Unsettling Berry


Henry L. Carrigan, Jr.


Like the Southern Agrarians before him, farmer, poet, novelist, and essayist Wendell Berry advocates a radical vision of society that involves a return to community and the land. In his essays and poems, Berry nurtures words as lovingly and as fiercely as he cultivates the crops on his Port Royal, Kentucky farm. In his novels, Berry has created a wondrous and lush fictional landscape that recalls Hardy’s Wessex, Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, Jon Hassler’s Staggerford, and Donald Harington’s Stay More.

In this stimulating collection—Wendell Berry: Life and Work (University Press of Kentucky; $35)—numerous writers come to praise Berry. Editor Jason Peters, associate professor of English at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois, gathers a number of essays that focus on Berry’s political visions, his novels and poetry, and his agricultural writings. A number of Berry’s friends also reminisce about their first meetings with Berry and their deep friendships with him.

Barbara Kingsolver captures the tone of Berry’s commitment to community, the land, and living a simpler life in a material world in a hilarious fashion. “For me, the thorniest passage [in life] is to raise a spiritual family in an overly material world, and the question I often ask myself is: What would Wendell do?” She then regales the reader with her own story of getting a cell phone; she would buy one when Wendell Berry bought one. Needless to say, she is now connected, but Berry remains cell-less.

Donald Hall, Jack Shoemaker (the founding publisher of North Point Press and now of Shoemaker & Hoard, Berry’s publishers), Hayden Carruth, and other friends recall their first meetings with the gangly man in rural Kentucky whose work on his farm taught them deep lessons about their own farming techniques as well as the value of living close to the land.

Allan Carlson captures well the central themes of Berry’s life and work: “the decline of family-scale agriculture, a reverence for nature, a disdain for organized religion, and faith in a self-sufficient homestead.”

Berry has long deserved such a masterful collection as this. Peters’ collection does what the best of the collections always do: drive us to pick up Berry’s writings and read them over and over again.

Henry Carrigan dreamed of being a rock ‘n roll star with a life of coast-to-coast tours and wild parties with Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell among others. But books intervened, and instead he went to Emory University to major in Religion and Literature. Later, teaching humanities in college, he took up writing about books—this time to avoid reading students’ papers. Henry soon became Library Journal's religion columnist, then religion book editor for Publishers Weekly. While working as editor-in-chief for Northwestern University Press and editing classic books for Paraclete Press, he still continues to write for LJ and PW, as well as the Washington Post Book World, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Charlotte Observer, ForeWord magazine—and now, BiblioBuffet. And he still enjoys playing his guitar. Henry can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

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