Not quite thirty years ago, I heard Wendell Berry give a talk at an organic farming conference in Texas. He was funny! That’s what I remember. He stood behind the lectern, a tall, lean figure, and in his casual opening remarks he revealed that he was a lot slyer than he let on in print. He clearly knew how to get a laugh among farmers—always a tough crowd. But this was also an easy crowd, at least where Berry’s fundamental message was concerned. Like a lot of other people that day, I’d come to hear the Berry who was decidedly not funny, who, at most, permitted himself now and then a small, bitter irony in one of his tough-minded essays about agriculture and the modern world. So the laughter—it rolled around the hall like thunder—came partly from surprise, naive surprise in my case. I was abruptly reminded of a basic literary principle: the writer and the writer’s persona aren’t the same. To the man onstage talking off the cuff, I would have gone on listening a good deal longer.
It’s almost impossible to recapture how important Berry’s nonfiction voice once was. It emerged from a successful career as a young novelist and poet, a career defined by familiar landmarks: a Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford, a succession of teaching jobs, a Guggenheim, a Greenwich Village apartment. But in 1965, when he was thirty, Berry, his wife, Tanya, and their two children went home for good to rural Kentucky, where he had grown up surrounded by farming kin. He began to farm, adhering, with some improvements, to the old-fashioned methods he had known as a child, including farming with horses. That move gave him the footing he needed to write something new, something with a sharper edge than his often nostalgic fiction and consolatory verse: plain, pointed essays about the ways in which American farming—and America itself—was going wrong.
The land became Berry’s moral center, and the early essays that emerged more or less directly from the land—gathered in The Long-Legged House (1969), The Unsettling of America (1977), and The Gift of Good Land (1981)—still have an unsettling power. The best of them, like “The Making of a Marginal Farm” (1980), form a kind of apologia, an account of his decision to leave the familiar career path of a prospering writer and return to farming. “The Making of a Marginal Farm” is the story of recovering a landscape burdened by bad agricultural practices and bringing it back to life. In a way, it’s the least metaphorical and the least argumentative of Berry’s essays. He is concerned, simply, to help us understand how he and his wife set about reclaiming the steep slopes of their small farm:
A great deal of work is still left to do, and some of it…will take longer than we will live. But in doing these things we have begun a restoration and a healing in ourselves.
On his farm, Berry fashioned the link between social activism, conservation, agriculture, and personal well-being. In his introduction to The Gift of Good Land, he writes, “The discipline of farming has a low public standing.” If this is no longer true, one of the reasons is Wendell Berry.
What Berry saw was that the population of this country had undergone an enormous shift in his lifetime. It had fled the countryside for the city. By the time he began writing essays about farming in the late 1960s, agriculture had become, for most Americans, an almost invisible subject, seemingly unconnected to their own lives. In his early essays, Berry showed that the damaging patterns of modern farming—its wastefulness, its reliance on machines and fossil fuels, its social destructiveness—were intrinsically connected to the damaging patterns of modern life as a whole. The vision of farming explicitly endorsed by the US Department of Agriculture was (and remains) essentially industrial rather than biological. It emphasized growth and efficiency, and it helped drive small farmers and farm laborers off the land by the millions. To go from Aldo Leopold’s seminal 1939 essay, “The Farmer as a Conservationist,” to Berry’s book The Unsettling of America is to travel from a time when the fundamental values of American farming were still being contested to an early version of the agricultural dystopia in which we now live. That is the span in which Wendell Berry came of age, and which gave him his voice as an essayist.
Over the years, I’ve thought a lot about farming, and I’ve written a lot about it. I come from an extended farming family, and I care about many of the same things Berry cares about. I concur with him again and again. And yet, reading him, I could always feel my attention jibbing. Worse, I often felt an instinctive wariness, a native recoil, that grew more serious as the years went on. “What’s my problem?” I’d wonder. Those feelings all came flooding back while I was working my way through What I Stand On,1 the two volumes of Berry’s essays recently published by the Library of America.2
Rereading Berry, I realized that my attention tends to wander whenever he seems to believe he deserves my full attention. That happens all the time, or so I judge from the nature of the prose. A reader can tell the difference, I think, between a writer who owes it to himself to keep writing and one who feels he owes it to the welfare of his readers. Berry can be both kinds, often at the same time. I found myself wishing he’d written far more about sheep and mules and horse-farming and the actual character of the soil and far less about sex and science and faith and the principles of Robert E. Lee.
