The Art of the Commonplace Summary

The Art of the Commonplace is a 2002 collection of twenty-one agrarian essays by American writer and farmer Wendell Berry.

  • Berry explains his relationship to the agrarian movement and his decision to settle on his family’s ancestral Kentucky farm after leaving urban life behind.
  • As a Christian and an agrarian, Berry associates the ills of modern American society with industrial capitalism and argues in favor of a return to agrarian society.
  • In particular, Berry emphasizes the importance of community, the connection between people and the land, and the responsibility of stewarding God’s Creation.

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Last Updated on October 20, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 715

The Art of the Commonplace is a collection of twenty-one essays by the American poet and agrarian writer Wendell Berry. Written over a period of several years, the essays have been collected retrospectively and set out a comprehensive guide to Berry's views about the agrarian movement, which seeks to open...

(The entire section contains 715 words.)

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The Art of the Commonplace is a collection of twenty-one essays by the American poet and agrarian writer Wendell Berry. Written over a period of several years, the essays have been collected retrospectively and set out a comprehensive guide to Berry's views about the agrarian movement, which seeks to open the eyes of modern society to the evils of industrialism and urge people to seek a connection with the land which, for many, has now been lost.

Berry is not writing from a position of ignorance of the modern industrial and urban world. On the contrary, the first essay, which is actually an excerpt from his longer work The Long-Legged House, describes Berry's own route back to agrarianism after an extended period working in New York. Like most Americans who grew up in rural areas and then received an education, he was encouraged to leave his native Kentucky and “progress” to the city. However, having made such “progress,” he came to realize that the industrialist economy's march toward ever-increasing urban centralization was a wrong one and decided to move back to Kentucky. Having returned to the place in which his family had lived for many decades, he was able to see it with new eyes and understand the importance of having a connection to the land, working it in a way that is compassionate and communal.

Berry is a Christian, and his Christian beliefs inform many of the essays in this book, although only those in the final section deal with the idea of Christian farming practices explicitly. From the beginning of the book, however, he is keen to impress upon the reader the need to behave in a neighborly fashion, privileging community, humanity, spiritual wellness, and holistic well-being. Berry’s argument is that people cannot be broken down into separate “parts” any more than they can be separated from the land. He is troubled by the idea that, for modern Americans, the disconnect and division that has been interpolated between the people and the land may stem from the fact that it was land originally taken from other people. European settlers destroyed the Native American societies with which they first came into contact. However, in the early years of American farming, many attempts were made to reconnect with the land again and to farm it in a way that made use of the miraculous topsoil, sympathetically and sustainably.

Berry's premise is that we should all be striving to return once more to that way of life. As society becomes increasingly industrialized, centralized, and globalized, our individuality is being eroded, just as our abusive farming practices are eroding the topsoil, which can never be replaced. In Berry’s view, all life on earth comes from God, and it is the responsibility of humankind to steward that life. What we should not be doing, then, is creating divisions between people and embarking upon a lifestyle within which people are viewed as machines, all work is viewed as drudgery, and we therefore exploit and demean those few people who still need to take part in manual labor. We have lost our connection with the land; we have commodified healthcare, sex, and relationships, and yet we wonder why we feel such malaise. Berry’s argument is that by struggling to fix all our problems with increased industrialization, we are not only entrenching those problems more deeply into our society, but minimizing the idea that we might ever return to a sustainable model of living. A truly Christian society would be one in which people took care of each other, of their land, and of future generations. Berry’s purpose in writing these essays is largely to open our eyes to the fact that, if we continue as we are doing, there will be little left for future generations to grow, farm, or do.

Berry is an adroit and learned writer and alludes throughout his essays to the works of William Blake, Milton, and Shakespeare, among others. He is not writing as a farmer only, but as a member of society who has experienced both signs of the urban/rural coin and wishes to share what he has learned. As the fabric of society and the environment becomes increasingly eroded, these essays seem more pertinent and important than ever.

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