Wendell Berry (born August 5, 1934, Henry County, Kentucky) is an American man of letters, academic, cultural and economic critic, and farmer. He is a prolific author of novels, short stories, poems, and essays. He is also an elected member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers.
Berry is the first of four children born to John Berry, a lawyer and tobacco
farmer in Henry County, and Virginia Berry. The families of both of his parents have farmed in Henry County for at least five generations. Berry attended secondary school at Millersburg Military Institute
, then earned a B.A. and M.A. in English
at the University of Kentucky
. In 1957, he completed his M.A. and married Tanya Amyx. In 1958, he attended Stanford University
's creative writing
program thanks to a Wallace Stegner
Fellowship, studying under Stegner in a seminar that included Larry McMurtry
, Edward Abbey
, and Ken Kesey
. Berry's first novel, Nathan Coulter
, was published in April 1960. A Guggenheim Foundation
Fellowship took Berry and his family to Italy and France in 1961, where he came to know Wallace Fowlie
, professor of French at Duke University
. From 1962 to 1964, he taught English at New York University
's University College in the Bronx
. In 1964, he began teaching creative writing
at the University of Kentucky
, from which he resigned in 1977. During this time in Lexington, he came to know author Guy Davenport
, as well as author Thomas Merton
and photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard
In 1965, Berry moved to a farm he had purchased, Lane's Landing, and began growing tobacco, corn and small grains on what eventually grew into a 125-acre homestead. Lane's Landing is near Port Royal, Kentucky, in northeastern Kentucky, and his parents' birthplaces, and is on the banks of the Kentucky River, not far from where it flows into the Ohio River. Berry has farmed, resided, and written at Lane's Landing down to the present day. In the 1970s and early 1980s, he edited and wrote for the Rodale Press, including its publications Organic Gardening and Farming and The New Farm. From 1987 to 1993, he returned to the English Department of the University of Kentucky.
Berry has written at least twenty-five books (or chapbooks) of poems, sixteen volumes of essays, and eleven novels and short story collections. His writing is grounded in the notion that one's work ought to be rooted in and responsive to one's place.
Berry, a Protestant Christian, was baptized at New Castle Baptist Church; he attends worship with his wife, Tanya, at Port Royal Baptist Church. He has criticized Christian organizations for failing to challenge cultural complacency about environmental degradation. and has shown an openness to other religious traditions. Berry’s long-time publisher, Jack Shoemaker, also publishes many works related to Buddhism, including Taking the Path of Zen, by Robert Baker Aitken, in which Aitken thanks Wendell Berry for reviewing the manuscript and making comments. Berry is a fellow of Britain's Temenos Academy, a learned society devoted to the study of all faiths and spiritual pursuits; Berry publishes frequently in the annual Temenos Academy Review, funded by the Prince of Wales.
serves as an extended conversation about the life he values. According to Berry, the good life includes sustainable agriculture, appropriate technologies
, healthy rural communities
, connection to place, the pleasures of good food, husbandry
, good work, local economics
, the miracle
of life, fidelity, frugality
, and the interconnectedness of life. The threats Berry finds to this good life include: industrial farming
and the industrialization
of life, ignorance, hubris, greed, violence against others and against the natural world
, the eroding topsoil
in the United States, global economics
, and environmental destruction
As a prominent defender of agrarian values, Berry's appreciation for traditional farming techniques, such as those of the Amish, grew in the 1970s, due in part to exchanges with Draft Horse Journal publisher Maurice Telleen. Berry has long been friendly to and supportive of Wes Jackson, believing that Jackson's agricultural research at The Land Institute lives out the promise of "solving for pattern" and using "nature as model."
The concept of "Solving for pattern", coined by Berry in his essay of the same title, is the process of finding solutions that solve multiple problems, while minimizing the creation of new problems. The essay was originally published in the Rodale Press periodical The New Farm. Though Mr. Berry's use of the phrase was in direct reference to agriculture, it has since come to enjoy broader use throughout the design community.
poetry often appears as a contemporary eclogue
, or elegy
; but he also composes dramatic and historical narratives
(such as "Bringer of Water and "July, 1773, respectively) and occasional and discursive poems ("Against the War in Vietnam and "Some Further Words, respectively).
Berry's first published poetry book consisted of a single poem, the elegiac November Twenty Six Nineteen Hundred Sixty Three
(1964), initiated and illustrated by Ben Shahn
, commemorating the death of John F. Kennedy
. It begins,
The winter earth
Upon the body
Of the young
And the early dark
and continues through ten more stanzas (each propelled by the anaphora of "We know"). The elegiac here and elsewhere, according to Triggs, enables Berry to characterize the connections "that link past and future generations through their common working of the land."
