Letters from an American farmer, 1983
For twenty years, writer Wendell Berry has lived and farmed just outside the tiny town of Port Royal, KY. Berry's relationship to the vicinity of Port Royal, with its meandering streams and rolling farmlands - and his writing about it - recalls the ''sense of place'' also found in Thoreau's journal-essays on Concord , Mass., in William Carlos Williams's poetic depiction of Paterson, N.J., and in Faulkner's novels about ''mythical'' Yoknapatawpha County in Mississippi.Skip to next paragraph
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Berry, in fact, works in all three genres. In addition to seven collections of poetry, he has published several books of essays (including the highly regarded ''Recollected Essays'') and three novels.
Berry has found a sizable audience among those seeking alternatives to cultural commercialism. He sees the ideal possibilities as well as the realistic conditions in all aspects of life - farming, marriage, community relations, husbandry of the earth's resources.
This past summer Wendell Berry discussed some of these concerns in an exchange of letters with Robert Marquand Jr. of The Home Forum.m.
Q You have commented much about the worth of down home virtues: morality, discipline, practicality, responsibility. Yet these virtues wouldn't seem to mesh so easily with a popular conception of the artist as one who needs to be deliberately disorganized and freewheeling in order to be spontaneous and creative. Have you found that the basic virtues play a significant role in your own artistic expression, or do they primarily find expression in some other part of your life?m
I think that for artists deliberately to disorder their lives in order to be ''spontaneous and creative'' is merely stupid. To begin with, it is carrying coals to Newcastle. I don't know any life now, mine certainly included, that does not suffer from some amount of disorder. If that is necessary to art, there is more than enough of it. But the business of art is order - not the false order or order-at-any-price of some organizations, but the order that produces health. Order is health, I think. Disorder is toxic air, polluted water, soil erosion, war.
Of course, all makers of good work rely on gifts - helps that they cannot provide for themselves, and may not expect. Such gifts, I suppose, may be said to arrive ''spontaneously,'' but that is only to say that we don't know very much about them. We certainly don't know enough about them to conclude that they are disorderly, or that they can somehow be invoked by disorder. I doubt that these ''spontaneous'' gifts would have a value, or even be recognizable in disorder. If we set the world on fire, it will not matter, and will not be noticed, that the sun is shining.
I would like to add that I don't think of virtues as being ''down home,'' for that phrase implies that home is a backward place that the better people have improved themselves by leaving.
Q What does ''home'' mean to you?
In a country in which multitudes of people have been leaving home more and more frequently since pioneer times, the idea of home is easily falsified by wishful thinking. It is undoubtedly because we are so homeless that we do so much sentimental singing about home, back home, going home, etc.
Robert Frost gives us the following exchange about home:
''Home is the place where, when
you have to go there They have to take you in.''
''I should have called it Something you somehow haven't to deserve.''