Wendell Berry’s writings resonate across generations and across all sorts of boundaries. Here’s a look at some of his essential works and how they connect critical themes essential to the propagation of Kentucky’s family farms.
“Make the human race a better head. Make the world a better piece of ground.” (“Prayers and Sayings of the Mad Farmer” in The Mad Farmer Poems).
As the theater lights came back up, I immediately reflected on the film, even as the credits rolled. Sure, I had enjoyed the food and scenery that Toronto had offered that day, but the main reason I had made the two-hour drive from Buffalo to Ontario’s “Queen City” was to attend the international premiere of a new documentary about Wendell Berry, the noted Kentucky author and farmer.
Directed by acclaimed filmmaker Laura Dunn, “The Seer: A Portrait of Wendell Berry” celebrates not only the life, writings and ideas of Berry, but also the state of Kentucky and its legacy of small farms by allowing Berry (who never actually appears in the film) and several of his family members and friends to stress the significance of recovering, protecting and preserving farming communities in places like Henry County, Kentucky.
Kentucky for Kentucky will host a screening of the The Seer at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, July 28, at The Kentucky Theater in downtown Lexington, Kentucky.
But why would festival attendees in Toronto, Canada, care about Wendell Berry or Kentucky? Furthermore, why would a colonial American historian from Alabama who teaches in Buffalo (myself) care enough to cross the border to screen a film celebrating the life and thought of a farmer from Port Royal, Kentucky? While the answers to such questions might reveal many interesting things about Canadian festival goers or a particular Southern historian, the real significance behind such answers is Kentucky’s own Wendell Berry.
Late in 2000, as I prepared to finish my master’s degree and applied for doctoral programs, I also faced the prospect of not being enrolled in classes for the first semester in as long as I could remember. While I welcomed the first of those things, I faced the latter two with some degree of trepidation. In that context, as I looked for something to read during the coming months, two good friends and mentors, Paul House and Sean Lucas, suggested that I explore the fiction of Wendell Berry.
Having lived in Kentucky for about four years with friends like Paul and Sean, I knew about Berry. I had seen his name around Louisville at places like Carmichael’s Bookstore or the now-defunct Hawley-Cooke Booksellers. But to that point, I had never read anything Wendell Berry had written. I decided to remedy that in December 2000. Little did I know how far that one decision would ultimately reach.
Not to get ahead of myself, though. Once I decided to listen to my friends’ advice, I then had to determine where to begin in Berry’s writings about Port William and its inhabitants. As an aspiring historian, I thought the best place to start might be in the beginning. With the decision made to read things in the order in which they had been published, I sat down with Nathan Coulter, Berry’s first novel published in 1960.
Over the next three months or so, the Coulters and Beechums and Feltners and Catletts and Proudfoots accompanied me (and at times consoled me) as I waited to hear from the nine graduate schools to which I had applied. By the time I had decided to attend the University of Kentucky and completed Jayber Crow, I had read all of the stories Berry had published about the Port William membership. I then settled in to focus most of the reading time and energy on academic articles and monographs focusing on the intersections of race and religion in colonial New England. Nathan Coulter and the rest of the folk from Port William, though, never strayed too far from my mind. Nor did Wendell Berry.
During my graduate studies at UK, I revisited Berry’s fiction on multiple occasions, especially his The Memory of Old Jack — a short novel that always moves me — and eagerly awaited the publication of new works. I also started making my way through his poetry. At this point, I was mainly reading Berry’s work as a welcome distraction. But that distraction shifted a few years after finishing my Ph.D. and moving to Buffalo, New York, to teach at Canisius College.
As two friends and I began planning a joint project together that would span across our various disciplines and trainings, we found our attentions drawn to Wendell Berry and agrarianism as a potential connective tissue for our own study on the theme of friendship. As the historian in our group, I would concentrate especially on Berry’s life and friends. Such a focus led me rather naturally to begin reading a final genre of Berry’s writings — his many essays. As with his fiction and his poetry, I quickly discovered that Berry, for good reason, is a celebrated essayist, writing on varied themes from literary criticism to agrarianism to contemporary, and at times controversial, social and cultural issues to reflecting on his life and friends.
The more Wendell Berry I read, the more I became fascinated by the man, his ideology and his potential place in American life and society over the last 60-plus years. Then, as I got the opportunity to spend time with some of his close friends, such as Gene Logsdon and Ed McClanahan, and to read their respective works, I realized that there are certainly stories here that need to be told.
While I wasn’t certain that I was the best person to capture some of those stories, I couldn’t shake the feeling that if I didn’t do so, then perhaps no one else would. After some helpful advice, I sat aside a project on 18th-century frontier Massachusetts to jump headlong into researching and writing about Wendell Berry and the significances of his voice in American life and society. Of course, this decision meant learning much more about Berry, as well as the contexts in which he lives and writes.
For the last several years, then, such learning has occupied most of my time and energy. Whether perusing boxes of letters and related documents in archives from the Kentucky Historical Society to the University of Utah and beyond, spending additional time with some of Berry’s friends (both in person and virtually through their works), reading and re-reading his own writings, or sitting around the kitchen table with Wendell and Tanya, his wife, at their home in Port Royal, I have discovered there is still much to learn. For those few reading this post who do not yet know Berry, here are some of the basic things to know.
Born in 1934, Wendell Berry was reared by a lawyer and tobacco farmer, John Berry, in Henry County, Kentucky. After time served at Millersburg Military Institute, Wendell attended the University of Kentucky, earning a B.A. and M.A. in English, before being selected as a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University in 1958, where he worked alongside Edward Abbey, Larry McMurtry and Ken Kesey (among others).
Following the 1960 publication of his first novel, Nathan Coulter, Berry took his wife Tanya and their young family to Italy on a Guggenheim Fellowship. Upon their return, Berry began teaching at New York University — a position he left in 1964 to the astonishment and displeasure of most his literary friends. Their dismay was not at the resignation so much as it was at Berry’s decision to leave New York City to return to his home state and home community of Port Royal, Kentucky, to teach at the University of Kentucky, to write and to farm.
And that is what he did until 1977, when he resigned from the University of Kentucky. After that moment, with the exception of a brief return to the academy and the University of Kentucky from 1987 to 1993, he has primarily farmed and written fiction, essays and poems. Such a life, though, has not gone unrecognized. Berry has received numerous awards for his more than 60 books, including the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Book Critics Circle, the National Humanities Medal, the Cleanth Brooks Medal for Lifetime Achievement by the Fellowship of Southern Writers and the Louis Bromfield Society Award.
Throughout it all, Berry continues to live and write out of affection for his place in our only world, which is the title of his most recent collection of essays. His place, of course, is Kentucky — her people, her communities, her crops, her land, herself. As he cares for the specific section along the Kentucky River that occupies much of his thought and energy, Berry also cares for all of Kentucky and, ultimately, all of America.
Photography courtesy of the James Baker Hall archive and Sarah Wylie A. VanMeter.
Kentucky for Kentucky will host a screening of the new documentary The Seer: A Portrait of Wendell Berry 7:30 p.m. July 28 at The Kentucky Theater, 214 E. Main St., Lexington, KY. Visit the event page for tickets and information!
Richard A. Bailey is an Associate Professor of History at Canisius College in Buffalo, New York, where he teaches American history. The author of Race and Redemption in Puritan New England (Oxford, 2011), Richard is currently working on several projects focusing on the life and writings of Wendell Berry and the effects Berry’s unique Kentucky voice has had on life, society, and culture in America.