Matthew D. Stewart

“We ought to love our own states and our own home places better than any others. That is our duty. But to love our own places is to recognize—or it ought to be—that other people love their places better than they love ours. This, too, is our duty. If we love our places, if we recognize that other people love their places, then maybe it is also our duty to refrain from bombing or in any way harming any place. Our own or anybody else’s. So I am speaking here as a Kentuckian, as I should.”

—Wendell Berry, The Land Institute, Salina, Kansas, 25 September 2010[1]

At the age of 24, the farmer, novelist, and poet Wendell Berry packed up and left Kentucky for California to join the creative writing program at Stanford in Palo Alto. What he did not pack for the journey was plans to return to Kentucky. Berry had absorbed the notion that homes—particularly homes in the dying rural communities of Middle America—were for leaving, and that, as the novelist Thomas Wolfe said, “You can’t go home again.” Berry would later dispute this received wisdom in several essays and limn the contours of it in his fiction, but it took him careful reflection to get to that point.[2] From the distance of several decades, these reflections are surprising to revisit since he is so closely tied to his place and has been since 1964. But what if Wendell Berry had just stayed in California like countless Americans before and since?

In a national literature marked prominently by restlessness, roads, and waterways, Berry has written eloquently about placed people, about those who have returned home or never left. Some American escapes have been romantic adventures, some desperate necessities, and some have been both.[3] If the American past has encouraged and even demanded a national literature filled with stories of escape, at times making a romance out of a necessity, Berry has tried through his writing to open up possibilities for an American future that includes not just escapes but returns.[4] Escapes may be riveting, but, whether the perception is accurate or not, an escape implies something deficient about the place and people that caused it. Escapes are not just adventures but fractures.

By rendering wholly, concretely, and imaginatively one place, Port Royal, Kentucky, through both history and fiction (“Port William” in his fiction), Berry has imagined for his readers the possibility of families, communities, and places that make a return more fulfilling, more joyful, and possibly even more romantic than an escape. But he has not just lectured Americans about why they should return to their places, as he did to his. His story is not simply about a return. It is about building places that inspire returns, where duty and desire coexist. He has lived and imagined a return to a place worth preserving; he has practiced an art of return.[5] As readers of his work know, this is not because his place is better than other places, but because it is his, by both birth and choice. To care for a given place does not demand the denigration of other places: “There are no unsacred places / there are only sacred places / and desecrated places.”[6]

The fact remains that Berry spent a meaningful part of his life in California, and we might not have Wendell Berry, Kentuckian, without Wendell Berry, Californian. This suggestion requires some extrapolation and we need to pry a little. It is true that he has lived most of his life in Kentucky and written almost all of his published work there. He has been reluctant to write extensively about other places.[7] In the context of his lifelong endeavor to know and belong to his place, this reluctance to write about other places is consistent. He has refused literary tourism and travel writing. He has also refused the notion that travel is essential for broadening horizons: “I myself have traveled several thousand miles to arrive at Lane’s Landing, five miles from where I was born, and the knowledge that I gained by my travels was mainly that I was born into the same world as everybody else.”[8]

But there are exceptions to this. He wrote parts of his first novel, Nathan Coulter, while on fellowship at Stanford from 1958-1960. He wrote an extended essay, The Hidden Wound, over the winter of 1968-1969 while a visiting professor at Stanford, and he wrote his short novel Remembering during winter 1987 while writer-in-residence at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.[9]

It seems fitting that of the other places he has lived, California is the place where he has spent the most time. He lived in the place that has sung the sirens’ song for so many migrants’ hearts for over two centuries, and is the place that represents American wanderlust more than any other. It is an exaggeration, but still illuminating to compare Berry’s return to Kentucky after tasting California’s sweet shores to Odysseus’ choice to return to Penelope and to Ithaca, made more poignant by the choice’s being resolved on Calypso’s island with a goddess, an island, and immortality on offer.

