Reflections on LoA's first Wendell Berry volume

Significantly, however, the first volume from the Library of America is not a selection of his essays but of his fiction. And indeed it is as a storyteller that Berry is most uniquely able to unite our divided country. His fiction probes the virtues that sustain heterogeneous communities and the vices that threaten them, and reading his stories can help us imagine how we might set to work mending the fractures that threaten our communities. In particular, Berry’s stories bear witness to the redemptive, reconciling power of patient imagination; before we try to convince others of our firmly held convictions, we need to learn how to belong in membership with them.

Particularly in the wake of the 2016 presidential election, many observers have pointed out America's increasingly polarized geography. More and more of us live with people who think like we do, who share our income bracket, and who consume news from the venues we do. Yet Berry doesn't easily fit into any of our major political or cultural tribes. He's not a nationalist or a globalist; he's a patriot. He's not an industrialist or an environmentalist; he's an agrarian. His unorthodox thinking has attracted a broad and diverse readership: you are as likely to find his words in a church bulletin as on a climate-march sign. In spite of his own occasional participation in nonviolent protests, Berry is fundamentally against movements and the fashionable politics of the moment (in 1969 he presciently warned that popular causes in the electronic age almost invariably become fads).

Read the full essay, "Patiently Learning to Belong," by Jeffrey Bilbro at The University Bookman.

Wendell Berry on his literary friendships

In the course of collaborating with Wendell Berry on the chronology for our new collection of his fiction, Port William Novels & Stories (The Civil War to World War II), we persuaded him to elaborate on an initial set of notes regarding his fellow writers and teachers through the years. The results appear below, as a Library of America web exclusive.

Hayden Carruth. I first encountered his work in May of 1964. He first wrote to me in response to my poem “Meditation in the Spring Rain," I remember. But I don’t remember the year. After that we visited back and forth several times and carried on a lively and (to me) very valuable correspondence as long as he lived. I love him and his work very much.

Harry Caudill. In 1963, when I was living in New York and knew I would return home, Harry published Night Comes to the Cumberlands. I read it in the summer of that year. It showed me what it might mean to be a responsible Kentucky writer living in Kentucky, and it affected me deeply. Gurney Norman introduced me to Harry and Anne Caudill when I visited him in the summer of 1965. Harry (until his death) and Anne, Tanya and I became close friends and did a good deal of visiting and talking. Harry opposed the coal industry in coal country, pretty much face to face. He was, and he remains, a landmark.

See all of Mr. Berry's comments at Library of America.

Library of America questions Wendell Berry

In advance of the publication of Wendell Berry: Port William Novels & Stories (The Civil War to World War II), The Library of America has posted a Q&A with Mr. Berry.

Library of America: This first Library of America volume presents four novels and twenty-three short stories of the Port William sequence in the order of their narrative chronology—a long arc tracing roughly eighty years of rural American life. What might a reader of your work gain from seeing it laid out in this form, instead of in the order in which it was written?

Wendell Berry: “Might” is the right word here. I know this work from the inside, whereas a reader can know it only from the outside. I know it, or have known it, first in the order in which the parts were written. The whole work “from the Civil War to the end of World War II,” as Library of America has published it, was not written from first to last according to a plan. The order of writing was simply the order in which the parts became imaginable to me. A reader, reading from earliest to latest in the order of history, may know this body of work differently, and even better, than I can know it.

Read the whole exchange at Library of America.

On Wendell Berry's idealism and reality

It would be years before I learned to appreciate rural places in their complexity, to see their beauty without sacrificing their reality.

Because, like most rural communities, my small town is and was a complicated place. The rural communities I serve now are just as complex.

There might be rolling fields of produce, but they employ fewer and fewer people. People are friendly, but often only after a long initiation (my parents bought our house in 1989, but my father is still not considered a local). And in an age where fear is the dominant political language, suspicion of the stranger can twist strong community ties into an impenetrable knot.

