The Art of the Commonplace

by Wendell Berry

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Last Updated on October 20, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 572

Wendell Berry provides a challenge and an inspiration to our society. Both his life and thinking cut across political and intellectual divides, challenging us to leave our isolated ideological silos and think deeply about how we really live and what constitutes a worthwhile life.

Out of paradox, Berry has carved a niche for himself in American society as thinker and teacher, writer and activist. He comes out of a countercultural tradition that includes Henry David Thoreau, William Morris, the Amish, and Annie Dillard, author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. He is both deeply Christian and deeply wedded to environmentalism, both an intellectual who left a prestigious teaching position at New York University and a Kentucky farmer.

The Art of the Commonplace pulls together twenty essays from across his career, united by the theme that it is vitally important that Americans return to a whole life: a life centered in place and community, a life in touch with past and future, and a life that values work while being centered in morality.

Berry writes of himself as anachronistic. By this, he means he belongs to an earlier period of history and to some extent shares its worldview. Berry, born in 1934, states that if he had been born five years later, he would not be who is today. The agrarian Kentucky world he first knew was, he writes, “doomed.” He grew up knowing how to hitch a team of horses to plough a field; he did not know how to work on a car. After leaving rural Kentucky for the big city, he returned to his roots, buying a Kentucky farm and investing in the community of his grandparents.

The Art of the Commonplace is well named. An argument running throughout the essays maintains that we have lost the art of living ordinary lives. Like Thoreau, Berry rejects consumerism as a soul-killing disease that has robbed us of our understanding of what is most important. Berry reserves some of his harshest language for our exploitative economy, stating in the essay “The Unsettling of America” that it “sells sham and frustration as luxury and satisfaction.” In fact, he argues, our economy, based on the drive to always have more, leads to “the hysterical self-dissatisfaction of consumers.”

For Berry, the devastation of the natural environment reveals to us our soul sickness. We cannot divorce who we are from what we do and how we do it. As he writes in “The Unsettling of America,” quoting Confucius, “If a man have not order within him, he cannot spread order without him.” A ruined environment can only emerge from souls that are sick and in need of healing. 

Berry envisions a better society built on agrarianism and localism, in which people are deeply connected and rooted in a particular place, a geography they steward for future generations rather than exploit for present profit. Like William Morris, he advocates that we lose our “contempt” for work—by which he means good work that is well done in a spirit of craftsmanship. He passionately argues that the physical diseases that plague our bodies will not be cured until we go deeper than treating our atomized physical symptoms. Instead, we need to live as whole people.

Berry has much to offer in his critique of society and the environment. He exemplifies and offers a compelling alternative vision. 

Additional Analysis

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Last Updated on October 20, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 429

In The Art of the Commonplace, Wendell Berry writes about agrarianism, a social or political movement that champions rural society as an alternative to urban society. In this collection of twenty-one essays, which are grouped into five themes or categories, Berry explains the basis of the movement and why an agrarian lifestyle is smarter, healthier, and more economically rewarding for human beings.

In order to grasp Berry’s point of view, it’s important to understand the stark contrast that he sets up between urban and rural ways of life. Contemporary urban society, in Berry’s view, is closely tied to anxiety, exhaustion, illness, stress, and wastefulness, and that’s to name just a few of the undesirable conditions that Berry associates with modern city living. People should have a relationship to the earth they live on, Berry believes. But instead, people don’t understand their environments, and more and more, they’re encouraged to work like machines or robots, accomplishing specialized tasks without understanding larger systems.

The alternative is a return to an agrarian lifestyle. These days, Berry says, the roles of farmers are often diminished or underappreciated by the public. In an agrarian system, however, the farmer is a key member of society. Their accomplishments, and their relationship to the land they work on, are highly valued and considered central to the well-being of the community.

In his essays, Berry explores five overlapping themes: geobiography, agrarian critique of culture, agrarian fundamentals, agrarian economics, and agrarian religion. The text incorporates a great deal of detail, but a few key points can be established in order to provide a sense of the work as a whole.

Berry writes about his family's own long-running relationship to the land on which they live. The family has lived and worked on the same property in Kentucky since Berry’s great-grandfather emigrated from Ireland, and in that time, they have learned how to respect the land and how the larger ecosystem works. They have also shared knowledge with the next generation, deepening the attachment and understanding between people and environment.

Using many specific examples, Berry explains why agrarianism is better for the economy than industrialism and argues that it has a strong basis in religion and across cultures. But the overall message to understand is that human understanding of the earth is better for individuals, better for families and interpersonal relationships, better for our health and self-respect, and better, ultimately, for economies both large and small—not to mention, of course, that it is better for the planet.

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