Berry, Boomers, Stickers, and American Catholics

I am a long-time reader and admirer of the work of Wendell Berry.  On April 23, I was privileged to be among those in attendance at the Kennedy Center to hear his 2012 Jefferson Lecture.  With Berry nearing the end of his career, I had not expected to hear anything particularly new from him that evening.  His talk met these modest expectations, though I must concede that the lecture fell short of most of his published expressions of his commitment to the virtues of family farming and small-scale community life.  I must also confess that I was surprised by his decision to address these perennial themes through what appeared to be a very personal dual between his tobacco-farming grandfather and tobacco baron, James B. Duke, president of the American Tobacco Company (and major patron of Duke University). I was more surprised still by the venomous attack on Berry’s address by Matthew J. Franck on the website of First Things.  Berry clearly touched a raw nerve (or the guilty conscience) of a certain kind of Catholic and a certain kind of American.  Where one stands on Berry says a lot about where one stands on Catholicism and America, or more precisely on Catholicism in America.

Drawing on the work of his mentor, Wallace Stegner, Berry presented a vision of American history as a struggle between “boomers” and “stickers”—between those who see life in terms of boundless opportunities for self-advancement and those who seek to live within natural limits geared toward maintaining stability and continuity in place over time.  Berry clearly and defiantly stands with the stickers like his grandfather against boomers like James B. Duke.  Franck’s implication that Berry was playing to the prejudices of liberal college professors is belied by NEH president Jim Leach’s nervous, smiling disclaimer following the address that the views expressed by Mr. Berry do not necessarily reflect those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. By singling out James B. Duke, Berry intended to connect two types of booming that liberals prefer to keep separate—the world of corporate capitalism and the world of the modern, cosmopolitan research university.

Berry’s choice of Duke also spoke to the intellectual patron of the event, Thomas Jefferson.  Jefferson was a man of many, sometimes contradictory, minds. A slaveholder who believed that all men were created equal, he was also a Southern plantation owner who believed that the success of American democracy and representative government depended upon the survival of small-scale family farming. In promoting this vision of political economy, Jefferson set himself against the boomer vision of Alexander Hamilton, who believed that the best hope for America lay in the development of large-scale commerce and industry.  Jefferson’s ideal reflected the economic reality of late-18th century America, though history would prove to be on the side of Hamilton.

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All for the better say some—most definitely Matthew Franck, more guardedly Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.  Fr. Schall has rightly observed that we all have a bit of both boomer and sticker in us; more contentiously, he insists that we should all have a bit of both in us.  History has shown that there can be no peaceful coexistence between stickers and boomers. The boomers have clearly won the battle over the course of the last two hundred years.  Fr. Schall implies that this is, for the most part, to the good of all and in keeping with the biblical injunction to be fertile, multiply and subdue the earth.  Berry strikes him as an ecological utopian prepared to reject this biblical responsibility in service of a vision of nature apart from human beings.  I respectfully charge this to be a misrepresentation of both the Bible and Berry.  Jews and Christians managed to “subdue” the earth for several millennia before the onset of large-scale commercial farming and industrial capitalism.  Berry’s writings reflect the collective wisdom of millennia of human engagement with nature, not as an object of aesthetic contemplation, but as a gift from God and source of sustenance.  Against the lefty-green language of the “environment,” Berry has routinely referred to nature as the “creation.”  Fr. Schall moreover accuses Berry of nostalgia for defending what is in historical fact the only way of life known to the mass of humanity from the dawn of the Neolithic age until the late 19th-century. Catholics quick to reject Marxist notions of economic determinism are equally quick to embrace other models of materialist determinism rooted in capitalism or technology.  Why?  Some believe these social and economic changes incidental to the life of the faith, while  other insist these changes have actually made the world a better place.

Let us briefly examine these claims through an issue dear to both Berry and orthodox Catholics:  the family.  Though a hero to many foodies, Berry distinguishes himself by defending small scale farming less in terms of the quality of the food it produces (organic, etc.) than by the quality of the relationships it sustains, particularly those of family and community.  Fr. Schall knows his Aristotle far better than I:  for Aristotle, the health of the polis depended upon the health of the household economy.  The family farm as the basic way of life for the mass of humanity survived from Aristotle’s time until the 19th century, when the decisions made by boomers reoriented agriculture toward large-scale commercial production and distribution.  Long before Stalin and Mao, capitalist boomers experimented with the collectivization of agriculture, with the disastrous costs of a social dislocation that we now euphemistically refer to as immigration.  Deprived its productive powers, the family remained the center of reproduction and took on new responsibilities for emotional satisfaction.  The Victorian boomers who promoted market anarchy also imagined the family as a “haven in a heartless world,” a heartless marketplace of their own creation.  Soon by the early 20th century, the reproductive and emotional responsibilities of the boomer family were at war with each other.  Large families inhibited quality relationships (and economic advancement), so responsible parents began to limit their family size.  By the early twenty-first century, even this attenuated, companionate family has appeared a threat to emotional satisfaction—in boomer language, most often emotional “growth”—so large portions of the population of the Western world have simply given up on reproduction and family life altogether.

A philosopher might say that there is no necessary connection between these social, economic and technological changes and the decline in family life.  As a historian, I can only respond that there is a very explicit and irrefutable historical connection between the two.   Historically speaking, the real nostalgia lies in those who look back to the Victorian era and think it an adequate solution to the dislocations that continue to plague family life in our own, quite accelerated, market society. The Church has been able to Christianize many different societies and cultures over the past two thousand years in large part because of the foundational stability provided by traditional home economies.  Only modernity, in both its capitalist and its socialist manifestations, has struck at the heart of this stability.  A particularly modern reading of the biblical injunction to subdue nature has extended itself to the domination of human nature, most strikingly in birth control and abortion.  That over 90% of Catholics—conservative as well as liberal—approve and practice the former reflects the internalization of the boomer mentality on the part of Catholics, especially since the great assimilation to middle class American life that occurred in the decades following World War II.   Our immigrant ancestors—and Wendell Berry’s—were largely reluctant boomers, cogs in an economic machine not of their own making.  Most came to America not to embrace the idea of an endless receding frontier of boundless possibilities, but to survive with as much of their faith, family and culture intact as possible.  They boomed in order to stick.  May we learn from their wisdom.

  • Christopher Shannon

    Dr. Christopher Shannon is a member of the History Department at Christendom College, where he interprets the narrative of Christian history from its foundations in the Old Testament and its heroic beginnings in the Church of the Martyrs, down through the ages to the challenges of the post-modern world. His books include Conspicuous Criticism: Tradition, the Individual, and Culture in Modern American Social Thought (Johns Hopkins, 1996) and, most recently, Bowery to Broadway: The American Irish in Classic Hollywood Cinema (University of Scranton Press, 2010).

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