And, rereading Berry, I realized that most of his essays aren’t really essays. They’re disquisitions, extended arguments. I don’t often get around to agreeing or disagreeing with their author, because I’m too busy arguing with his prose. Berry derives his strength as a writer from contact with the earth, the more immediate, the better. All his life, he’s been a vigilant man of conscience. He’s capable of moving and inspiring readers, capable too, at times, of getting to the heart of a cultural or social problem. But he can also make you feel like you’re warming yourself at a bonfire of straw men and women. All too often I’m disturbed, to the point of physical unease, by the involuted, strangely patristic way his writing and thinking move, the grandeur of his modesty.3 He seems, to borrow a phrase from George Bernard Shaw, “too full of the validity of his remoter generalizations.”
Here’s an example of what I mean. Two versions of the first person—“I”—present themselves in Berry’s nonfiction. One kind you can hear in this sentence from The Unsettling of America, his “review” of modern agriculture: “I am writing this in the north-central part of Kentucky on a morning near the end of June.” It’s a fresh, welcome voice, and you’d think it would be ubiquitous in the literary productions of a man as devoted to outdoor work as Berry is.
But it’s not. The first person that dominates these essays is the logical first person, the “I” (and its plural “we”) whose job is to fence in the argument and shepherd the sheep who are supposed to be grazing on it. This is the first person that turns up in the phrase “as I have been trying to show” or “as I am perforce aware.” (That kind of “I” is all too easily replaced by the noxious “it will be observed that,” which Berry uses in a passage about farming with horses.)4 It’s tempting to excuse these things by saying that the value of Berry’s essays is moral, not literary. But to me that just means he often fails to do the first important job of a writer—“even” a nonfiction writer—which is to make sentences that breathe with the life of the body, even when that body happens to be thinking.
In The Long-Legged House—a collection of essays that includes the earliest work gathered in this new anthology—Berry seems to have devoured Thoreau whole, minus a few of his less digestible tics, like his often untrackable flights of Orientalism. Thoreau may be “a man of the rarest genius,” in Berry’s words, but he’s uneven. Some of his prose—the clearest, sharpest paragraphs of Walden, for instance—has been a wonderful influence on later writers, and some has been a terrible influence. Berry seems to have partaken of both. You can hear the clear echo of Concord in a passage in which he’s thinking about an old, abandoned house and the way his ancestors “had trickled off into oblivion”:
And I was more grateful for the silence of their departure than I would be for the lineage of a king. Not knowing who had planted the flowers there, I did not have to weep over them, or grow reminiscent, but could enjoy them as they were. I had them free as wildflowers.
There are some familiar Thoreauvian overtones here: the slight sound of preening and the underlying suggestion that the purpose of writing prose is to allow the reader to enjoy the operation of the writer’s mind. These overtones occur again and again in Berry’s early nonfiction. One day, for instance, he notices a flock of wood ducks resting peacefully on the water and writes, “The moment was whole in itself, deeply satisfying both to them and to me.” Generously, in a way Thoreau might approve, the writer’s self-approbation spreads like a ground-fog over all of nature.
There’s also a kind of skittering in The Long-Legged House that reminds me of Thoreau—an uncannily quick movement from local to universal and back again, as if the writer were just waiting to slip an abstraction through a gap in the hedge. You can hear a version of this in the way that Thoreau—like Berry—uses metaphor. The instantaneous fusion of resemblance and dissonance that I hope to find in a good metaphor—the suddenness of perception—isn’t much use to Thoreau, because it’s hard to moralize one that works that way. Every actual thing in his prose seems to quiver with the desire to become metaphorical or symbolic, like the dead horse in Walden whose strong scent causes Thoreau to think of the myriads of creatures squashed and gobbled and “run over in the road,” ending in a vision of “universal innocence.” It’s a relief when things remain merely themselves.
Something similar happens in The Long-Legged House. Berry tells the story of a raccoon hunter who threw away his lantern in order to see better in the dark. Then comes this:
For I have turned aside from much that I knew, and have given up much that went before. What will not bring me, more certainly than before, to where I am is of no use to me. I have stepped out of the clearing into the woods. I have thrown away my lantern, and I can see the dark.