Berry admired The Odyssey, and he wrote movingly about it in The Unsettling of America.[10] Focused attention on the allusions to California in his work and then the work that he did there suggests that California as Calypso’s Island comprises his primary relation to the state. Remembering is the most vivid example.

In the turning point of the novel, the protagonist Andy Catlett finds himself restless in an ugly San Francisco hotel room. To escape, he goes for a night walk through the city at 4 a.m. His restlessness is the consequence of two festering wounds. One started with a literal wound. Andy had mangled his hand in a farming accident, it was amputated, and he has been withdrawing into himself and away from his family in his sadness and anger. The other is his lonely opposition to industrial agriculture and the economic justifications for it, exacerbated by his participation in an agriculture conference earlier that day.

Andy’s walk through dead-of-night San Francisco is marked by heightened interiority and intense moral panic. He is completely inside himself, and surprised by any sensory perceptions. He sees the people around him as souls. They occasionally speak to him, puncturing his interiority but only briefly. His wanderings lead to a pier, “the whole continent at his back, nothing between him and Asia but water,” and Andy realizes that he is free, that he could forsake Kentucky, his troubled marriage, and his farm that he can no longer work independently. He could just reside in San Francisco and no one would find him. But this possibility begins to look more like the “freedom” of an astronaut cut off from the shuttle, careening away through zero gravity: “All distance is around him, and he wants nothing that he has. All choice is around him and he knows nothing that he wants.”[11]

As morning breaks into this dark night of the soul, he is remembered into Port William through his past and begins again to choose. Port William will not let him spiral into space. He sees that he has no meaningful future without his past, and it is his recollections of specific people and places that bring his mind back into his body and enable him to act. Though he cannot replace his amputated hand, he is remembered in every other sense of the word.

At the risk of turning Berry’s character into Berry himself, it is reasonable to guess that Berry saw his own experiences in California similarly. His past grew hazy, his future weightless. Being outside of his place pushed him outside of himself. “Notes from an Absence and a Return,” published journal entries from his 1968-1969 visit to Stanford, grant some historical weight. After a midnight walk across a golf course, he wrote, “I have become, in a very cool, knowing way, hungry to be at home again. I want back the clear, exacting sense of myself that I only get from being at work there on my writing and on the place itself.”[12]

But even if this is the dominant relation, it is not all that can be said about Wendell Berry in California. Berry himself has acknowledged the “necessarily confusing” difficulty of tracing influences in a writer’s life, or any person’s life. He has been surprised by much of what he has written.[13] He has attempted to trace influences; however, and it is therefore easier to discuss his relationship with Californians rather than California without conjecture.

Steve Rhodes_Mount Tamalpais State Park

Mount Tamalpais State Park via Flickr user Steve Rhodes.

Among the Californians who influenced him, one stands above all others: Tanya Amyx Berry, to whom he has been married for over half a century. She was born in Berkeley in 1936, where her father was doing graduate work, and spent her early childhood there before her parents made their own return to Kentucky in 1945 so her father could take a position at the University of Kentucky.[14] It is a fool’s errand to attempt to untangle the mutual influences between them in relation to their respective places, but from his published letters to the California poet Gary Snyder it is at least evident that Berry enjoyed developing his own affections for places, such as Mount Tamalpais, that were special to Tanya in her childhood.[15]

Less difficult to elaborate is the influence of another Californian, the novelist, essayist, historian, and founder of Stanford’s creative writing program, Wallace Stegner.[16] By awarding Berry a fellowship to attend the creative writing program at Stanford, Stegner opened the first possibility for him to leave Kentucky. But by being a regional writer who cared about his region, Stegner also opened for Berry the possibility of return (he also eventually suggested Berry for a position at the University of Kentucky, materially enabling his return in 1964). Stegner’s writing about his region went further than the standard creative writing program advice to “write what you know.”[17] Though Berry did not really comprehend the lesson until after he had returned to Kentucky, Stegner had taught Berry how to be a regional writer who gives rather than takes. Stegner was a regional writer “who not only [wrote] about his region but also [did] his best to protect it, by writing and in other ways, from its would-be exploiters and destroyers.”[18] Stegner knew he belonged to his region, shaped by its history for good and for ill.[19] Among American writers, Berry thought Stegner was the first of significance to make that commitment to his region.[20]

