Wendell E. Berry (born August 5, 1934) is an American novelist, poet, environmental activist, cultural critic, and farmer. A prolific author, he has written many novels, short stories, poems, and essays. He is an elected member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers, a recipient of The National Humanities Medal, and the Jefferson Lecturer for 2012. He is also a 2013 Fellow of The American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Berry was named the recipient of the 2013 Richard C. Holbrooke Distinguished Achievement Award. On January 28, 2015, he became the first living writer to be inducted into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame.
Berry was the first of four children born to John Marshall Berry, a lawyer and tobacco farmer in Henry County, Kentucky, and Virginia Erdman Berry. The families of both parents had farmed in Henry County for at least five generations. Berry attended secondary school at Millersburg Military Institute and then earned a B.A. and M.A. in English at the University of Kentucky, where, in 1956, he met another Kentucky writer-to-be, Gurney Norman. In 1957, he completed his M.A. and married Tanya Amyx. In 1958, he attended Stanford University's creative writing program as a Wallace Stegner Fellow, studying under Stegner in a seminar that included Edward Abbey, Larry McMurtry, Robert Stone, Ernest Gaines, Tillie Olsen, and Ken Kesey. Berry's first novel, Nathan Coulter, was published in April 1960.
A John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship took Berry and his family to Italy and France in 1961, where he came to know Wallace Fowlie, critic and translator of French literature. 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 and monk Thomas Merton and photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard.
In 1965, Berry, his wife, and his two children moved to a farm that he had purchased, Lane's Landing, and began growing corn and small grains on what eventually became a 125-acre (0.51 km2) homestead. Lane's Landing is in Henry County, Kentucky in north central Kentucky near Port Royal, and his parents' birthplaces, and is on the western bank of the Kentucky River, not far from where it flows into the Ohio River. Berry has farmed, resided, and written at Lane's Landing ever since. He has written about his early experiences on the land and about his decision to return to it in essays such as "The Long-Legged House" and "A Native Hill."
In the 1970s and the 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, who describes himself as "a person who takes the Gospel seriously," has criticized Christian organizations for failing to challenge cultural complacency about environmental degradation, and has shown a willingness to criticize what he perceives as the arrogance of some Christians. He is an advocate of Christian pacifism, as shown in his book Blessed Are the Peacemakers: Christ's Teachings About Love, Compassion and Forgiveness (2005).
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.
On February 10, 1968, Berry delivered "A Statement Against the War in Vietnam" during the Kentucky Conference on the War and the Draft at the University of Kentucky in Lexington:
On June 3, 1979, Berry engaged in nonviolent civil disobedience against the construction of a nuclear power plant at Marble Hill, Indiana. He describes "this nearly eventless event" and expands upon his reasons for it in the essay "The Reactor and the Garden."
On February 9, 2003, Berry's essay titled "A Citizen's Response to the National Security Strategy of the United States" was published as a full-page advertisement in The New York Times. Berry opened the essay—a critique of the G. W. Bush administration's post-9/11 international strategy—by asserting that "The new National Security Strategy published by the White House in September 2002, if carried out, would amount to a radical revision of the political character of our nation."
On January 4, 2009, Berry and Wes Jackson, president of The Land Institute, published an op-ed article in The New York Times titled "A 50-Year Farm Bill." In July 2009 Berry, Jackson and Fred Kirschenmann, of The Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, gathered in Washington DC to promote this idea. Berry and Jackson wrote, "We need a 50-year farm bill that addresses forthrightly the problems of soil loss and degradation, toxic pollution, fossil-fuel dependency and the destruction of rural communities."
Also in January 2009, Berry released a statement against the death penalty, which began, "As I am made deeply uncomfortable by the taking of a human life before birth, I am also made deeply uncomfortable by the taking of a human life after birth." And in November 2009, Berry and 38 other writers from Kentucky wrote to Gov. Steve Beshear and Attorney General Jack Conway asking them to impose a moratorium on the death penalty in that state.
On March 2, 2009, Berry joined over 2,000 others in non-violently blocking the gates to a coal-fired power plant in Washington, D.C. No one was arrested.
On May 22, 2009, Berry, at a listening session in Louisville, spoke against the National Animal Identification System (NAIS). He said, "If you impose this program on the small farmers, who are already overburdened, you're going to have to send the police for me. I'm 75 years old. I've about completed my responsibilities to my family. I'll lose very little in going to jail in opposition to your program – and I'll have to do it. Because I will be, in every way that I can conceive of, a non-cooperator."
In October 2009, Berry combined with "the Berea-based Kentucky Environmental Foundation (KEF), along with several other non-profit organizations and rural electric co-op members" to petition against and protest the construction of a coal-burning power plant in Clark County, Kentucky. On February 28, 2011, the Kentucky Public Service Commission approved the cancellation of this power plant.
