Wendell Berry, novelist, essayist, poet, and farmer, is a central contributor to the growing renaissance of Christian culture. Although he does not, in his lean careful writing, broach religion directly, he writes as one completely at home with the Christian tradition.
His readers are numerous and ever growing, drawn to his scriptural and Aristotelian-Thomistic view of the world, a world that he sees as a created order for which the Creator has appointed us stewards and trustees. Reverence is a hallmark of Berry’s work — reverence for the gift of creation, for the sanctity of the Word, for the sacred uniqueness of his subjects.
Convinced of the “necessary and indispensable connection between language and truth, and therefore between language and deeds,” Berry says in Standing by Words, “I begin with the Christian idea of the Incarnate Word, the Word entering the soul as flesh, and inevitably therefore as action….” Our words, in sum, always refer to and assume the divine Word. Words are sacred; we dare not speak them falsely or lightly. False words, because they cannot possibly refer to God’s Word, have no meaning. If words have no meaning, there is no way we can speak to each other in community.
Berry is too gifted and universal to be claimed by any one movement or literary tradition. He does, however, acknowledge the influence of the Southern Agrarians (see his essay in the January 1999 issue of the Oxford American). Yet he has dared to do what, for the most part, they did not: to live the life he has written about. More than four decades ago, after writing and teaching at Stanford University and then at New York University, he took a position with the English faculty at the University of Kentucky and moved his family to Lane’s Landing Farm at Port Royal, Kentucky, in his native Henry County. He and his wife, Tanya, have spent the succeeding years restoring their beautiful hillside farm nestled along the banks of the Kentucky River.
Wendell Berry’s world is the landscape of hills and hollows, woods and fields, and bottom land that covers much of central and northern Kentucky. His fiction and poetry emanate from the locale in and around the little town of Port William on the Kentucky River, which Berry loosely models after his own Port Royal. The scene sometimes extends to Hargrave, the county seat (that is, Carrollton, Kentucky), some ten miles away, where the Kentucky River spills into the Ohio. Each of Berry’s stories concerns some of the characters from the same families, which Berry calls (significantly revealing his definition of community) the Port William Membership. Most of the membership are farmers, mainly of tobacco. Some are also shopkeepers and country lawyers, like Berry’s own father.
Once immersed in Berry’s fiction, the reader, too, becomes part of the membership. His characters are good people — Mat Feltner, Elton Penn, Burley Coulter, Wheeler Catlett — devoid of trappings; neighborly; living in faithful relation to each other; having common patterns of thinking and doing; united in friendship, work, loyalty, memory of the past, hope for the future, responsibility for each other, and love of a concrete place.
Berry’s themes are marriage, community, land, and the fidelity that binds us to all three. Trust, fidelity, standing by one’s word, are the cement of all human relations and therefore of marriage and community.
Marriage, in Berry’s view, is the cornerstone of the community, the engine that energizes human life. For most of us, marriage is the form of our lives, of which, once again, fidelity is the cement. To break our word would be to break the form. Without faithfully keeping our word, there can be no marriage and therefore no community. Berry points out in his essay, “Poetry and Marriage,” that fidelity, standing by our word, “is a double fidelity: to the community and to oneself.” Only within the community can we achieve our end to know and love others; within the community one is “at once free and a member.”
Berry, a traditionalist, is suspicious of faith in the unrooted individual intelligence, preferring “faith in the community or in culture.”
“Belief in culture,” he says in his essay, “calls for the same disciplines as belief in marriage.” It demands patience, faith, and dedication to work. This work “consists of the accumulation of local knowledge in place, generation after generation, children learning the visions and failures, stories and songs, names, ways, and skills of their elders, so that the cost of individual trial-and-error learning can be lived with and repaid, and the community thus enabled to preserve both itself and its natural place and neighborhood.”
