He’s too modest — Berry has amounted to quite a lot. His poems are well regarded, and his novels and short stories, set in the fictional town of Port William, Ky., draw comparisons to William Faulkner’s tales of Yoknapatawpha County. In the last three years, he has won a lifetime-achievement award from the Fellowship of Southern Writers as well as the National Humanities Medal, another federal accolade. Berry is perhaps best known for a long series of conversational essays in which he has expounded a set of views so paradoxical that he’s almost impossible to categorize politically. He can sound at turns like an agrarian populist, an environmental radical, and a family-values traditionalist. Even his most devoted fans aren’t always sure what to make of this gun-owning pacifist, pessimistic man of faith, and 21st-century primitive.
In 1987, Berry wrote a short essay, “Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer.” It first appeared in the obscure New England Review & Bread Loaf Quarterly. Then Harper’s reprinted it, to acclaim and notoriety. Berry explained that he writes on paper with a pen or pencil and then gives the pages to his wife, who pecks out a typewritten document. He offered reasons for refusing to keep up with the times: He doubted that a newfangled machine would improve his writing, preferred to save his money, and so on. Yet he also believed that he was taking a stand: “I would hate to think that my work as a writer could not be done without direct dependence on strip-mined coal. How could I write conscientiously against the rape of nature if I were, in the act of writing, implicated in the rape?” He added that he writes during the day so he doesn’t have to use electric light. This touched a nerve, even among coal-hating environmentalists. The responses poured in. One suggested, mockingly, that perhaps Berry thought the Sierra Club should quit printing its magazines and instead have its members pass around hand-copied manuscripts. Berry shot back: “This is what is wrong with the conservation movement. It has a clear conscience. The guilty are always other people, and the wrong is always somewhere else.”
A quarter-century later, Berry still doesn’t own a computer. “I’m not without sin,” he says, meaning that he does in fact consume electricity. “This is original sin round two. We’re all implicated, no matter how much we may oppose it, suffer from it, and regret it. We’re all using more stuff up than we ought to.” Yet he insists that he has never sent an e-mail or surfed the Internet. “I hear there are websites about my work,” he confesses, with a touch of uncertainty because he has only heard about these things rather than seen them. (His publisher operates wendellberrybooks.com.) He also seems bewildered by anybody who would fuss over his throwback ways. “The basis of my resistance is not that I’m a crank, but that I’m satisfied,” he says. “I didn’t dislike the way I was doing it.”
This sentiment extends to his 117 acres of land. When Berry was younger, he farmed, keeping a big garden and raising hogs, poultry, and milk cows. “We had a fairly elaborate subsistence economy,” he says. He still has a small flock of sheep — throughout the afternoon, they bleat in the distance — and all the while he has shunned the conveniences of modern technology. He talks about needing to overhaul his John Deere horse-drawn mower and says that the only new piece of farm equipment he ever bought was an Amish-made manure spreader. Yet it would be wrong to brand Berry a technophobe: Last year, he started using three large solar panels, which he volunteers are worth about $80,000. “These things don’t pollute,” he says, with obvious pride.
In 1977, Berry put out The Unsettling of America, which may be his most influential book. As an attack on large-scale agriculture, it is very much in keeping with the themes of his Jefferson Lecture. Yet it’s more than an anti-corporate screed. Berry also defends the virtues of the smallholder farm, not as a unit of efficient production but rather as an essential component of a thriving culture that values strong communities and ecological stewardship. “The healthy farm sustains itself in the same way that a healthy tree does,” he wrote, “by belonging where it is, by maintaining a proper relationship to the ground.” Russell Kirk — a longtime National Review contributor who, like Berry, fled the academy for a rural homestead — discovered the Kentuckian around this time. “Berry is possessed of an intellect at once philosophic and poetic, and he writes most movingly,” wrote Kirk in a 1978 newspaper column. “Humane culture has no better friend today than he.” Kirk was probably the first prominent conservative to detect an undercurrent of conservatism in Berry’s work: suspicion of progress, support for local autonomy, and a preference for the old ways of doing things.