On December 20, 2009, due to the University of Kentucky's close association with coal interests in the state, Berry removed his papers from UK. He explained to the Lexington Herald-Leader, "I don't think the University of Kentucky can be so ostentatiously friendly to the coal industry … and still be a friend to me and the interests for which I have stood for the last 45 years. … If they love the coal industry that much, I have to cancel my friendship." In August 2012, the papers were donated to The Kentucky Historical Society in Frankfort, KY.
On September 28, 2010, Berry participated in a rally in Louisville during an EPA hearing on how to manage coal ash. Berry said, "The EPA knows that coal ash is poison. We ask it only to believe in its own findings on this issue, and do its duty."
Berry, with 14 other protesters, spent the weekend of February 12, 2011 locked in the Kentucky governor's office to demand an end to mountaintop removal coal mining. He was part of the environmental group Kentuckians for the Commonwealth that began their sit-in on Friday and left at midday Monday to join about 1,000 others in a mass outdoor rally.
In 2011, The Berry Center was established at New Castle, Kentucky, "for the purpose of bringing focus, knowledge and cohesiveness to the work of changing our ruinous industrial agriculture system into a system and culture that uses nature as the standard, accepts no permanent damage to the ecosphere, and takes into consideration human health in local communities."
Berry's nonfiction serves as an extended conversation about the life he values. According to him, 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, reverence, and the interconnectedness of life. The threats Berry finds to this good simple 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."
Author Rod Dreher writes that Berry's "unshakable devotion to the land, to localism, and to the dignity of traditional life makes him both a great American and, to the disgrace of our age, a prophet without honor in his native land." Similarly, Bill Kauffman argues that "Among the tragedies of contemporary politics is that Wendell Berry, as a man of place, has no place in a national political discussion that is framed by Gannett and Clear Channel." Historian Richard White calls Berry "the environmental writer who has most thoughtfully tried to come to terms with labor" and "one of the few environmental writers who takes work seriously."
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.
Berry's core ideas, and in particular his poem "Sabbaths III (Santa Clara Valley)," guided the 2007 feature film Unforeseen, produced by Terrence Malick and Robert Redford. The film's director Laura Dunn stated, "We are of course most grateful to Mr. Berry for sharing his inspired work – his poem served as a guide post for me throughout this, at times meandering, project." Berry appears twice in the film narrating his own poem.
Berry's lyric poetry often appears as a contemporary eclogue, pastoral, 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 forty-seven short stories (forty-three of which are collected in That Distant Land, 2004 and A Place in Time, 2012) 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, marital discord, and the full range of losses that touch human lives, it lacks the extremes of characterization and plot development that are found in 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. The Port William stories allow Berry 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.
Of his fictional project, Berry has written: "I have made the imagined town of Port William, its neighborhood and membership, in an attempt to honor the actual place where I have lived. By means of the imagined place, over the last fifty years, I have learned to see my native landscape and neighborhood as a place unique in the world, a work of God, possessed of an inherent sanctity that mocks any human valuation that can be put upon it." Elsewhere, Berry has said, "The only thing I try to accomplish in fiction is to show how people act when they love each other." The novels and stories can be read in any order.
Nathan Coulter (1960)
In Berry's first novel, young Nathan "comes of age" through dealing with the death of his mother, the depression of his father Jared, the rugged companionship of his brother Tom, and the mischief of his uncle Burley. Kirkus Review concludes, "A sensitive adolescent theme is handled rather poetically, but so uniform in tone that no drama is generated and no sense of time passing is felt." John Ditsky finds William Faulkner's influence in Nathan Coulter, but notes, "Not only does the work avoid the pitfalls encountered by Faulkner's initial attempts to escape his postage stamp of native soil, but Nathan Coulter also seems a wise attempt to get that autobiographical first novel out of one's system, and to do so honesty."[sic]
A Place on Earth (1967/1983)
Set in the critical year of 1945, this novel focuses on farmer Mat Feltner's struggle over the news that his son Virgil has been listed as missing in action while also telling multiple tales of the lives of other Port William residents, such as Burley Coulter, Jack Beechum, Ernest Finley, Ida and Gideon Crop. Reprinting by North Point Press in 1983 allowed Berry to radically revise the novel, removing almost a third of its original length. Jeffrey Bilbro believes that these substantial changes marked growth in Berry's approach. "In Berry's revised edition, his technique caught up with his subject. He allows us, as readers, to participate in the ignorance of his characters, and in doing so, we may be able to understand more fully the painful difficulty of choosing fidelity to the natural order while living in the midst of mystery."
The Memory of Old Jack (1974)
This third novel of Port William begins with Jack Beechum as a very old man in 1952 and continues back into his youth and maturity to uncover his life and work as a dedicated farmer, conflicted husband, and living link to past generations. The story ranges from the Civil War to just past World War II. Josh Hurst comments on Berry's ability to avoid certain narrative pitfalls, "Jack's story could be presented us either as heroic ballad or as cautionary [tale]—and there is much in his life to support both admiration and gentle tisk-tisking—but the gift of this book is how it allows a man's memories to wash over us as though unshaped by narrative or conscious editorializing."
