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What Wendell Berry Gets Wrong

The authenticity of a place's economics do not guarantee its purity of heart

Here’s a truth-telling essay from (the excellent magazine) Plough Quarterly by writer Tamara Hill Murphy — a fan of Wendell Berry, but one who is bothered by what Berry chooses to omit from his fiction. Excerpts:

The dissonance with Berry occurs when I consider other family tales buried under the agrarian beauty. These are stories of shattered relationships, addiction, job loss, abandonment, mental illness, and unspoken violations that seem to separate my kinfolk from the clans in Port William. In Berry’s fictional village, readers occasionally witness felonies, infidelity, drunken brawls, and tragic deaths, but all of them seem to be told in a dusky, warming light.

The pleasure I experience reading a novel set in idyllic Port William, before war, agribusiness, and corporate industrialism pillage the town, turns quickly from a nostalgic glow to an ugly flame. I agree with the author’s animosity toward institutional and human greed, but I’m troubled by the apparent evils he chooses to overlook. Berry seems to cast mercy on certain kinds of frailties and judgment on others. As a loyal reader, this double standard agitates me: I become a mad reader of the Mad Farmer.


Berry’s body of work lauds an unadulterated ecosphere. How does he reconcile glossing over (or at least hiding from his reader’s view) the ugly dysfunctions that often prosper alongside the natural beauty of such villages and pasturelands? The stories I grew up hearing and observing provide an alternative cast of characters to the Port William community. I’ve seen firsthand not only the ornery nature of such characters but also the ingrown thinking that sometimes flourishes in out-of-sight locales. For example, there’s the good country farmer I watched with my own eyes fist-beat his son. They seemed to keep their farm by the mad farmer’s standards, but that did not make them good. I tiptoe around extended family members who fought their whole lives like Jayber Crow to avoid answering to “the man across the desk,” yet leave a trail of fractured relationships in their wake.

My grandmother’s father – a Port Williamesque man – abandoned my grandmother when she was eight because his new wife didn’t like her or her older sister. Their country village, apparently, did not reject him for his decision – going so far as to make him an elected official. They likely tended their own gardens, gathered their own eggs, and milked their own cows. Their love for land and place did not require a father to love his own daughter. The authenticity of their economics did not guarantee a purity of heart.

She goes on to talk about J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, and how Vance, from personal experience, shows how family dysfunction gets passed down despite economic conditions. Murphy wants to know how Berry, who has “a meticulous understanding of symbiotic ecological systems,” can fail to understand how depraved human will can poison families and communities.

Read the whole thing.  She also notices something else about Berry: how he seems to pass harsh judgment on every generation since the Depression who embraced modernity in any way. Were the people of the olden times really so much more virtuous? she asks.

I appreciated this essay so much, because like Murphy, I am a great admirer of Wendell Berry’s, and agree with much of his diagnosis. He and my late father were born in the same year, and though Berry is a far more discerning student of human nature than my country-man dad was, they both shared a strong sense of idealism about the rural agrarian world that shaped them.

Daddy just could not accept that there was anything much wrong about that world. His idealism blinded him to its worst flaws. For example, he just didn’t see the unspeakable misery and injustice to which that social order condemned black people. It’s not like he didn’t know it was happening. Rather, he accepted that that’s just How Things Are. Over the years, he would tell me good stories about the old days, but he would also tell me stories of various cruelties he witnessed, or knew of. These things too were part of that world, and that social order, but he could not bring himself to pass judgment on any of it. Unlike Wendell Berry, an intellectual, my dad didn’t pass judgment on modernity; he passed judgment on those who abandoned home.

That would be me, and young people like me. Until reading Murphy’s essay, I hadn’t realized how much Wendell Berry reminds me of my dad, with his unyielding sense of morality. I find Berry a more sympathetic character than my father, but that’s because Berry is a writer, like me, and has a writer’s gift for expressing things persuasively. Funny, but if my dad were a writer, he would have been pretty close to Wendell Berry. Late in Daddy’s life, I gave him Jayber Crow for Christmas. He loved it, and said it reminded him of his childhood.

To be clear, Berry does not write about agrarian utopias. But as Murphy says, the sins and failings of Berry’s characters tend to manifest in “a dusky, warming glow.” In my adult years, I learned from older people in my hometown of some truly horrible things that happened in the old days — things that were done by upstanding citizens, and that everybody knew were happening. Nobody said anything. This kind of thing still goes on, a fact to which I can attest. It’s as if having to admit that these things happen would destroy the image people need to believe in about themselves and their community — so they imagine themselves to be more or less innocent, and serious sin to be something outsiders do.

I’ve been thinking about something close to this over the course of this week. If you read Little Way, you’ll remember that Ruthie admitted to her best friend on the night before her sudden death that she and her husband had not once discussed the possibility that she might not survive cancer. She had been living with Stage Four cancer for 19 months, and they never talked about it. I don’t think most people are like that anywhere, but that’s how my family was about things that are unspeakable. In retrospect, I believe my dad had this magical view that Starhill was a kind of Eden where people were justly rewarded for doing the right thing, and those who failed to do the right thing suffered. So, when my golden girl sister, who did not betray her family by moving away, was struck by terminal cancer, my father felt at levels he could not articulate that the metaphysical order had been violated.

