Wendell (Erdman) Berry 1934–
American poet, novelist, and essayist.
Whatever genre Berry chooses, his message is consistent: we must seek to live in harmony with nature. Like Thoreau, with whom he is often compared, Berry is a writer of place. He uses his life on his Kentucky farm as an example of how the ordering and healing qualities of nature should be allowed to function in one's life. In all of Berry's work, and especially in his ecological essays, he speaks of the danger inherent in disrupting the natural cycle of life. Berry particularly emphasizes the importance of physical exercise to mental wellbeing and the dangers of what he calls "agribusiness," the capitalist treatment of the land. Critics consider Recollected Essays 1965–1980 (1982) to be the finest volume of Berry's expository prose.
Berry's early novels, Nathan Coulter (1960) and A Place on Earth (1967), received a moderate amount of positive critical attention. It is nevertheless as a poet and an essayist that Berry has earned his literary reputation. Although no single volume of Berry's verse stands out, critics have appraised his poetry as being consistently good. Both Berry's poetry and prose are noted for the very direct use of language. His recent collections of verse, A Part (1981) and The Wheel (1982), are characteristically pastoral.
(See also CLC, Vols. 4, 6, 8; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 73-76; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 6.)
They attached me to the earth. It is the experience of such attachment that Wendell Berry writes about in Farming: A Handbook. Indeed, the book has little to say about anything else; as much as any I can recall in recent years, it is a book of a single theme, played without significant variation. Berry has something he very badly wants to tell us. He said it in The Long-Legged House, a book of essays published in 1969, he said it again in The Hidden Wound (1970), an essay centered upon the author's experience of racism, and he says it yet once more in his new poems. The insistent didacticism becomes tiring; one soon gets the message….
What men have done, however, must be compared with what men could do; and here again Berry is explicit. He comes to us with a cure for our ills. (p. 472)
Essentially, Berry's poems are pastorals of withdrawal, advising us to retreat to the earth, where salvation may be found…. The image of sowing is central and recurrent. What can a man do in times of crisis? He can enrich the earth. Berry appears to be quite serious about this…. Faced with the monstrous creations of our technological age, one can well understand this longing for a primitive Golden Age; but one may also ask whether such longing is anything more than an escape into pastoral idealization….
Speaking as one who has admired much of Berry's previous work, I must conclude, reluctantly, that this book is a mistake. It comes too soon after the last one (Openings, 1968), and it contains too many poems that might better have been kept back for further revision and further tightening…. Much of the writing in the book is diffuse and slack; the memorable lines are few. The book preaches incessantly at us, urging us to marriage with the earth. Whatever the attractions of the idea, one soon has enough of it. (p. 473)
Roberts W. French, "From Maine to Kentucky," in The Nation (copyright 1970 The Nation magazine, The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 211, No. 15, November 9, 1970, pp. 472-74.∗
[The Hidden Wound] is one of the finest documents on the racial question that has been published in recent years. It is a sincere, moving and inspirational account of one man's attempt to comprehend the ways in which racism has influenced him. Berry's central thesis is: "If white people have suffered less obviously from racism than black people, they have nevertheless suffered greatly; the cost has been greater perhaps than we can yet know. If the white man has inflicted the would of racism upon black men, the cost has been that he would receive the mirror image of that wound into himself."… (pp. 374-75)
The book is devoted to the author's attempt to discover the depth and nature of his wound and find a way to cure it. The most striking point of the volume is that this is a man who realizes the sickness of racism and is determined to avoid passing it on to his own children. In his effort to understand what has happened to him, the author reflects on his childhood and his relations with the black people on his grandfather's farm….
One passage that is particularly striking, I believe, serves as a devastating refutation to those who argue that slavery was not a totally damnable institution. "My great-grandfather, John Johnson Berry, once owned a slave who was a 'mean nigger,' too defiant and rebellious to do anything with. And writing that down, I sense as I never have before the innate violence of the slave...
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The Hidden Wound is an autobiographical meditation which also serves as an apologia. Berry attempts to justify his recent retreat to a Kentucky farm, where, having fled the life of an urban nomad, he has attempted to come to grips with both his and the nation's past. The "hidden wound" of the book's title is racism, and Berry's study of it is refreshingly free from the sloganeering which surrounds that issue today.
Berry grew up on a farm in Kentucky, and his childhood memories are rich with his friendship to two blacks, the hired man Nick, only one generation removed from the overseer's lash, and his wife, "Aunt Georgie," only one generation removed from "massa's" nocturnal lusts. Only with the awakening reflection brought on by his manhood has Berry come to understand how fully his family covertly exploited the poor blacks, whose bondage of poverty differed only in degree from the outright, contractual ownership of slavery. Berry exorcises the guilt of his heritage by revisiting his past, by returning home to become a farmer after his father, and by researching in depth the history of his immediate locale. His depth-exploration of one slice of Middle America reminds me of Williams' Paterson, the more so since Berry's beautifully sonorous prose at times approaches the poetic, textured by a poet's ear and imagery.
