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Frank1
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Author Review: Wendell Berry
Jan 10th, 2015 at 12:20am
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I remember reading that if one wants to get the most out of a book you should write about it after you read it.  So, I am going to write a book review of Wendell Berry's book Jayber Crow, but first I will write about the author himself.  I have read around 30 or so of his books, poetry collections, and essays, so I feel I understand a lot of his thought at this point.

I suppose every author/thinker is going to have their focus.  C.S. Lewis, for instance, focused a lot on defense of Christian belief and practices.  Berry, like Lewis, is certainly a Christian writer, but he spends effectively no time defending his belief in the Gospels.  Rather his concern is with how we can live up to the both beautiful and terrifying (terrifying, because how can we live up to it?) standard of love advocated by Christ.  He asks the question: Why is it so easy to hate and so hard to love?

This next part is speculation, but Berry's assumption of belief in the Gospel's probably comes from his upbringing in rural Kentucky, during the 30's and 40's, in an atmosphere where belief in God was effectively universal (as opposed, say, to Lewis's upbringing among an increasingly irreligious English upper class).  In all his fiction books I can only recall one character who was an atheist.  This would be Port William's town doctor, Dr. Markman, who is accepted by the community, and a part of it, but whose beliefs are not really taken seriously by anybody. 

Though Berry's characters do not doubt the existence of God, or the teachings of the Gospel, this does not mean they are without doubt per se.  Berry's protagonists doubt a lot.  Mostly they doubt authority, especially authority that comes from outside their community and yet claims to know how they should be living.  After WWII when gov't and corporations begin to push for the 'Get big or get out' philosophy of farming, along with mechanization of farming, his protagonists doubt how getting into debt with equipment and fertilizer companies will improve their farms, households or community.  They doubt the advice of the young preachers who come into town fresh out of seminary for a year or two and then hit the road before they really can know much of the community.  They doubt the promises of gov't and business that you can improve your life with a 'better job' and more things.  They doubt you should spend all your working time to do nothing but earn money, which you then pay back to businesses for the privilege of their 'entertainment products'.

As to the church in Berry's rural Kentucky world, it is mostly a feminine space.   Of course the preachers are always men, but it is women who are the beating heart of the church.  Most of the men are relatively uncomfortable dressing up on Sunday's to enter into this space.  Their minds are on the work of the fields and woods, and almost all their lives are spent outside.  The confined atmosphere of the church is not amenable to them.  As mentioned above, Berry's male characters are not unbelievers; as Berry says, these farmers and woodsman are all 'far too acquainted with mystery' not to believe in a higher power behind the life of this world.  But, his male characters are not concerned with theology, or dogma, it simply does not interest them.  As one old Uncle says: "Old age did more for my morals than Methodism ever did!"  Furthermore, they are generally turned off by the preachers with their constant preaching about the evil of the body vs. the goodness of the spirit.  These are people who live in the beauty of nature, surrounded by fields and animals and woods.  They are surrounded by bodies and life, planting life, raising it, caring for it when it is young.  They are not too disposed to hear how all this must be devalued for the sake of the spirit...especially when after church every Sunday the preacher is always invited, and always accepts, the invitation to feed his body with a large meal at some parishioner’s house.

No, for the men of the town of Port William, God is everywhere around them, every day, he doesn't need to be especially sought out in church.

This devaluing of the natural world, of the world of the body, is one of Berry's biggest beefs with organized Christianity.  He sees in this separation the eventual devaluing of both body and soul.  Devalue the body, and the life of the world, and eventually you are willing to abuse the world.  This abuse and its results ultimately come back to hurt the soul. 

At the beginning I mentioned that the protagonists of Berry's novels are concerned with how to live a life like that recommended in the Gospels.  Berry's conclusion seems to be that the closest we can come to such a life is through community.  He believes, as Lao Tzu said, that one should be content to spend their life in a 'small country where you can hear the barking of the dog's across the way but do not desire to go there'.  Only by living in a close-knit community, being committed to a place and people, will we be able to learn to love our neighbors as ourselves, to not judge them and accept them for who they are, etc.

