Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry, Marilynne Robinson and Empathy

by Micah Mattix on May 3, 2012

Matthew J. Franck has a strong critique of Wendell Berry’s Jefferson Lecture at First Things today. The lecture, Franck says, was “chiefly a catalogue of Berry’s hatreds”:

He hates “agribusiness” and large-scale farming, though it is a great success story in the battle against hunger. He hates “corporations” and derides the notion that they are “persons” in the law, sounding as much like a wise man as the average backbench Democratic hack in the U.S. Congress. He hates “industrialism,” “plutocracy,” and “capitalism,” explaining why his thought is popular among a certain breed of college professors. He hates “materialism” but seems unable to transcend it at any point in this lecture.

* * *
He loves the “stickers” and he hates the “boomers,” terms he borrows from his teacher Wallace Stegner. Boomers are mobile creatures, moving from place to place and seizing opportunities—presumably like the first Berry who came to America centuries ago. Stickers are the ones who stay in place and sink roots in the land. Is there room in Wendell Berry’s moral imagination (he loves that word, “imagination”) for a good word to be said about each of them?

The answer to that question, Franck writes, is emphatically “No.” I’ve read the lecture, which is ironically titled “It All Turns on Affection,” and I think Franck is right in his critique, though perhaps a bit too fervent.  Nathan Schleuter offers a helpful response, pointing out that Berry is equally critical of governmental agencies elsewhere, but this is besides the point and does nothing to justify Berry’s unfair derision of “all agribusiness executives,” who, in Berry’s words, “don’t imagine farms or farmers. They imagine perhaps nothing at all, their minds being filled to capacity by numbers leading to the bottom line.”

Berry is not the only literary figure recently to show a lack of imagination in complaining about the lack of imagination. In her new collection of essays, When I Was a Child I Read Books, Marilynne Robinson argues that American public discourse is distinctly lacking in empathy and generosity, and like Berry in his lecture, she fails to show either. My full review is forthcoming in The Weekly Standard, but in a nutshell, she derides the lack of governmental spending on education and welfare programs, and claims that it is unchristian to oppose such spending. She demonizes corporations and suggests that those in favor of austerity measures are suffering from “paranoia.” Yet, while she claims to have had “a broader experience of the American population than is usual,” she shows no real understanding of why serious Christians who care deeply about the poor and the defenseless (particularly unborn children) might actually oppose government welfare and an increase in centralized power.

Too often conservative Christians give greedy corporations or the unjustly rich a free pass. Greed is a sin, and we should speak boldly against it. But so is willful ignorance, which, of course, conservatives can be guilty of as well. Boldness and fairness are not mutually exclusive. Our times require both.

Wendell Berry’s God

by Micah Mattix on April 30, 2012

In the latest issue of The City, Aaron Belz reviews The Humane Vision of Wendell Berry. It’s a mostly favorable review, but Belz expresses disappointment that there isn’t more critical engagement with Berry in the volume. Belz only hints at what such a critical engagement might be, noting Berry’s debt to an earlier naturalism. I am not a Berry scholar, but some of Berry’s Sabbath poems have always raised a few questions in my mind about the relationship between God and nature in Berry’s work–poems with lines like these:

Another Sunday morning comes
And I resume the standing Sabbath
Of the woods, where the finest blooms
Of time return, and where not path
Is worn but wears its makers out
At last, and disappears in leaves
Of fallen seasons. The tracked rut
Fills and levels; here nothing grieves
In the risen season. Past life
Lives in the living. Resurrection
Is in the way each maple leaf
Commemorates its kind, by connection

Berry writes within a generally Christian tradition, and he is all the rage these days with all sorts of Christians, hipsters and non-hipsters alike, but I for one would like to learn more about what he means by “Past life / Lives in the living,” or in another poem when he writes that “Sometimes here [earth] / we are there [heaven], and there is no death.”

That “sometimes” is very coy. At the moment, it seems this is the best bet for further study.