Wendell Berry, writer, teacher, farmer, and ecological activist, preaches a message America is dying to hear. Doggedly determined to promote an economy built on sustainable agriculture, Berry addresses us in every way he knows how: poems, essays, novels, lectures, and letters. No matter the medium, though, his approach is unrelenting and contrarian. He famously writes books without a computer, farms his Kentucky land without a tractor, and practices his faith without spending much time in church. He is both lauded as a preacher of hope and disparaged as a prophet of doom.
When I read Berry’s poems and essays, I sense he and I are kindred spirits. I, too, care about preserving the good, true, and beautiful in a hellbent civilization. On the other hand, when I read Berry’s fiction, I begin to suspect he would not much approve of me. I read as if I were an adolescent who is constantly objecting “Yeah, but…” to the author’s often narrow view of the good life and his criticisms of anyone who wanders off the path. I can be contrarian, too, Mr. Berry.
I read about the Coulters and the Proudfoots and the Branches and perhaps his most beloved protagonist, Jayber Crow, as if I know them personally, and often I find they don’t represent themselves altogether truthfully. Maybe I feel close to them because two generations back both sides of my family lived in Port William–type villages in the center of New York State. When Mr. Crow moves to his final home on a riverbank, I feel like he’s speaking my family dialect. I know exactly the “substantial sound” of an anchor line plunking into the bottom of a boat, and the language of a single fish slurping from the surface of a still pond. I know it because, by the grace of God and kindly grandparents, I’ve spent countless childhood days on a quiet waterfront. But also, I know it because it’s embedded in my genes from my grandfather’s generation, who lived in a small village dotted with pastures and bubbling brooks.
The dissonance with Berry occurs when I consider other family tales buried under the agrarian beauty.
The dissonance with Berry occurs when I consider other family tales buried under the agrarian beauty. These are stories of shattered relationships, addiction, job loss, abandonment, mental illness, and unspoken violations that seem to separate my kinfolk from the clans in Port William. In Berry’s fictional village, readers occasionally witness felonies, infidelity, drunken brawls, and tragic deaths, but all of them seem to be told in a dusky, warming light.
The pleasure I experience reading a novel set in idyllic Port William, before war, agribusiness, and corporate industrialism pillage the town, turns quickly from a nostalgic glow to an ugly flame. I agree with the author’s animosity toward institutional and human greed, but I’m troubled by the apparent evils he chooses to overlook. Berry seems to cast mercy on certain kinds of frailties and judgment on others. As a loyal reader, this double standard agitates me: I become a mad reader of the Mad Farmer.
Berry’s body of work lauds an unadulterated ecosphere. How does he reconcile glossing over (or at least hiding from his reader’s view) the ugly dysfunctions that often prosper alongside the natural beauty of such villages and pasturelands? The stories I grew up hearing and observing provide an alternative cast of characters to the Port William community. I’ve seen firsthand not only the ornery nature of such characters but also the ingrown thinking that sometimes flourishes in out-of-sight locales. For example, there’s the good country farmer I watched with my own eyes fist-beat his son. They seemed to keep their farm by the mad farmer’s standards, but that did not make them good. I tiptoe around extended family members who fought their whole lives like Jayber Crow to avoid answering to “the man across the desk,” yet leave a trail of fractured relationships in their wake.
My grandmother’s father – a Port Williamesque man – abandoned my grandmother when she was eight because his new wife didn’t like her or her older sister. Their country village, apparently, did not reject him for his decision – going so far as to make him an elected official. They likely tended their own gardens, gathered their own eggs, and milked their own cows. Their love for land and place did not require a father to love his own daughter. The authenticity of their economics did not guarantee a purity of heart.
In the recently released memoir Hillbilly Elegy: A Family and Culture in Crisis, author J. D. Vance shares his experience of growing up in a white, working-poor community in rural Kentucky. His story picks up where Berry’s usually leaves off – just after the rural folk give up their farms and move to the city for other employment. The theme of loss mirrors the lament Berry sounds in his entire body of work: loss of land, loss of livelihood, and loss of a richly storied culture. There’s also the loss of thousands of residents who leave for the promise of manufacturing jobs elsewhere. For Vance’s family, that elsewhere was a Rust Belt town in neighboring Ohio. Berry’s fiction and Vance’s memoir diverge at the point of community and family relationships, and the real-world stories are not charming in the least. Drunken brawls in one generation become opiate-induced felonies in the next, all resulting in childhood memories of shattering abuse and aching neglect.
There is no hazy glow concealing the conspicuous demons in Vance’s community. Where Berry seems to place blame on external forces, Vance is all too aware of how families pass down dysfunction, no matter what state the economy is in. Because Berry has a meticulous understanding of symbiotic ecological systems, I feel like no one should understand this truth better. How can Berry see so clearly the connection between man and nature, dependent on each other, and yet appear willing to overlook the interdependence of generations?
Instead, Port Williams’ characters serve as a mouthpiece for an author bemoaning every generation to come along since the Depression who dared to purchase produce from a supermarket or drive their car across the river to see what was on the other side. I mourn the same losses, and still, if I could speak to Jayber Crow (a.k.a. Wendell Berry) I’d have to ask, “What about the sins of the fathers?” Since we share the same theology of free will and depravity of man, I know not to make them solely responsible. Neither should Berry make them entirely (romantically) blameless.