The lantern has been transmogrified in a way that leaves the reader puzzled, as does the phrasing of the sentence that begins “What will not bring me.” Berry says elsewhere that he’s “never been comfortable behind” a pulpit. But this habit of extemporaneous symbolizing—so similar to extemporaneous moralizing—is surely a pulpit habit, and it’s one that he will pursue.
The differences between Thoreau and Berry begin to sharpen soon after The Long-Legged House, and they’re instructive. Intellectually, Thoreau isn’t a system-builder. He’s a noticer, wedded to the particular, no matter how it distracts him from any larger purpose. By the time Berry’s nonfiction prose reaches full stride, in The Unsettling of America, his urge to explain, to persuade, and to resonate has turned him into a very different kind of writer. He has begun to construct a systematic, philosophical edifice on an analogical foundation, a structure erected to the sound of one man thinking as deliberately as he can, trying “to slow language down and make it thoughtful.”
I’m eager to understand just why Berry’s essays pursue the methods they do, but he has little to say about it. In “The Burden of the Gospels” (2005), he says, “I expect any writing to make literal sense before making sense of any other kind.” Fair enough. But that tells me less about his method—why he sounds the way he does—than this peculiar sentence from “Standing By Words” (1983): “In public writing, and in speech passing between strangers, there may only be degrees of generalization.” Berry’s essays are indeed public writing and, having been published in books and magazines, they are also a form of speech passing between strangers. But does that really explain the extraordinarily high degree of abstraction and generalization in his prose?
Perhaps the best explanation comes in his afterword to the third edition of The Unsettling of America:
Another reason my book has received no vigorous counterargument, I fear, is that in centers of learning and power argument itself has become virtually obsolete, a lost art. Public discourse of all kinds now tends to pattern itself either upon the arts of advertisement and propaganda (that is, the arts of persuasion without argument, which lead to reasonless and even unconscious acquiescence) or upon the allegedly objective or value-free demonstrations of science.
This is shifty stuff. It seems to leave Berry standing alone with his book and argument, the last debater, mourning the death of civilization and logical dueling. What it really does is add another straw man to the fire. He sounds perilously close to saying, “I see nothing that I choose to recognize as argument.” In Berry’s eyes, this isn’t merely an institutional failure, it’s also a betrayal of something much larger, “for,” as he says, “the pursuit of truth by argument and counterargument is a major part of our cultural tradition from the gospels and the Platonic dialogues to every county courthouse today.”
The word that’s missing in that passage is “evidence,” a pretty important word in county courthouses and a word whose absence offers a valuable clue to how Berry’s nonfiction often works. For in his essays he assumes, again and again, that he will supply the argument and we will supply the evidence—the evidence of our own hollow lives, our degenerate bodies, our feelings of dislocation and spiritual bankruptcy. It’s surprising, in fact, how little teaching, as opposed to lecturing, you find in these two volumes, how little you can learn about the workings of the actual world. Berry has said that “the discipline of thought is not generalization; it is detail.” But for the most part you won’t find this borne out in his essays. His prose relishes abstraction.
In The Unsettling of America, for example, there’s a long passage about soil. It’s a moment when, with a little effort, Berry might have given us a sotto in su perspective—a glimpse of the world above from the worm’s eye below. He might have taught us a little about the microbial and mineral contents of the soil, its extraordinary biological complexity, its fragility and resilience—the actual gritty stuff right under his feet—all of which would have served his argument well. But Berry is on the trail of a metaphor. “We see,” he writes,
that we have not only a description of the fundamental biological process, but also a metaphor of great beauty and power. It is impossible to contemplate the life of the soil for very long without seeing it as analogous to the life of the spirit.
When I contemplate the life of the soil, I come nowhere near “the life of the spirit.” I never think of it. I see the incredible richness of biological existence, of which I’m wholly a part. But Berry’s reader, in this case me, is overridden by the peremptory phrase “it is impossible to contemplate,” which, as a form of argument, is no argument at all.