The first full-length collection, The Broken Ground (1964), develops many of Berry's fundamental concerns: "the cycle of life and death, responsiveness to place, pastoral subject matter, and recurring images of the Kentucky River and the hill farms of north-central Kentucky"
According to Angyal, "There is little modernist formalism or postmodernist experimentation in [Berry's] verse. A commitment to the reality and primacy of the actual world stands behind these two rejections. In "Notes: Unspecializing Poetry," Berry writes, "Devotion to order that is not poetical prevents the specialization of poetry." He goes on to note, "Nothing exists for its own sake, but for a harmony greater than itself which includes it. A work of art, which accepts this condition, and exists upon its terms, honors the Creation, and so becomes a part of it"
Lionel Basney placed Berry's poetry within a tradition of didactic poetry that stretches back to Horace: "To say that Berry's poetry can be didactic, then, means that it envisions a specific wisdom, and also the traditional sense of art and culture that gives art the task of teaching this wisdom"
For Berry, poetry exists "at the center of a complex reminding" Both the poet and the reader are reminded of the poem's crafted language, of the poem's formal literary antecedents, of "what is remembered or ought to be remembered," and of "the formal integrity of other works, creatures and structures of the world."
Berry's fiction to date consists of eight novels and twenty-eight short stories (all but five of which are collected in That Distant Land
, 2004) which, when read as a whole, form a chronicle of the fictional small Kentucky town of Port William. Because of his long-term, ongoing exploration of the life of an imagined place, Berry has been compared to William Faulkner
. Yet, although Port William is no stranger to murder, suicide, alcoholism, and the full range of losses that touch human lives, it lacks the extreme delineation of character and plot that characterize much of Faulkner. Hence Berry is sometimes described as working in an idealized, pastoral, or nostalgic mode, a characterization of his work which he resists: "If your work includes a criticism of history, which mine certainly does, you can't be accused of wanting to go back to something, because you're saying that what we were wasn't good enough."
The effect of profound shifts in the agricultural practices of the United States, and the disappearance of traditional agrarian life, are some of the major concerns of the Port William fiction, though the theme is often only a background or subtext to the stories themselves. The Port William fiction attempts to portray, on a local scale, what "a human economy ... conducted with reverence" looked like in the past -- and what civic, domestic, and personal virtues might be evoked by such an economy were it pursued today. Social as well as seasonal changes mark the passage of time. Readers of Berry's essays can appreciate that the Port William stories allow the author to explore the human dimensions of the decline of the family farm and farm community, under the influence of expanding post-World War II agribusiness. But these works rarely fall into simple didacticism, and are never merely tales of decline. Each is grounded in a realistic depiction of character and community. In A Place on Earth (1967), for example, farmer Mat Feltner comes to terms with the loss of his only son, Virgil. In the course of the novel, we see how not only Mat but the entire community wrestles with the acute costs of World War II.
Berry's fiction also allows him to explore the literal and metaphorical implications of marriage as that which binds individuals, families, and communities to each other and to Nature itself - yet not all of Port William is happily or conventionally married. "Old Jack" Beechum struggles with significant incompatibilities with his wife, and with a brief yet fulfilling extramarital affair. The barber Jayber Crow lives with a forlorn, secret, and unrequited love for a woman, believing himself "mentally" married to her even though she knows nothing about it. Burley Coulter never formalizes his bond with Kate Helen Branch, the mother of his son. Yet, each of these men find themselves firmly bound up in the community, the "membership," of Port William.
Berry's novel, Hannah Coulter (2004), presents a concise vision of Port William's "membership." The story encompasses Hannah's life, including the Great Depression, World War II, the post-war industrialization of agriculture, the flight of youth to urban employment, and the consequent remoteness of grandchildren. The tale is told in the voice of an old woman twice widowed, who has experienced much loss yet has never been defeated. Somehow, lying at the center of her strength is the "membership" --- the fact that people care for each other and, even in absence, hold each other in a kind of presence. All in all, Hannah Coulter embodies many of the themes of Berry's Port William saga.