The logical handmaid of marriage is attachment to the land, to the particular place where the couple forges a permanent union, a family, a livelihood, and a partnership between generations. One’s attachment to place, especially in farming, is itself a marriage. As Berry writes in his poem “The Current”:
Having once put his hand into the ground
seeding there what he hopes will outlast him,
a man has made a marriage with his place,
and if he leaves it his flesh will ache to go back.
The point is always to seed what will outlast one’s short span, and that kind of effort can only be driven by love, the love that husband and wife lavish sacrificially on a particular place, on behalf of those children who will follow them. They expend themselves in love and work because those whom they love have a value beyond time and beyond human understanding.
On April 25, 1999, Anne Husted Burleigh spoke with Berry at his Kentucky farm.
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Burleigh: Your fiction takes place in one locale around the little town of Port William on the Kentucky River. You write often of the Port William “membership.” Is that your definition of community — a membership?
Berry: I suppose so. That’s a term borrowed from St. Paul, whom I don’t always approve of, but if you remember Burley Coulter in the story, “The Wild Birds,” he takes that verse and carries it on to where I want it: “The difference ain’t in who is a member and who is not, but in who knows it and who don’t.”
One of my favorite books of yours is Standing by Words. Is our failure to stand by our words at the heart of the fragmentation of community?
There certainly is a prevalent loss of trust operating in this society now, and if you have enough people who don’t think they can trust each other, you’ve got some serious problems. There’s a famous crisis of confidence in government; a lot of people think it’s useless to vote. If we can’t trust each other to do what we’ve said we’ll do, cooperation is impossible.
Cooperation means working together. If you can’t work together, you can’t have a community. Yes, I think that question of whether or not people stand by their word and take it seriously is a real issue. As I said in that book, I think the fundamental fact of a marriage is that you’ve given your word.
Marriage is one of the strong themes in your writing. What does marriage mean to a community, especially to a rural community? You always link marriage and land and community.
Marriage for me has great power as a metaphor or analog of other relationships. In an intact community, the marriage vows are given before the membership. The couple doesn’t just exchange them with one another. The vows are given before witnesses, who are there partly because they are party to the contract. This young couple is pledging from now on to be to a certain extent predictable in their behavior. It’s a terrible thing to say those vows. Something like that ought to be witnessed by people who will acknowledge that it happened and that these awe-full things were said. And in my own experience the sense of having loved ones’ expectations directed toward me has been very influential, and it still is.
So the married couple always has that responsibility not only to each other, but to everybody.
Everybody in the community.
Everybody, whether living or dead?
The immediate parties to it are the couple themselves and their children. But it branches out. They’re right at the center of the pattern, of the crisis of expectation.
When you write about marriage, you have a profound understanding of the complementary natures of men and women. How does this complementariness affect the health and integrity of the community?
It’s one of the primary connections, one of the primary joints of the community, and if one marriage falls apart, that means that other people are going to have to take more responsibility. That is what a community is for. If you have family failures in an intact community, the community takes up the slack. If there are enough failures, then that becomes a community failure. The community can’t any longer take up the slack and repair the damage and look out for things.
Do you think a community can exist without religious belief?
Probably not. It’s either some kind of an authentic religious impulse working to authorize right behavior, or reason alone. I have great admiration for reason, but I can see that it doesn’t go but just so far, and I think, ultimately, you have to have religious faith for community life to work.
In one of your essays you say about marriage, “For a couple marriage is an entrance into a timeless community.” Timeless implies that a community is eternal.
Have we abandoned the idea of marriage as a timeless community, of the family as part of a community with an eternal dimension?
My approach to religion has pretty much been from the bottom up. I never was very good at the top-down version, and my understanding of religion has grown from my understanding of the things of time, from family and community life.
Yes, that’s right. As a farmer, I understand what it means when Christ says He’s a shepherd. I understand what it means when Scripture describes the first creation as a garden. That makes sense for me not because of revelation from on high but from revelation from below, so to speak, from my experience. And I can see the ways the things of time relate to the things of eternity analogically.
That’s a Judeo-Christian view of things.
