Wendell Berry, that marginal man, has over the past decade become a mainstream presence, if not quite a mainstream force. Giving the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Jefferson Lecture this past spring, Berry joined—to borrow a term from his own lexicon—a membership of considerable heft, including Gwendolyn Brooks, Saul Bellow, Robert Penn Warren, Toni Morrison, and Tom Wolfe. The previous year’s lecturer was Drew Gilpin Faust—the president of Harvard University. When President Obama awarded Berry the 2010 National Humanities Medal, among his fellow honorees were Harper Lee, Meryl Streep, James Taylor, and Joyce Carol Oates.
Yet Berry’s mainstream presence is, strangely but instructively, the long-maturing fruit of his self-conscious marginality. The NEH, for instance, in the biography of Berry published on its website, lauds him as a “great contrary example to the compromises others take in stride.” When New York Times writer Mark Bittman recently wrote about a visit to Berry’s Kentucky farm, the piece, though titled “Wendell Berry, American Hero” (April 24, 2012) was actually a meditation on how profoundly Berry’s way differs from the American way. This American hero not only transcends the mainstream—as heroes are supposed to do—he also lives his life as a form of judgment upon it—as heroes less often do.
Perhaps in an age in which the term counterculture has taken on such warm overtones we should not be surprised to find ourselves looking to the outskirts for hope. And there we find Berry, writing and farming with persisting elegant force. It begins to seem worthy of honor, his long and imaginative countercultural argument with us. From a patch of land in northern Kentucky he has with acuity and grace asserted a civic claim upon us. We are, as he nears his ninth decade, palpably and publicly responding.
Public honor, of course, does not necessarily reflect actual social effect. Since social effect is all Berry cares about, he has continued, as the honoring has continued, to prick and probe, sometimes wooing, sometimes chastising. And perhaps no part of his quarrel with America has induced more piqued response than his assault on the enlarging technological structure of our everyday life. One may nod in agreement at his indictment of corporate irresponsibility. One may receive as a gift his rendering of our earthly home. But when he informs you, as one of his most reprinted essays puts it, “Why I Am Not Going To Buy a Computer,” you may find yourself wondering where the love—your love—went.
Berry believes that he has no choice but to continue in this manner, for what we in the mainstream truly honor is in his view an ill-chosen, ill-resisted road to destitution. In a synoptic passage from his 1977 book The Unsettling of America, a work fundamental to his counter-vision of a counterculture, Berry proposed that
The modern urban-industrial society is based on a series of radical disconnections between body and soul, husband and wife, marriage and community, community and the earth. At each of these points of disconnection the collaboration of corporation, government, and expert sets up a profit-enterprise that results in the further dismemberment and impoverishment of the Creation.
Each of these “radical disconnections” has been realized only through technological innovation, whether the telegraph, the tractor, the factory, or the train. To most of us such innovations add up to “progress.” To Berry they sum up a trajectory of disaster.
If Americans have shrunk from a searching interrogation of this dimension of our historical path, Berry has proved very willing—heroically willing, you might say—to offer it, in essays, poetry, and fiction. He acknowledges that his essays have mainly flowed from his anxiety about the world, often originating as public addresses; they tend toward the polemical, prophetic, and philosophic. His fiction, though, arrives with a different emotional charge. “I like the fictions best,” he said in 2006 to an interviewer, who had asked him if he was particularly pleased with any of his works. “Oh, I loved writing the fictions. I loved it. To be at work on those, I just have taken an immense happiness from it” (quoted in Bush 2007).
The celebrated loveliness of his fictional world of Port William, Kentucky certainly bears the mark of this creative joy. It is a place where we glimpse the too often eclipsed possibilities of friendship, family, work, and the earth itself. It is a place rendered with an affection that forces the reader to confront the quality of her own associations and connections. But Port William is also an American place, and so is inevitably caught up in the epic sweep of “radical disconnections” Berry believes to be eroding all forms of earthly communion. In fact, through his fiction Berry gives his fullest rendering by far of his understanding of our fundamental historical course. If communion is for Berry the highest earthly end, and if the effect of modern technology has in the main been to diminish it, what does this historical process actually look like? His fiction reveals much about how he answers this question.