Farming: A Hand Book is in many respects a poetic counterpoint to the prose...
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Since 1960 Wendell Berry has published five books of poetry, three volumes of essays and three novels. With the recent publication of two books of poetry, Farming: A Handbook and The Country of Marriage, and a volume of essays, A Continuous Harmony, Berry has come to fruition as a major voice in America. By far his best work is his most recent, and so to read him chronologically is to observe steady growth in depth, refinement, and certainty…. Wendell Berry's transformation … has been a steady clarification and improvement of essentially the same stuff, his poetry growing more obviously and naturally out of itself, his own life, and death.
Death is the primary fact to Wendell Berry. It is, and he cannot forget it; he derives from his death and the death of all that he loves, not from new fashions in poetry or sociology, but the fact that he will be a rotting carcass in the foreseeable future. To him, carcasses are in one sense as dead an end as in Sartre; they are real and final. In another, equally important sense, they are like the carcasses in the fourth book of Virgil's Georgics, eight sacrificed cattle out of whose decay emerges a swarm of golden bees, creators of wholesome sweetness. Berry's sweetness, like Virgil's, is accompanied by stinging political and philosophical convictions, manifested both in simple didacticism and in implied contrast to the ideal agricultural life. This is clear from the first: Berry is a moralist; he constructs an ideal according to the life he is trying to live, and he develops an extended critique of America's abuse of power and wealth—the voraciousness, arrogance, and inhumanity of her mad scramble to deny the balancing points in nature, the intersections of life and death, light and dark, freedom and necessity that are essential to all being. In an age when literary didacticism has become a dangerous business, Berry's voice has grown equal to the task.
Unlike most contemporary poets who are fearful of being considered too tendentious or "simple-minded," Berry is not evasive about his principles. He lives in Kentucky, where the land has been literally scraped raw by money seeking more money…. Although by no means a pious ecologist, Berry speaks out against the "disease of our material economy" as teacher, lobbyist, writer, and farmer. To him, as to Thoreau, the cancer in our economy spreads to other realms of life. (pp. 868-70)
Unlike Thoreau, Berry searches for an etiology of the disease and arrives at a view of both cause and solution: "Because death is inescapable, a biological and ecological necessity, its acceptance becomes a spiritual obligation, the only means of making life whole …". Ceasing to deny the darkness, gaining life through relinquishment, is the core of Berry's task as farmer and idealist, and in his poetic development of this "simple" idea may be seen his growing excellence as a new kind of agrarian.
Berry's existential simplemindedness is getting more perfect in his maturity. As his ethic, passions, writing style, and whole life become more integral, his thought acquires the status of a practical metaphysic, a way of acting according to his understanding of the ground of being. In his poetry especially, Berry's maturity is defined by increasingly elegant simplicity. His style is that of a farmer who plants and tends straight rows, not a Romantic who wanders temporarily in the luxuriance of a wild or infinite nature. (p. 870)
Despite his avoidance of the exotic in theme or style, of flaunting nature's lore, enumerating his spots of time or ninth-month midnights, Berry achieves a mysteriously uplifting resonance. (p. 871)
Berry's poetic maturation may be traced through his handling of...
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Sayings & Doings is for the most part an anthology of short epigrams heard in conversation in the country. In a short prefatory note Berry likens these poems to the "found objects" of the sculptors but insists that the verse form in which these epigrams appear is necessary because "it makes clear that memorable speech is measured speech."…
Some, if not all, of these epigrams come close to the jokes of the "Hee-Haw" television program: the comparison is cruel and wrong but often hard to fend off. For example,
We have to eat
early at our house.
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[In] Clearing, Wendell Berry tells the story of how he rescued a piece of Kentucky land, which had been neglected and abused by generations of past owners, and, through his own labors and the help of a few horses, brought it back to life….
Berry's self-imposed task is indeed a noble and an arduous one—just reading his descriptions of the work makes one's shoulders ache. The artistic goal is equally noble; in "Work Song," Berry states his wish to make "Memory, / native to this valley,… grow / into legend, legend into song, song / into sacrament." Unfortunately, something has gotten in the way of artistic fulfillment; is it, as the poet seems to suspect, the labor itself? (p. 955)...
