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Wendell Berry, Hater and Ideologue

So says Matthew Franck, based on the man’s Jefferson Lecture. [1] Excerpt:

Taking a breather from his litany of loathing, he indicates that he loves Nature, which he capitalizes, and draws attention to capitalizing, just in case we might be too slow to miss his implicit pantheism. He loves the local, and he loves the land, and he loves the impressive but largely vacuous sentences he composes about them. He loves E.M. Forster, a minor novelist of the last century who is remembered today chiefly for providing the raw material for some rather precious motion pictures.

He loves the “stickers” and he hates the “boomers,” terms he borrows from his teacher Wallace Stegner. Boomers are mobile creatures, moving from place to place and seizing opportunities—presumably like the first Berry who came to America centuries ago. Stickers are the ones who stay in place and sink roots in the land. Is there room in Wendell Berry’s moral imagination (he loves that word, “imagination”) for a good word to be said about each of them?

Not on your life, you boomer you. “The boomer is motivated by greed, the desire for money, property, and therefore power. . . . Stickers on the contrary are motivated by affection, by such love for a place and its life that they want to preserve it and remain in it.” The Berry family is a bunch of stickers, and Wendell is the Poet of Stickers. There is nothing redeeming or redemptible, not one thing, to be found in boomers. They’re hateful. So there.

It goes on like that, with Franck denouncing Berry’s words as “a sparkling example of an ideological mind at work.” Let me say that it’s actually refreshing to read something critical of Berry; I say that as someone who is rather worshipful towards him, and who downplays, at least in my mind, the fact that Berry’s stern moralism often doesn’t give one much direction in what a sympathetic person could practically do to live out his ethical and philosophical code in a non-agrarian world. As a lefty pal sympathetic to Berry once said to me, “The problem with Wendell is nobody is pure enough for him.” Then again, the lack of a prescription doesn’t necessarily compromise the diagnosis.

But this essay? Feh. Franck’s essay is one long neoconnish sneer at Berry, without any evident attempt to grasp the man’s thought. “Implicit pantheism”? I’m pretty sure Franck is a Roman Catholic. Berry, who is some sort of Protestant, is talking about the sacramental quality of the created world — which is not the same thing as pantheism. His book against scientism, “Life Is a Miracle,” is a profoundly Christian statement of intellectual humility and the sacramental worldview. “Pantheism”? Good grief. That’s on the same level as saying that Catholics worship statues.

About the Boomer-Sticker thing — and really, read the lecture itself [2]to get a fuller understanding of what Berry said — Berry is making the perfectly reasonable, very conservative, point that there is something morally derelict in being the sort of person who doesn’t stay put to tend and to build, but rather in being the sort of person who sees the world — Nature, human communities — as disconnected from ourselves, spiritually and morally, and only there to be exploited.   His slam on James B. Duke has to do with Duke — and by extension, the capitalist — not seeing how his own decisions, indeed his own prosperity, depends on the well being of all the little guys under him. If Duke had affection (in the philosophical sense Berry means it, not mere emotion) for these people, he wouldn’t see these farmers as objects, mere entries on an accounting ledger, but as stewards of the common good, to whom he is obligated, as they are to him. Berry’s argument is that our entire way of living is narcissistic and materialistic, and only asks, “What’s in it for me?”

Does Berry undervalue the creative aspect of capitalism, and the goods inherent in mobility? I believe he does. That said, everything in American popular culture tells us that we should always move for better jobs, move to fulfill desires, that we should place the pursuit of happiness (versus virtue) as the absolute telos of our personal and communal lives. That we should be acutely conscious of our rights, but disdainful of our responsibilities. Berry really does speak prophetically about these things, and from a deeply conservative, traditionalist worldview — one that leaves very few people, on the left or the right, unimplicated in our predicament. What Berry asks, ultimately, is: What is a person? What does it mean to be fully human? What does our humanity, under God, require of us? What are our limits?

The fact that contemporary conservatives like Franck can only condemn Berry as a tree-hugging crypto-commie is by no means an indictment of Berry, but a rather stark example of the rigidity of the contemporary American conservative philosophical and theological imagination.

To be fair, though, if the Jefferson Lecture was one’s first exposure to Berry’s thought — and Franck has indicated elsewhere that for him, it was — then it’s understandable that one would be more dismissive of Berry and his vision than the overall facts warrant. Here’s Nathan Schlueter, responding to Franck’s polemic. [3] Schlueter agrees that the Jefferson Lecture wasn’t Berry at his best. But:

Unfortunately, Berry’s almost complete silence about government in his lecture almost undoubtedly led many of his listeners to a conclusion he did not in fact make, that government is the solution. It is very difficult to believe that this was Berry’s intention, and it certainly cannot be deduced from his other writings, where governments are as guilty as corporations. Port William, his model of a community based on “membership,” has neither corporations nor a government.

