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On Stickers and Boomers

Wendell Berry

Consider this to be a detour from the city meditations: not on the main road, but not far off it.

Last year Wendell Berry gave a lecture in which he said,

My teacher, Wallace Stegner … thought rightly that we Americans, by inclination at least, have been divided into two kinds: “boomers” and “stickers.” Boomers, he said, are “those who pillage and run,” who want “to make a killing and end up on Easy Street,” whereas stickers are “those who settle, and love the life they have made and the place they have made it in.” “Boomer” names a kind of person and a kind of ambition that is the major theme, so far, of the history of the European races in our country. “Sticker” names a kind of person and also a desire that is, so far, a minor theme of that history, but a theme persistent enough to remain significant and to offer, still, a significant hope.

The boomer is motivated by greed, the desire for money, property, and therefore power. James B. Duke was a boomer, if we can extend the definition to include pillage in absentia. He went, or sent, wherever the getting was good, and he got as much as he could take.

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. Of my grandfather I need to say only that he shared in the virtues and the faults of his kind and time, one of his virtues being that he was a sticker. He belonged to a family who had come to Kentucky from Virginia, and who intended to go no farther. He was the third in his paternal line to live in the neighborhood of our little town of Port Royal, and he was the second to own the farm where he was born in 1864 and where he died in 1946.

The curious thing about this story is that Berry’s grandfather could not have been a sticker if a more distant ancestor had not been a boomer — had not pulled up roots in Virginia and moved to Kentucky — much as some more distant ancestor had pulled up roots in England and crossed the seas. Wendell Berry is then the descendent of both stickers and boomers.

What’s that you say? I shouldn’t call his ancestors “boomers”? It’s not fair to accuse them of being “those who pillage and run,” of being “motivated by greed, the desire for money, property, and therefore power”? Well, I’m sorry about that, but Berry and Stegner say we only have the two categories. I’m just working with what I’ve been given. You’re a sticker or a boomer. Pick one.

Now I hope — I devoutly hope — that if I were to ask Wendell Berry whether everyone who voluntarily leaves the place of his or her birth is “motivated by greed, the desire for money, property, and therefore power,” he would say “Of course not.” Equally devoutly I hope that if I were to ask him whether the virtue of being a sticker is the only reason why people stay in their home towns he would also say, “Of course not.”

So why does he insist on the validity of this binary code? It’s useless — it’s worse than useless, it’s simplistic and uncharitable. There are many reasons why people stay home, and many why they leave; and probably no single person is driven by one reason only. “There’s no such thing as an unmixed motive,” as Rebecca West is said to have commented.

One of the things I most deeply admire about The Little Way of Ruthie Leming is that Rod doesn’t universalize his choices. He goes out of his way to insist that he isn’t telling everyone to do as he did and return to whatever their equivalent of St. Francisville is; and he makes it clear that leaving St. Francisville when he was younger was something that he was right to do, that he had to do. But, having said all that, he makes a powerful case — as Wendell Berry also does in most of his works — for the deep meaning and value and virtue to be found in the kinds of small communities that in our country today are being more-or-less systematically diminished. It’s just that Rod does it without feeling the need to separate everybody into the sheep and the goats, the wheat and the chaff, the stickers and the boomers.

I write this as someone who admires Berry this side idolatry. I would owe him a great debt if the only thing he had ever written was the essay called “Poetry and Marriage,” or the one called “Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community,” or the one called “What Are People For?” I could go on: I have been reading and profiting from his work for thirty years, and even did something to create a bit of a Berry cult at Wheaton College a long time ago. But about some of these matters pertaining to place — which is absolutely central to his concerns — his thinking is simplistic and Manichean and insufficiently aware of the real choices that many real people face.

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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