Berry, of course, recognizes that the communities he writes about aren’t simple. In several of his essays in “What Matters: Economics for a Renewed Commonwealth,” he insists on understanding the complexity of an economy and rebukes the fantasy of simple solutions.

In his work, I catch glimpses of the places in which I’ve served and lived. Berry knows about and portrays this other version of rural. But he doesn’t linger in the grittiness of it before moving back to the ideal.

Read all of "Why I hate Wendell Berry" by Allen T. Stanton at Faith & Leadership.

Reflections on Wendell Berry's latest

People like Sir Thomas Howard, Aldo Leopold, and J.I. Rodale were among those sounding the alarm that things weren’t quite right with the increasingly chemically dependent agriculture of their times. Their alarms have continued into today through people like Wendell Berry. After 60 years of writing about such things, his recent collection of essays, The Art of Loading Brush, subtitled, New Agrarian Writings, released in 2017, is proof Mr. Berry has much more to say. The book is an argument for agrarianism as a model for restoring not only nature’s health by caring for it, but in turn, through that same process, restoring the health of rural communities. Care of land requires co-operation, not only with nature, but with each other. In the essay, The Thought of Limits in a Prodigal Age, he makes that argument like this:

As long as the diverse economy of our small farms lasted, our communities were filled with people who needed one another and knew that they did. They needed one another’s help in their work, and from that they needed one another’s companionship. Most essentially, the grownups and elders needed the help of the children, who thus learned the family’s and the community’s work and the entailed duties, pleasures, and loyalties. When that work disappears, when the parents leave farm and household for town jobs, when the upbringing of the young is left largely to the schools, then the children, like their parents, live as individuals, particles, loved perhaps, but not needed for any usefulness they may have or any help they might give. As the local influences weaken, outside influences grow stronger.

Read the whole piece by Josh Retterer at Mockingbird

Essay on Wendell Berry's fiction published

“Theological Voices in Wendell Berry’s Fiction” by Jane M. Schreck, professor of English at Bismarck State College is published in the current number (volume 21, issue 5) of Religion and the Arts from Boston College.

According to Dr. Schreck, "The article examines the theological thinking Berry articulates in his essays and aligns his ideas with those expressed by characters in his short stories and novels."

[Correction: A previous version of this post misspelled Dr. Schreck's name.] 

On Wendell Berry, Options, and Fatherhood

And while farming is not really an option for most, I do think that it is in our work that we men, as fathers, can have the greatest impact on how our lives unfold in more human ways into today’s societal environment.   We long for our “vocation” and our “work” to be the same thing, which is actually another common thread in Berry’s work, because, especially for the laymen, those things ought to be united in the common idea of “economy” – the union or meaning, work, place, and home.  Berry’s idea holds a fuller understanding of vocation than either the typical Catholic or secular society does.  “Vocation,” to many Catholics, means the overarching “state” of religious, clergy, or lay that a person is called to. “Vocation” in secular society means your trade, generally, but one merely chosen and trained for.  But to Berry, vocation is that particular state that includes a “thing” you make because we were made to make, and this he presents in contrast to a mere “job”, which is had for the sake of money alone:

“[Vocations] are specific kinds of work to which [people] are summoned by God or by their natural gifts or talents.  The kind of work may be cabinet-making or music-making, cooking or forestry, medicine or mechanics, science or law or philosophy or farming – any kind of work that is whole…  A “job,” by contrast, is understood as any work whatever that one can earn money by doing…” (Wendell Berry, The Art of Loading Brush, 79).

Read the complete essay by Jason Craig at Catholic Exchange.

"Wendell Berry and the Given Life" reviewed

It might be easiest to define this book by what it is not. It is definitively not a biography of Wendell Berry, which is a good thing, considering how often and forcefully he has rejected the idea of a biography himself. (One of my favorite Berry quotes regarding this is from an interview with The New York Times, when he was asked who he would want to write his life story: “A horrible thought. Nobody. As the only person who ever has lived my life, I know that most of it can never be documented, is beyond writing and beyond words.”) Sutterfield acknowledges this at the outset as well and offers only cursory demographic information. This book is also not a dissertation-style explication of a single author’s work; Sutterfield generally stays away from literary criticism at all. The book is only 150 pages and written in relatively plain language, which also excludes it from the average critical analysis.

