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Wendell Berry: Modern Agrarian

Wendell Berry rejects corporatism and war for place, membership, and traditional ways

A year ago, when my wife and I were waiting for a flight out of Logan Airport, a roughhewn man of about 60 was sitting a few seats away from us reading a book I would have been surprised to see in the Deep South, much less in Boston: I’ll Take My Stand, the famous manifesto of the Twelve Southerners. He was a farmer from outside Albany, New York, on his way to a meeting of the North American Devon Association. I had recently edited The Southern Critics, an anthology of writings by the Fugitive Agrarians and their disciples, and I asked him what he thought of “The Hind Tit,” Andrew Lytle’s contribution to I’ll Take My Stand. He said he must have read it 30 times.

In the next few minutes, he talked enthusiastically about writers from the 1930s I’d never heard of, such Louis Bromfield and Parmalee Prentice. He mentioned the names of contemporaries, including Wes Jackson, who had helped give a theoretical framework to the farming life that he’d been leading, minimally dependent on petroleum or farm machinery, for the past several decades, and he especially wanted to know if I knew Wendell Berry, whose name he spoke with an affection and respect bordering on reverence.

The 17 contributors to The Humane Vision of Wendell Berry help those who do not know Berry, or know him only in one or two of his dimensions, to understand what this farmer, poet, essayist, and novelist has been about for the past four or five decades. They make wanting to read him, if not actually meet him, irresistible.

A few of the contributors have serious issues with some of Berry’s positions. D.G. Hart takes issue with him for his rejection of organized religion. Several others point to Berry’s lack of attention to the good of politics, especially what co-editor Nathan Schlueter calls “formal mediating institutions,” and Schlueter himself comes closer than anyone to an outright rebuke of Berry for his disregard of “the original sin narrative, with all that it implies” in his pacifism.

But the criticisms do not question Berry’s central premises so much as they ask whether, for example, regular church attendance is not like caring for a growing crop or tending sheep. Why can’t structures of governance be informed by the same kinds of particularity and integrity that characterize the farmers Berry admires? One thinks of the Founding Fathers, often farmers themselves.

The answers appear to lie in a measure of integrity or wholeness that Berry applies to his experiences. If he cannot find in church the same reality of God he knows for himself, or find in politics the care for one another he knows through his membership in a small community, he cannot endorse a supposed good in the abstract. He has to prove it on his pulses, as Keats said of poetry. He does not need More’s Qualitative Quantitative Ontological Lapsometer, that wry invention of Walker Percy, to get a read on the being of things.

At least three aspects of Berry’s work, as this volume makes clear, are likely to rub contemporary conservatives of the Jonah Goldberg variety the wrong way. One is Berry’s scathing denunciation of corporatism, global thinking, and what he calls the “total economy” that subjugates everything local to the sway of market forces—an economy that Lytle denounced in “The Hind Tit” in 1930. Mark Shiffman (“The Rediscovery of Oikonomia”), Mark Mitchell (“Wendell Berry’s Defense of a Truly Free Market”), and William Fahey (“The Restoration of Propriety”) emphasize Berry’s deeply reasoned preference for the local, the particular, and the small.

The second controversial aspect is Berry’s pacifism, thoughtfully explored by Michael Stevens in an essay that contains a memorable description of Berry’s attempt to inhabit “a lived benediction within a circle of damnable fire.” That damnable fire is the world always threatening to encroach on the Port William of his novels: the “total economy”; the interstate highways indifferent to place; the constant wars inseparable from the modern Faustian bargain to conquer nature (including human nature), to deny limits, and to make as much money as possible doing it. Although Schlueter takes Berry to task for his pacifism, he and the other essayists understand what is at stake. If one turned off the news, for example, and sent no sons to die, what effect would events in Iraq or Afghanistan ever have on a small Kentucky town? Berry wants the freedom for members of a community to live responsibly within their own means, providing for themselves and not relinquishing the beauty of the God-given earth to the forces that would destroy it.

The third thing likely to offend some conservatives is Berry’s rejection of any partisan engagement with national politics. The great enemy is abstraction, and centralized government is abstract by its very nature. Berry thinks along Antifederalist lines: he tends to mistrust institutions, and he is clearly anti-Hamiltonian. He praises Jefferson’s preference for the small, independent farmer. Berry could be understood as exercising a version of utopianism, an accusation the editors take care to counter in their introduction.

