What Are People For? Summary
by Wendell Berry

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What Are People For? Summary

(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

What Are People For? is a collection of essays written between 1975 and 1990 by Wendell Berry—novelist, poet, social critic, and moral philosopher—that touches on the proper way of life for people in Western civilization. The essays include literary criticism and meditations on problematic “improvements” to nature, the decline of farming communities, the dangers of constant technological innovation, the shortcomings of organized religion, and religion’s centrality in a proper moral economy. Taken as a whole, they reveal Berry’s firm conviction that Western civilization has lost its way and has followed industrial and technological innovation into a self-indulgent, immoral, environmentally destructive, dehumanizing, monolithic, and unjust way of life. He warns that this way of life can only end in apocalypse: When the rape of the land for minerals to fuel the artificial, wasteful lifestyle is complete and no natural resources are left to fuel the industrial beasts (and nations), they will turn on and destroy each other in the fight for what little remains.

In “Harry Caudill in the Cumberlands,” for example, Berry praises Caudill, the author of Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area (1963), for his indictment of strip mining for coal because of its destruction of Kentucky’s streams, lakes, roads, forests, and sometimes even people. He notes the destructiveness of the military-industrial state in “A Few Words in Favor of Edward Abbey,” and in “A Poem of Difficult Hope,” he analyzes Hayden Carruth’s “On Being Asked to Write a Poem Against the War in Vietnam.” In this essay, Berry says that today’s world is the most destructive and therefore the most stupid period in human history.

Berry traces that destructiveness back to the Industrial Revolution, noting in “The Work of Local Culture” that William Wordsworth, in his poem “Michael,” first captured the fundamentally destructive changes brought to rural communities by the Industrial Revolution. Industrialization broke the eons-old pattern of young persons leaving rural communities to then return mature and equal to the task of joining and continuing those communities because it took the jobs from the rural areas and forced these young people to leave to seek their life’s work in the ever-growing urban areas. Berry’s essays document the continuing decline and disappearance of small farms and small communities as rural areas become merely natural resources to be exploited and destroyed for the sake of city dwellers’ artificial, consumption-driven pleasure and comfort. To Berry, the only real pleasure, and the only real way to combat the destructiveness of the industrial, technological, energy-consumptive society, is a return to the small farms and interdependent rural communities that proliferated prior to the Industrial Revolution.

In “A Remarkable Man,” Berry extensively praises Nate Shaw, a black farmer in Alabama in the early twentieth century who was “a mule farmin’ man to the last,” despite the advent of the era of tractor farming late in Shaw’s life. Furthermore, in Berry’s...

(The entire section is 737 words.)