Given the vastness of Berry’s Port William fiction—eight novels and more than thirty short stories that range from the mid-nineteenth century to the present day—anything less than an actual book on the topic of technology and Port William would be something of an injustice. But absent that, Berry’s novel A Place on Earth makes for a good entry point. Published in 1967 by Harcourt, Brace and World, it is Berry’s second novel but the first of what might be regarded as his mature stage; he turned thirty-three in August of that year and had by then settled with his young family back in his native Henry County, Kentucky, after studying at Stanford, living abroad, and teaching at New York University. Berry later described the novel as “clumsy, overwritten, and wasteful,” and although this is an overly harsh judgment, it does seem as if Berry was trying to pour out the whole Port William story in one single book—when in fact there were many books, and many kinds of stories, still to be written about this place. In 1983 he published what he called a “revision” of the novel, about a third shorter than the original, a reduction achieved mainly through subtraction. But the original edition of A Place on Earth offers both a revealing glimpse of Berry as a maturing thinker and the most round single portrait available of Port William.
The story, taking place in the spring and summer of 1945, moves the reader deep into the effects of World War II on the community of Port William. World War II is consistently in Berry’s writing a historical watershed, figuring centrally in several of his novels and short stories; in A Place on Earth Berry movingly narrates his sense of how World War II affected and disrupted everyday life in consequential, catastrophic ways. And at the center of what we see in A Place on Earth is, not surprisingly, the anguish of disrupted communion. In the central story line of the novel, Mat Feltner, a farmer, struggles to live with the MIA status of his son Virgil, who remains in fact “missing” to the end. As the story builds, the crisis of Virgil’s absence takes us deeper and deeper into the vision of contemporary disconnection that so pervades Berry’s imagination. But at the same time this experience of communal and personal severing also serves to place Berry’s vision of robust connection into sharper relief. In fact, it is the wondrous, fragile intricacy of human flourishing through true communion that Berry above all seeks to limn through this story (and all of his stories).
Foundational to any kind of human flourishing, for Berry, is the earth itself, which he conveys as a mighty and mysterious presence: the fundament of life, the guardian of life, the guide to life. In A Place on Earth, the omniscient narrator leads the reader into this new orientation with linguistic strokes that hit quietly and persistently. Early on, as three men play cards one afternoon in early March, “The rain slackens, falls loosely and waveringly for a moment, and stops, and after a few minutes begins again suddenly and more heavily than before.” Later in the day “The wind has shifted a little to the north, driving the clouds into the southeast. The wind is steady and deep; it seems to move the whole sky, holding the shapes of the clouds intact.” The rain continues for days—we come to feel it—and culminates in a flood of immense and tragic proportions: a young couple loses their only child, a daughter who, with the father looking on, is caught in the crushing current:
And then he [the husband] hears another sound, way off, like the hard whispering of the approach of a strong wind. By the time he has thought what it is—that it’s a run-out of the creek, already close in the narrower part of the valley upstream—he can hear the bushes tearing and the rocks rattling as they’ve picked up and carried and knocked together in the plowing headwave. He’s on his feet and running, angling along the slope in front of the house toward the bridge where the girl and dog are sitting. As he runs his mind knots in accusation against him for not having realized sooner what he realizes now.
The “weather” has gone from being the setting of the story to being the primary actor. The father feels the extremity of his vulnerability in the face of it. He “stands there, powerless, useless, stripped of everything but vision—the unbelievable taking place before his eyes without bothering to become believable.”