Patrick Deneen’s essay, “Wendell Berry and Democratic Self-Governance,” makes a powerful case for understanding Berry as restoring the ground, in deeply Aristotelian ways, for true democratic participation in ruling and being ruled rather than merely casting a vote periodically as part of an abstract social contract. It is true participation because it is local, historically settled, deeply conversant with what is at stake, and well-cultured. Deneen quotes Berry on the cultural conditions for this kind of democracy: “To have a culture, mostly the same people have to live mostly in the same place for a long time. Traditional knowledge is knowledge that has been remembered or recorded, handed down, pondered, corrected, practiced, and refined over a long time.” Good political choices do not come from the consumption of sound bites but from deliberation based on traditional knowledge.

Every contributor in this book obviously comes to praise the measure that Berry embodies, and each has a kind of membership in the traditional knowledge that Berry cares about. Membership is central to Berry’s “humane vision.” Anne Husted Burleigh introduces the concept in her essay, “Marriage in the Membership,” where she speaks in Burkean terms of a membership “in the commonwealth of the living, the dead, and those to come” that characterizes everything Berry writes. His tightly structured novel Remembering, for example, relies on it entirely.

The central character, Andy Catlett, is a man who grew up in the little community of Port William, got an education, and almost lost his soul in the process of succeeding in the great world. After two meetings in the same day—one with a harried, ulcer-stricken, deeply indebted but ostensibly successful mega-farmer he was sent to interview, the other with a placid, deeply centered Amish man not many miles away—he left his job as a journalist and returned to Port William to take up the life he realized he truly wanted. But now, after 12 years on the farm he purchased, he has had an accident with agricultural equipment that cost him his right hand. Cut off, all too literally, from his chosen occupation and his marriage, he goes through a dark night of the soul in a motel room in San Francisco.

Restless, he leaves his room in the predawn and walks through the city. As he gazes at the sunrise lighting San Francisco Bay, he suddenly remembers, in a classic peripeteia at the midpoint of the novel, something his grandmother once said to him, as though she anticipated exactly this moment. He turns back toward home, and the rest of the book narrates a doubled homeward journey. He remembers the first return when he gave up journalism and chose the farming life; he repeats that return, rediscovering the grace of home, plowing up the memory as he remembers plowing that Amish farmer’s field. As several commentators point out, his homecoming is also his re-membering: both coming back fully into the complex “membership” from which he had cut himself off in self-pity, and, in a different sense, recovering his lost right hand. It is both the right hand of the fathers and the right hand of the Father.

Mark Shiffman writes that Remembering is “something of a tract in fictional form.” I would call it an allegory, with some of the merits and problems of the genre (including a wife named Flora). But Shiffman is right that Berry is not yet bringing his readers fully into the “atmosphere and living tissue” of the life he recognizes as the best. Certainly he does so more completely in Jayber Crow, which Anthony Esolen beautifully explores in this volume for its Dantean parallels (“If Dante Were a Kentucky Barber”).

One index of the integral nature of Berry’s imagination is that five different contributors to Humane Vision cite Remembering, all for different reasons. Burleigh points out that the married couples in it are deeply embedded in the place and time of their marriage. Richard Gamble (“An Education for Membership”) cites the novel to show that the purpose of modern education is to get students, especially those who come from farms and farm communities, away from home to someplace where they can “live up to their abilities.” Andy Catlett’s major recognition, as Gamble points out, is the one that has shaped Berry’s whole life—that “a truly educated man does not have to live someplace other than home or to become somebody other than who his family and neighbors raised him to be.”

Caleb Stegall (“And Then They Came for the Horses”) quotes the passages in Remembering about industrialized farming and its destruction—or dismembering—of the land and the families on it. Shiffman uses some of the same selections to illustrate his point about the modern loss of true household management, oikonomia, in the service of an abstract economy. And Nathan Schlueter sees in the central metaphor of Remembering the analogy of the body that St. Paul introduces in 1 Corinthians 12: “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.”

