Plough has recently published one of the better versions of a critique of Wendell Berry that is fairly common and fairly tiresome. The author, Tamara Hill Murphy, has a great many kind things to say about Berry but then says that Berry’s work is characterized by a naive idealization of the agrarian past and a romanticism about it that obscures the dark corners of that world.
Murphy makes the critique helpfully concrete (and stark) when she writes,
The dissonance with Berry occurs when I consider other family tales buried under the agrarian beauty. These are stories of shattered relationships, addiction, job loss, abandonment, mental illness, and unspoken violations that seem to separate my kinfolk from the clans in Port William. In Berry’s fictional village, readers occasionally witness felonies, infidelity, drunken brawls, and tragic deaths, but all of them seem to be told in a dusky, warming light. …
Berry’s body of work lauds an unadulterated ecosphere. How does he reconcile glossing over (or at least hiding from his reader’s view) the ugly dysfunctions that often prosper alongside the natural beauty of such villages and pasturelands? The stories I grew up hearing and observing provide an alternative cast of characters to the Port William community. I’ve seen firsthand not only the ornery nature of such characters but also the ingrown thinking that sometimes flourishes in out-of-sight locales. For example, there’s the good country farmer I watched with my own eyes fist-beat his son. They seemed to keep their farm by the mad farmer’s standards, but that did not make them good. I tiptoe around extended family members who fought their whole lives like Jayber Crow to avoid answering to “the man across the desk,” yet leave a trail of fractured relationships in their wake.
To be sure, if this critique were an accurate portrayal of Berry’s fiction, it would be rather devastating. But it fails on two fronts. First, it simply doesn’t account for the body of Berry’s work. Second, it fails to recognize the underlying philosophical critique Berry is making which is basically the same critique made explicitly by Lewis in The Abolition of Man and implicitly by Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings.
Does Berry Idealize Agrarian America?
To begin, we need to take a broader survey of Berry’s writing. (NOTE: My friend Jeff Bilbro has also surveyed Berry’s work in making this same point in response to Murphy.) The charge that he is blind to the racism that undergirds his southern agrarianism is a common one, but an odd one: Berry has written an entire book on the issue of racism in the south called The Hidden Wound. And the critique he makes is devastating and trenchant, especially when one notes that he wrote it while a grad student at Stanford in the late 1950s before the Civil Rights Movement really kicks into full gear in the 1960s.
Indeed, his critique of southern racism extends beyond the merely physical aspects of it, as horrifying as those are, to the deeper spiritual damage it does to people. I have quoted this excerpt before, but it is worth revisiting:
Consider the moral predicament of the master who sat in church with his slaves, thus attesting his belief in the immortality of the souls of people whose bodies he owned and used. He thus placed his body, if not his mind, at the very crux of the deepest contradiction of his life. How could he presume to own the body of a man whose soul he considered as worthy of salvation as his own? To keep this question from articulating itself in his thoughts and demanding an answer, he had to perfect an empty space in his mind, a silence, between heavenly concerns and earthly concerns, between body and spirit. If there had ever opened a conscious connection between the two claims, if the two sides of his mind had ever touched, it would have been like building a fire in a house full of gunpowder: somewhere deep down in his mind he always knew the danger, and his nerves were always alert to it.
The Hidden Wound is not widely read today, which is why many people think Berry hasn’t addressed racism in the south. But the fact is that he has addressed it; most of us simply haven’t read what is a very good and helpful book.
Additionally, it is equally false to suggest that Berry glosses over the other dark aspects of life in Port William. Indeed, the only novels he has written that can with some justice be called “idealistic” or “romantic,” are his final two: Jayber Crow and Hannah Coulter.
His first Port William novel, Nathan Coulter, is a fairly grim retelling of the early life of Nathan Coulter, who one day would become husband to Hannah, the namesake of his final Port William novel. Nathan tells the story of Nathan’s dysfunctional relationship with his frequently cruel father, Jarrat, who never recovered psychologically from the death of his wife. It also paints a stark picture of the consequences that Nathan’s father’s depression has on Nathan’s brother Tom, who goes to fight in World War II and never comes back.
The other earlier novels and stories can be equally brutal. “Pray Without Ceasing,” is the story of how Thad Coulter, another member of the Coulter family, killed his closest friend Ben Feltner and how Ben’s son, Mat and Thad both worked through the enormously complex, difficult emotions that followed Thad’s act. Still another story tells of how the members of Port William gathered together to protect a neighbor from killing himself while dealing with his own bout of depression.
Finally, perhaps the most brutal story is The Memory of Old Jack, an early novel that tells the story of Jack Beechum’s failed marriage to Ruth Lightwood. It also tells the story of the miscarriage of Jack and Ruth’s son, the raising of their daughter Clara who is never close to her father, and of Jack’s affair with another woman in Port William who then dies when her home catches fire. In both its narrative and its depictions of Jack and Ruth’s marriage it is dark, difficult, and (in the case of the latter) relentlessly realistic. (I wrote about their marriage in more detail for Fare Forward.)
