonwealth’s rich literary tradition. Free and open to the public, this year’s event includes the induction of the new Kentucky Poet Laureate for 2011-2012, readings by the new and past Kentucky poets laureate. The new Kentucky Poet Laureate, sad to say, will not be Wendell Berry.

Husbandman and husband, philosopher and Mad Farmer, Wendell Berry wrote the following poem in praise of connections and values that endure:

Setting Out
for Gurney Norman

Even love must pass through loneliness,
the husbandman become again
the Long Hunter, and set out
not to the familiar woods of home
but to the forest of the night,
the true wilderness, where renewal
is found, the lay of the ground
a premonition of the unknown.
Blowing leaf and flying wren
lead him on. He can no longer be at home,
he cannot return, unless he begin
the circle that first will carry him away.

My copies of Wendell Berry’s books have never been far from reach.

Michael Washburn March 22, 2011 at 4:35 pm

yes, thanks for this, Rudy, especially your mention of Ed McClanahan, James Baker Hall, and Bobbie Ann Mason, each subtle lights on the levee of Kentucky literature.

Jeff McMahon March 21, 2011 at 3:50 pm

Thank you for these thoughts, this history, and especially for such a moving sample of Wendell Berry’s work.

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