In the end, I would strongly encourage people not to judge Berry based upon this one lecture. He fully deserved the honor of the lecture. His body of work in fiction, poetry, and essays constitutes the most impressive effort in our time to protect, preserve, and deepen the knowledge of the human person that lies at the heart of Western civilization, and to oppose the corrosive influences (utilitarianism, individualism, scientism, industrialism, etc.) that threaten to destroy that knowledge. His life itself is a testament of fidelity to that knowledge, worthy of acknowledgment, recognition, and celebration.

True. My defensiveness of Berry against Franck’s attack, I think, has to do with the fact that I’ve been reading Berry for years, and knew when I read this lecture that it was basically just Berry saying the same things he’s been saying for years, in a highly abbreviated form. It’s hard for me to read it with the eyes of someone who knows nothing of Berry.


22 Comments (Open | Close)

22 Comments To "Wendell Berry, Hater and Ideologue"

#1 Comment By Brian On May 3, 2012 @ 10:53 am

First Things seems to have an official editorial position that distributism must be mocked at every opportunity, so it doesn’t surprise that they’d be publish something so hostile to Berry’s agrarianism philosophy.

Can anyone point me to any writing, interview, etc., where Berry might address the fact that he’s a tobacco farmer? I just have a real hard time taking him completely seriously, even on his own terms, given that he’s not in fact growing, you know, FOOD. Unlike say Joel Salatin or others.

#2 Comment By Charles Cosimano On May 3, 2012 @ 10:59 am

Franck said it all better than I ever could. I have never been able to understand this worship of Berry, whom I have always viewed as just a self-righteous old bore.

#3 Comment By Matt On May 3, 2012 @ 11:05 am

He loves E.M. Forster, a minor novelist of the last century who is remembered today chiefly for providing the raw material for some rather precious motion pictures.

Matthew Franck is the “Your favorite band sucks!” guy from high school. I don’t think I’ve ever read a sentence of his that had some amount of levity or joie de vivre.

#4 Comment By Seth On May 3, 2012 @ 11:10 am


Berry addresses tobacco (and the Burley Tobacco Program, which his father helped found) in several places. “The Problem of Tobacco” in Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community comes to mind.

Also, Berry is not solely a tobacco farmer – he has a diverse farm, though tobacco may be his sole cash crop. I know that, at the very least, he has a healthy flock of sheep.

#5 Comment By Helen On May 3, 2012 @ 11:21 am

Wait — Berry is a tobacco farmer? Really? That is very surprising.

#6 Comment By Helen On May 3, 2012 @ 11:56 am

I guess I need to read what he says about tobacco. How could he possibly justify it, I wonder. That he is a tobacco farmer really changes my view of him.

#7 Comment By Chris On May 3, 2012 @ 12:07 pm

I will never understand how someone can claim to be a conservative and treat what Wendell Berry has to say with this kind of contempt. It makes me want to grab their shoulders and scream “What the heck do you want to conserve, anyway?”

Moreover, it blows my mind that someone like Franck can understand just how terrible is the Boomer’s cultural legacy when it comes to 80% of what they did, but is incredulous that maybe their push to get people into the cities working white collar jobs and the push towards super-market theory of food purchasing might spring from the same well.

#8 Comment By JB On May 3, 2012 @ 12:18 pm

The problem that Franck identified – Berry’s manichean view of “Boomers” – was also my chief objection to Berry’s “Jayber Crow.” The book was a good enough story, but I couldn’t get over the narrator’s obvious contempt and condescension for a particular character who embodied the “Boomer” approach. There was little human complexity there, and no nuance, and it weakened the book.

I do think Franck’s last line, and his overall tone, were too harsh, and I appreciated Schlueter’s pushback. While Berry gains clarity with his Boomer/Sticker dichotomy, I’m afraid he is too quick to alienate folks who dare to question whether his way of life is practical.

#9 Comment By MattW On May 3, 2012 @ 12:23 pm

Why would it matter that he is a tobacco farmer? Tobacco used to be a big thing in KY, but then the crusade began and a lot of farmers were forced to switch.

#10 Comment By Susan D. On May 3, 2012 @ 12:32 pm

Good grief. Yes, Wendell Berry grows tobacco. Yes, tobacco has carcinogens in it. Yes, nicotine can be addictive, just like alcohol. When it’s overused, it can give you cancer. But it’s not necessary to use it as an addict. Plenty of people use tobacco as an occasional, social indulgence. I find few activities more pleasurable that getting together with friends for drinks, smokes, and serious discussions that digress into silliness. Just because tobacco is inappropriately overused doesn’t make it intrinsically evil, any more than is whisky.

