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Wendell Who?

It may be bleak and cold outside but it won’t be long until July rolls around and the Circe Conference is upon us.

This year’s Paideia prize winner is author, agrarian and philosopher Wendell Berry. Berry is a prolific writer. An Amazon search for his name yields pages and pages of Berry’s individual titles, including compilations, essays, novels, short stories, poetry and even children’s literature.

In spite of that not every one is familiar with Berry. One of my friends said, “Wendell who?” The problem with approaching Berry’s writings for the first time is where to start. Here are a few suggestions:

Most people would be tempted to start with Berry’s fiction. His fictional book Jayber Crow is probably his best known work, and, in fact, most of Berry’s fiction is connected to the fictional Kentucky town of Port William where Jayber lives.

Jayber Crow

While I believe that Jayber Crow is a carefully drawn portrait with complex themes and pathos, following in the footsteps of the best Southern literature, it might not be the best place to start reading Wendell Berry.

A quick read through one of his shorter books of essays, such as Home Economics, will alert the reader to the fact that Berry is not a man with one dimensional ideals. He often surprises us.

The Way of Ignorance and Standing by Words: Essays are also excellent overviews of Berry’s scope. The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry, gives a peek at an earlier incarnation of Wendell Berry and also alerts us to the fact that this man believes in Place, a theme reiterated in Berry’s fiction.

The Way of Ignorance

After you have unwrapped Berry from the box with his essays, you can then move on to his fiction with a much clearer idea of the picture he is painting. I found Jayber Crow to be deeply moving, convicting, and even uncomfortably astute, but for many readers Hannah Coulter is the more accessible book. Women are especially drawn to Hannah.

Hannah Coulter

The above list is plentiful but you may want to give some of Berry’s poetry a try. Here is a taste of what is waiting for you:

The Peace of Wild Things

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

— Wendell Berry

And thinking of the wild things, Berry’s children’s story Whitefoot is a delight of beauty and respect. You may even want to start with it.

Who is Wendell Berry? Kimberly K. Smith takes a look at the history of Berry and the agrarian tradition in her fascinating book, Wendell Berry and the Agrarian Tradition: A Common Grace.

You won’t whip through this book but it puts much of Berry’s writing in the context of the times and the philosophies that surround the different facets of the agrarian movement and reminds us once again not to confine Wendell Berry to narrow categories. He deftly avoids becoming an ideologue or contributing to an -ism.

With such a vast bibliography we are bound to have different opinions on where to point newbies. Feel free to contradict my suggestions in the comments.

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