Berry contrasted Stegner with “industrialists of letters” who mine “one’s province for whatever can be got out of it in the way of ‘raw material’ for stories and novels.” In this, fiction is not simply harmless entertainment. Berry wrote, “I would argue that it has been possible for such writers to write so exploitatively, condescendingly, and contemptuously of their regions and their people as virtually to prepare the way for worse exploitation by their colleagues in other industries: if it’s a god-forsaken boondocks full of ignorant hillbillies, or a god-forsaken desert populated by a few culturally deprived ranchers, why not strip-mine it?”[21]

In his reflection on Stegner, Berry writes that Stegner’s primary means of teaching was by “bestowing a kindness that implied an expectation, and by setting an example” and it seems that Stegner’s regionalism taught Berry as he was learning by his own efforts to become a generous regionalist himself.[22] Being a few steps past Berry in the effort, Stegner proved to Berry that it was possible.

The point requires extrapolation beyond their writings, but it might even be the case that Stegner’s example almost shamed Berry into writing from his region. Despite similarities in style, sentiment, artistic range, and theme, their life histories were as different as are their native regions. As a reader of his work, Berry knew that Stegner’s regionalism was forged in a rejection of his father’s rootless wanderings across the West against his mother’s protestations, an experience embodied most vividly in his fictional account of his childhood, The Big Rock Candy Mountain.[23] Because his father chased booms throughout the West, from Saskatchewan to Washington to Utah, Stegner was from a region more than a place.[24] Stegner found sensual comfort in the effects of aridity of the West, the ochres and parched whites under brilliant blue skies, but he had to choose a place to make a home (Los Altos Hills) since, like many deracinated Americans, he did not inherit one.

Berry’s sensual identification with the Appalachian forests of Kentucky was and is as keen as was Stegner’s with high desert plains and mountains, but Berry also had generations of stories and people awaiting his return. His regionalism was in part borne out of a renewed appreciation of his past as a moral resource. Though he was honest regarding the conquest of indigenous land and the institutional violence of slavery that accompanied his ancestors’ settlement in Kentucky and thereby made it possible for him to be a multiple-generation native Kentuckian, Berry valued these tangled roots too much to discard them. He had left several generations of family and friends to attend Stanford.

Stegner’s whole nuclear family had died just after he turned thirty and he barely knew any relatives or anyone else who had any recollection of him as a child. His past was contained almost exclusively in his own mind. There were no attics or relatives to remind him of it, to spark long unvisited memories, or to confirm hazy details. Perhaps Berry respected Stegner’s attempts to build a place despite his deracination; by observing Stegner’s efforts to find, keep, and respect a particular place over one lifetime, Berry then realized how rare and precious was his own generational rootedness to Kentucky and Appalachia. It was another of Stegner’s gifts that implied an expectation.

By Stegner’s own admission, and despite the example that Berry drew from his work, Stegner did not understand Berry’s attempt to write from Kentucky and in fact attempted to persuade him to stay on at Stanford following a visiting faculty appointment that Berry held in 1968-1969. Stegner thought Berry “owed it to [him]self and [his] gift to stay out where the action was.” “Fortunately,” Stegner wrote, in a retrospective article in 1990, “I got nowhere.”[25] He was among the many of Berry’s admirers who thought he would be overwhelmed by his commitment to farming or underwhelmed by the intellectual companionship of his fellow Kentuckians and that the result would be the waste of a rare literary talent.

