A Sunday Chat with Wendell Berry

A visit with the winner of the Richard C. Holbrooke Distinguished Achievement Award

When it comes to being solidly grounded, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better role model than Wendell Berry.

For more than 50 years, and through more than 50 published books, the renowned author and philosopher has remained faithful to the principles he holds dear: a love of land and family, a commitment to sustainable agriculture and traditional farming, an abhorrence of war and violence.

The Kentucky writer will be celebrated tonight for those principles and for the eloquence with which he conveys them through his poetry, novels, essays and short stories.

At the 2013 Dayton Literary Peace Prize dinner, which will be held tonight on stage at the Benjamin and Marian Schuster Center, Berry will be given the organization’s highest honor: The Ambassador Richard C. Holbrooke Distinguished Achievement Award.

Formerly known as the Lifetime Achievement Award, past recipients of the $10,000 prize have included Studs Terkel, Elie Wiesel, Taylor Branch, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wudun and Geraldine Brooks.

Those familiar with the novels and short stories that chronicle daily life in the little Kentucky town of Port William would no doubt recognize the winding tree-lined country roads, the fields of corn and soy beans, and the weathered barns that lead to the real-life home of Tanya and Wendell Berry near Port Royal, Ky.

What more appropriate place for our Sunday Chat than this cozy farmhouse kitchen in Henry County where the Berry family first settled more than 200 years and five generations ago.


Q: You are receiving the Literary Peace Prize because your books have influenced so many people. What books influenced you when you were growing up? Were you a writer when you were young?

A: I was a reader from time to time. I wasn’t a bookish child. I always had a lot to do outdoors where I grew up. When I was a kid I read books over and over again if I liked them : The boys’ books of Mark Twain, ‘The Swiss Family Robinson,” ‘The Yearling.’

Anybody could have written what I wrote in the early days. I had encouragement in college. Until you’ve learned something about how to do it and become a competent reader and have something you need to say, you can’t take being a writer very seriously.

By the time I married, I had some sense of vocation. I never was shopping for a subject, I was a person who inherited a subject. I was a country person raised on working farms and encouraged to value the good work of that kind of life.

I read rural writers — Jane Austin, Thomas Hardy, William Faulkner, Mark Twain’s Mississippi writing, Sarah Orne Jewett’s ‘The Country of the Pointed Firs,” Thoreau.

I started a little novel and Houghton Mifflin read part of it and gave me a $250 option in the summer of 1958. I had written 60 pages of it. “Nathan Coulter” was published in 1960.

Q: Every room in this house is filled with books, floor to ceiling, but I don’t see any of your books? Where are they?

A: I don’t need to see the spines of my own books. I keep them upstairs so when I need to I can see what I wrote In the Port William fiction sometimes I still make mistakes and give different people the same name.


Q: It surprised me to read that you went away to a military high school?

A: I was not a motivated student and didn’t do well in (elementary) school. I wanted to be outdoors, I didn’t thrive in the confinement of school.

At military school we had a study hall five nights a week and if you made good grades you didn’t have to go to the study hall, you could work in your room. I made a choice for freedom, I became an honor student because I didn’t want to go to study hall.

Q: What do you think is the best education for a child?

A: I don’t think there is any sure method for raising and educating children. There’s going to be a certain amount of waste in it and a lot of error. I’ve decided that if you can find three or four good teachers who really help you, you’re doing pretty well.

The air is full of specifications and rules about how to educate children, most don’t work. If you have a teacher who loves the subject and a student who likes the subject well enough to want to learn it, it’s going to go well. Most kids are not volunteers, so education is being imposed on them.


Q: I know that you don’t have a computer. How and when do you write? How do you choose your subject matter?

A: I try to write every day but I’ve always had this place to care for and other things to do to make a living, so writing hasn’t always come first.

A lot of things are more important to me than writing—my family, my place, my livestock.

I write by longhand, in spiral notebooks. I think erasing with an eraser is a great luxury. On a good day, I’ll write three pages. Then Tanya types it up on a 1956 Royal Standard typewriter.

I never was shopping for a subject, I was a person who inherited a subject. I was a country person raised on working farms and encouraged to value the good work of that kind of life.

You’re trying to write the best book you can, that’s what you owe to the reader. When I write fiction, I’m trying to tell a good story. That story has been the decline of country life in my time. It has been heartbreaking to live in the country during my lifetime. That’s what I’ve had to bear witness to.

As an essayist, I’ve written with a sense of being potentially involved in a conversation about cultural and social and political and economic issues that I think have public importance. I think I’ve been wrong about the extent to which there was a public conversation on those subjects.

In “The Unsettling of America,” (written in 1977), I thought I would contribute to a serious public conversation about industrial agriculture but after publication there really was no conversation. And there still isn’t.


Q: You don’t you have a television set?

A: I don’t like to sit in front of a screen. I like this place, I like my life in it and I don’t want to be distracted by something someone else thinks I should be paying attention to. And I don’t want to listen to somebody trying to sell me things I don’t need.


Q: You’ve been a lifelong activist— against the war in Vietnam, against the death penalty, against coal-burning power plants. Have you ever been arrested?

A: I’ve made myself eligible to be arrested three times. I was only arrested once and that time I was not put in jail. I have never aspired to be in jail.

I think I should be against war, period. The time is just gone when only the soldiers got killed. Ezra Pound said the only thing wrong about modern wars was they killed the wrong people.

I’d feel better about it if the people who make the war — the politicians—were the first ones to fight in it. Just as soon as they vote for it, they ought to resign their offices and enlist in the army. The old kings went, read the Bible, read Shakespeare. I’m for reviving that!


Q: Do you think rural life is more conducive to good family life than urban life?

A: Let’s make the distinction between a household that is an economy and one that is just a shelter. A household that is an economy is connected economically to its place. The place could be a neighborhood or a large town lot with room for a garden. I think a marriage centered on a household economy is going to last better than a marriage centered on a place where people converge to stay out of the rain and snow.

I think couples and communities stick together because they need each other, not just because they like each other.

I think the most successful people in this country are the Amish. They are successful because they have accepted limits of power. Neighborliness is a limit if you know how to treat your neighbors as if you love them . If you go to Holmes County, you’ll see many small farms and each involves a domestic economy that requires participation of everyone in the family — from the little bitty kids to the oldest who are still able to feed the chickens.

It’s a choice: do you want your neighbor or do you want your neighbor’s land?

In America, people have come to think of industrial technology as labor-saving, but it is really people-replacing.

Q: Can you talk about the distinction you’ve made between a ‘boomer’ and a ‘sticker’?

A: I got those terms from my teacher Wallace Stegner who thought of a boomer as a person who goes into a place to make a killing and gets out. A sticker is someone who comes to settle, a woman who plants a bed of perennial flowers and waits to see them grow and bloom every year in the same place. A sticker is a farmer who makes a place fit to be inherited by the next generation.

Q: The Berrys are obviously stickers. Both of your parents’ families came here around 1803 looking for a place to settle and five generations later, you’re still here.

I like being on my own land because I’m inclined in that direction. It’s an old direction: the feeling that if you have a little land, you have independence, you have self-sufficiency. It’s a theme that has cropped up often in literary tradition. It’s in the Bible, it’s in The Odyssey.

A: Having your land, having your place, having your children. One of the crises in this country is that hereditary farming is disappearing.

Q: At 79, are there other things would you still like to do?

A: What I’m really interested in is being right here. I don’t feel like I have to go somewhere else to be happy.