I have found in Wendell Berry, like the late Neil Postman, an insightful critic of contemporary culture and a voice that we ignore at our own peril and to our own impoverishment. The Front Porch Republic has posted the following essay related to Berry’s work and I commend it to you.
For most fashionable American intellectuals, the life and work of the poet, novelist, and essayist Wendell Berry represents something of a scandal. Of course, it is understood to be a scandal in its current meaning as a disgrace and most certainly not in its older Christian sense as a temptation. Not only is Berry a writer who lives among the hoi polloi in rural Kentucky instead of cultivating a salon in New York City, but he also spends most of his time farming, or, in the vernacular of contemporary America, doing menial labor.
Further, with apologies to Gilbert and Sullivan, Americans tend to think of everyone who has been begat as either a Republican or a Democrat. Berry’s polemical work, however, is not easily classifiable under either label. In an age when people are leaving or being forced from their farms and when most Americans no longer understand that the phrase res publica refers to something more significant than ‘everyday low prices’, Berry is committed to the old Jeffersonian idea of an agrarian republic comprised of independent, self-reliant citizen-farmers.
Of course, Berry’s agrarianism has been dismissed as anachronistic by those for whom the idea of progress is religious dogma. However, as C.S. Lewis wrote, ‘as to putting the clock back, would you think I was joking if I said that you can put a clock back, and if the clock is wrong it is…a very sensible thing to do?’
Berry’s The Unsettling of America, which was published in 1977, appears at first glance to be a critique of American agricultural policy, which indeed it is. However, it also articulates a sustained, coherent, and compelling analysis of the fragmentation and alienation of modern American liberal culture, and offers an intimation of both an alternative understanding of culture and community, and a classical conception of human beings, their past, and their purpose.
According to Berry, America has suffered from a split personality since the time of the arrival of the first Europeans. In that European beginning, America was considered a land of economic opportunity, a colony in the modern sense of the term. It was understood as a resource to be exploited by the mother country. As Berry writes, “the first and greatest American revolution…was the coming of people who did not look upon the land as a homeland.” This America, the land of the get-rich-quick scheme, attracted fortune hunters, conquistadors, and assorted other adventurers on the make who treated the land and its inhabitants as a business venture.
At the same time, however, America was also a colony in the classical sense in that it was a place of settlement. This America attracted those who wanted a place to live and a land to cultivate, free from the religious and social strife which plagued Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. Wallace Stegner, who was Berry’s teacher at Stanford, called the first of these types ‘boomers’ and the second ‘stickers’. A century and a half earlier, Tocqueville noticed this split and attributed it to the difference between royal, proprietary, and merchant colonies and colonies created by compact. However, for Tocqueville, the Revolution and the generally democratic character of the population overcame this dichotomous beginning.