For more than six decades, a steady breeze of earth-scented essays, novels, poetry, and short stories has tumbled from a small farm in Kentucky’s Bluegrass region, where the writer Wendell Berry, now 88 years old, has made his home. As comfortable with a hoe as with a pen, he has been one of the few intellectuals reminding us that country life is far more complex than its caricature, that industrial progress is nothing of the sort, that living in the country and working with the land can be a path to redemption, that living in the country and working with the land is the path to redemption. His latest book, The Need to Be Whole: Patriotism and the History of Prejudice, is the culmination of a lifetime of thinking and writing, and it is by turns infuriating, brilliant, lazy, startlingly radical, deeply disappointing, and filled with love, even as it seethes with resentment.
Wendell Berry was born in 1934 into the tobacco country of Henry County, Kentucky. Kentucky at the time was overwhelmingly rural, and the U.S. as a whole had only just become a nation in which the majority of its inhabitants lived in urban areas. There were 1,501 farms in Henry County when Berry was a boy, and if the work was hard, it was also a way of life, with a coherent culture founded on neighborliness. From the very beginning, Berry had farming in his blood: Both sides of his family had been cultivating the same land for generations. Both sides had slaveowners among their ancestors. And Berry grew up working alongside hired Black laborers on his grandparents’ farm, learning from them many of the pleasures and skills and responsibilities of farm work.
But Berry also had books on the brain, and he left the farm in Henry County, first for the University of Kentucky, where he studied English, eventually earning a master’s degree, and then for Stanford, as a Wallace Stegner fellow in the creative writing program that Stegner founded and which would turn out some of the 20th century’s most important place-based writers. Publication of his first novel, Nathan Coulter, which was inspired by his experiences in Henry County, was followed by a Guggenheim Fellowship, which allowed Berry and his wife, Tanya, to spend a few years living the expat writer’s life in Europe. Soon after, Berry scored prestigious teaching posts, first at New York University, then at the University of Kentucky. It was a good time for his writing. Always productive, by the 1970s Berry was publishing almost a book a year, a pace that has only just started to slacken.
Then he gave it all up. In 1977 he turned his back on the urban, urbane academic life, resigned from the University of Kentucky, and went home to Henry County, where he turned to traditional farming. Ever since, he has attracted an ecumenical flock of devoted readers: organic farmers and homebrewers, picklers, and canners; rural DIY punks, writers of a pastoral bent, Christians who take stewardship seriously. Berry’s books are frequently found on the shelves of those who not only are critical of the wasteful course of mainstream American culture but also believe that we can change it ourselves with simple tools, a little land, lots of camaraderie, and plenty of sweat.
The Need to Be Whole returns to these themes, even while it takes a bitter twist that many of his longtime fans, like myself, may find difficult and disappointing. Equal parts The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture (1977), a scathing indictment of big agribusiness and factory farms, and The Hidden Wound (1970), his pathbreaking book-length essay on farming, American culture, and racism, The Need to Be Whole once again considers the question that Berry has spent his entire life contemplating: How can we live among our fellow creatures in a way that is honorable, just, and as sustaining of our souls as of our material needs?