But Berry thought there might be “another measure” for his life than his literary output alone.[26] He did not believe in Yeats’ choice between the “perfection of the life, or of the work,” a “fictitious choice” that “does damage to people who think they can actually make it.”[27] He refused the choice by returning to Kentucky, and has reaffirmed it since then: “If anything I have written about this place can be taken to countenance the misuse of it, or to excuse anybody for rating land as ‘capital’ or its human members as ‘labor’ or ‘resources,’ my writing would have been better unwritten. And then to hell with any value anybody may find in it as ‘literature.’”[28]

Mt Tamalpais 18 via Flickr user Tom Hilton.

Mt Tamalpais via Flickr user Tom Hilton.

The visit to Stanford did not persuade Berry to stay there full-time, but it did provide him with the opportunity to reflect on the racial injustice that inflamed protests on the Stanford campus and the rest of the nation in the late Sixties. It seems that his observation of racism and race in California allowed him the distance to reflect on racism in Kentucky. It is here that it might be easier to think about how California influenced him as a place.

The Hidden Wound, an extended essay in which Berry traced the grim legacy of slavery and racism in Kentucky, and his family’s role in the perpetuation of these evils, was the result. The book was not widely read on publication in 1970, but it has been granted a second life through republication and the sustained admiration of poet, essayist, and activist bell hooks, another Kentuckian who went to Stanford a decade after Berry and later, partly due to Berry’s influence, returned to Kentucky. Since she returned to Kentucky to teach at Berea College in 2004, hooks has been teaching from The Hidden Wound and wrote a sustained reflection on it in Belonging: A Culture of Place. An interview with Berry follows the reflection.[29]

Berry describes the incidents that motivated him to write The Hidden Wound in the book’s “Afterword,” written for the 1989 edition. While at Stanford, Berry witnessed several outdoor meetings called by black students for the purpose of establishing a Black Studies program on campus. In Berry’s recollection, the meetings were what historian Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn has called a “harangue-flagellation” ritual in which the black students condemned the white students and faculty for their racism and the whites in attendance nodded in agreement mixed with occasional applause.[30] In another situation on campus, Berry found himself in the middle of a civil rights protest. When a student in the protest heard Berry ask his companion a question in his Kentucky drawl what was going on, his accent prompted the response, “You damned well better find out!”[31]

Berry thought there was no way for him to speak meaningfully in that context, and so The Hidden Wound is what he would have said had the moment allowed it. He wrote it during the winter break in the Bender Room at Stanford University’s Green Library. The essay was motivated by the feeling that the civil rights milieu at the time was at a stalemate and would stay there if the focus on power eclipsed other possible ends. Though Berry agreed that racism was a moral evil and political problem, he thought the most visible sentiments guiding these events were dangerous. Just as in his writing about agriculture, nature, and land—and in his, “A Statement Against the War in Vietnam,” delivered at the University of Kentucky the winter before—he fought abstractions and the separations that oversimplify: of means and ends, of thought and emotion, intentions and actions.[32]

He wrote that the “speakers and hearers seemed to be in perfect agreement that the whites were absolutely guilty of racism, and that the blacks where absolutely innocent of it. They were thus absolutely divided by their agreement.”[33] In his interview with hooks he said more simply: “I thought guilt and anger were the wrong motives for a conversation about race.” People can be more “dependably motivated by a sense of what would be desirable than by a sense of what has been deplorable.”[34] By arguing that power is a necessary part of the discussion, but no more necessary than love, Berry refused the false dichotomy between structure and personal responsibility. During the demonstrations, in contrast, “one felt the possibility of an agreement of sorts, but nowhere the possibility of the mutual recognition of a common humanity, or the possibility of forgiveness and reconciliation, or the possibility of love.”[35]

Berry’s essay was an attempt to acknowledge but transcend the double-binds that choke so many discussions of race, both then and now, by eschewing abstractions and turning to actual people and actual places. His thought was grounded in the assumption that “it is good for people to know each other.” [36] Berry’s essay includes an extended reflection of his love for a black man, Nick Watkins, and a black woman, Aunt Georgie, both of whom he knew in his childhood. He acknowledged that his relationship to them, including an understanding of their perception of and care for him, was always limited by segregation but also by difference in age, as well as the amount of time that had passed since they’d known each other. He had no way of knowing what they thought as he wrote the essay and was responsible in acknowledgement of his limitations, but he also knew that he loved them and that their example in his life was a “moral resource.”[37]