I’m not saying that he wished I had died and she had lived. Even if that were true (which I truly don’t believe it is), he would never have admitted such a thought to his mind. But it honestly is the case that to my father, I ought to have been the one punished for succeeding in the world beyond the borders of West Feliciana Parish. Ruthie thought so too. That Ruthie suffered and died while I prospered — well, it meant the world was thrown off its axis.

I apologize for this diversion. All of this has been on my mind since Christmas Day, in part because I read Terry Teachout’s wonderful essay about watching digitized home movies from childhood at Christmas. He writes, in part:

[M]y parents are dead now. So is everyone in my father’s family. So are my mother’s parents, and all but one of her siblings. And so, of course, is the simpler, less knowing world of my youth that is enshrined in those faded movies, the self-confident age of Eisenhower and Kennedy, of three TV networks and tuna casserole with crumbled potato chips on top, of films and newspapers and Books of the Month that everyone saw and read and believed. It lives only in memory, and on the screen of my MacBook.

Memories are especially important at this time of year, to me and, I suspect, to most people who have put youth behind them. “‘I miss.’ That sums up Christmas for me.” So said a fortysomething friend of mine the other day, and I knew what she meant. How could I not? I miss my mother and father. I miss my aunts and uncles. I miss the old wooden swing on the porch of my grandmother’s house. I miss the Christmas presents and sliding boards and carefree vacations that my father loved to film. I miss the shadowless summer afternoons (“Summer afternoon—summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language,” Henry James once said to Edith Wharton) when there was nothing to worry about, when my parents did the worrying behind my back and let me assume that all was right with the world.

On my family’s Christmas Day, we sat in my late sister’s living room — the one in which she dropped dead on an early fall morning five years ago — and watched old movies of our family from the turn of the century. Ruthie looked so young and vital. She had a decade left to live, but the thought that she would ever die was, well, unthinkable. The family depicted on those videos was so happy and united. It wasn’t a perfect family, and we all knew that. But we were not aware of how deep the fault lines were, and how one day, nearly everything would break along them. Had we been able to confront those faults in ourselves, and in the character of our family, with honesty and charity, we might have weathered the trials that came. But we weren’t, so we didn’t.

Yet I hate it, really hate it, when people propagate the opposite lie: that because the ideals were unrealistic, everything was bad. I know people like that, people who never have a good word to say about their family or their church or their hometown, because they believe they have been failed by these people and places. I have a friend, A., who remembers her late father as nothing but a tyrant. For years I assumed this was true, until I spoke to her niece, who was raised by the man, her grandfather, after her mother burned out. The niece said that she doesn’t want to dispute Aunt A.’s memories, but in her experience, A.’s tyrannical father was the stern but protective substitute father who gave her the only stability she ever knew in her childhood — and for that, she’s grateful. The thing is, I believe that both A. and her niece are telling the truth about their experiences. Which is the “real” man in question? Both, probably. That is not satisfying. I imagine that A. would say that her niece implicitly devalues her (A.’s) suffering. I also imagine that the niece would say that A., for her own reasons, unfairly maligns the memory of a flawed man who was her protector in her vulnerable childhood.

He who controls the memory of the past controls the present. One of the most extraordinary movies I ever saw was the Tim Reid film version of the Clifton Taulbert memoir Once Upon A Time … When We Were Colored. Taulbert’s memoir, like the movie on which it is based, recalls the author’s childhood in Mississippi during the 1940s and 1950s. It doesn’t deny or downplay the reality of segregation and KKK violence, but it very much refuses to allow that dark reality to overshadow the good times he had with his family and community. The film ends with the Taulbert character leaving the South for the North, and more freedom and opportunity. What I found so amazing about the movie was its refusal to indulge in easy moralizing about the old South. As wicked as white supremacy was, it did not poison everything.

This is one reason I love Berry: he finds and celebrates the forgotten virtues of old, small places that have been abandoned by people like me, and by the people who create contemporary culture. But Murphy’s essay makes me wonder if one reason I love Berry is that he appeals to the poetic version of my family, my home, and my cultural history, the one that I wish to believe. It is not a fantasy, but it is not the whole truth either, as Murphy rightly says. Or, to put it more bluntly, I wonder if I love Berry because he presents the unflinching (but unfair) judgment my father made on me in a way that I find acceptable — which is to say, in a way that aestheticizes and raises to the level of poetic the judgment I pass on myself.

I wonder if all of us need to idealize a place, a people, a history — idealize it either positively or negatively (which is to say, demonize) — in order to feel that we live on solid ground. A novelist has to do this, certainly. His view of the world, as expressed through his work, comes through both in what he says and what he chooses not to say. Music is not just sound, but the absence of sound between the notes. Most of my friends who love Wendell Berry are, like me, academic or otherwise literary types who are not living a Berry-approved lifestyle, but who wish they were. Berry’s work calls forth from within them a nostalgia for a place they’ve never been, nor have most of us.

I’ve been closer to it than most, and I can tell you, small country towns are no more virtuous nor more vicious than big cities. Both Little Way and How Dante Can Save Your Life were about coming to terms with this in mid-life. Which is to say they were really about confronting the ideals on which one has built one’s understanding of the world and oneself for the illusions that they always were, and trying to sift through the rubble to find a more truthful and life-giving future.  It was strangely liberating to read Tamara Hill Murphy’s essay, because she made me face the fact that reading Berry makes me feel that I have failed him in some way. Maybe the problem is not entirely with us, but also with Wendell Berry. That’s a heretical thought, at least to me, but a useful one.




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