Just how open Berry is to argument and counterargument became clear in 1988, when several readers complained about his now infamous essay “Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer,” which was reprinted by Harper’s in its September issue.5 The trouble arose with this line: “My wife types my work on a Royal standard typewriter bought new in 1956 and as good now as it was then.” Not surprisingly, some readers complained about a man who refused to buy a (possibly) labor-saving device while relying on the labor of his wife. And, not surprisingly, some readers complained in ways that were foolish and thoughtless.
To me, the real trouble begins a little lower down in the paragraph, when Berry says, “We have, I think, a literary cottage industry that works well and pleasantly. I do not see anything wrong with it.” He may be right about the pleasant cottage industry. I don’t know, and in any case that’s between him and his wife. It’s the next sentence that sticks in my craw: “I do not see anything wrong with it.” Berry attacks many men in the pages of his essays—Buckminster Fuller, Earl Butz, who was head of the USDA under Nixon and Ford (and surely deserves vilification as a racist and a diehard exponent of industrialized agriculture), and a host of lesser “specialists” and “experts.” I can imagine each of them saying simply, and in the same tone of voice, “I do not see anything wrong with it.” And expecting to get away with it.
Harper’s published five letters from critical readers as well as Berry’s response to them. It reads like an exercise in pique. He belittles the letter-writers and claims that they believe in a “technological fundamentalism that…wishes to monopolize a whole society and, therefore, cannot tolerate the smallest difference of opinion.” He concludes his argument by saying, “it seems to me that none of my correspondents recognizes the innovativeness of my essay. If the use of a computer is a new idea, then a newer idea is not to use one.”
Perhaps that’s meant to be what Berry calls, accusing himself of it elsewhere, a bit of “smartassery.” But it’s hard to tell, because it sounds like the kind of conclusion he’s usually in the business of reaching. To me, Berry’s response suggests a failure of imagination and empathy—twin aspects of the same state of mind. The problem isn’t that he couldn’t see anything wrong with having his wife type his work. It’s that he couldn’t imagine anything wrong with it. Nor could he imagine anyone else seeing anything wrong with it.
Again and again, you come across moments in Berry’s essays where logic overrides empathy, where conviction overrides imagination, where the pursuit of a single truth overrides the possibility of other truths. Here is one such moment. In The Unsettling of America, Berry writes, “An infertile woman and an infertile field both receive a dose of chemicals…and are thus equally reduced to the status of productive machines.” You can feel in this sentence how seductive the power of analogy is to a man building an argument—it is brick and mortar both. But there’s a person in this sentence—a woman—and she and her sense of herself have been left entirely out of his account.
Berry can imagine the woman being reduced to the status of a machine, though syntactically and analogically he’s the one doing the reducing. But he won’t pause to imagine what she thinks or feels about fertility or the autonomy of her body. What he’s interested in is making his point, which is this: “For the care or control of fertility…we have allowed a technology of chemicals and devices to replace entirely the cultural means of ceremonial forms, disciplines, and restraints.” What I see here is a lapse of historical imagination—a failure to recognize that these “cultural means” have not only been inadequate, they have been oppressive.
“Forms, disciplines, and restraints”: these are the kinds of abstractions and generalizations that crowd Wendell Berry’s work. Berry uses these words in an almost talismanic way, but without much specificity, as you can tell when you begin to ask a few questions. Who establishes these forms? Who imposes these restraints? Who administers these disciplines? Berry’s answer is “the community”—as in, “without the community disciplines that make for a stable, neighborly population, the cities have become scenes of poverty, boredom, and disease.” Berry asks us to trust him when he talks about things like “community disciplines.” I balk at that.
At the root of his quiet radicalism, Berry is a champion of what he calls “established forms,” which is one of the reasons he always prefers the word “Creation” to “nature.” Like so many of the moral abstractions in these essays, “community disciplines” is a container into which anything can be poured—into which, historically, everything has been poured, to the peril of those not imposing the disciplines.6 Berry’s prose seems to suggest that there can be no question about the nature of community or whom it includes if it includes men of goodwill like him. The inadequacy of this in America at this moment should be obvious.
A cottage industry of Wendell Berry quotations seems to have sprung up in the past few years. I see them everywhere, on office walls, in yoga studios, in church basements. And the strange thing is that Berry’s conclusions—often quite quotable—are often more persuasive than the means he uses to reach them. For example: “The preserver of abundance is excellence.” Or: “To live at the expense of the source of life is obviously suicidal.” Or this: “The time is past when it was enough merely to elect our officials. We will have to elect them and then go and watch them and keep our hands on them, the way the coal companies do.”