It’s a traditional approach, especially for poets. Dante started with hell and worked his way up. He’s another bottom-up man, it seems to me. But he started his testimony from deeper down than I did.
You would see our relation to the world as trustees, shepherds, stewards, and guardians.
Stewards. And enjoyers.
Enjoyers because the world is a gift, isn’t it?
It’s important to understand that we’re given pleasures here. It’s important to me to understand that there are heavenly things that are present here, in time, in flesh, wood, rock, water, and all the rest of it. These good things are sanctioned in a good bit of religious teaching as part of the revelation of eternity. The pleasantness of it seems to me to be extremely important. I don’t like the dualism of heaven and earth, which always leads you to condemn the earth as something evil, as something to be suffered through in order to get to heaven. It seems to me that there is an interpenetration, a major communication, and that to know this world at its best is to know something heavenly. And the other way around, too. To know it at its worst is to know something hellish. That’s how we know what to work for and what to hope for in this world. This seems to me to be sanctioned by Scripture.
The Incarnate Word?
Scripture says God loved the world, that the Incarnation happened because God loved the world. The implication of his Sabbath rest at the very beginning was that it was a day of appreciation and approval of what he had done. It seems wrong to condemn the world and wrong to refuse its decent pleasures. Why would you deny yourself a decent pleasure, which is the signal and sign of heaven in this world, in order to get to heaven? It doesn’t make any sense — to me.
You have written beautiful poems called Sabbaths, about Sabbath rest and the enjoyment of creation.
Those poems have been my way of thinking about the subject.
How is understanding of the Incarnate Word essential to our understanding of the relationship of language and truth?
I believe that we have to try to make our words faithful to reality. Language has to maintain its power of reference to actual things, and everything depends on that power of reference and that community of knowledge, or else the word doesn’t get out.
In our age, people don’t have common understanding of the same words.
That makes for considerable difficulties, especially if they don’t talk carefully with one another. It is always good to talk with people who understand things differently from your way, but that requires careful talk. Any common effort obviously requires careful talk.
If we believe that words do refer to reality and our words have to be true, we still have to communicate with those who have accepted individualism and subjectivism. They operate on the premise that words really don’t mean anything except what the individual wants them to mean. Can we bridge that gap?
No. All one can do is speak as truly and clearly as one can. I think one’s abilities to correct anything are limited. It is important to know what the limits of your abilities are. A person can make a difference within a fairly small boundary. Not very many people can change very much.
They can’t change the world, but they can change their little corner of the world.
Well, I know that you can improve a few acres. You can take good care of a few acres. Your ability to take care of other humans is more limited than your ability to take care of an acreage simply because humans, in the main, would rather take care of themselves.
Do you place yourself in any particular literary tradition, or do you consider yourself independent?
I have to feel, to a considerable extent, independent because I’m not authorized to speak for other people. I have to remember that. I have never been a part of a school or a movement and have never wanted to be. It seemed to be a good idea not to be. However, I have had exemplars and influences that I am perfectly glad to acknowledge, friendships that have formed me and made me what I am and such as I am. Not all of them have been literary by any means. I have a big debt to local talk, local conversation, and to family talk. I have depended a lot on writers who had a place as a subject — Thomas Hardy, Sarah Orne Jewett, William Carlos Williams, Faulkner, and others.
Do you consider yourself related to the Southern agrarian movement? And, how do you define agrarianism?
Oh, yes. I owe them a good deal. I read I’ll Take My Stand while I was still in college. Agrarianism obviously has something to do with agriculture, but it also has something to do with stewardship in the highest sense of the word. Agrarianism includes the high art of farming. It includes the practice of farming as an art. It always has something to do with family and community continuity. It has something to do with honoring not just divine gifts but also the human inheritance. It has something to do with the political sense, too, of economic and intellectual independence that is founded on land ownership. Going back very far, it has to do with the belief in the importance of small ownership, the small holding. Jefferson’s agrarianism certainly has to do with that and so does Virgil’s. Homer’s Odyssey is informed by this old sense of obligation not just to the homeland but to the farmland. There are people who say there’s an aristocratic agrarianism, and you can deny that only with difficulty. Jefferson’s agrarianism included that, too, I think. But if you let the idea of a landed aristocracy go too far, then you eliminate the small landowners. If you are going to take democracy seriously, there has to be a balance in favor of the small landowners. There ought to be many owners, Jefferson said. The land ought to be owned in small parcels by many people, who use those parcels, who farm them and farm them well. It doesn’t mean a lot of absentee owners.