This is certainly an intricate relationship: the father, a farmer working in daily dependence on the natural world, now finds himself left utterly desolated by it. Yet crucially, in Berry’s world the appropriate response to such profound contingency—to in fact a state of elemental weakness—is not humanistic rage, or stoic hardness, or gnostic transcendence. It is, rather, religious humility, a humility that begins with a primal recognition that human life comes from the earth, and that whatever may befall humans, it must not dim their gratitude for the basic fact of life itself. At a crisis point in the story, Mat Feltner’s wife, Margaret, reveals to her troubled, grieving husband the means by which she has continued on in the midst of her son’s loss, and her words offer a succinct primer in this elemental posture: “From the day he was born I knew he would die. That was how I loved him, partly. Knowing I’d brought him into the world that would give him things to love, and take them away from him.” She pushes her husband to consider carefully her claims, as well as his own convictions. “I don’t believe that when his death is subtracted from his life it leaves nothing. Do you, Mat?”
Mat does not. And his admission leads, finally, to embrace, an embrace not only of his wife but of their fundamental circumstance as beings born into intricate dependence upon an earth, in a world, that can offer no promise of fully satisfied yearnings, and that in fact guarantees harm. But it is a place that makes possible, amidst disappointment, the realization of enduring satisfactions—so long as the humility of creaturehood is embraced. In later essays, Berry would turn to King Lear to help define this posture, the spiritual condition Berry calls “the truly human estate.” Lear’s Glouster, Berry notes in The Unsettling of America, is finally able to live and die, in Shakespeare’s words, “‘Twixt two extremes of passion, joy and grief.’” Writing more than twenty years later in Life Is a Miracle, Berry would come back to the same passage, calling readers to “the properly subordinated human life of grief and joy, where change and redemption are possible.”
Such redemption, made possible only as we repent of our insubordination against our real limits and deepest ends, ends up fostering not simply an ethereal otherworldliness but rather a truer kind of satisfaction, the yield of a harmonic, participatory embrace of human materiality, of human creaturehood. In the devastating episode of the flood, it is the mother of the dead girl who first begins to walk this pathway of grief and joy, a pathway of not just recovery but growth. And what sparks her movement is her acceptance of the basic condition of creaturely dependence that made possible the wonder of her daughter in the first place.
When she woke on the Saturday morning at the end of that week of the flood, a great brilliant pool of sunshine lay across the kitchen floor. She sat still for a while, wrapped in the old quilt in the rocking chair, and looked at the light, letting it flood the nerves of her head with a dry brilliance and warmth. It changed her. Before she moved at all, she understood that she was no longer the same. The weather and the place, changing, had changed her... It wasn’t so much that time seemed to have begun again. It had begun to be a different time.
It continues to be a time of profound grief, to be sure; Ida goes directly to her daughter’s room and weeps, “weeps painfully.” But she is now able to see with more clarity the particular circumstance through her reconnection, her koinonia, if you will, with the larger circumstance, and thus begin to bear her loss.
Berry refers to such episodes of recovered connection as “renewals” in this novel, and they shape key moments in the story. Homemade meals shared with family, cups of coffee, “the dependable small restorations of sleep”—all of these are to Berry the “little renewals” upon which human beings depend. Mat Feltner finds himself, amidst his despair over his son, renewed by the arrival of Spring after the long days of rain and flood. “The sunlight becomes a dwelling place. The life of the ground has begun its climb,” Mat observes. And so Mat “feels himself lifted also... And he walks, thinking, a kind of singing and crying pressing his throat: ‘Ah, yes. Yes. It has come again.’” In one of his later sabbath poems, Berry would at springtime muse, “what are we but welcomers/ of that ancient joy, always/ coming, always passing?” This welcoming is, crucially, not a gift we offer to the earth—it is a posture we learn on the earth, which in turn makes possible our receiving of a gift, a gift we need in the deepest of ways: joy.
But the most lasting, most satisfying kinds of renewal in Berry’s fiction come through interpersonal communion. Mat, for instance, experiences deepened friendship with a bachelor neighbor who has lost a nephew to the war and who sends off another to it on the very day Mat receives word of Virgil’s MIA status. And the same neighbor discovers that what he describes to his nephew as his “calling” wasn’t in the end to “do what I’d pleased” but rather to love: to love in particular his own brother and his nephews, his brother’s sons. The birth of Mat’s granddaughter, the child of Virgil born in his absence, leaves Mat elated with renewing joy: “Against brutality and sorrow, something new begins, and even its beginning is somehow a triumph.” After the birth, the grieving Mat even bursts into dance.
