In Wendell Berry’s Essays, a Little Earnestness Goes a Long Way
Books of The Times
Every serious writer, I’ve heard it said, has one book whose title seems to sum up his or her oeuvre. For Wendell Berry, that book would almost certainly be “Another Turn of the Crank,” from 1995.
Berry is a fiery dissenter from nearly every aspect of modern life. He’s a Kentucky-based farmer, conservationist, pacifist and moral critic who, over the course of his long life (he’s 84), has farmed with horses rather than tractors to remain closer to the land and written longhand so as not to plug another machine into the electrical grid.
The fingers of his writing hand surely have mighty calluses. Berry has delivered more than 80 books of fiction, nonfiction and poetry.
The Library of America last year published a thousand-page selection of his earthy fiction. (A second volume is in the works, as well as a collection of Berry’s poetry.)
Now this estimable nonprofit publisher returns with two slablike volumes of his nonfiction in a boxed set, “What I Stand On: The Collected Essays of Wendell Berry 1969-2017.” Together the books weigh in at a forest-pulping 1,674 pages. It’s a lot of Wendell Berry.
It’s vastly too much Wendell Berry, a determined reader soon discovers. Counterpoint Press delivered a saltier introduction to this writer’s work last year with “The World-Ending Fire: The Essential Wendell Berry.” It’s one-fifth the size and, in paperback, about one-fifth the price.
The numbing length of these two new collections do Berry no favors. From the start, he bangs the same themes so relentlessly — the perils of industrial agriculture, the decimation of rural life, America’s blind faith in technology — that one’s eyes begin to cross.
It’s not that Berry isn’t correct to be desperately concerned about these issues, and about the loss of old ways and fine workmanship in general. You can be right there alongside him, at least on the big points, while still being driven to madness by repetition. It’s as if someone has put a bag over your head.
Like Henry David Thoreau, one of his touchstone influences, Berry went back to the land — in his case, a farm in Henry County, Ky. — to live deliberately. Unlike Thoreau, he lacks a certain crucial insouciance.
It is impossible to imagine Berry writing, as did Thoreau, “Do not be too moral. You may cheat yourself out of much life so.” It’s almost impossible to imagine him, like Jefferson, another of his touchstone influences, really enjoying his wine.
Berry’s single-note essays make you recall Carlyle’s comment about Macaulay, that listening to him was okay for a while but “one wouldn’t live under Niagara.”
With the planet rapidly warming and the oceans acidifying, Berry seems more than ever a prophetic voice. Come for the thunder. Stay, if you can, to dip more occasionally into these writings, rummage around on their ocean floor and return to the surface with gleaming fragments.
Berry attended military school, and among his lessons was an observation that seems to presage our current chief of state: “Take a simpleton and give him power and confront him with intelligence — and you have a tyrant.”
He’s always known exactly who he is. “I seem to have been born with an aptitude for a way of life that was doomed,” he writes. I live in a large city. But I admire his rejection of “the assumption that the life of the metropolis is the experience, the modern experience, and that the life of the rural towns, the farms, the wilderness places is not only irrelevant to our time, but archaic as well.”
He occasionally seizes on a perfect ripe detail to make a point about how we live. “Consider, for an example, President Nixon,” he once wrote, “who advertises his grave concern about the destruction of the environment, and who turns up the air conditioner to make it cool enough to build a fire.”
[ Read Wendell Berry: By the Book ]
Throughout these books, whatever it is, he’s against it. He complains about “gleaming, odorless” bathrooms and fancy bassboats and “TV jingles of soup and soap.” In one early essay, he comes out against weather forecasts (!) because they usurp a farmer’s intuition. Berry deplores “the so-called ballroom dancing” because couples, in ring dancing, used to all be together.
He writes, mystifyingly, about the moon launch: “Americans have gone to the moon as they came to the frontiers of the New World: with their minds very much upon getting there, very little upon what might be involved in staying there.” (Roger, Houston, we’ve deployed the sectional.)
Hippies cared too much about their hair and took their drugs wrong. (Better to embrace, he suggests, Carlos Castaneda’s more rigorous and ritualistic methods of turning on.) He’s against the delights of free love in all its iterations, and he takes a dim view of birth control because of its “division of sexuality from fertility.”
He is so opposed to pornography that his prose put me in mind of the title of a great Bobby Braddock album, “Hardpore Cornography.” A man of Christian faith, he is opposed to abortion.
Berry is not unrelievedly pessimistic. He admires some aspects of our current food culture, especially the increasing awareness of where our ingredients come from and the concurrent boom in organic farming.
More typical are sentences that devolve into lists of rural America’s ills: “bankruptcy, foreclosure, depression, suicide, the departure of the young, the loneliness of the old, soil loss, soil degradation, chemical pollution, the loss of genetic and specific diversity, the extinction or threatened extinction of species, the depletion of aquifers, stream degradation, the loss of wilderness, strip mining, clear-cutting, population loss, the loss of supporting communities, the deaths of towns.”
Berry has participated in his share of civil disobedience, but he is against movements. There is one movement he suggests he could enthusiastically support, one to be called “The Nameless Movement for Better Ways of Doing.” Sign me up.
Follow Dwight Garner on Twitter: @DwightGarner.
What I Stand On: The Collected Essays of Wendell Berry 1969-2017
By Wendell Berry
The Library of America. 1,674 pages. $75.
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