In all these various tales, Berry is unflinching in his portrayal of how brutal and bleak the agrarian world could be.
Berry and Lewis’s Abolition of Man
That said, there’s a further point to make about how Berry understands evil. One of the complaints that Murphy seems to have, though she never puts it quite this way, is that Berry sees the evil of an agribusinessman like Troy Chatham as being qualitatively different than the evil of the traditional farmer who is cruel to his children. For Murphy, Berry has no real warrant for that and so it is another example of his idealization of agrarian life. What goes largely unconsidered is the possibility that Berry might be right in seeing these two evils as being qualitatively different.
To understand the point, we need to take a closer look at Lewis’s Abolition of Man. In an interview, Berry has basically said that he sees his and Lewis’s projects as being very similar:
I am an admirer of C.S. Lewis and I love a lot of the things he wrote. Especially I love his literary scholarship… He did and said some things that are incalculably beyond my reach because of the way his life was and the way his persuasion led him… And he was a superb steward of the things that he was given to take care of… He was a great servant, C.S. Lewis was… The fundamental difference between [C.S. Lewis] and me is probably not one of belief but one of life. He was a scholar, a man whose life was devoted almost exclusively to books. And I’m an agrarian and a farmer.
In Abolition, Lewis sketches out a significant change in how western man sees himself, moving away from the idea of a given natural order in which we are members and to which we are bound and must submit and toward the idea of ourselves as being basically autonomous from creation, self-defined, and free to use the physical world in whatever way we desire.
There are a variety of fictional narratives that depict the shift well. Lewis gets at it beautifully in his Ransom trilogy. Berry captures it well in his portrayal of Troy Chatham in Jayber Crow. But the most devastating portrayal of it comes from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings in his description of Saruman. In The Two Towers, Treebeard the ent, Saruman’s neighbor, says that Saruman does not care for living things anymore. He has come to have a mind of metal and gears. Elsewhere in his speech to Gandalf in The Fellowship of the Ring, Saruman rejects his given role as “Saruman the White” because white can only be a beginning; he will instead become Saruman of many colors, able to mold and shapeshift in order to advance his own interests and position himself to gain power.
His treatment of the earth fits with this general sensibility as well. There is nothing sacred about the forest of Fangorn to Saruman. It is simply raw material that he, a great and mighty wizard, can use in whatever way he wishes. There is simply no reason not to “rip” the trees down, to use Saruman’s graphic description of it. Of course, the problem for Saruman is that whether he acknowledges the created order or not, it still exists. And he receives an unwelcome reminder of that fact when the forest itself rises up against him and tears apart his entire enterprise at Isengard. (It is perhaps worth considering whether climate change is a sort of “march of the ents,” against our many modern-day Sarumans given our own abuse of creation and disregard for God’s created order.)
Thus for Tolkien (and Lewis and Berry) there really is a qualitative difference between the evil of a Saruman (or Troy Chatham) and that of someone like Thad Coulter, Tumnus the Fawn (when he plans to hand Lucy over to the White Witch), or Ted Sandyman. The latter sin in, if we can put it this way, an individualistic way: They are carried away by jealousy or cowardice or pride.
But the evil of a Saruman or Chatham is of another kind. They are not simply being carried away by their own crooked heart into committing petty acts of meanness; they are instead attempting to exalt themselves above the natural order, indeed above God himself. Theirs is the sin of Babel, which is in fact the inspiration for the title of Lewis’s novel That Hideous Strength. They are not simply giving in to an evil desire in a single moment; they are trying to transform themselves into something more than they are as defined by their given station within the natural order. They are not simply rejecting righteousness in a single moment, as Coulter or Tumnus do in their sin; they are rejecting the entire world in which righteousness and sin are made sensible.
This, then, is why Berry treats the sin of the industrialists, of the modern-day Sarumans, as being qualitatively different than the sins of the old Agrarians. To be sure, both sorts of sin are damning: Thad Coulter’s sin will send him to hell as quickly as Chatham’s. But there is still a significant difference in that Chatham’s sin transforms the created world and thus has much more far-reaching consequences than the sin of someone like Thad Coulter.
When Thad Coulter sins, he destroys his life and radically transforms the life of the Feltners. But it is damage that can be made right with the aid of the Gospel and the practice of forgiveness and reconciliation. But when Chatham depletes the soil, destroys his family’s wealth built over generations, and chops down the family’s beloved forest called the Nest Egg, the consequences are much more far reaching. (Recall the way Tolkien describes Saruman’s ravaging of the Shire at the end of The Return of the King. Much of the grief from that act comes from the fact that, without the aid of Galadriel’s gift to Sam, it would have taken three or four generations for the Shire to return to what it once was.)
The sins of the Shire take place within a place that accepts the natural order. They do harm, but the scale of the damage is typically limited as far as its effect on the broader community. But the sins of Saruman are fundamentally of another sort because they under-cut and jeopardize the order that preserves life for all people. Berry is not wrong, then, to see them as being different and ultimately more destructive.