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Volume 34, Number 4 (Winter 1994)

Farming, Community, and Culture

book cover imageSex, Economy, Freedom, and Community,
by Wendell Berry.
Pantheon Books 1994,
208 pp., $20, cloth; $10 paper.

N. Alan Cornett

To make us love our country, our country ought to be lovely.

—Edmund Burke

Wendell Berry’s career has spanned more than thirty years and this newest collection of essays continues his lifelong fidelity to what he believes. Berry is a poet, a novelist and an often brilliant essayist who speaks to us with an insight rivaled by few of his contemporaries. But foremost, Wendell Berry farms; he is one who stands in the great agrarian tradition that has existed since God created man from the dust, to live on the earth and “to dress it and keep it.” And though he stands within the same tradition as the Nashville Agrarians of I’ll Take My Stand, Berry is not their disciple. Berry would never be so bold as to claim to be “his own man,” but his agrarian views have developed independently of the Vanderbilt group. Instead of Donald Davidson and Allen Tate, Berry looks to Sir Albert Howard and the Amish. But more importantly, Berry looks to his ancestors and his neighbors; he looks to his own experience and the experience of those he knows. For those who admire the Vanderbilt Agrarians this book should help confirm the entire agrarian tradition, for Berry strengthens and emboldens us to stand against the rampant consumerism of our time.

Berry begins his book with the statement, “This is a book about sales resistance.” In his prefatory essay, “The Joys of Sales Resistance,” Berry’s mordant wit is at its best as he lampoons modern attitudes on everything from education (“Educated people are better than other people because education improves people and makes them good.”) to multiculturalists (“Tolerant and multicultural persons hyphenate their land of origin and their nationality. I, for example, am a Kentuckian-American.”) to his perennial emphasis on agriculture (“There will always be plenty of food, for if farmers don’t grow it from the soil, then scientists will invent it.”). Berry sees the shallowness of our society, but insists in a later essay, “We can think—if we will.” This is a book about not only the joys of sales resistance but also the necessity of it. And it is a book for something: for the sustainability of man’s life on earth.

As Berry writes, we cannot hope to sustain ourselves by “thinking globally and acting locally.” We must act locally, true, but only after thinking locally. To think globally is to think abstractly and “[a]bstraction is the enemy wherever it is found.” In order to act properly, man can act only in relation to his community; the “real work of planet-saving will be small, humble, and humbling.” Only by small, humble, community-oriented action can we reach sustainability, a balance between city and country, people and land.

Essays in the book include a timely discussion of tobacco that, like all Berry’s essays, cuts through the cant of both sides and looks at the issue honestly and forthrightly, and a look at the Persian Gulf War that many (considering the country’s euphoria) might find disturbing in its implications. The essay on tobacco is written as a dialogue between Berry and a critic of tobacco farming. Here, Berry gives a convincing defense of tobacco farming: even though it might be preferable that farmers not raise tobacco, the modern economy allows them to grow almost nothing else. His nuanced and detailed argument is superb.

“Peaceableness Toward Enemies” is a point by point dissection of America’s reasons for going to war with Iraq. Here Berry traces our “necessity” of going to war back to our own extractive, unsustainable, and wasteful economy. We have made ourselves slaves to foreign powers because of our greed for oil. In order to have true freedom we must strive for greater self-sufficiency and sustainability.

Berry’s view of the land and man’s responsibility to it rests on the right assumption that the land is a blessing from God for all mankind. It is not only God’s blessing for us, but also for our ancestors and our descendants; and by living in an extractive economy we in effect steal from other generations, both before us and after us. To do this is “the most horrible blasphemy.” These ideas are brought out in the essay “Christianity and the Survival of Creation” originally delivered as an address before the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville. Berry is forthright in his criticism of churches who join in the immorality of our modern culture and economy by focusing on their building funds rather than on the creation itself. Though one might disagree with several of Berry’s theological points, he is surely right in suggesting that most modern churches resemble modern corporations, in structure and outlook, more than they do the church of the New Testament.

In the book’s title essay, Berry examines community disintegration and its causes. Among the causes of that disintegration, in our society, is a distorted understanding of sex. He begins by looking at the Clarence Thomas hearings, which became “a story-telling contest that was not winnable by either participant.” Berry then continues with a discussion of those who seek to “liberate” themselves but in so doing have acted only selfishly. In many ways, our society treats the land like the sexual revolutionaries treat sex—what we need is husbandry, but what we get are one-night stands. The essay is fascinating and complex, a wonderful example of Berry’s keen rhetorical skills.

For those unfamiliar with Wendell Berry, this book will provide an introduction to his thinking that cannot help but compel you to read his other works. If you are tired of the stale political debate that dominates the modern scene, Berry’s concise essays, poetry, and fiction will assure you that intellectual giants do still walk the earth. This year Berry will be awarded the T. S. Eliot Award of the Ingersoll Prizes, an award justly deserved by this too-little-known writer.

Berry’s philosophy is summed up in his epigraph for “Sex, Economy, Freedom, & Community,” the title essay. From E. M. Forster’s Howard’s End, it expresses an idea reflected in the writings of Edmund Burke and, more recently, of Russell Kirk:

“It all turns on affection now,” said Margaret.

“Affection. Don’t you see?”  

N. Alan Cornett, a former assistant editor of the Bookman and a native Kentuckian, was at the time of writing studying history in South Carolina.

Posted: February 24, 2013 in Best of the Bookman.

The twentieth-century conservative is concerned, first of all, with the regeneration of the spirit and character—with the perennial problem of the inner order of the soul, the restoration of the ethical understanding, and the religious sanction upon which any life worth living is founded. This is conservatism at the highest.

Russell Kirk

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