Berry, Wendell (Erdman)
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.)
Roberts W. French
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...
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John W. Hattman
[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...
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D. E. Richardson
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.
Ain't got enough to eat
to feed a hungry man.
Our great southern prose writers—Faulkner, O'Connor, Welty—have worked such phrases into moments of great beauty and they have not sacrificed "measured speech." But standing by themselves such phrases remind us of the vulgar exploitation of the popular southern idiom in the world of "country music."… Berry's book forces us to feel that the old rural popular world of the South is somehow inaccessible to a mature poetic imagination today. (p. 883)
D. E. Richardson, "Southern Poetry Today" (copyright, 1976, by D. E. Richardson),...
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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)
Whatever the cause, Berry's sense of his own failure is all too accurate. He venerates memory, but has taken his history not from his own recollections or those of area old-timers, but from the county records. Here is an example of how he presents the past owners of the land: "Asa Batts kept it / for only six years / and in 1871 sold it / —Sullinger's Landing had now / become Lanes Landing— / to A. J. & Matilda Jones, / who divided it …" Is it not possible that there is a good story or two behind this property?… And shouldn't a poet, the owner and venerator of that land, have done more to seek out and present such stories?
As for legends, I could find only a single attempt at one. In the best poem...
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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 wealth but asks only that the earth return to him in kind the love and care he brings to it. Berry's own devotion to the earth is quite the same, if not more so, in that one gets the feel in his poems of a lover and his beloved in mystical union. He is fervently dedicated to reform of the treatment of the earth as it has been treated by greed and shortsightedness, and his poetry often glows with the spirit of his pursuit.
David Ignatow, in a review of "Clearing," in Partisan Review (copyright © 1977 by Partisan Review), Vol. XLIV, No. 2, 1977, p. 317.
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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 consequence—never achieved, always in process of achievement—is far from satisfying the poet who thinks, as it does satisfy the man who toils. "Work Song," the most troubled, and the most musical, sequence of the narrative, discloses the anxiety at the heart of Berry's expenditure—anxious not only for the future, which will not be in his hands; anxious over the present in which he is being devoured by his own commitment…. There lies the poet's fear, as dark as dark. He has cut the brush, fenced and sown the fields, brought crops back to the bottom land, and he asks if his labors might not, eventually, absorb him, lead him quite away from the life of books, from reading them, from making them…. No fate more mocking than to be halved...
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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 correlative"—or rather the "subjective correlative," since his material is facts—to its limit, yet he gets away with it because the setting down of these facts of ownership, exploitation or "nurture" of land, are crucial to his theme; and there was no way of making them more poetic than they are without faking. To Berry his theme is everything; all his art and all his life are at its service.
Except for the six poems that make up "Work Song," this whole collection consists of longer poems more meditative, or even didactic, than purely lyrical, as compared with the short poems in Berry's preceding book The Country of Marriage or those published in limited editions only in recent years. Yet all the different strands in...
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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 compelling case it makes against recent agricultural policy and its treatment of related issues like the negative effects of the land-grant colleges and schools of agriculture on American farming. Berry identifies "specialization" and "expertise" as the expressions of a misguided policy and educational philosophy, ignorant of the interrelation of culture and agriculture. (p. 99)
In the long chapter at the center of The Unsettling of America, "The Body and The Earth," Berry finds that our several cultural crises are all based on the "isolation of the body from the many specialized activities which dominate everyday life and from all other living things." In his view modern work is too abstract and our relation to 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 from Library Journal, September 15, 1980; published by R. R. Bowker Co. (a Xerox company); copyright © 1980 by Xerox Corporation), Vol. 105, No. 16, September 15, 1980, p. 1864.
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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 it, which should include us all. Certain pages and even paragraphs have the power to lift you off into hour-long stretches of contemplation and personal reassessment—those periods when a reader seems to be staring out a window but is really watching his interior reform. Both are that extraordinary; both keep revealing new riches.
Berry's focus is on the land, or agriculture, with equal emphasis on both halves of that word, for he writes not only of land and animal husbandry, but of industrialization and "agribusiness," the youth movement and the family, contemporary education and the lack of it, politics and government, and on into ever-widening realms, which is as it should be. Without the land none of these structures...
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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 principles Berry has chosen to simplify his life, and much of what he writes about is what has attended this simplification, as well as a criticism of modern society from the standpoint of this simplicity. (Perhaps I should say "apparent" simplicity, because Berry argues that it may be easier to prepare a person to be an astronaut than to be a small farmer.) (p. 220)
[Berry left New York and] bought a small house and twelve acres of land near Port Royal, on the Kentucky River…. This was to have been a writer's retreat and a summer place, but … as he became more and more immersed in the place, he resigned his job at the University of Kentucky to live the life of a writer and small farmer.
The essays he has...
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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, tools, and crops, their propriety or impropriety in relation to the land and the people who live on it. (p. 341)
The value of Mr. Berry's work, and the basis of his polemic with the dominant mentality and methodology of "technological civilization," lies in his insistence on making these connections, or rather, on revealing the connections between culture and agriculture, in his detailing of a wide and subtle network of relations between human activity and the surrounding natural world, a network that leads finally to "mystery" because it vastly exceeds our knowledge and control. Within that network man has a place, determined as much by his ignorance as by his knowledge, and past cultures have over long periods of time...
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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 set in the landscape of his home. There is a great deal of intelligent feeling in Berry's work, with the same undercurrent of doubt we feel in similar affirmations of faith in the mature works of Eliot and Yeats. Like those masters, Berry is concerned as a poet with the pursuit of wisdom.
A review of "The Wheel," in Publishers Weekly (reprinted from the September 10, 1982 issue of Publishers Weekly, published by R. R. Bowker Company, a Xerox company; copyright © 1982 by Xerox Corporation), Vol. 222, No. 11, September 10, 1982, p. 73.
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