The pinnacle of renewal in Berry’s fiction takes place through marriage, a theme that figures prominently in several of his other novels, including Returning and Jayber Crow. In fact, reading his corpus, it becomes evident that Berry’s vision of marriage is sacramental: marriage, when fully submitted to, becomes itself a means of extraordinary grace that far transcends the ability of either spouse to supply. In Remembering (1988), the main character, Andy Catlett, in the midst of great marital strain, is struck by the sense that in past moments of reconciliation with his wife, “[i]t was as though grace and peace were bestowed on them out of the sanctity of marriage itself... It was as if they were not making marriage but being made by it.” Hannah Coulter, in the 2004 novel whose title bears her name, suggests that “love is a great room with a lot of doors, where we are invited to knock and come in. Though it contains all the world, the sun, moon, and stars, it is so small as to be also in our hearts. It is in the hearts of those who choose to come in.” And it was in this room that Hannah lived with her husband: a room not of their creation, but one that made possible the creation of their love.
In A Place on Earth, Mat and Margaret Feltner, straining to endure their grief—which Mat, as his anger peaks, uses as a weapon to wound Margaret, dividing them viciously—find themselves as the story concludes coming together again under a common submission to this reality of elemental goodness. As Margaret confesses to Mat her own understanding of loss and gratitude, we learn that “Her words fall on him like water and like light, clarifying him. He feels himself rinsed and wrung, made fit for her by what she asks of him.” Within this frame of humbled reception, Mat is now more fully aligned not just with Margaret, but with the world itself. The crisis passes, though the grief goes on. Renewal has taken root.
So where in the devastated yet hopeful world of 1945 does the technology of 1945 fit, the technology that is so basic to our common memory of that awful year of both victory and defeat? And how does Berry understand it to affect the earthly communion that he sees all of life yearning toward, the flourishing human beings are born to know?
In both sweeping and subtle ways, the technological advances of the West have, in Berry’s telling, by 1945 threatened Port William’s deepest experience of well being. What Berry takes care to register in his narrative are not the expanding medical achievements that save life and diminish pain, or the conveniences of modern locomotion, or the wonders of long-distance communication. Instead, all of these triumphs he etches only in the shadow of the titanic industrializing world, the great globalizing juggernaut that looms as a danger beyond the ability of any particular community to resist fully.
This damning judgment is captured with great symbolic force in the opening sentence of A Place on Earth: “The seed bins are empty.” While most immediately a reference to the shuttering of a store that is itself a casualty of the war, its meaning, given the absence of so many of Port William’s young men by 1945, is far greater. Modernity is, in a word, fruitless. Always in this wartime town we overhear conversations “conditioned by the presence of the war,” testament to a deepening “sense of helplessness before an immeasurable fact.” One night Mat, reading a newspaper, “sits alone, face to face with the brutal history of his time”; when with the dropping of the atomic bombs his time takes a yet more barbaric turn, Mat finds himself in a hazy state of shock,
troubled by thoughts he’s as yet unable to think. He has felt his mind borne, like a man in a little boat, on the crest of history, in a violence of pure effect, as though the event of the war, having long ago outdistanced its cause, now escapes comprehension too, and speeds on. It has seemed to him that the years of violence have at last arrived at what, without his knowing it, they had been headed for, not by any human reason or motive or wish but by the logic of violence itself. And all the events of the war are at once altered by their result...”
In some ways this category of negative response to our age is the obvious one, probably the one with which we in the mainstream tend to be most sympathetic. We, too, have lost sons. We, too, have experienced the modern world as a threat. Still, if even given these historical realities, the mainstream adds up the credits and debits of the modern way and declares it gain, why does Berry so insistently declare it loss?
To begin with, in Berry’s judgment the entire modern way is premised on a manner of regarding and relating to the material world that will prove unequal to the challenge of correcting its own disintegrating course. Berry, famously, sees disaster of the greatest proportions looming. This is an argument he has made searchingly and repeatedly in his essays more so than in his fiction, and with particularly compelling force in his commentary on agriculture. “There is no longer any honest way to deny,” he wrote in 1985, “that a way of living that our leaders continue to praise is destroying all that our country is and all the best that it means. We are living even now among punishments and ruins.”
