Why Left and Right like Wendell Berry
Right after Wendell Berry took the stage at the John F. Kennedy Center on April 23, he thanked the National Endowment for the Humanities for its “courage” in letting him speak. He was there to deliver the Jefferson Lecture, the annual address that the NEH solemnly describes as “the highest honor the federal government bestows for distinguished intellectual and public achievement in the humanities.” Berry specifically praised the NEH for not demanding an advance copy of his text, a comment that provoked anxious laughter from the audience.
Then Berry — bald, bespectacled, wearing a dark suit and tie — spoke slowly, often gazing down at his notes. The man is not a gifted orator, but he writes well, and he held a crowd that included Supreme Court justice Samuel Alito for about an hour as he delivered a jeremiad on the ravages of the free market. “We live now in an economy that is not sustainable,” he said (in the longer, written version of his remarks). “No amount of fiddling with capitalism to regulate and humanize it, no pointless rhetoric on the virtues of capitalism or socialism, no billions or trillions spent on ‘defense’ of the ‘American dream,’ can for long disguise this failure. The evidences are everywhere.” He grumbled about pollution, species extinction, soil erosion, fossil-fuel depletion, “agribusiness executives,” “industrial pillage, “the profitability of war.” Berry’s list of complaints seemed an almost inexhaustible natural resource. “Much has been consumed, much has been wasted, almost nothing has flourished,” he said. When Berry finished his lament, NEH chairman Jim Leach felt the need to lighten the mood with a joke: “The views of the speaker do not necessarily reflect the views of the United States government.”
Yet they do represent the views of many conservatives — or so it would appear, judging from the love that they’re showering on Berry. On July 20, Berry will receive the Russell Kirk Paideia Prize, named for the author of The Conservative Mind and awarded by the CiRCE Institute, which promotes Christian classical education, for “cultivating virtue and wisdom.” Last year, ISI Books, the imprint of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, published The Humane Vision of Wendell Berry, a collection of essays that seek to illuminate, according to the dust jacket, the “profoundly conservative” ideas of its subject. And although the 2012 Jefferson Lecture was a product of the Obama administration, Berry was regularly a candidate for the same honor during the Bush years.
What’s going on here? Why has this market-bashing prophet of ecological doom won so many fans on the right? On June 17, I drove to Berry’s home in Port Royal, Ky., to find out. He welcomes visitors on Sundays. “There ought to be a day when you don’t work,” he says. He’s well known for these engagements, and for years admirers have made pilgrimages, seeking conversation or advice. On my visit, we sit on his front porch, discussing his life, his books, and his views on everything from farm policy to gay marriage.
The 77-year-old Berry lives in an old white house on a steep hillside above the Kentucky River, about 13 miles south of where it flows into the Ohio. He bought it in 1964 and moved in the next year, determined to live in Henry County, where he grew up and his family has deep roots. He had spent a period away, earning a degree at the University of Kentucky, taking a creative-writing course from Wallace Stegner at Stanford, traveling through Europe, and finally teaching at New York University. Yet he felt called to go home and stay put. Since his return, he has churned out essays, fiction, and poetry, in a rustic life of letters that many writers dream about but few dare to pursue. “This is my family’s country, my own people’s country,” he says, in a border-state twang. “There was this idea that you couldn’t live in a place like this and amount to anything. I’m not bragging. I may not have amounted to anything.”
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.
Berry certainly doesn’t view himself as a conservative, and he seems both puzzled and amused that his work would find favor with conservatives. “Mostly I’m a Democrat,” he says. “I’m a child of the New Deal. My family have always been Democrats.” Berry says he voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and plans to vote for him again this November. He has met Obama once, when the president awarded him the National Humanities Medal two years ago. Michael Pollan, the liberal foodie activist, thinks the connection may go deeper, citing Obama’s criticism of mainstream agriculture and its dependence on cheap oil: “I have no idea if Barack Obama has ever read Wendell Berry, but Berry’s thinking had found its ways to his lips,” Pollan wrote in the introduction to Berry’s 2009 book, Bringing It to the Table.
Since 1996, Berry and his wife have donated $7,000 to federal candidates, all Kentucky Democrats with the exception of Dennis Kucinich, the left-wing congressman from Ohio and two-time presidential candidate. Asked if he has ever voted for a Republican, Berry mentions John Sherman Cooper, a senator who was last elected in 1966. Despite this yellow-dog partisanship, Berry knows he doesn’t fit into ordinary political slots. “We’ve got two parties in this state that are absolutely dedicated to coal,” he says. “What we’re working for has not been adopted by any political side.” Last year, Berry and several others protested mountaintop-removal mining by occupying the outer office of Kentucky’s Democratic governor, Steve Beshear, for four days.
The main thing keeping liberals from a full-on swoon for Berry is sexual politics. “I’m pro-life, in lower-case letters,” says Berry, meaning that although he shares many principles with the pro-life movement, he won’t join it. (He once wrote an essay called “In Distrust of Movements,” in which he argued that political causes are often too narrowly specialized.) “Abortion for birth control is wrong,” he says. “That’s as far as I’m going to go. In some circumstances, I would justify it, as I would justify divorce in some circumstances, as the best of two unhappy choices.”
Like a few members of the dwindling band of pro-life liberals, Berry takes an expansive view of the issue, adding that he’s also against capital punishment and for a peaceful foreign policy. “What I’ve seen throughout my adult life is violence as a first resort: maximum force relentlessly applied,” he says. “Maybe the best response after 9/11 would have been to do nothing. But doing nothing was not a political option. Certainly it would not have been, at that time, a popular option.” He appears unfamiliar with the foreign-policy views of Senator Rand Paul, the Kentucky Republican who is no sword rattler, though he admits to voting for Paul’s opponent in 2010. “The liability in talking to me about politics is that I’m not a close student of politics,” he says. “That’s because I don’t expect very much from politics. But I know humans and greatly discomfort myself by expecting a lot from them. So far, I haven’t met a perfect human, but I’ve encountered enough of them who have seemed to me admirable.”
He does support Obama’s embrace of gay marriage. “I’m in favor of it, too,” he says. “It’s really only because they’re being denied the benefits of inheritance and so on — otherwise I don’t think it ought to be the government’s business.” He regards the entire debate as a distraction: “I really don’t understand how you can single out homosexuality for opprobrium and wink at fornication and adultery, which the Bible has a lot more to say about. The churches are not going to come out against fornication and adultery because there are too damn many fornicators and adulterers in their congregations.” That’s not all he scorns: “I’m against divorce, too, though I know perfectly well that nobody can judge anybody else’s marriage and say that any particular divorce should not happen.” Berry, for his part, has been married to the same woman for 55 years.
As Berry enters the final stage of his career — he says he approached the Jefferson Lecture as a “summing up” of his views — he appears content with the way he has lived out his convictions, no matter how they’re labeled. He plans to keep on writing, and a new book will arrive this fall: A Place in Time, collecting 20 short stories from the Port William milieu. “It’s been an extraordinarily rich life,” he says. At the same time, the contentment always fades to worry. The world is going to pot, and, if you leaf through Berry’s body of work, you’ll see that it’s been going there for a long time.