Prophet of the Particular

In 1964 Wendell Berry turned his back on literary life in New York City, resigning from his teaching position in the English Department at New York University and purchasing a farm near Port Royal, Kentucky. By returning to the area where he had grown up (about forty miles northeast of Louisville), he was choosing to be a “placed writer.” “I was...going take up the fate of country people in my time,” he writes.

I was going back to help bury a lot of good men and women who had replaced their predecessors well enough, but who themselves would not be succeeded or replaced. I was going back to witness many times the breaking of the old link and the old reverence of the manuring of the fields.

But Berry’s literary career did not end with his return to Kentucky, though it did take an unexpected turn. In addition to writing stories and poems, he also began to write essays in defense of the “old link and the old reverence” that was being broken in rural America. From his small farm he launched an immensely ambitious project of cultural criticism. He wrote about race, sex, war, science, religion, and citizenship, but he focused especially on issues of land use, the environment, and farming. Berry also became a lecturer and activist, joining others to champion small-scale family farming, ecologically sound agriculture, and an end to the despoliation of the natural environment.

Today Berry is famous, an intellectual figure central to the “greening of American agrarianism,” as Kimberly K. Smith observed in her astute Wendell Berry and the Agrarian Tradition (2003). By uniting small farmers and environmentalists, Berry modernized an agrarian tradition previously marked by a cranky and romantic antimodernism. Berry himself may be accused of romanticizing country life, but his social criticism is grounded as much in ecological consciousness as in nostalgia. Connection to the land, to nature, and to others is for Berry the essence of health and the source of healing. He has developed the theme of connectedness in all he has written over the past forty years, and much of the power of his work is cumulative. Taken together, his poems, stories, and essays exemplify the virtues they celebrate—above all, constancy and fidelity.

A pacifist and fierce opponent of the national-security state, the deeply conservative Berry has recently taken to defending religious faith against fundamentalists of both science and religion. This latter concern informs the essays in his recent collection, Imagination in Place, which combines memorials to departed friends and peers (Hayden Carruth, James Baker Hall, Jane Kenyon, his old mentor Wallace Stegner, and James Still) with literary criticism and ethical reflection. As the title of the book suggests, Berry takes imagination as his theme, holding it to be a central element of his aesthetic and religious life. He defines imagination “as the ability to make real to oneself the life of one’s place or the life of one’s enemy.” For Berry, imagination is a means of engagement, not of escape. It is what leads one to reality, and is therefore essential to everyone—to rural people, yes, but also to the denizens of suburbia.

Berry makes of imagination a two-fold concept. On the one hand, it is an ethical ideal, akin to empathy—that which makes the particularity of others’ existence real to us and thus morally consequential. On the other, it is a mental faculty, the ability to see things in an “eternal aspect.” It gives us a kind of knowledge not otherwise available. “If what we see and experience, if our country, does not become real in imagination, then it never can become real to us, and we are forever divided from it,” Berry writes. He describes imagination as a “particularizing force”: “The better I know my place, the less it looks like other places and the more it looks like itself,” he declares. “It is imagination, and only imagination, that can give standing to these distinctions.” It particularizes in the same way farming particularizes; it forces one to see a thing—a local watershed, a local economy—as real, concrete, and resistant to easy abstraction.

In an essay on the Civil War, Berry concludes that imagination is essential to amity, mercy, and “lenity.” Without a trace of chauvinism or bitterness, he argues that the “net gain” from the war was “more modest and more questionable than is customarily said.” (He describes “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” as “perfectly insane.”) The “resort to violence is the death of imagination,” he writes. “Once the killing has started, lenity and the hope for order and beauty vanish along with causes and aims.” The antidote to every kind of violence—the obvious violence of war, the less obvious violence of strip mining and industrial agriculture—is empathy, understood as moral imagination. Empathy does not develop naturally; it must be cultivated. Living in communion with others and nature requires deliberation and effort.

An essay on the British poet Kathleen Raine examines her thematic focus on the fallen condition of humanity. Berry finds more evidence in her poetry that imagination provides an avenue for nonscientific understandings of the world. The final essay, “God, Science, and Imagination,” is a good example of one of Berry’s favorite modes: cranky quarreling with something he has read in a magazine or newspaper—in this case, an expression of religious skepticism by Steven Weinberg in the New York Review of Books. Berry insists that we are in no position to dismiss the claims of faith simply because they can’t be tested. This is an argument unlikely to convince the scientist who believes that a truth claim that can’t be tested is really a kind of superstition. Here Berry appeals again to imagination as the “power to make us see, and to see, moreover, things that without it would be unseeable.” In these eloquent and often profound essays, Berry reminds us that it is this power—the ability to “see ourselves as others see us,” to limn precisely the full “story we are in”—that builds healthy communities and protects the places that support them.

Published in the 2010-11-05 issue: 

Paul V. Murphy teaches history at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan.

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