The contributors to this volume cover a great range of topics on which Berry has expressed his views: marriage, sex and procreation, education, food, the right use of nature, self-governance, technology, pacifism, Christianity, household management, the free market, the nature of propriety, imagination versus abstraction, poetry, incarnational hope, and possibilities for the future. Their commentaries fit together in complementary ways. It is impossible to understand Berry’s views on sex and procreation, for example, without understanding what he thinks about self-governance, technology, the right use of nature—indeed, everything else, because everything is of a piece.

The essays broaden the context of Berry to include such writers as Hilaire Belloc, G.K. Chesterton, F.A. Hayek, and Wilhelm Röpke—not to mention Aristotle—but they oddly do not give much credit to I’ll Take My Stand or the Southern tradition that informs Berry’s views. Perhaps the contributors do not want his teaching to seem merely regional; perhaps the tincture of racial issues, which Berry also tends to avoid, stays them. Yet it would be illuminating to put Berry’s concerns next to those of William Faulkner in his great novel about the industrial destruction of the wilderness, Go Down, Moses, and to compare Berry’s often misunderstood withdrawal from mainstream life to the renunciations of Isaac McCaslin.

Jason Peters’s piece on the “third landscape” between environmentalism and industrial pillaging shows that most Americans seem to think the only alternatives are either protected, pristine wilderness on the one hand or mountaintop-removal mining on the other. Berry wants the mean between these excesses—“a landscape that humans have used well”—and he gives strong images of what it looks like. It is true that Berry glories in untouched nature, such as the virgin forest called the “Nest Egg” in Jayber Crow, which Anthony Esolen associates with Dante’s Earthly Paradise in Purgatorio. But Berry’s aim is not to emphasize its inhuman otherness. As the narrator Jayber describes the place where he walked with his beloved Mattie Chatham:

The place spoke for us and was a kind of speech. We spoke to each other in the things we saw … . We saw warblers, wood ducks, thrushes, deer. Around us always were the passing graces of moving air, lights and shadows, bird flight, songs, calls, drumming. Each of us knew what the other saw and heard. There was no need to ask, no need to say.

When Mattie is on her deathbed, her venal, unfaithful husband Troy Chatham sells the timber in the Nest Egg—a last-ditch effort to pay off his farm’s creditors. Berry, writing about the despoliation, submits this visionary Eden to the forces of total economy, but he has already made it clear that the destruction began a generation earlier, when Mattie’s father Athey Keith had to leave his farm to his son-in-law.

Troy Chatham wants an industrialized farm like the one that Andy Catlett rejects in Remembering. Mattie’s father, on the other hand, embodies Berry’s vision of conservatism, like the Amish farmer or Remembering but in a more fictionally coherent fashion. Jayber Crow says that although he does not understand everything about Athey Keith’s ways,

What I do know is that he used his land conservatively. In any year, by far the greater part of his land would be under grass—for, as he would say, ‘The land slopes even in the bottoms, and the water runs.’ He was always studying his fields, thinking of ways to protect them. He was doing what a lot of farmers say they want to do: he was improving his land; he was going to leave it better than he found it. I know too his principle was always to maintain a generous margin of surplus between his livestock and the available feed, just as between the fertility of his land and his demands upon it. ‘Wherever I look,’ he said, ‘I want to see more than I need, and have more than I use.’

This is what the “third landscape” is like. As Jayber says, “Everything on the place, including the crops and animals, was well kept and looked good, for Athey would have it no other way.” Troy Chatham, by contrast, contemptuous of traditional ways, mortgages the place to buy equipment, runs tractors over every square foot of arable land, and completely rejects the idea of a “generous margin of surplus.” His failure to grasp the humane vision of the landscape ultimately destroys the Nest Egg as well.

The “damnable fire” of modernity has led the world into great peril. Perhaps it will not be necessary in our lifetimes to take what Rod Dreher in his provocative closing essay calls the “Benedict option” of starting small, independent communities that will outlast the dark times to come. But perhaps it will. Wendell Berry is the prophet of starting over. He makes one grateful for the clarity he provides about the nature of a good life and the urgency of finding the courage to live it as he does.

Glenn Arbery is d’Alzon Chair of Liberal Education at Assumption College and the editor of The Southern Critics: An Anthology.



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