Posted by: jamesthethickheaded | January 19, 2009

A Short Update on Digesting Wendell Berry

I’m reading Wendell Berry’s “The Unsettling of America“. Seeing a number of Orthodox bloggers high regard for this author, I asked for a couple of his books for Christmas. Amazon is always easy for those who want to soothe the savage beast without leaving the comforts of home…and given that I expect few to cross the street on my behalf… much less go to a store, I try to reduce the burdens of the season. Yet the whole I’m sure is just another development I’m certain old Berry himself would decry. He indeed seems to suffer dyspepsia.

No, I’m not all that far along, but certainly further than many of the book reports I filed without chagrin as a fifth grader… so let me simply suggest that at this point, it seems well established that there’s not much about Americans and America and American life that old Mr. Berry takes much of a shine to. Maybe that’s why he’s either out in the field or busy at his keyboard… if he’s not still writing on an authentic piece of handmade paper with a home built quill pen. He has quite a number of insights to offer in this book for its day, though at least at this point, few seem particularly his alone. What does distinguish him is that the depth and breadth of his bile is sufficient to cause heartburn over just about each and everything imaginable…. all in one place. As a clarion call from the past and from a world changed in many ways – or so it seems – by this work…  its amazing. It’s one dimensional perhaps… but it is amazing.

And alone, it is amazing by not conforming to the stereotype book of this sort where the thesis is introduced and developed in thirty pages and then the rest of the work amounts to a data-package of anecdotes. So far, by contrast, Berry’s anger just seems to rivet on one aspect of life after another – even simply “the future”. So there’s little slowing down. Just more grist for the mill. And there’s no mistaking that if he had the opportunity, he’d love nothing better than to grind each and everyone of us non-farmers of the wrong sort down to make his bread. Of course he’d have to plant us first or use us as the fertilizer he thinks we are… but I’d doubt that would slow him down much. And yet all the same, the book has the perverse fascination of driving slowly by an auto accident… as an intrusion on someone else’s misfortune and anger, and I can’t stop reading.

More later.


  1. Hello. Many people have noticed Berry’s sometimes “dyspeptic” take on the path Western culture has come over the past couple centuries (or more) … I hope you can eventually see a little beyond it to the positive values he’s standing on. He comes across a lot “nicer” in many (not all) of his poems and most of his fiction.

    Berry famously will not use a computer (see I think a common pencil or pen on a yellow legal pad works for him.

    As for grinding us up for his bread, he might be tempted. But, lucky for us, he’s a long-time advocate of nonviolent methods.

  2. br. tom:

    Thanks for you comment. I am encouraged. I simply keep reading… and I’m sure that there is an out-and-out positive that more than peers through the images I’ve worked through so far… but shines a brighter light on it. FWIW… what I keep seeing is much of where I stand both an Orthodox Christian, but also as just a regular professional whose field suffers something of the slings and arrows of outrageous industrialization and misguided regulation… as did agriculture of the period in which he wrote the book. And so I see much of that which I am brother to… am amazed at his articulation of the details and how on-the-mark they are for my field… but just a bit saddened that at least so far (I’m through about page 70) he cannot see this in more than his own field. It applies in countless others… but you’d have to give up the yeoman farmer myth somewhat to get there. What I’m counting on is that either this book gets better… or his later ones… or as you say.. the rest – the poetry, the fiction. I have “Nathan Coulter” next up… and look at this as prelude… but it’s a rough prelude so far.

  3. I have read 2 books by Berry and to be honest wasn’t all the much impressed by him. The books were “okay” but not great. It didnt ‘make me want to sell the homestead and move to Kentucky or anything (although I *am* pining for a small flock of chickens again). But, like you, most of my blogging friends (not all Orthodox either) seem to *love* him. I feel a bit left out of the dance.

  4. hmmmm… sounds like a 60’s, SCA, people who tend to live in alternate realities, monkabee, Luddite kind of thing. Not that those are all bad…

  5. I’d grant he has a touch of the Luddite in him… but a Luddite with a purpose. He’s basically writing a very, very well thought out, true, cogent and sound attack on industrialized agriculture. Much of what he’s put in there…. has come to pass though perhaps less because of him, and more through the maturation of the market.

    I’ll have to more to say on this later because unbeknownst to Berry… much of what he writes applies directly to the present financial crisis – at least as I see it. I keep turning down pages!! Of course, as a specialist, a professional, and a non-farmer…. I’m the creator of all he abhors…. so the quid-pro-quo only works one way.

  6. All I know about Wendell Berry is what I’ve read on Orthodox blogs. I won’t venture an opinion until I have actually read some of his work. Does anyone have any suggestions on where to start?

  7. John:

    It gets better… and for me, it helps seeing the parallels to the financial industry. But as to where to start, maybe brtom (see above) would be a good contact.

  8. Did I hear someone call?

    Where anyone cares to start reading Berry kind of depends on their own reading preferences.

    If you prefer nonfiction, Norman Wirzba’s collection of Berry essays, The Art of the Commonplace, provides an excellent overview of WB’s agrarian thought. What Are People For? has much to recommend it.

    If fiction is your thing, you can pretty much jump in anywhere to see what he’s doing (though Nathan Coulter is a bit different). I’d recommend The Memory of Old Jack or Hannah Coulter. But, in fact, my own intro to the fiction was through the fine short stories in The Wild Birds. Any of the story collections — or all of them gathered in That Distant Land — would be fine intros.

    With poetry, Collected Poems 1957-1982 is fine. But you can’t go wrong with A Timbered Choir, which (in addition to ongoing Sabbath poems) may turn out to be WB’s major poetic accomplishment.

    I hope that helps a little.

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