Wednesday Debbie, Maggie, and Elizabeth made a day trip to southwest Virginia. And Jimmy Ellis and his son Wes showed up, along with a young Amish man named Harvey, to start on the small barn we had hired them to build, so Chris and Matthew spent the day helping them with that. I spent the day watching Jerry and Benjamin, and beginning my re-reading of Wendell Berry. So far I’ve finished Another Turn of the Crank and Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community, and started on What Are People For?
It’s been an odd experience. I started with Another Turn of the Crank with pencil in hand, and although the first time through (in 2001) I hadn’t made a mark, this time I underlined half the book or more. Most of the time when I underline a passage it is because (1) I understand it, (2) I think that the writer is right, and (3) I think what the writer is saying is particularly important. Given how strongly the book resonated with me this time around, I’m surprised I hadn’t marked it up before.
My guess is that at the time I simply didn’t have the background to understand what Berry was saying, at least at a level that would move me to take action. I do recall that my first reading of Berry gave rise to some intense yearnings, but I don’t think I knew what to do with them, or whether there was anything that could be done with them.
Later when I read Allan Carlson’s book The New Agrarian Mind I more or less agreed with his assessment of Berry as an elegist for a way of life that would likely never be reclaimed. Which led me to downgrade my opinion of Berry some, since by then I was persuaded that agrarianism could be reclaimed, at least in my little corner of the world. But now I think that assessment is unfair; I read Berry and not only find much to agree with but even concrete guidelines on how to proceed. (Of course, that assessment may simply be my misreading of Carlson, so I’ll have to go back and re-read that part of the book again.)
Another Turn of the Crank contains six short essays that are really manifestoes, which taken together give a brief but comprehensive overview of Berry’s understanding of agrarianism and its possibilities (and its needfulness). It’s by far the most definitive of his books I’ve read—literally, since each essay devotes itself to clearly stating the fundamentals, one after another, so that those with ears to hear can clearly understand what Berry is and isn’t saying. If I were going to take a stab at systematizing Berry’s thought (probably not a good idea, and certainly one he would discourage) then I’d probably start with this book.
The essays in the other two books are more wide-ranging, not so much manifestoes for agrarianism as they are assessments of modern culture from one agrarian’s viewpoint. I was a little frustrated while reading What are People For?, not by Berry but by my time-pressed need to skim the essays (especially the ones by Berry the writer and poet) which didn’t directly address the issue of how to live an agrarian life. Berry is a superb writer, and his devotion to regional writing is one that fascinates me in many different ways. I’ve mentioned before that I rarely read fiction, but if all fiction were like Jayber Crow I would probably read fiction regularly, both to enjoy it and to learn from it. So I’m making a mental note to revisit Berry’s essays on writing, and hopefully I won’t let another five years go by before doing it.