#11 Comment By mlindroos On May 3, 2012 @ 12:35 pm

> everything in American popular culture tells us
> that we should always move for better jobs,
> move to fulfill desires, that we should place the
> pursuit of happiness (versus virtue) as the
> absolute telos of our personal and communal lives.

I think surprisingly many mainstream conservatives fail to grasp the tension between consumerism/individualism and spiritual “family values.” It seems to me “the pursuit of individual happiness” at all costs without having to care about the interests of others actually results in a society where state institutions support single parents, provide day care, take care of the elderly etc.. I.e. the Scandinavian concept of individualism ( [4] ).

“Though the path hasn’t always been straight, one can discern over the course of the twentieth century an overarching ambition in the Nordic countries not to socialize the economy but to liberate the individual citizen from all forms of subordination and dependency within the family and in civil society: the poor from charity, the workers from their employers, wives from their husbands, children from parents – and vice versa when the parents become elderly…legislation has made the Nordic countries into the least family-dependent and most individualized societies on the face of the earth. To be sure, the family remains a central social institution in the Nordic countries, but it too is infused with the same moral logic stressing autonomy and equality. The ideal family is made up of adults who work and are not financially dependent on the other, and children who are encouraged to be as independent as early as possible.”

On the other hand, the sort of society Rod would like to see probably requires strong support from (local-) government and other institutions as well, but some cherished “individual rights” (e.g. no-fault divorce) and behavior would need to be restricted and/or condemned by the group. This used to be the case in the West before the 1960s, and it’s still the norm in socially conservative Third World countries today.

The bottom line is, I think U.S. conservatives have to choose what is more important: strong “traditional” families, or individualism… The state can encourage either one of these but probably not both at the same time.


#12 Comment By MClark On May 3, 2012 @ 12:36 pm

I believe Berry has said he is a tobacco farmer because nothing else will both a) grow on his farm and b) bring the cash needed to make a living. He said that if someone can offer another crop that he can farm, without the issues associated with tobacco, then he would do so.

I don’t recall which essay this is in, unfortunately.

#13 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On May 3, 2012 @ 12:40 pm

I haven’t read Berry, although I think my sister’s copy of The Omnivore’s Dilemma is somewhat along the same lines, and I’ve read most of that. I never heard of distributism until I wandered from Rod’s old Beliefnet site to Front Porch Republic. It sounds pretty good to me, and so does what I’ve heard of Berry. Franck rubs me the wrong way from beginning to end, and if he’s a neocon, no wonder. Neocons don’t want to conserve anything, they don’t want to distribute anything with liberality, they want to spread cynicism across the globe, finding ways to make money in the process, and spend it all on themselves before the inevitable collapse. If they had their way, all of us would live in depressing suburban developments, like the one Charles Cosimano revels in.

Perhaps Berry leaves something to be desired. Most of us do. Franck hasn’t shed any light on it, only on his own Freudian preoccupations.

#14 Comment By Helen On May 3, 2012 @ 12:44 pm

Tobacco kills people, that’s why it’s big deal.

My husband’s father died a miserable, wretched death of stage IV lung cancer, more than 30 years after he quit smoking. (Tobacco is the gift that keeps on giving.) I don’t have it in me to be neutral on tobacco. “The crusade” to end smoking is a good thing.

(Rod — I think my father-in-law died exactly one year before your sister, Sept 15 2009, and had the same illness.)

#15 Comment By Chris Jones On May 3, 2012 @ 12:54 pm

I’ve never actually read Wendell Berry myself, which is surprising considering that I have always been sympathetic to distributism and agrarianism. So I’d be inclined to let Franck off the hook because the Jefferson lecture is the first thing of Berry’s that he has read.

But reading Franck’s review makes it obvious that not only has he never read Berry; he has never read Richard Weaver, either. Or Russell Kirk. Or any of the Southern Agrarians. He seems to be the sort of contemporary “conservative” for whom “conservatism” and “neo-conservatism” are identical. Not only has he not encountered Wendell Berry’s distinctive ideas in Berry’s writing, he’s never encountered them anywhere else. He needs to get out more.

Ideas have consequences.

#16 Comment By Jordan Bloom On May 3, 2012 @ 1:16 pm

I’m glad someone brought up tobacco, because I think it relates to Berry’s worldview in some very interesting ways. Burley tobacco, which is grown mostly in Eastern Kentucky, is harder to grow on an industrial scale than the flue-cured varieties grown in the Eastern piedmont.

These days a large portion of burley production occurs South America and Malawi. Because of that, and Bush eliminating the quotas, American burley growers are not only exposed to markets for the first time, but global markets for the first time.