- Nathan Coulter, 1960 novel
- A Place on Earth, 1967 novel, revised 1983
- The Memory of Old Jack, 1974 novel
- The Wild Birds: Six Stories of the Port William Membership, 1986
- Remembering, 1988 novel
- The Discovery of Kentucky, 1991 story
- Fidelity: Five Stories, 1992
- Watch with Me: And Six Other Stories of the Yet-Remembered Ptolemy Proudfoot and His Wife, Miss Minnie, Née Quinch, 1994
- A World Lost, 1997 novel
- Two More Stories Of The Port William Membership, 1997
- Jayber Crow, 2000 novel
- Sonata At Payne Hollow, 2001 play
- Three Short Novels: Nathan Coulter; Remembering; A World Lost, 2002
- That Distant Land: The Collected Stories of Wendell Berry, 2004
- Hannah Coulter, 2004 novel
- Andy Catlett: Early Travels, 2006 novel
- The Hidden Wound, 1970
- The Long-Legged House, 1971 (2004)
- A Continuous Harmony: Essays Cultural and Agricultural, 1971 (2003)
- The Unforeseen Wilderness: An Essay on Kentucky's Red River Gorge, 1971 (2006)
- The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, 1978
- Recollected Essays, 1965-1980, 1981
- The Gift of Good Land; Further Essays Cultural and Agricultural, 1981
- Standing by Words, 1983 (2005)
- Meeting the Expectations of the Land: Essays in Sustainable Agriculture and Stewardship, 1984 editor with Wes Jackson and Bruce Colman
- Home Economics, 1987
- What Are People For?, 1990
- Descendants and Ancestors of Captain James W. Berry, 1990 with Laura Berry
- Standing on Earth, 1991
- What can turn us from this deserted future... , 1991 broadside
- The Discovery of Kentucky, 1991
- Harlan Hubbard: Life and Work, 1992 biography
- Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community: Eight Essays, 1993
- Another Turn of the Crank, 1995
- Three On Community, 1996
- Late Harvest: Rural American Writing, 1996
- Waste Land: Meditations on a Ravaged Landscape, 1997 with Mark Dowie and David T. Hanson
- Grace, Photographs of Rural America, 2000 with Gregory Spaid and Gene Logsdon
- Life Is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition, 2001
- In the Presence of Fear: Three Essays for a Changed World, 2001
- The Art Of The Commonplace The Agrarian Essays Of Wendell Berry, 2002 edited by Norman Wirzba
- Citizens Dissent: Security, Morality, and Leadership In An Age Of Terror, 2003
- Citizenship Papers, 2003
- Tobacco Harvest: An Elegy by James Baker Hall, Wendell Berry (Contributor), 2004
- The Way of Ignorance, November 2005
- Blessed Are the Peacemakers: Christ's Teachings of Love, Compassion, and Forgiveness, November 2005
- November Twenty Six Nineteen Hundred Sixty Three, 1964 poem
- The Broken Ground, 1964
- Openings, 1968
- "The Peace of Wild Things" (poem in Openings, 1968)
- Findings, 1969
- Farming: A Handbook, 1970
- The Country of Marriage, 1973
- Sayings & Doings, 1975
- To What Listens, 1975
- Horses, 1975 chapbook poem
- Kentucky River, Two Poems, 1976
- There is Singing Around Me, 1976
- Clearing, 1977
- Three Memorial Poems, 1977
- The Gift of Gravity, 1979
- A Part, 1980
- The Salad, 1980 chapbook poem
- The Wheel, 1982
- From the Distance, 1982 broadside
- Collected Poems 1957-1982, 1985
- The Wild Rose, 1986 broadside
- The Landscape of Harmony, 1987
- Sabbaths, 1987
- I go from the woods into the cleared field, 1987 broadside poem
- Traveling at Home, 1989
- Sayings & Doings and An Eastward Look, 1990
- Entries: Poems, 1994
- A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems, 1979-1997, 1998
- Selected Poems of Wendell Berry, 1998
- Sabbaths 2002, 2004 chapbook
- Given, 2005
- Window Poems, 2007
- Beattie, L. Elisabeth (Editor). "Wendell Berry" in Conversations With Kentucky Writers, U P of Kentucky, 1996.
- Berger, Rose Marie. "Wendell Berry interview complete text," Sojourner's Magazine, July 2004
- Fisher-Smith, Jordan. "Field Observations: An Interview with Wendell Berry'"
- Grubbs, Morris Allen (Editor). Conversations with Wendell Berry, U P of Mississippi, 2007.
- Weinreb, Mindy. "A Question a Day: A Written Conversation with Wendell Berry" in Merchant
- Brockman, Holly. "How can a family ‘live at the center of its own attention?’ Wendell Berry’s thoughts on the good life", January/February 2006
Books about Berry
- Angyal, Andrew. Wendell Berry. New York: Twayne, 1995.
- Goodrich, Janet. The Unforeseen Self in the Works of Wendell Berry. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 2001.
- Merchant, Paul, ed. Wendell Berry (American Authors Series). Lewiston, Idaho: Confluence, 1991.
- Peters, Jason, ed. Wendell Berry: Life and Work. Lexington: U P of Kentucky, 2007.
- Smith, Kimberly K. Wendell Berry and the Agrarian Tradition: A Common Grace. Lawrence: U P of Kansas, 2003.