  


To say homo sapiens, is to say Homo religiosus; there is no man without God. ~Frithjof Schuon
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Frank1
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Re: Author Review: Wendell Berry
Reply #1 - Jan 10th, 2015 at 12:21am
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So the antagonist's in Berry's books are always those people or entities who threaten the community, mainly 'technology', corporations and the government.  Technology destroys the rhythm of rural communal life.  A tractor, unlike a mule, does not need to stop after a few hours of work to rest and be fed...thus, farmers push their land beyond its limits.  They plow more land more often, because they can, and leave less to rest and recuperate.  Technology does not just effect the farmers, the life of the town center is also disrupted.  With cars and interstates all of the sudden it becomes no big deal for one to do their shopping 10 or 20 or 30 miles away.  Why shop at the small local general store when you can go to the mall in the city?  Cars and paved roads destroy the economy of the rural town, which simply cannot compete with larger centers of population.

Paved roads lead to school consolidation.  Now people not only shop outside of the community, but all of their children's school activities take them out of the community.  As Jayber Crow says of Port William "when the town lost its school it was as if the wind had been knocked out of it, and it never recovered."

Port Williams old life of people sitting on their porches and talking at night was destroyed by the TV.  The music of the country was replaced by the music of the radio...the old country barn dances died out as people drove to the towns for their weekend entertainment.

As to gov’t and corporations, their salesman and ‘experts’ work to spread disruptive technologies, which they are always glad to tell you will ‘improve’ your life, if you are willing to spend the money (and often accumulate the debt) necessary to have said technologies.

Berry is also a pacifist.  This comes from his literal reading of the Gospels and also from his love of the life of this world, even with all its sorrows and mischances.  In one book, speaking of viewing pictures of Okinawa before and after the American invasion in WWII, he describes the war as a monstrous typhoon of hate, accumulating itself over years and vast distances, unstoppable when it hits the island, with its well-tended fields and villages, bridges and temples, all destroyed by people who never knew them.  Berry is hardly some utopian, I think it is his profound and poetic, love of place and community that drive him to disassociate himself with the vast and impersonal forces of modern war.  That and the lies that are constantly fed to us about war from those in power…the lies and propaganda that lead to hatred of people and places we do not know, a hatred that doesn’t even have the dignity of being personal.  Yes, Berry, cannot stand the impersonal nature of modern warfare.

Most of Berry's books chart the decline of the rural farm and community over the course of the 20th century.  His books usually begin in the first half of the 20th century and end in the 80's, 90's or later.  His protagonists, by the end of his books, have often seen a drastic change in their communities...too many young have left, businesses are shuddered, farms have been consolidated, and farmers and their land are in worse shape than ever...and still the gov't and corporations tell us to accumulate debt, and then 'spend and grow' our way out of it.

Yet, there are also the people who hang on.  The people who do not listen to 'The Experts', or 'The News'.  The people who are not concerned with the health of 'The Economy'.  These people still live the traditional rural live of thriftiness.  They save rather than spend, don't go into debt, reuse and repair rather than buy new.  They live simply and make as much of what they need as is possible off of their own land, with their own hands.  They team up with their neighbors to get big jobs done, and then eat together afterwards.  They care for their old people and keep them out of 'damned nursing homes'.  They also worry what will become of themselves and their children.  The older ones grew up in a time when it was still assumed small farmers would exist forever, doing about as they had always done.  As they age, they can see this assumption can no longer be held.  The future is increasingly uncertain.  The impersonal, almost unstoppable, forces of 'The Economy' impinge ever more on their small town lives.  Concerning the decline of farming, an aging farmer, Art Rowanberry says of the leaders of the corporations and gov’t (the ‘experts’)…”I used to wish they would starve to death…now I am worried they actually will”.  Yet, Berry’s protagonists hang on, even as hope narrows, like Spengler's legionary of Pompeia, they will guard their posts to the bitter end.
« Last Edit: Jan 10th, 2015 at 12:26am by Frank1 »  


To say homo sapiens, is to say Homo religiosus; there is no man without God. ~Frithjof Schuon
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