Interview with Mark T. Mitchell and Nathan Schlueter, editors of
The Humane Vision of Wendell Berry
Who is Wendell Berry?
Berry is a farmer, poet, essayist, and novelist. He lives with his wife on a farm in Kentucky where he works the land and writes.
Why is Berry’s thought relevant?
Many American are frustrated with the apparently insoluble nature of political and culture discourse today. Wendell Berry’s work defies easy categorization and provides an alternative to the hackneyed left-right divide that typifies our national debates. In fact, Berry’s clear-eyed and deeply humane view of human existence offers a vision of the good life that is desperately needed in these uncertain and unsettled times.
Isn’t Berry a farmer? What can an urbanite learn from an agrarian?
Berry does not suggest that everyone should abandon the cities for the farm. According to Berry, the competing political and cultural visions today are rooted either in an “agrarian mind” or an “industrial mind.” The agrarian mind is characterized by gratitude which manifests itself in “prudence, humility, good work, and propriety of scale.” The industrial mind, on the other hand, is essentially utilitarian. It with ingratitude and manifests itself in greed, hubris, exploitation, and destruction. When viewed in this light, an agrarian can live responsibly in a city and one possessed of an industrial mind can live on a farm even as he destroys it.
Is there a connection between local food production and security?
Berry argues that there is. Currently the majority of our food travels hundreds of miles from its source. Using a military metaphor, Berry argues that we should “shorten the supply lines.” The results? 1) By turning to local food production, individuals will be better positioned to know where their food comes from. They will be able to know and engage local farmers. Knowledge is essential for good decisions. Without it we are subjected to the whims of people we don’t know in places far from us. 2) The security of the nation is jeopardized when our food supply lines are long and where food production is highly concentrated. For example, an intentional attack (or an accidental infection) in one Concentration Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) in Nebraska could infect thousands and perhaps millions of Americans. On the other hand, if meat production was localized, the scope of damage done by accidental infection would be dramatically reduced and the attractiveness of the food production system as a terrorist target would virtually disappear.
Isn’t it true that people with talent live in cities while rednecks and other losers stay home?
The disparaging way that many in our society refer to manual labor indicates a disjunction between physical and mental labor. The so-called “knowledge workers” leave home, go to college, and settle in urban centers with other nomads of the educated class. From there they make a living dealing in abstractions rarely making anything concrete, durable, or useful. The result is urban “communities” consisting of rootless individuals detached from their places of birth, extended family, and lacking a commitment to any place on earth. Such individuals grudgingly acknowledge the necessity of the laboring classes but are relieved that they have escaped such a stupefying fate. Through both his fiction and non-fiction Berry casts a vision depicting the goodness of local communities, of commitment to place, of a life where bodily existence is celebrated as a good, and where manual work is a means of expressing the creativity and dignity of a human life well-lived. In short, Berry challenges utilitarian and dualistic assumptions lying at the root of our culture and offers a compelling alternative.
Isn’t Berry a romantic pining for a world that is gone? Everyone knows you can’t turn back the clock. Why should we listen to him?
This question is usually raised by one of two groups: Those who have not read Berry with care, or those who would rather not face the difficult questions he raises. Berry insightfully turns the question around: Are not modern politics, modern culture, and the modern economy the true romantics, in their pathetic quest for autonomy, progress and individualism in the face of what beings really know about reality? Against this romanticism Berry calls above all for a return to sanity, to a rightful understanding of mans’ relationship to reality, including the bodily world and the duties that world entails.
Is Berry a twentieth-century Jeffersonian?
One could cite innumerable influences on Berry’s work: The Bible, Dante, Milton, Shakespeare, Thoreau, T.S. Eliot. A correct understanding of Berry cannot be captured by any single one of them, yet much can be gained by exploring the references Berry makes in his own writings. Berry does occasionally describe himself as an agrarian in the Jeffersonian tradition. By this he means to remind us of the democratic tradition of agrarianism as found in Jefferson’s writings, and to distance himself from the southern tradition of agrarianism, with its racist and aristocratic associations.
Isn’t Berry a liberal? How is it that conservatives have come to take an interest in him?
It is often assumed that if one cares about nature, extols community, expresses concerns about technology, or questions capitalism, then one must be a liberal. Yet all of these themes are recognizable in the writings of the leading members of the conservative movement, such as Russell Kirk, Richard Weaver, and Leo Strauss. To these similarities between Berry and conservatism we might add the following: His defense of decentralization and the relative autonomy of local communities; his healthy suspicion of government power and his support for individual liberty and a robust civil society; his hostility to the welfare state and defense of private property; his opposition to abortion, promiscuity and divorce; his respect for tradition and distrust of leveling abstractions such as scientism.