Library of America, a nonprofit publisher of classic American literature, has published a two-volume set of Kentucky farmer and author Wendell Berry’s essays that shows “both his complexity and his consistency,” Jedediah Britton-Purdy writes for The Nation. Britton-Purdy has an interesting perspective on Berry, whom he met as a young child. When Britton-Purdy became a writer, he discovered in Berry someone who had made his life’s work out of a farming background that was thoroughly familiar.
Berry’s identity “has been indelibly that of a writer-farmer dug into his place, someone who has become nationally famous for being local, and developed the image of a timeless sage while joining, sometimes fiercely, in fights against the Vietnam War and the coal industry’s domination of his region, Britton-Purdy writes. Over the years, Berry “has called himself an agrarian, a pacifist, and a Christian — albeit of an eccentric kind.
He has written against all forms of violence and destruction — of land, communities, and human beings—and argued that the modern American way of life is a skein of violence. He is an anti-capitalist moralist and a writer of praise for what he admires: the quiet, mostly uncelebrated labor and affection that keep the world whole and might still redeem it.”
Though Berry’s writing takes a long view of the land’s history, he is himself “the product of a specific historical moment, the triple disenchantment of liberal white Americans in the 1960s over the country’s racism, militarism, and ecological devastation,” Britton-Purdy writes. Berry acknowledged early on that “‘the crisis of racial awareness’ that had broken into his consciousness was ‘fated to be the continuing crisis of my life’ and that ‘the reflexes of racism…are embedded in my mind as deeply at least as the language I speak.'”
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Berry has consistently argued that “the moral and material meaning of an economy must be two parts of the same thing. Our political economy shapes our intimate attachments, and vice versa. The personal is political, and our hearts follow our treasure,” Britton-Purdy writes. “This twinned understanding of environment and economy, of personal and public life, is part of why he can appeal both to those who believe that the American ordering of political and economic power needs fundamental reconstruction and to those who believe that the values of individualism, mobility, and self-creation have led to a cultural blind alley.”
In many ways, young agrarians, socialists and other radicals are his philosophical heirs, “denouncing extractive capitalism and calling for new and renewed ways of honoring work,” Britton-Purdy writes. “They also insist on the need to engage political power to shape a future, not just with local work but on national and global scales. They dare to demand what he has tended to relinquish. If these strands of resistance and reconstruction persist, even prevail, Wendell Berry’s lifelong dissent — stubborn, sometimes maddening, not quite like anything else of its era — will deserve a place in our memory.”
(This story first ran on The Rural Blog, a digest published by the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues.)