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Awards & Honors: 2012 Jefferson Lecturer

Wendell E. Berry Biography

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Wendell Berry photo portrait

May/June 2012

Wendell Berry
Photo by Guy Mendes
By David Skinner

For many of us, daily life is not an exercise in conviction. Our actions part ways from our ideals. In moments of weakness, we yield, like tall grass in a strong wind, to forces beyond our control. What others say, we accept. What happens to be on sale, we buy. What we actually think and believe is less a factor in how we live.

At seventy-seven years old, Wendell Berry continues as a great contrary example to the compromises others take in stride. Instead of being at odds with his conscience, he is at odds with his times. Cheerful in dissent, he writes to document and defend what is being lost to the forces of modernization, and to explain how he lives and what he thinks.

He is the sum of his beliefs. And those beliefs arise from a longstanding tradition most fully expressed in the American family farm, a self-sustaining economic enterprise that reinforced familial bonds and human obligations to the natural environment. The word husbandry, in his usage, combines the commitments of a spouse with the responsibilities of the farmer to his land and his animals. And what care the farmer bestows on the land and his livestock may even be reciprocated in due time.

Berry is more than a naturalist. He personifies an American school of thought that was notable, but also contested, in the founding generation. In the debate that set Thomas Jefferson against Alexander Hamilton—and rural farms against cities, and agriculture against banking interests—Berry stands with Jefferson. He stands for local culture and the small family farmer, for yeoman virtues and an economic and political order that is modest enough for its actions and rationales to be discernible. Government, he believes, should take its sense of reality from the ground beneath our feet and from our connections with our fellow human beings. And it should have a better sense of proportion: Its solutions should be equal to its problems and should not beget other problems.

Born in 1934 amid the Great Depression, Wendell was the first of four children born to Virginia Erdman and John Marshall Berry. His parents came from farming families. His mother had been to college and was a great reader. While working on the congressional staff of Virgil Chapman, later a U.S. senator, his father attended law school. But instead of becoming a big-city lawyer, he returned to Kentucky to farm while also continuing to work for the New Deal. In the 1930s, John Marshall Berry helped set up a thirteen-state marketing cooperative for tobacco farmers—a cooperative that lasted for many years, and for which both Wendell’s father and, later on, his brother John Marshall Berry Jr., served as president.

Wendell grew up in Newcastle, Kentucky, working on his father’s farm and neighboring farms. He attended the Millersburg Military Institute and then the University of Kentucky, where he earned his Master’s and met Tanya Amyx. The first time he saw Tanya, Berry recently told Jim Leach in an interview in HUMANITIES magazine, she was standing in Miller Hall by a wooden post. Years later, after the university decided to renovate the hall, the wooden newel post ended up in the Berry family home, on the first floor, this symbol of their long union the first thing a visitor sees when entering their home. In addition to a literary career resulting in more than fifty books, in which Tanya has always played an important editorial role, their partnership has yielded two children, five grandchildren, and one great grandchild.

After studying at Kentucky, Berry became a creative writing fellow in the Wallace Stegner writing program at Stanford University where he worked alongside Ernest J. Gaines, Ken Kesey, and several other writers who went on to achieve renown. Stegner supported Berry’s career in numerous ways, not least by his example as a writer of significant literary and moral ambition who devoted much of his life’s work to a place: its natural environment, its people, and its history. After Stanford, Berry started on what promised to be an itinerant existence as a professor of writing and literature, visiting Tuscany for a year as a Guggenheim fellow and then teaching at New York University for two years. An invitation to teach at the University of Kentucky, however, carried him back home. He bought a farm near Port Royal, on land adjacent to a farm that had been in his mother’s family, and pursued his vocation as a writer.

Another important example for Berry’s work was fellow Kentuckian Harry Caudill, whose elegies for the people and culture along the Cumberland Plateau are layered with a grave sense of injustice at the industrial exploitation of the region. Berry feels an affinity with artists whose work was dedicated to their home landscapes, like Thoreau in Concord or Cézanne in Provence or William Carlos Williams in New Jersey. He moves easily between poetry, fiction, and essays. But among his disparate efforts, continuity can be found. Whether in a verse concerning a yellow-throated warbler perched on a sycamore branch, or in his fictional stories of the people and times of small-town Port William, or in his essays discussing the dangers of erosion and pollution, there are several constants: admiration for nature’s ingenuity, respect for locals and local knowledge, and a deeply Christian appreciation for our obligations to each other.

Berry is especially well known for his skeptical take on technology. He has argued in favor of horse-drawn farming practices and against the use of computers. He owns no television and says he is increasingly wary of screens. Except for the four large pads of solar panels at his farm, Lanes Landing, the most advanced gadgets in his life are a push-button phone and a compact-disc player. In one essay, he talks fondly of the days when neighbors, for lack of anything else to do after sunset, would go visiting and tell and retell the stories of their people and their place. In his gentlest moments, Berry persuades and reminds us of the wisdom to be found on a well-visited front porch.

Lately it seems as if the world is catching up with the old-fashioned views of Wendell Berry, or at least some of them. His writings on good farming practices and our relationship to food have found admirers among the most influential commentators in this newly prominent area of American culture. Quoting Berry’s aphorism that “eating is an agricultural act,” Michael Pollan, in 2009, noted traces of Berry’s ideas in the policy thinking of President Obama and said there was little in his own commentary that couldn’t be found decades earlier in Berry’s writings. And there is an even broader audience, politically and culturally mixed, that knows and looks up to Wendell Berry, a community of readers who recognize the moral significance in his writing and see in his life’s work a kind of integrity that is not merely iconoclastic but deeply American.