Wendell Berry Biography


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

ph_0111200327-Berry.jpg Wendell Berry Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Wendell Berry was born in rural Henry County, outside Port Royal, Kentucky, on August 5, 1934. His father, John Berry, was a respected lawyer and attorney for the Burley Tobacco Growers Association. The Berrys—Wendell’s mother, two sisters, and brother—were all readers, and they were a lively and well-informed family. His father was a keen judge of farmland and often spoke with his sons about the merits of various local farms.

Wendell attended local public schools and entered the University of Kentucky in Lexington, where he earned his B.A. in 1956 and his master’s degree in English in 1957. He married Tanya Amyx in May, 1957, and taught for a year at Georgetown College, a small liberal arts school in Georgetown, Kentucky. Deciding to pursue a career as a writer, he applied for a Wallace Stegner Writing Fellowship at Stanford University, studying under Stegner in 1958-1959, and then serving as E. H. Jones Lecturer (in creative writing) in 1959-1960. Berry’s first novel, Nathan Coulter, was published by Houghton Mifflin in 1960. A Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship allowed him to travel with his wife and family in France and Italy for a year in 1962.

Berry returned to accept an appointment as assistant professor at New York University, where he directed the freshman English program from 1962 to 1964. By this time he was actively publishing poetry, earning the Vachel Lindsay Prize from Poetry magazine in 1962. His elegy on John F. Kennedy’s death, “November Twenty-six, Nineteen Hundred Sixty-three,” first published in The Nation and reprinted with illustrations by Ben Shahn, won special recognition.

In 1964, Berry made a momentous decision to leave the New York literary scene and return to Kentucky, where he purchased a run-down farm near his boyhood home of Port Royal and joined the English department at the University of Kentucky. Berry describes the complex reasons behind this decision in his autobiographical essay, “The Long-Legged House.” He rebuilt a small summer house on the banks of the Kentucky River as a study and began to restore Lane’s Landing Farm as a working farm. By that time, he was well into his second novel, A Place on Earth (1967), which he completed with the assistance of a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship. He also published his first poetry volume, The Broken Ground (1964), that same year. Berry’s return to...

(The entire section is 994 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

“My work has been motivated,” Berry has written, “by a desire to make myself responsibly at home in this world and in my native and chosen place.” This theme of a responsible and self-sufficient regionalism, rooted in the skills and knowledge of Berry’s native Kentucky farming communities, is at the heart of his vision. As a poet, novelist, and essayist, Berry has celebrated the virtues of farming as a vocation, of the dignity of marriage, and of the rich diversity of local communities. His moral vision is based on the enduring Jeffersonian ideal of a nation of independent yeoman farmers, and Berry is a wise and perceptive cultural critic. His works range beyond agriculture and regionalism to offer a commonsense prescription for restoring the wholeness and vitality of rural American communities.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Wendell Erdman Berry was the first of four children born to a respected Kentucky family with deep farming roots in Henry County. His father was an attorney and one of the founders of the Burley Tobacco Growers Cooperative. Growing up during the 1930’s in a tobacco-growing community, Berry always wanted to become a farmer. He attended the local New Castle Elementary School, though he was a reluctant student who would rather be outdoors, wandering the local countryside. As a teenager, he was particularly drawn to Curran’s Camp, a fishing camp on the Kentucky River owned by his bachelor uncle.

Both Wendell and his brother John attended Millersburg Military Institute and the University of Kentucky in Lexington. Finding the university a welcome respite from the rigors of a military academy, Berry majored in English and began to take an interest in creative writing. He met Tanya Amyx in Lexington, and they were married in 1957. A creative-writing fellowship led Berry to Stanford University in 1958 to study with Wallace Stegner.

Returning from California in 1960, Berry and his family farmed for a year in Kentucky before Berry was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, which enabled the family to travel to Europe and live in Florence and the French Riviera while Berry worked on his second novel, A Place on Earth. An offer to direct the freshman writing program at the Bronx campus of New York University brought the family back to the United States in 1962, but Berry found urban life uncongenial, so they returned to Lexington when Berry accepted a teaching position at the University of Kentucky in 1964. He was still drawn to his childhood roots in Henry County, and, after a year, the Berrys were able to purchase some land in Port Royal and move to Lane’s Landing Farm, which became their home. Berry taught at the University of Kentucky until his retirement in the late 1990’s, and he has continued writing and farming since that time.


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Wendell Berry grew up in the 1930’s and 1940’s in a world of rural farming communities where people were wedded to place. This world was in jeopardy by the middle of the twentieth century. Berry’s life and writing are attempts to preserve and promote the best traditions of that world: fidelity to home, family, and place; memory as an abiding and sustaining part of community; local nature as teacher and judge; rural work as art.

Having left his native home to study, teach, and write for a time in New York, California, and abroad, Berry in the early 1960’s went home for good to live and work in his ancestral community of Port Royal, Kentucky. Beginning his literary career with a novel in 1960 and afterward periodically teaching English at the University of Kentucky and elsewhere, and while continually working his farm, Berry had amassed by the late 1990’s a canon of over forty books of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry.

His work as a whole is a thorough and well-grounded exploration of the connections between people and land. Much of it examines the ecological and cultural damage caused by the escalating divorce between humans and the natural world. In The Unsettling of America, for example, perhaps his most widely known and influential book, Berry argues convincingly that many of the maladies of modern American culture are linked to the industrialization of agriculture.

Central to all of his work is the conflict between the cyclic and linear views of humankind’s role in the world. The industrial worldview, governed by the doctrines of a linear vision, sees the earth as commodity. The worldview that Berry espouses, however, is governed by natural cyclic principles, which he delineates in an early and seminal essay, “Discipline and Hope.” Among these principles are “atonement with the creation” rather than “the conquest of nature”; usufruct and relinquishment rather than possession; quality rather than quantity; renewal rather than newness; education as cultural process rather than training or programming. Many of the characters in Berry’s fiction and narrative poetry are avatars of these principles.