Also, one of the quirks of the political economy of tobacco is that a lot of American burley goes into poor-quality flavored tobacco products like blunts, because flavoring agents adhere to it better than normal tobacco.

Maybe I’m overanalyzing, what does everyone think?

#17 Comment By PDGM On May 3, 2012 @ 1:45 pm

Some of the reactions to Berry being a tobacco farmer seem kind of neo-Puritan. I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that, as Americans have had less and less in common in beliefs and moral or philosophical outlooks over the past 50 or so years, that what we’ve created to take its place is a “fundamentalism of health,” in which we can marginalize the obese, smokers, and so on. This becomes the one set of beliefs we can agree upon, thereby congratulating ourselves on our lack of fragmentation.

Berry thinks deeply about farming tobacco, just as he thinks about everything else. One may not agree with what he comes up with, but thinking of him as unthinking seems absurd.

For what it’s worth, I like the occasional cigarette, though I try very hard to make sure I control my ingestion of tobacco, rather than allowing tobacco and nicotine to control me.

For what it’s worth as well, tobacco has serious religious use among Native Americans; and while there’s a striking difference between an addicted, 2 pack a day smoker sucking down a drag and a priest offering a smoke, they both use tobacco in one form or another.

#18 Comment By Russell Arben Fox On May 3, 2012 @ 1:47 pm

Reading Berry’s essay on tobacco, and thinking about many of his arguments in light of that essay, is I think quite important to understanding Berry’s ideas about government in general. Nathan Schlueter is certainly correct that Berry isn’t a simplistic “government is the answer” mainstream liberal, but nor is he any kind of libertarian. He strongly supports the idea of a government which can act collectively to maintain particular ways of life, so long as those ways of life are grounded in authentic, local, human experience. And for Kentucky, that meant tobacco. As he put it [5]:

“Government exists to do for people what they can’t do for themselves. Farmers individually or in their communities, for instance, can’t enact effective programs for price supports with production control so a government can do that, and at one time our federal government did do that. Maybe I’d better say at this point that I am an unabashed admirer of the tobacco programs of The New Deal.”

Berry’s thoughts about the necessary interplay of government regulations and local communities become really interesting when one gets down to the nitty-gritty of maintain liveable farms, capable of growing crops that 1) do not force farmers to become dependent upon huge, corporation-driven farming methods, monocultural (and often patented) seeds, and marketing strategies, and 2) are still capable of producing an economically sustainable harvest. Much of what he says points towards the need for a populist defense of the “mid-size farm,” which really is where all the best thinking and activism in our food and farming sector is happening these days. See [6] (which includes discussion of the Burley Tobacco Program as well as other positive government actions) for more.

#19 Comment By Nickp On May 3, 2012 @ 1:55 pm


If he is still a tobacco farmer, considering all we know about the harmful effects of tobacco, then I think it detracts significantly from the moral power of his arguments. It’s been a while since I read Berry (chiefly the book “What are People For” and a few other essays), but as I recall, he wants non-rural people to be cognizant of how their choices harm the rural communities that Berry cares about. For instance, my community gets the benefits of coal-fired electricity, but the rural Appalachian people living near mines get shafted.

On the other hand, Berry likes tobacco, because as a valuable cash crop, it is good for the rural community he loves. He doesn’t appear to care about the damage that it does to other people’s lives and communities (and even, if I remember correctly, is skeptical about that harm). But if tobacco is OK for Berry, why shouldn’t I say screw the appalachians, give me and my community more cheap coal-fired electricity?

#20 Comment By CapeCodder On May 3, 2012 @ 1:55 pm

Well, one week we find that the illustrious Franck knows nothing about Grenell except that he’s a vile, nasty, you-know homo-fanatic, and week two we find he knows nothing about something you know quite well.

A few more weeks of this, and Franck can be the founding member of the rejuvenated “Know-Nothing Party”!!!

#21 Comment By Joseph R. Stromberg On May 3, 2012 @ 1:56 pm

And, anyway, I’m sure tobacco has some non-military uses.

#22 Comment By MattSwartz On June 16, 2012 @ 11:38 am

Some of my cousins are Iowa corn farmers. I sincerely hope that they’ll never have to endure the sort of tremble-voiced denunciations from diabetics that tobacco farmers receive today.

Tobacco farmers produce a legal product that brings safe joy into many of our lives. Why safe? Because I indulge a couple of times a month, and steer clear of the stuff with additives.

Pastor Doug Wilson once made the point about the type of enthusiastic woman who would stop at nothing to help procure an abortion for her next-door neighbor but would also call Child Services if that same pregnant neighbor was seen enjoying a cigarette out on her porch. For the Children’s Sake, donchaknow.

We live in bizarro world, no question about it. The Tobacco Mania is a distraction from the real issues.