Those who seek to identify common ground among Americans—seekers who, in this era of extreme polarization, may qualify as an endangered species—tend to focus on the values that the vast majority of us share. Those who set out to address wrongs committed in this country generally identify particular groups as the victims. What is unusual is to combine those two approaches, to point to historical factors that have made sufferers of us all, whether or not we know or want to admit it. That is the task that Wendell Berry has taken upon himself with The Need to Be Whole: Patriotism and the History of Prejudice, a thoughtful, illuminating, sometimes frustrating, occasionally mystifying, utterly profound book that, whether or not one agrees with it (and no one will agree with all of it), will leave readers with a new way of looking at things.
Berry, now eighty-eight, is himself unusual, a difficult man to pigeonhole. The author of more than fifty books of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, he has received upwards of two dozen honors, including the National Humanities Medal, awarded by President Barack Obama. He is also a farmer in Kentucky, where his family’s roots stretch back more than two centuries. Those who nod vigorously as they read Berry’s view that “race prejudice or white supremacy is the original and fundamental mistake in the European conquest of this country” may stop abruptly when they come upon his defense of Robert E. Lee. Those who raise a glass to Berry for criticizing the campaign against Confederate monuments may pause mid-sip when they see his self-description as “a would-be follower of the teachings of Jesus and of Martin Luther King, Jr.” How do such seemingly contradictory views coexist in one person’s head?
Berry’s take on American history makes all of these ideas dance to the same melody. To hum a few bars: Berry believes that we Americans are suffering from a lack of wholeness, both the separation of different groups from each other and the separation of most Americans from the land; that while American slavery was obviously a hardship for Black people, it harmed whites too, planting the notion that working directly with the land was beneath them (since that’s what slaves were for), an idea that would eventually make for the separation of land from people; that this rupture is what has allowed us to treat the land, and the rest of the natural world, of which we are a part, so horrendously; that Lee’s fight against the Union can be seen as a defense of his native Virginia, as a “fidelity to the bond between land and people”; that the “total industrialization of total war” that occurred with World War II “produced a dream of total industrialization that would dominate the national and then the global economy for the rest of that century and on into this one,” and would displace many small farmers, including more than half a million Black farmers, in favor of the big-business approach that has wrecked the land; that the seemingly forgotten concept of forgiveness is necessary to bridge the gaps between groups of Americans, while the drive to remove Confederate monuments serves to “renew and lengthen the Civil War.”
The author sees Americans as one people, made up of different races whose histories cannot be understood in isolation. He opposes whatever will set American people against one another. For that reason Berry, who is white, writes, “I think that a program of monetary reparations exclusively to black people would be ruinous. It could be done only as another contest, like the Civil War, that would divide us again into winners and losers.” Echoing the thoughts of this Black writer, Berry adds, “And there would be nothing then to keep white people from declaring the problem solved. ‘Now we have paid them off, as they asked. Now at last we are free of each other. Let us go our separate ways.’” Elsewhere, Berry writes that “the subject of race prejudice, contrary to the assumptions of political correctness and present racial politics, cannot honestly be simplified or specialized or treated as a single subject.... I do not think of the chattel slavery of the antebellum South as a problem that is isolatable or unique.” Many will disagree passionately, even bitterly, with Berry on this point. Indeed, it is curious, to put it mildly, to identify white supremacy as the nation’s “fundamental mistake” while arguing at the same time that the chief victims of that mistake deserve no special consideration. And yet, given Berry’s commitment to wholeness, his argument is coherent and consistent.