In Berry's fourth novel, an adult Andy Catlett wanders through San Francisco remembering, but feeling alienated from, his native Port William. He struggles to come to terms with himself, his marriage, his farm, and the distorted values of American society. Of Berry's vision here, Charles Solomon writes, "Wendell Berry contrasts modern American agribusiness--which he depicts as an artificial conglomeration of sterile flow charts, debts and mechanization--with the older ideal of farming as a nurturing way of life." But along these lines, Bruce Bawer finds a problem with the novel, "Here, for the first time in a Port William novel, Berry seems more interested in communicating opinions than in portraying sympathetic characters in plausible situations; the opening episode, set at a conference on agricultural policy, paints the ideological conflict between Andy and his adversaries in broad, unsubtle strokes."
A World Lost (1996)
Young Andy Catlett's uncle Andrew had been murdered back in 1944, and now an adult Andy is reconstructing the event and its aftermath. "Looking back with a mixture of a young boy's incomprehension and an older man's nostalgia, Andy evokes the past not as a narrative but as a series of disembodied fragments in the flow of time." In this fifth novel of Port William, Berry considers the violence of men and its impact on the family and community that must come to terms with it. "Berry shows us the psychic costs of misplaced family pride and social rigidity, and yet he also celebrates the benevolent blessing of familial love. This is simple, soul-satisfying storytelling, augmented by understated humor and quiet insight."
Jayber Crow (2000)
Port William's barber recounts his life's journey in Berry's sixth novel. Jayber's early life as an orphan near Port William is followed by studies towards a possible vocation to Church ministry. A questioning mind, however, sends him in other directions until he finds himself back in Port William with an ever-growing commitment to that place and its people. As Publisher's Weekly notes, "Crow's life, which begins as WWI is about to erupt, is emblematic of a century of upheaval, and Berry's anecdotal and episodic tale sounds a challenge to contemporary notions of progress. It is to Berry's credit that a novel so freighted with ideas and ideology manages to project such warmth and luminosity."
Hannah Coulter (2004)
Berry's seventh novel presents a concise vision of Port William's "membership." The story encompasses Hannah's life, including the Great Depression, World War II, the postwar 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.
Andy Catlett: Early Travels (2006)
Andy Catlett, age nine, makes his first solo journey to visit with both sets of grandparents in Port William. The New York Times reviewer notes, "What the grown-up Andy recalls of that experience is transformed into 'a sort of homage' to a now-vanished world. Title characters from Berry's earlier Port William volumes — Jayber Crow, Old Jack, Hannah Coulter — appear here in affectionate cameos as the adult Andy, echoing Wordsworth, observes that 'in my memory, all who were there ... seem now to be gathered into a love that is at once a boy's and an aging man's.'"
|Wallace Stegner Fellowship||1958||Stanford University|
|Guggenheim Fellowship||1961||John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation|
|Rockefeller Fellowship||1965||The Rockefeller Foundation|
|Arts and Letters Award||1971||American Academy of Arts and Letters|
|Poets' Prize||2000||Nicholas Roerich Museum|
|Thomas Merton Award||1999||Thomas Merton Center for Peace and Social Justice|
|Aiken Taylor Award for Modern American Poetry||1994||The Sewanee Review and the University of the South|
|Art of Fact Award||2006||SUNY Brockport Writers Forum and M&T Bank|
|Kentuckian of the Year||2005||Kentucky Monthly|
|Premio Artusi||2008||La Città di Forlimpopoli|
|The Cleanth Brooks Medal for Lifetime Achievement||2009||Fellowship of Southern Writers|
|The National Humanities Medal||2010||National Endowment for the Humanities|
|The 41st Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities||2012||National Endowment for the Humanities|
|The Peggy V. Helmerich Distinguished Author Award||2012||Tulsa Library Trust|
|Russell Kirk Paideia Prize||2012||Circe Institute|
|Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences||2013||American Academy of Arts and Sciences|
|The Roosevelt Institute's Freedom Medal||2013||The Roosevelt Institute|
|The Richard C. Holbrooke Distinguished Achievement Award||2013||Dayton Literary Peace Prize|
|The Martin E. Marty Award for the Public Understanding of Religion||2013||American Academy of Religion|
|The Alan Tate Poetry Prize||2014||The Sewanee Review|
|The Dean's Cross for Servant Leadership in Church and Society||2014||Virginia Theological Seminary|
|Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame||2015||The Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning|
|The American Food and Farming Award||2015||The Center for Food Safety|
|Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award||2016||National Book Critics Circle|
|The Sidney Lanier Prize||2016||Center for Southern Studies at Mercer University|