The adage “ideals blind us” might be a good caution as we engage with economic manifestos – fictional or otherwise. Would Berry’s writing be more truthful if he applied his love of place to the subsequent generations of those displaced from it? In story terms: What happens to Maddie Keith’s children and Hannah Coulter’s great-grandchildren? In real-world terms: How can the disenfranchised working class of Vance’s generation – and of the rest of this hellbent-on-upward-mobility civilization – be redeemed? How, in the words of Wendell Berry, can we “practice resurrection” now?
Berry and Vance both include some important trail markers from their grandparents’ generation. In his 2012 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, Berry tells the story of his grandfather – a simple tobacco farmer in rural Kentucky – who devoted his life to repairing soil he had exposed to erosion in a misguided attempt to “plow his way out of debt.” Berry sees this as one of the most honorable things he remembers about his grandfather, and I would agree. Similarly, in Vance’s memoir, he recalls one of his grandfather’s rare acts of remorse. After bailing out his drug-addicted daughter (Vance’s mother) yet one more time, “Papaw buried his head in his hands and did something Uncle Jimmy had never seen him do: He wept. ‘I’ve failed her; I’ve failed my baby girl.’” Vance transforms this story into an opportunity for generational reflection:
Papaw’s rare breakdown strikes at the heart of an important question for hillbillies like me: How much of our lives, good and bad, should we credit to our personal decisions, and how much is just the inheritance of our culture, our families, and our parents who have failed their children?
Both grandfathers display the sort of response – dare I say, repentance – lacking in Berry’s Port William. The result can be that we, the readers, long for a dishonest ideal. Rather than a wistful reading of Berry’s fictionalized world as too good to be true, I would propose that Port William – even before the plunder of corporate industrialism – is not good enough. If Port William signifies the American Dream, then it is good only to the extent that its self-described “membership” is expansive enough to welcome the displaced and uninitiated. It is honorable to the extent that it righteously protests every sort of threat to both human and natural environments.
This dream is too large to be contained at a local or even national level; it requires a gospel-sized imagination. Through this lens, we can imagine the sort of grace that roots us with affection for the place we live, yes, but overflows the bounds of time and place with the ever-sustained economy of Christ’s kingdom.
In my life and in the family stories handed down to me, I’ve learned the cost of misaligned devotion to an ideal. No one has spoken more clearly to me on the subject than Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian, in his Life Together:
In Christian brotherhood everything depends upon its being clear right from the beginning … that Christian brotherhood is not an ideal, but a divine reality.… Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves.… A community which cannot bear and cannot survive such a crisis, which insists upon keeping its illusion when it should be shattered, permanently loses in that moment the promise of Christian community. Sooner or later it will collapse.
Those of us who live within the divine reality Bonhoeffer describes can ask this question with even more clarity: In what ways might our allegiance to ideals (agrarian or otherwise) diverge from the gospel reality? In Port William, Berry envisions membership in a special kind of community, bound by mutual affection for a way of life; in the teachings of Christ we are given a vision for an even larger community, a kingdom where mercy and judgment meet in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension. A gospel-sized economic model is not about sustaining an ideal, but about redeeming one.
A Gospel-sized economic model is not about sustaining an ideal, but about redeeming one.
My small-town lineage tells its own redemption stories. Now that I’ve grown more humble in years, I can better see the broken web of redemption in them. Every time my paternal grandfather plays the banjo for dancing great-grandchildren, he mirrors the good of his own father, a legendary jolly singer of tunes (even if he’d been drinking). My maternal grandmother, left on the doorstep of a stranger, with only one tiny suitcase the size of my laptop to hold all her belongings, once told a circle of her daughters and grandchildren it was the best thing that ever happened to her: “That was the house where I met Jesus, right on the knee of my foster mother.”
Her stories of that home and that life mixed tragedy and humor – milking cows, emptying chamber pots for wealthy Catskill tourists, waving goodbye to her foster father as he left for his daily milk truck delivery. One of those mornings, his truck collided with a train, leaving my grandmother fatherless again. My grandmother and her foster mother took in boarders to make a living. A living that I’m quite certain Berry would approve of.
In her own way, I think my grandmother’s life offers a profound response to the tension between generational interdependence and personal responsibility. A few weeks ago, I discovered her diary from 1931, the year she graduated from high school. In each entry, I could see the way her life was shaped around the woman who took her in as a daughter, and I was thankful all over again for that salvation. Reading between the lines, I could also hear the voice of a lonely teenage girl trying to do good and be good with a sort of forced cheerfulness. Still today, her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren are trying to make sense of this sort of heartache.
A discerning reader will notice similar moments of real-world redemption woven into Berry’s novels. Jayber Crow, the beloved barber of Port William, tries to sort out the complex web of redemption at the end of his life. His reflection sounds a bit like a gospel-scaled economy:
This is, as I said and believe, a book about Heaven, but I must say too that it has been a close call. For I have wondered sometimes if it would not finally turn out to be a book about Hell – where we fail to love one another, where we hate and destroy one another for reasons abundantly provided or for righteousness’ sake or for pleasure, where we destroy the things we need the most, where we see no hope and have no faith, where we are needy and alone, where things that ought to stay together fall apart, where there is such a groaning travail of selfishness in all its forms, where we love one another and die, where we must lose everything to know what we have had.
Those of us who wish to emulate his ideals will receive the greatest gift from Berry’s words by reading through a gospel – rather than an idealistic – lens, because the gospel of Christ is the only economy sturdy enough to save us all.
Photographs by Bob Bell.