Wendell Berry, again

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.

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8 thoughts on “Wendell Berry, again

  1. I have always been baffled by that particular criticism of Berry. From a truly impractical standpoint (myself) Berry always seemed to me to believe very much that his philosophy was doable. I just think he looks at it in a minuscule light. Jayber Crow is one man. His philosophy isn’t for the masses but the man.

  2. Late last year I started reading Berry’s books, first The Unsettling of America, then three of his novels, and this month I’ve just finished Life Is a Miracle. I can’t put into words what I like so much about him, but it has to do with the fact that he’s a year older than my daddy would be and comes from a similar background. So much of what he says resonates with me, and reading him feels like hearing what my daddy would have told me if I’d had the sense to ask the right questions and really listen to his answers.

  3. Cindy,

    His philosophy isn’t for the masses but the man.

    That may be a key point. Too often I’m tempted to think, “Stop pestering me with the principles, just tell me what to do!” And there are plenty of people out there perfectly happy to tell you what to do, and make a buck or two in the process.

    Even my heroes, like Gene Logsdon and Joel Salatin and Eliot Coleman and Jerome Lange, unintentionally present the same temptation—they tell what they do, and maybe if I just do exactly what they do it’ll all work out. Of course, this requires you to ignore their repeated warnings that “this may not work for you,” but I’m good at that.

    I think that Berry’s answer to the demand, “Just tell me what to do!” would be along the lines of “Be a man.” And although he doesn’t have a program to sell for becoming a man, he has enough to say about manliness that anyone with the stomach to hear it can figure it out for themselves (which is probably part of being a man).

    Kelly,

    It was interesting to read Berry’s appreciation of Edward Abbey, a writer who drove doctrinaire environmentalists crazy because he was so beloved by ecologically-minded people but so often strayed from the party line. Wendell Berry plays a similar role today with the same crowd, perceived as a powerful cannon but also a loose one. I think it is because he is not any sort of political animal but a complete human being, and because what he says flows from his humanity rather than a hidden agenda the political animals know that he is not tame.

  4. Thank you Rick,

    Jayber Crow was the first Wendell Berry I read, followed by Hannah Coulter. He does a good job painting what a good man is like, especially in the pictures and contrasts in Hannah Coulter.

    Hope it’s okay to mix business in here – are you going to be selling Another Turn at Cumberland Books? When can I order All Flesh is Grass?

    Doug

  5. Doug,

    Figuring out how to add Wendell Berry to the bookstore is high on my list, and Another Turn will be highly recommended. But that may be a month or more off.

    Sad to say, All Flesh is Grass is available right now, you just don’t know it because the Gene Logsdon page is broken and I haven’t taken the time to fix it. But you can go to the Items By Title page, or the Items By Author page, or search on the title, or just go to this page. Meanwhile, I’ll try to get the Logsdon page fixed.

  6. I can understand that reaction – I’ll bet that if I’d been introduced to him five years ago I wouldn’t have been able to stomach what I would have, at that time though not now, perceived as enviro-wackiness.

    And since we’re talking about bookstore – when will your new catalog be out? Or is it out and I need to request one?

  7. Kelly,

    Ah, the catalog. Barring unforeseen circumstances there will be a new catalog this spring, maybe in May. But most likely it will only be published electronically.

    I’ll write more about this in a bookstore post, but the short version is that it costs around $5000 to print and mail the catalog (no matter how many we print!), and given our current low margins a printed catalog would have to generate around $50,000 in extra income to pay for itself. Given our current sales volume, let’s just say that isn’t very likely.

    I have a great affection for the printed version, and I know a lot of customers do as well. I’m open to clever suggestion about how it might be feasible to print this one.

  8. I see at your store’s website that it’ll be available in PDF, which means that those of us who prefer an incarnational version can print it out ourselves.

    Would a subscription be a reasonable way to cover the cost? Or charge $5 for it and include a $5 coupon for any order, or something like that. I have no idea what your customer base is, and what a reasonable number to print, and therefore a reasonable charge for it, would be, but your site said that last time y’all didn’t print enough and ran out. That sounds promising. :-)

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