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Wendell Berry: Life and Work
edited by Jason Peters
The University Press of Kentucky, 2007

review by Jon M. Sweeney

In 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 paragraph:

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.

Although spoken by a fictional character, his faithful readers will hear WB’s earnest voice in those words.

A bookseller 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.

I bought 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.

WB 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.

In 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.

Three 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.

We 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.

We 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.

WB 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.

Jason 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.

Wendell 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.)

Peters 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.”

And 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.

You 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.

Extending 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.

Copyright ©2007 Jon M. Sweeney


Just Peace: A Message of Hope
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