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No one could deny the nobility of Wendell Berry's dream of the sanctity of the soil. I will not comment on his techniques in Clearing,… they are all that we have read before by writers of equal talent in the free forms of William Carlos Williams. Occasionally he works skillfully at the traditional rhymed and metered verse, but Berry should be singled out for his vision. He is a poet who is a farmer, who is a professor of English, who cannot write an evil word about the work of living but must make his farm the podium from which to write eloquently of our relationship to the earth. He suffers his tasks in the field and in the barn gladly…. [He] celebrates the small, ordinary farmer who has no pretension to...
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Clearing is familiar history; ecology; memoir: a poem about the making of a poem—the making of two poems, the one we read and the other: a farm and forty acres…. Berry is the most subtle of American naturists. The vocabulary of his emotion is even-tempered; far from unpoetic, he deprecates the more showy forensics that have commonly underlined his subject: despoliation and the way back. Clearing is a ruminating lyrical monologue in seven principal sections, delivered by a man who has chosen at great cost—in the worldly meaning, beside the expense of spirit entailed—to do as well as to be or to talk: actively to conserve, not be content with polemics on conservation. And the...
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Clearing includes history quite as specific, localized and personal, yet runs no comparable risk. All his work in verse and prose is sustained by a pervasive vision, as much ethical as aesthetic, that gives weight and substance and depth to any thing or any figure named in it. The old-fashioned word for this was dedication; and it is consistent with Berry's freedom from trendy sophistication that his opening poem, "History," should include an invocation to the Muse. His historical preoccupations become critical in the next poem, "Where," with its accounts of the antecedents of the place he celebrates throughout the collection, his Kentucky farm. Here documentary faithfulness stretches the "objective...
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[The Unsettling of America] continues the exploration of Berry's central themes: agriculture considered historically and in its present state, and marriage and domesticity. Much of what he says is in response to the question he posed in a poem in Farming: A Handbook …: "What must a man do to be at home in the world?" He must, this latest book suggests, discover personal solutions for what are identified as the three crises we face: of character, agriculture and culture. All three are the result, Berry claims, of "the abstract values of an industrial economy preying upon the native productivity of the land and its people."…
One strength of The Unsettling of America is the...
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Berry's direct and easily understood verse [in A Part] is worlds removed from the self-indulgent and often contrived obscurity so common in contemporary poetry. "Clear" poetry can be amateurish, trite, and maudlin, but Berry's is the very opposite—intelligent, sensitive, and a pleasure to read. For the most part, the poems are nature poems that deal with such subjects as river ice, snow, trees, lilies, and the Kentucky scene. Two very nicely handled translations from Ronsard are also included. Good poetry that is easily accessible is a rarity, but Berry's work meets that description well.
Peter Dollard, in a review of "A Part," in Library Journal (reprinted...
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One of the rewards of being a fairly faithful reader arrives when you open a new book and realize it's the one you've been reading toward for years. That has been this reader's experience with both of these books by Wendell Berry, Recollected Essays 1965–1980 and The Gift of Good Land….
These books are the kind that you spend months with, hate to give up, and plan to return to soon and often. There is that much pure pleasure in them, both in the spare and crafted elegance of their prose, and in the breadth and depth of their content. They're reference works of the body and soul, and books of practical reference for anybody who cares about the earth and the quality of his life upon...
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Like E. B. White and Noel Perrin, Wendell Berry writes in the country, and he writes mainly about country life, but he owes nothing to either of these writers. His spiritual ancestor is Henry David Thoreau, and his Recollected Essays, though looser in structure than Walden, resembles it in several respects. Like Thoreau, his prose style is clear and utterly free of affectation. He read Thoreau as a young man, and was clearly influenced by him, but his prose style may have come to him as much from his upbringing as from reading Walden….
Like Thoreau, one of Berry's fundamental concerns is working out a basis for living a principled life. And like Thoreau, in his quest for...
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In their differences, Wendell Berry's Recollected Essays and The Gift of Good Land balance each other nicely. The first, a selection of descriptive and reflective essays drawn from five previously published books, presents the major themes of his thought as it has developed over the years (1965–1980). It is essentially a personal book … though the reflective pieces go far beyond the personal. The second is a collection of articles written since the publication of The Unsettling of America in 1977. These are more directly concerned with farming, and take us outside of Mr. Berry's native Kentucky to Pennsylvania, the Midwest, the Southwest, and as far as Peru, studying a variety of techniques,...
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The color and shadings of the work of poets come out of the life they choose to support their art, financially and spiritually. There are city poets and country poets, academic hacks and bohemians, politicians and recluses. Wendell Berry happens to be a farmer from Kentucky. His poetry, not unexpectedly, often returns to the study of the earth, the fields, the hills. His eighth collection [The Wheel] has a particular theme, however: the cycle called the Wheel of Life. Ordered in six sections, Berry's Wheel begins at the end, with two poems about the death of old friends, and graduates to the promise of new life in the marriages of his children. This drama takes place partly in the mind of the poet and is partly...
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