Berry: Life and Work
edited by Jason Peters
The University Press of Kentucky, 2007
by Jon M. Sweeney
Andy Catlett: Early Travels (2006)—Wendell Berry’s
most recent novel chronicling the people and community of the fictional
town of Port William, Kentucky—he concludes with the following
And now, as often before, I am reminded how grateful I am
to have been there, in that time, with these I have remembered.
I was there with them; they remain here with me. For in that little
while Port William sank into me, becoming one with the matter
and light, and the darkness, of my mind, never again to be far
from my thoughts, no matter where I went or what I did.
spoken by a fictional character, his faithful readers will hear
WB’s earnest voice in those words.
first introduced me to WB’s poems and essays in high school,
and I was immediately moved by them. She asked what sort of stuff
I was reading at the time (booksellers used to mingle with browsers
and ask such questions—particularly of aimless-looking teenagers),
and, like a physician, prescribed WB to my suburban soul. I have
always been grateful to her for that.
two books that day and have been rereading them ever since: The
Wheel (poems), and Recollected Essays. I am also grateful
to say that WB’s ideas hit me early enough to help form the
way I have lived my life since then. Well, at least a little bit.
has a tendency to make the reader—perhaps most of all, the
suburban reader—feel guilty. I’ve always been adept
at guilt, and perhaps that is why I’ve read so much of WB.
But recently, the world of opinion has caught up with him. We now
realize that we consume too much and live too little. Sustainable
living, urban gardening, solar heating, alternative energy, hybrid
cars—these are water-cooler conversations, today. Back in
the 60s and 70s when WB first began arguing for such things, he
was more easily dismissed. Not now.
the world of Christian ideas—of which WB has always been at
least on the outskirts—liberal, peace/justice-oriented magazines
like Sojourners have embraced him for decades. But even
the evangelical giant Christianity Today featured him last
year. WB is a lifetime Baptist, attends church regularly, and—as
any of his readers will know—reads his Bible carefully.
or four years after I began reading WB, in the spring of 1987, I
recruited three college friends to join me on a pilgrimage to his
farm near Port Royal, Kentucky. You see, all of his writing—the
novels, poems, essays—stem from his commitments to that place,
to that piece of land. He is a farmer, small-town citizen, husband,
and oh yes, a writer, too.
left Chicago early in the morning and arrived in Kentucky late in
the day, after a brief visit to Thomas Merton’s former abbey
in nearby Bardstown. (WB and Merton were friends.) We used a photo
from a dust jacket as our indicator of which family farm was his,
and we found it without much trouble.
stopped our car in front of the farmhouse and got out. Four of us
milled around in the road for a quarter of an hour before I gathered
the courage to walk up to the front door. Is this just horribly
rude? I was wondering to myself. Can’t be any ruder than mingling
unannounced in the front yard! I knocked gently. Wendell’s
wife, Tanya, answered, opening the door more generously (I thought)
than perhaps was warranted to a group of loitering gypsy college
kids from up north. We chatted for a minute and, as it turned out,
her husband was in Chicago for a poetry reading.
is perhaps best known today as the man who said, “Eating is
an agricultural act.” Or who coined the phrase, “cheap
at any price.” Or “To have everything
but money is to have much.” Best of all—summarizing
his worldview in nine words—are these two lines from one of
his finest poems: “What I stand for / is what I stand on.”
Perhaps you are beginning to see why his work appealed so strongly
to an idealist college student. But WB’s ideas are for all
of us, and never more necessary than they are, now.
Peters has compiled a beautiful book devoted to all aspects of his
life and work. Academics might call it a festschrift, or,
a celebration in writing of someone’s life, but it is much
more than that. Besides, festschriften usually commemorate
an anniversary or landmark birthday of their subject; WB turns 73
in August; not exactly a round number.
Berry: Life and Work is full of gems. It makes entertaining
reading, with personal reflections from the famous, including Bill
McKibben, Donald Hall, Sven Birkerts, Stanley Hauerwas, Hayden Carruth,
and Barbara Kingsolver. (Barbara Kingsolver’s new book, by
the way, is just out and hitting the bestseller’s lists: Animal,
Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life. She would be the first
to say that it is filled with WB-inspired reflection.)
announces in his Introduction one of the reasons why WB is so essential,
today. “If advertising were a virus, most of us would be dead.”
And later, Bill McKibben offers a reflection that perfectly completes
the thought: “Reading Berry is a little like reading the Gospels.
He tells us over and over again not to do the things we at first
blush want to do, like go for the cheap price, or build a big house.”
for those who are already WB fans, you will enjoy the biographical
details. Jane Kenyon loved his laugh. He sublet Denise Levertov’s
apartment in Greenwich Village while teaching at NYU in the 60s.
(WB is so lean, straight, and full of conviction that he has often
been compared to Abraham Lincoln. Imagining him in the Village is
not easy!) He also intimidated
the heck out of Donald Hall, who is now our U.S. Poet Laureate,
with his stern looks. Oh yes, and the other undergraduates
at University of Kentucky apparently thought his wife, Tanya, was
quite sexy. Ed McClanahan’s very personal reflection on knowing
the Berrys for 50 years is hilarious and worth the price of the
book by itself.
will also find much more sober, but important, reflections by David
Kline, the Amish farmer and writer, John Leax, the poet, and WB’s
good friend, Wes Jackson. Jack Shoemaker offers a brief reflection
on being WB’s publisher over the years that will appeal to
anyone with a bibliographic interest in the writer. Shoemaker founded,
first, North Point Press, and more recently, Counterpoint.
that Gospel metaphor of McKibben’s a bit further, Barbara
Kingsolver writes in here, “To ‘consider the lilies’
nowadays would only lead to buying them.” Well put, and true.
That’s why we need WB. Read this book, and more of WB himself,
and you’ll change the way you live.
Jon M. Sweeney
is the author of several books including The Lure of Saints:
A Protestant Experience of Catholic Tradition, just released
in paperback, and Light in the Dark Ages; The Friendship of
Francis and Clare of Assisi, publishing next month and a selection
of History Book Club. He writes regularly for Explorefaith, and
lives in Vermont.
©2007 Jon M. Sweeney
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