The Works of Wendell Berry

by John E. Phelan, Jr.

One of our nation’s literary treasures is the farmer, poet, essayist, and novelist Wendell Berry. Every other year at North Park Seminary, Dr. Brent Laytham and I teach a course on Berry. It has become one of the school’s most popular electives, drawing some of our brightest students as well as students from other Chicago seminaries. The attraction is not so much our inspired teaching, but Berry himself. Actually Brent and I try to stay out of the way and let Berry’s passion, wisdom, and outrage impact the students – and impact them it does.

So, who is Wendell Berry? He was born in eastern Kentucky and raised in a country of small, marginal farms and tiny towns. After attending the University of Kentucky he was part of a famous writing program at Stanford University under the tutelage of another American literary treasure, Wallace Stegner. Among his classmates were Ken Kesey, Ernest Gaines, and Larry McMurtry. After a year on a Guggenheim Fellowship in Italy he began teaching at New York University and prepared to publish his first novel. His future seemed set.

But then Wendell Berry did something incomprehensible to the East Coast literary establishment: he went home to Henry County, Kentucky, and took up farming. While teaching off and on at the University of Kentucky, Berry and his wife Tanya reclaimed a misused farm and raised a family. In essays, novels, short stories and poems Berry began his long argument with America’s assumptions about community, work, waste, abuse, marriage, friendship, violence, freedom and faith. He makes a cogent case that America has never really been “settled.” We have always been a people on the move. We have rushed from one place to the next, apparently incapable of paying attention to the local realities and the local character of the places we, for the most part, only temporarily call home. We assume that we can abuse, neglect, and destroy the productivity of the land and expect that “science” and “technology” will somehow magically solve the problems we have thoughtlessly created. We live by what one theologian calls “cheap optimism,” but we are preparing to reap the whirlwind.

In our simplistic, dualistic political culture Berry is difficult to categorize. He writes a good deal about “old fashioned” virtues like thrift, fidelity, and simplicity. He critiques the federal government’s heavy handed incursion into nearly every area of American life. At the same time, he is a powerful critic of the greed, indifference, and cruelty of corporate America and especially of corporate farming. He has been a trenchant critic of America’s military adventurism and recent “national security” assumptions. He has poured scorn on the smug assumptions of the boosters of science and technology and warned of the empty, inhuman pragmatism that drives much current research. Whether it is in farming, business, politics or science, Berry argues that we tend to act for short-term gains only with no appreciation or concern for the long-term implications of our actions. Our extreme individualism prevents us from seriously considering a concept like the common good.

Berry has had a lover’s quarrel with Christianity. Raised a Baptist he has remained at the margins of the church. In his earliest work he was particularly critical of Christianity’s neglect of the concrete realities of creation in anticipation of the spiritual joys of heaven. “Good Christians” in Henry County were always looking beyond the horizons of this life, often ignoring the painful realities of their lives and the lives of others. Berry consistently speaks of “creation” when he refers to this world. The world we ignore, despise and abuse is not simply inert matter or a temporary dwelling place; it is the very work of God. For decades Berry has walked his land on Sunday and written what he calls “Sabbath poems.” In the land, animals, and vegetation of his small farm, and the people of his small town, he sees not “resources” to be exploited but God’s creation to be loved.

If you have never read Berry, where should you start? I trust the following suggestions will help you begin a lifelong engagement with one of the few remaining sane Americans.

Short stories: The majority of Berry’s stories are collected in That Distant Land, published by Counterpoint in 2004. For the readers of Pietisten I recommend especially “Pray Without Ceasing,” “Watch with Me,” “A Jonquil for Mary Penn” and “Fidelity.” These are stories of the character of community, love, sacrifice and what Berry calls “membership.”

Novels: Berry’s best-known novel is Jayber Crow. Crow is the town barber who sensed a call to ministry, but left school after his first year when his deepest questions remained unanswered. He settles into the little town of Port William as both barber and grave digger. Jayber Crow is a moving account of love, loss and fidelity. I would also recommend one of Berry’s short novels, Remembering. One of the Port William membership, Andy Catlett, has been alienated from his community, his wife and, perhaps most especially, himself. How will he be “re-membered”? Wendell Berry has not written a bad novel. Each one is elegantly, simply and passionately composed. You cannot go wrong with any of them.

Essays: There are roughly two types of essays. His “agricultural essays” were collected by Norman Wirzba in The Art of the Commonplace (Shoemaker and Hoard, 2002). Please don’t imagine these are essays about farming techniques. Rather they use the farm and rural life and their corruption as a means of viewing and critiquing American culture. This is the major text for our class. The second type of essay is the “political essay.” I recommend Citizenship Papers (Shoemaker and Hoard, 2003). Berry trenchantly critiques the Iraq war and the accompanying “National Security Strategy.” I should say that every “agricultural” essay is political and every “political” essay is agricultural! I would also recommend an early collection of his essays, Recollected Essays 1965-1980 (North Point, 1981), if for no other reason than the brilliant essay “Discipline and Hope.”

Poetry: Berry’s early poems are collected in Collected Poems 1957-1982 (North Point, 1985). This volume contains some of his most iconic poetry including the famous “mad farmer” poems. The “Sabbath poems” are collected in A Timbered Choir (Counterpoint, 1998). Berry continues to publish poetry. His most recent collection is Leavings (Counterpoint, 2010). Berry’s poetry has the great advantage of being concrete, simple without being simplistic, and not self-indulgently obscure (as I find much modern poetry to be).

Criticism: Berry has also written a number of works of literary criticism. Recent volumes include Imagination in Place (Counterpoint, 2010) and The Poetry of William Carlos Williams of Rutherford (Counterpoint, 2011)—which I am currently reading.

Berry calls us to lower our eyes – whether we are American boosters always looking to the horizon for “the big rock candy mountain” or American Christians looking beyond this earthly life for heaven. He calls us to live rooted lives, engaged lives, communal lives. He calls us to care for soils and watersheds, farm animals and food stuffs, neighbors and families. He reminds us that the Christian hope is not a disembodied, ethereal existence, but a renewed creation, a peaceable kingdom.

John E. Phelan, Jr. is Senior Professor of Theological Studies at North Park Theological Seminary where he previously served as President and Dean for 14 years.

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