But as this judgment intimates, Berry is not simply concerned to alert us to material damage at the level of the “environment.” Rather, Berry is decrying a loss of spiritual proportions, a loss, we might say, of intimacy and attunement: the loss of intimacy with one another, and the loss of attunement to our fundamental material-spiritual condition—the attunement that makes intimacy and renewal possible. To Berry, modernity’s elaborate infrastructure, instantiated in minute and grand ways, wars against the humility we must acquire to embrace a “properly subordinated human life,” a life capable of grief and joy. Indeed, the modern pathway for him has emerged from the audacious, unseemly attempt to bypass a reckoning with who we actually are: embodied creatures rather than ethereal gods. Evading primal, participatory encounter with what Berry finds himself calling “the Creation,” we lose contact with ourselves, with each other, and so become not fruitful but barren—destructively barren.
The radio appears in A Place on Earth as a prime representative of this new regime, both reflecting and directing the drift of America’s mid-twentieth century sensibilities, diminishing both intimacy and attunement. In the novel’s opening vignette a group of friends playing cards in the empty store is only partly attuned to a radio that “hums and murmurs” above them “like an idol come to life above its altar, a crude cyclopean head erected and drowsily alert on the room’s edge.” When the news update begins, though, “they hush for the precise voice of the announcer stating the facts of the war, continuing from the point at which it left off the hour before or the day before; the voice carefully objective, studiedly calm, a fact itself which remains whole and remote, isolated, among the facts it utters.” Here, for Berry, is the deadly new ideal of human relations, of human perception: analytic, detached, numeric, amoral. “The words come to them unjudged,” the book’s narrator—the precise counterpoint to the radio-narrator—observes; they are uttered “without joy or lamentation, as if spoken by the straight expressionless mouth of the instrument.” This (now) standard way of relaying “information” is clearly no harmless necessity of mass society for Berry. In our world, Berry makes clear, words must be judged, by speaker and auditor alike, and the kind of response each person makes to words is a measure of his or her health. But the radio—or, rather, the culture of the radio—passes matters of life and death along in the most un-lifelike way, revealing itself to be just another instrument of the great machine civilization, which knows power far more than life—which knows power at the expense of life.
If the radio lulls its auditors into a kind of deathly passivity, other parts of the industrial order invite more active, and thus more overtly dangerous, responses. Although characters driving trucks and cars in the story usually do so without narratival judgment, in two Twainian set pieces Berry renders the idiocy of the automobile—including the first Model T in Port William—as well as its idiocy-inducing effects on those eager to empower themselves through them. More ominous in this story are the military planes, emblematic of the war and symbolic of its invasive reach. One day Mat is enjoying work in an orchard. Up in the trees, he hears the sound of planes approaching and counts as twenty-six planes pass overhead. “The morning goes on,” we read, but
Mat’s mind has been drawn away from his work into the big vague uneasiness of the sky, empty of all sound now. He thinks of the young men enclosed in that deathly metal, so high up, anonymous to the ground, their fates changed, made one with the vast complexity of interlocking parts and men and events which will destroy them or let them go indifferently.... It’s a long time before his mind will content itself again to take back the tree and his own hands busy in it.
Mat’s koinonia is disrupted. He has to fight to get it back.
Of course, only the Mat Feltners persist in this fight. Most all too easily succumb to the enclosing, isolating world—the town parson, for instance, overly impressed by the power of the Model T, or the store owner who easily adjusts his soul to the capitalist definition of gain, turning himself and his customers into “the creatures and servants of the impassive entrails of the cash register.” This, clearly, is not a town filled with fundamentally good folk stained and tarnished only by the malign influence of the external world. Rather it is a town of people ever in need of the renewal of experience and consecration of soul that will align them once more to the “truly human estate.” It is not that the industrial order corrupts them so much as it becomes a means of inflaming and fortifying their own worst tendencies.