If you are trying to explain this to city people, how do you tell them what benefit agriculture has on the moral lives of a country, of a culture?
A long time before you start talking about the moral benefits, you need to talk about the physical benefits. City people eat and they’ve got to worry, though most don’t, about the dependability of the food supply. The fact is that most farmland requires close care to be used well. That is the agricultural justification for the small holding. It permits close care in a way that large holdings farmed by hired people or even owners on large machines can’t be farmed well. The moral benefit of independent small farmers is that it broadens the connection of the whole society to the land, and it increases the number of self-employed people. This is the political value that Jefferson saw in the small farm. People who are economically independent can think and vote independently.
All of your fiction is set either before or right around World War II.
Some of it is later but the influence of World War II is paramount. That event is paramount in my fiction and my way of seeing the world because it made the greatest change in rural life that has ever happened probably in the history of the world.
Do you think the issue of rural life is the question of using technology in a humane and moral way?
That’s right. The only example we have of that, of course, is the Amish example. The Amish differ from all other modern human beings in having had the good sense to ask of any innovation, “What would this do to our community?” That involves limiting the use and the effects of our technological abilities. There is no escaping that.
What we are technologically capable of doing doesn’t necessarily mean that we morally have the right to use that technology.
What we are entirely capable of is destroying the world. It doesn’t take too much sense or courage to say we mustn’t do that. If we are not going to do that, that means we have got to establish limits somehow. I think it has come to the point at which we can’t expect governments, corporations, bureaucracies, and agencies to change as fast as the people can, and I think a lot of people have changed. They are determining the change on a small scale that will finally add up to something significant. I believe in that possibility, and it is a source of hope to me.
You have regretted the specialization of modern life — of work, of university life, of poetry. How do you think that self-absorbed specialization has damaged our community life and our literature?
Your adjective is the right one. You have got to have specialization if you are to have vocation. People are differently talented and differently called to kinds of work. So specialization is going to happen. What you have to regret is the isolation of the specialists so that they’re at liberty to judge their work by professional standards to the exclusion of any other kind. The ascendancy of professional standards in the universities and the professions is a very bad thing, I think, because it means that the specialists are all isolated in their specialty and are not thinking about the pattern that they have to fit their work into.
You once wrote, “To stay at home is paradoxically to change, to move. When poets and people of any other calling stay at home, the first thing they move away from is professionalism.” What happens when work becomes professionalized?
It ceases to submit itself to the standards of community life or religion or health or any of those other standards that can cause us to ask the right questions about what we are doing. If you are an isolated specialist, you never ask what a proposed innovation will do to our community because you are not aware of having a community. Specialists are sometimes very selfless people, working long hours and even with altruistic motives, but if you work too long in too great isolation, you lose the sense of limits; you lose the sense of the effect of your work on other people.
Does our violent society have a relation to the loss of the sacred?
To me, it must have. The sense of the sacred is not very selective. I really take seriously that verse in the Book of Job that says that if God withholds “his spirit and his breath all flesh shall perish together and man shall return again unto dust.” If you believe that, then our life here is critical all the time because we must use everything considerately, not just some things. If you think that every life is ensouled and sacred, then you have to behave differently toward all these people — fetuses, criminals, enemies — that we’ve decided it’s all right to be violent toward, and also toward animals and inanimate things such as trees and stones. We would have to be much more careful. We would probably have to be poorer, but we would also greatly increase the opportunities of pleasure and joy. I think there would be payoffs if we were gentler. But I don’t think you can be selective in your violence. If you are thoughtlessly violent against some designated group, you can’t keep that from spilling over. There is such a thing as influence. Influence is real; it exists. If young people see older people solving their problems by violence, what can you expect except that they will try to do it, too? If they see human life generally depreciated, then they’ll generally depreciate their own lives and the lives of other children. Promiscuity is self-depreciation and another form of violence and exploitation.