Instead, the mission of the book is laid out early and adhered to well: to cast a cohesive vision of what Berry writes about across the breadth of his work, which includes his poetry, fiction, and essays. Sutterfield does spend some time placing Berry’s work in context, and of course any reader of Berry’s knows how important context – specifically place – is to him and his writing. This is the first book I’ve read, to my memory, of this style; writing exclusively about an author and his work, but not attempting to analyze the work in a typical criticism style. I suspect that Sutterfield – a writer, teacher, and naturalist, who is obviously very familiar with Berry’s work – wrote this book for the same reason I would: he loves the works of Wendell Berry. Berry’s writing is uniquely rich and covers ground that is both narrow in scope and endlessly complex, and Wendell Berry and the Given Life seeks to tease out some of the major themes.

Read the whole review by Brent Schnipke at Relief: A Journal of Art & Faith

Wendell Berry in Spanish translation

Watch With Me and Six Other Stories of the Yet-Remembered Ptolemy Proudfoot and His Wife, Miss Minnie, Née Quinch, Mr. Berry's 1994 collection of seven short stories will be published in Spanish translation this month (December 2017) as Velad Conmigo by the publisher Nuevo Inicio.


Wendell Berry es un elocuente defensor de la necesidad de la comunidad y de la pertenencia, y del amor a las personas y a los lugares concretos, para que pueda florecer una vida que pueda llamarse verdaderamente humana. La editorial “Nuevo Inicio” intenta publicar sus obras, haciéndolas accesibles al lector español. Ya han sido publicados Sexo, economía, libertad y comunidad (2010); Fidelity. Cinco relatos (2012); La vida es un milagro (2012). Está en preparación una antología de sus ensayos preparada por Norman Wirzba, profesor de la Duke University, con el título de El arte de cuidar de la casa común.

[Wendell Berry is an eloquent defender of the need for community and belonging, and of love for people and specific places, so that a truly human life can flourish. The publisher "Nuevo Inicio" publishes his works, making them accessible to the Spanish reader. Sex, economy, freedom and community (2010); Fidelity: Five stories (2012); Life is a miracle (2012) have already been published. An anthology of his essays prepared by Norman Wirzba, a professor at Duke University, is being prepared under the title of The Art of Caring for the Common House.]

from Nuevo Inicio 

Wendell Berry's "The Thought of Limits in a Prodigal Age"

I want to say something about the decline, the virtual ruin, of rural life, and about the influence and effect of agricultural surpluses, which I believe are accountable for more destruction of land and people than any other economic “factor.” This is a task that ought to be taken up by an economist, which I am not. But economists, even agricultural economists, farm-raised as many of them have been, do not live in rural communities, as I do, and they appear not to care, as I do, that rural communities like mine all over the country are either dying or dead. And so, only partly qualified as I am, I will undertake this writing in the hope that I am contributing to a conversation that will attract others better qualified. 

I have at hand an article from the Wall Street Journal of February 22, 2016, entitled “The U.S. Economy Is in Good Shape.” The article is by Martin Feldstein, “chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors under President Ronald Reagan . . . a professor at Harvard and a member of the Journal’s board of contributors.” Among economists, Prof. Feldstein appears to be somewhere near the top of the pile. And yet his economic optimism is founded entirely upon current measures of “incomes,” “unemployment,” and “industrial production,” all abstractions narrowly focused. Nowhere in his analysis does he mention the natural world, or the economies of land use by which the wealth of nature is made available to the “American economy.” Mr. Feldstein believes that “the big uncertainties that now hang over our economy are political.” 

Read "The Thought of Limits in a Prodigal Age" at Sierra.