Emile A. Doak, director of events and outreach: I’ve been reading The Word-Ending Fire, a comprehensive collection of essays from throughout Wendell Berry’s career, compiled by Paul Kingsnorth. I’ve always been struck by the strong opinions Berry’s lifestyle and philosophy engender, from both supporters and opponents. Perhaps because Berry’s distinct localism and agrarianism chafe so strongly against modernity, it’s easy to caricature him as an anachronistic hermit whose idealism fails to account for the complexities of modern life—and therefore dismiss his ideas without serious consideration. But what’s surprised me most about The World-Ending Fire is the introspection with which Berry writes, adding a level of credence to his work that I had heretofore neglected.
Take, for example, Berry’s 1968 essay “A Native Hill,” in which he reflects on his Kentucky home and his life rooted to that specific land. All who are familiar with Berry’s work are probably aware that he is a proud native not only of Kentucky, but of the specific county in which he lives, farms, and writes. There is a sense of respect for unchosen limits undergirding his Kentucky homestead. As opposed to the modern narrative that values “getting up and out”—defining success as leaving one’s unchosen, provincial hometown and instead choosing a more glamorous metropolis in which to make one’s life—Berry presents an alternative in which unchosen commitments to a specific land, its people, and its history provide a far more fully human experience than a disconnected, transient chase for professional success ever could.
And yet, Berry readily concedes that his hometown life is not completely unchosen. Sure, the specific place he calls home was bequeathed from his ancestors. But Berry made an active choice to return to Kentucky from the big city, from a promising writing career in New York, and he acknowledges the significance of that choice to his relationship to his place: “Before, [my place] had been mine by coincidence or accident; now it was mine by choice…. I hoped to live here for the rest of my life. And once that was settled I began to see the place with a new clarity and a new understanding.”
Berry’s choice to return illustrates the conflicted relationship we all have with home. Yet far from refuting the need for a renewed rootedness to place, this conflicted-ness suggests the very real significance of place, even in a world that is far more transient and liquid than that of 1968. We may feel the need to leave home throughout our lives. But as Berry writes, “Home—the place—was still there,…and there was no reason I could not go back to it if I wanted to.” In our age of unfettered choice, perhaps a renewed localism requires that, like Wendell Berry, we choose our unchosen places.
Grayson Quay, contributor: With my first year of grad school behind me, I’ve been spending my summer break with the hard-boiled detective stories of Raymond Chandler.
After a spectacularly failed career as a big oil executive, Chandler turned to crime fiction, earning acclaim that spanned the entire literary spectrum, from average consumers of pulp paperbacks to highbrow luminaries like W. H. Auden (who wrote extensive studies of detective fiction) and Evelyn Waugh.
As The Big Sleep (1939) opens, Chandler’s sleuth, Philip Marlowe, approaches a Hollywood mansion with a stained glass window of a knight frozen in the process of untying a captive maiden. Marlowe, the unpolished-yet-chivalric latter-day knight, sardonically observes that the one in the shining armor isn’t getting the job done.
The mansion belongs to General Sternwood, an oil baron whose two wild daughters leave him perpetually vulnerable to blackmail. I won’t spoil any more of the plot, but I will say that it involves bootleggers, pornographers, number-runners, small-time crooks, gruff police lieutenants, hot-headed sex maniacs, and at least three femme fatales. In other words, the entire cast of shady L.A. stock characters. Chandler created an entire world for these characters to inhabit, and innumerable stories, from “L.A. Confidential” to “The Big Lebowski” (which replaces the “problematically” masculine Marlowe with the emasculated Dude), have taken it as their setting.
Marlowe would be an unforgivable cliché today, but it was Chandler himself who created the P.I. archetype that has been often imitated, oftener mocked, and sometimes intelligently riffed upon (see Rian Johnson’s film “Brick”), but never truly replicated. Marlowe is a rugged individualist. The pioneers may have reached the Pacific a hundred years earlier, but their spirit lives on in him. He has contacts, informants, and people who owe him favors, but no real friends. He keeps a bottle of whisky in the drawer of his dingy office. He cracks wise while staring down gun barrels as wide as “the mouth of the Second Street tunnel.” Every woman he meets tries to hop straight into bed with him, only to be rebuffed.
I could listen to his first-person narration, complete with some of the best damn similes ever written, for days on end, though an attentive reader can devour each book in a few hours without getting anywhere close to boredom or confusion. “Writing to entertain” is often a pejorative phrase; Chandler elevates it to an art form.