How do you address the restlessness and inability of many people to commit themselves to a place, a marriage, a community; they feel compelled to stay on the move?
Gary Snyder said the right thing: Stop somewhere, just stop. Finally, this thing we are calling mobility keeps people from learning their lessons. They keep moving away from the problems they’ve caused. Their idea is that you can completely mess up somewhere and then go somewhere else, or you can completely succeed somewhere and go somewhere else. In either case you don’t know what the effects are. Sometimes people cause worse effects by their success than they do by their failure. To go back to the metaphor of marriage. What marriage does is say to you to stay and find out. It doesn’t say what you are going to find out. When you think this is it, we are at a complete dead end here, the marriage says to you: Wait, stay, and find out. Always you find out more. The thing is too great to be belittled by any decision that you can make about it. This is the same for your relation to the community or anything else. Wallace Stegner said that we Americans divide into two groups, boomers and stickers. The boomers are always thinking that something is better somewhere else, that whatever they have or whatever they are is no good.
Don’t you think that young people are often disappointed when they end their college years and realize that they didn’t tackle the big questions?
They may have read things of importance, but also they may have learned to read reductively as if, say, George Herbert, were only writing about the superstitions of his day. If you think that we’ve outgrown George Herbert, you have missed the whole point. It is not just from the canonical Scriptures that the news of eternity comes. It can come from anywhere, anytime. People have been carefully instructed to not see that and to have ways to defend against it. If George Herbert isn’t telling the truth, there is no use in reading him as an exercise in anthropology.
You pointed out in a past article that poetry and literature can be read so that the text is important but not the truth of the content.
That’s right. So you can read I’ll Take My Stand as merely or purely a literary work and not as a political work.
You’ve said that the subject of poetry is not words; it’s the world, which poets and writers have in common with other people. That’s part of the specialization, isn’t it?
Writers see their work as something aimed only for other writers and not really connected with the world.
It’s too bad if you think that writers will be the people in charge of words and other people will be in charge of things. It has to be more complicated than that. Writers certainly ought to take pleasure in words and know about them. You’ve got to learn your art. There is a lot else to learn, too. The arts ought properly to be subordinated to the art of living. That brings it back into a kind of perspective. The only thing that can preserve the arts is the knowledge of how to live — ultimately how to live in a community. That’s the vessel that keeps a culture alive. You can’t keep it alive in books. It really has to be kept alive by example, by conversation, by daily talk and tasks.
All of your writing is connected to the world. I think that’s why your readers love it.
Well, I like the world, so far. I think the world exacts a terrible toll on all of us who live in it. We lose our loved ones and witness a lot of destruction and damage. It’s a hard place to live, but it also offers us all the opportunities we’re ever going to get in this life. They are all right here. The pleasures, the opportunities, the chance to love each other. So far I am not a bit sorry that I’ve had the experience and the privilege.
What would you like most for people to say about your writing?
I don’t allow myself that thought at all. That’s not my business. My business is to write as well as I can. If people think it’s good, then that’s fine. But I don’t think that thoughts of how you want people to think of you are allowed. I mean strangers. I am always trying to make a good impression on my wife, Tanya!
Well, you must have. How long have you been married?
You wrote in Standing by Words: “Nothing exists for its own sake but for a harmony greater than itself which includes it. A work of art which accepts this condition and exists upon its terms honors the creation and so becomes a part of it.” Is that a summation of the way you view your work?
I still pretty much stick with that.
This interview originally appeared in the January 2000 issue of Crisis Magazine.