To underscore this elemental battle in the soul of each, as well as to give hope, Berry places opposite the flawed but virtuous Mat Feltner a foil in his brother-in-law. Ernest, to be sure, has in many respects battled admirably against affliction, affliction not of his own making. As a young man he was severely wounded in World War I, and now, an unmarried carpenter, he hobbles through his days on crutches. We come to see that he has carefully chosen a life of polite, guarded isolation. Although he enjoys fellowship with Mat’s family, Ernest “has allowed Mat to know him only as he is in the shop, at his work, skilled and sufficient among his tools.” His is a life of “refined and simple order, of a few chosen certainties, of the peculiar safety of self-imposed loneliness.”
Mat, on the other hand, has through his own suffering cultivated a hopefulness set strikingly against Ernest’s hopelessness. While Ernest guards his own life, Mat guards the lives of others. He is the watchful shepherd, the patient nurturer, the sacrificing friend, afflicted and frail, yet moving in the direction of communion. He “has lived confronting the immediacy of potential calamity, in the utter commitment of his love to persons and things over which he has, at best, only partial control.” His farm is the center of this pastoral calling, described poignantly as “an opening in a wilderness which surrounds and threatens from every side.” To its “maintenance... he has devoted the very sources of his being.” The great wilderness of war, government, economy, and machine gains ground, and Mat feels miniscule before them. Yet he is big enough to become, through his care, a beacon of strength and of hope for those near him, those threatened by the encroaching, ravaging wilderness without and within.
Ernest, though, has stopped fighting the wilderness. His shop—the precise opposite of Mat’s farm—is “a walling in of his desire, a limited and wholly manageable permanence of order.” It is not a surprise, then, that his life ends in suicide. But the meaning of Ernest’s story, in Berry’s world, expands well beyond his own, because in showing us Ernest’s flawed instincts and habits Berry also shows us the posture and instincts that led to the fateful embrace of the way of the machine in the first place. Those drawn to make the world manageable, to control for every contingency, to eliminate discomfort of every kind, to protect only one’s own in the narrowest of senses, will become the easy prey of those who would hasten to offer paler satisfactions, satisfactions that will quickly enough result in “radical disconnections,” from others, from the earth, and even from oneself. The (seemingly) safe, enclosed way of Ernest, in sum, serves mainly to clear space for the elaborate “profit-enterprise that results in the further dismemberment and impoverishment of the Creation.”
The way of Mat is other. His vocation centers on radical connection, on going beyond the scope of self-interest to make “sure of the life of whatever is newborn”—as the narrator says of his demanding work with sheep in the winter. “His labor has been his necessity, and his profound desire,” we are told, and we ourselves see, as his long, difficult, triumphal story unfolds.
It is crucial to note, in the end, that we are told this story. Because although Mat Feltner is the story’s hero, it is Berry’s voice that tells us so. It is Berry’s own mind, formed in another way of seeing, that has observed, perceived, imagined, and described. It is a voice coming from the margins, speaking into our mainstream midst, a voice of judgment, warning, and hope. The margins need not remain the margins, Berry reminds. Indeed, they must not—both for their sake and for ours.
Eric Miller teaches history at Geneva College in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania. His most recent book is Glimpses of Another Land: Political Hopes, Spiritual Longing (Cascade,2012).
Berry, Wendell. A Place on Earth. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1967.
_____. The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1977.
_____. A Place on Earth: Revision. New York: North Point Press, 1983.
_____. Remembering. New York: North Point Press, 1988.
_____. What Are People For? New York: North Point Press, 1990.
_____. “In a Crease of the Hill.” In A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979–1997. New York: Counterpoint, 1998.
_____. Life Is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition. Washington, DC: Counterpoint, 2000.
_____. Hannah Coulter. Washington, DC: Shoemaker & Hoard, 2004.
Bush, Harold K., Jr. “Hunting for Reasons to Hope: A Conversation with Wendell Berry.” Christianity and Literature. Vol. 56, No. 3 (Winter 2007): 215–234.