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.”