Berry is often regarded as a prophet, and it’s our collective tragedy that his prophecy has been fulfilled. Agriculture across the planet has been industrialized—Americanized—with social and ecological consequences on a scale that even Berry, I think, didn’t imagine. We live now in a world where agriculture is completely dependent on the consumption of fossil fuels, where, as Berry says, “we need petroleum exactly as much as we need food and must have it before we can eat.” Agriculture, instead of being what it naturally should be—a vast carbon sink and thus a solution to climate change—is one of the leading climate offenders. With all of this has come a linked decline in biological and social complexity that is appalling.
It’s tempting to look at these changes as though they’re almost a natural, if unfortunate, evolution of sorts. Berry has never made that mistake, and the force of his most potent essays from the 1970s and early 1980s arose from the fact that he refused to let his readers make it. He kept turning over words like “progress” and “efficiency” until we saw the corruption they hid. In the Darwinian economy of nature, humans do not make the rules. But when it comes to the Darwinism of markets—the Darwinism of economic assumptions—we do make the rules, and, as Berry reminds us, they have been skewed against life itself.
In England in the fall of 1830 there were riots in the countryside, caused in part by fifteen years of serious agricultural depression. Farm laborers burned barns and hay-ricks and threshing machines in the night. Their leader was a fictional creation named Captain Swing. One of the great reforming essayists of the time—the Reverend Sydney Smith, a clergyman-farmer and a man of extraordinary moral courage—wrote a public letter to Mr. Swing, which was published in 1830. The logic of what he said is nearly unassailable. “If you begin to object to machinery in farming,” Smith wrote,
you may as well object to a plow, because it employs fewer men than a spade. You may object to a harrow, because it employs fewer men than a rake. You may object even to a spade, because it employs fewer men than fingers and sticks, with which savages scratch the ground in Otaheite [Tahiti].
As far as it goes, Smith’s argument is right. But he’d never seen a half-million-dollar combine or an automated hog-confinement system. It had never occurred to him that farming could be structured around the welfare of machines, not humans (or animals), to the benefit of multinational corporations and the destruction of local towns and the soil itself. As for the ecological destruction that mass industrial farming has brought and is bringing about on this planet, I can’t even imagine how one would explain it to him.
Wendell Berry’s most important contribution to American discourse may turn out to be the decision he made in 1965 to return to Henry County, Kentucky, and farm with horses where his family had farmed. He is one of the great stayers—the greatest, perhaps—in American agriculture, which has been a slash-and-burn affair from the start. His choice said—and still says—that in the progression from rake to spade to plow to half-million-dollar combine, we get to decide where to stop, where to find the balance between nature and our needs. Berry chose to become, in a sense, the control in a one-sided experiment. He’d farm the way that he would farm, the rest of the world would farm the way that it would farm, and a few decades hence we’d compare the two. We know the result.
What I Stand On is an allusion to I’ll Take My Stand, a collection of essays published in 1930 by the Southern Agrarians, a group of writers that included Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom, and Robert Penn Warren. ↩
This is a peculiar production. The slipcase that houses the two volumes bears the subtitle “The Collected Essays of Wendell Berry 1969–2017.” But a glance at the table of contents tells you that this is a selection of Berry’s essays. For instance, only seven of the twenty-four essays in The Gift of Good Land are reprinted here. Counterpoint has been reissuing a lot of Berry’s work lately, including a recent anthology, The World-Ending Fire: The Essential Wendell Berry, with an introduction by Paul Kingsnorth (2018). For most readers, this will be enough nonfiction Berry. ↩
A surefire antidote for this unease has been reading the work of Berry’s longtime friend Gene Logsdon. He says much of what Berry says, but he says it as if he’s talking directly to you instead of gazing into the middle distance. ↩
Similarly, in Berry’s nonfiction, the word “then” stops referring to a point in time and becomes a bookmark of causation, referring to a location in an argument, thus: “As a writer, then, I have had this place as my fate.” ↩
Counterpoint will reissue this essay in a slim volume in 2021. ↩
A little more Berry on “community”: “A healthy community is a form that includes all the local things that are connected by the larger, ultimately mysterious form of the Creation.” ↩