For hooks, this is one of the most important insights of the essay, the acknowledgement that “inter-racial living, even in flawed structures of racial hierarchy, produces a concrete reality base of knowing and potential community that will simply be there.” These relationships can then serve to challenge the more common reality in which “all that white folks and black folks know of one another is what they find in the media, which is usually a set of stereotypical representations of both races.”[38] What both Berry in the essay and hooks in her appreciation of it emphasize throughout is that places need holistic care: the inhabitants need to be open to each other and to strangers, and need to be sensitive to the limitations of the cultures and the flora and fauna that sustain it.

Berry’s reflections on his experiences in California are notable for what they are not and might very well have been—an exercise in distancing himself from his home for its racism or a rejection of the metropolis and retreat into jingoistic provincialism. Many in this situation choose, and then despise the rejected option. Berry chose Kentucky, but he chose a Kentucky that he both loved and sought to improve. He looked for his own native resources and tried to use them to their full potential.

If Berry’s return from California is more significant than his time in California, his call to make ourselves and our places worthy of returns and open to them is one abstraction that should not be limited by place. Berry has helped us imagine these returns as possibilities, and as possibilities that are meaningful and good. Not all of us can or even should return to our places of birth. But all of us—Californians, Kentuckians, Americans—should build places that make returns welcome, joyful possibilities.

Wendell Berry C Guy Mendes_full

Wendell Berry, photograph by C Guy Mendes, provided by Counterpoint Press.

Notes

  • The author would like to thank Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn, Eric Miller, Robert Corban, Katie Stewart, and the editors and reviewers from Boom for their thoughtful comments on this essay.

[1] “Restoration and Conservation” talk, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WdFMKbVjwq0.

[2] Wendell Berry, “A Native Hill,” The Hudson Review 21 (Winter 1968-1969): 604-605. “A Native Hill” was republished in The Long-Legged House (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2003). Berry also discusses his reflections on his return to Kentucky in The Hidden Wound (New York: North Point Press, 1989), 65.

[3] See Wallace Stegner’s “Living Dry” and “Variations on a Theme by Crèvecoeur” in The American West as Living Space (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1987).

[4] Grace Elizabeth Hale examines the “romance of the outsider,” most prominent among white American men, and its historical significance in A Nation of Outsiders: How the White Middle Class Fell in Love with Rebellion in Postwar America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011). She highlights the fact that escapes and rebellions are, to some extent, not an option for many Americans. Neither are returns, in many cases. Reading Jeff Hobbs’ The Brief and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League (New York: Scribner, 2015) as an escape and return narrative illustrates this point more concretely.

[5] I am grateful to Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn for suggesting this phrase.

[6] Wendell Berry, “How to Be a Poet (to remind myself)” Poetry, January 2001.

[7] Wendell Berry, Imagination in Place (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2010), 2. When he has written about other places, he has tended to write about their agricultural practices more than any of their other qualities. See for example, “Tuscany” in Citizenship Papers (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2014), 175.

[8] Berry, The Long-Legged House, 190.

[9] Some shorter pieces have been written away from Kentucky as well, such as “Notes from an Absence and a Return,” included in A Continuous Harmony: Essays Cultural and Agricultural (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970), 36-55.

[10] Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 1996), 123-130.

[11] Wendell Berry, Remembering (New York: North Point Press, 1988), 51.

[12] Berry, A Continuous Harmony, 38.

[13] Berry, Imagination in Place, 4-6.

[14] Mary Berry Smith, “My Mother’s Making of an Agrarian Home,” Edible: Louisville and the Bluegrass Region, June 2011.

[15] In a letter to Gary Snyder, Berry writes of Mount Tamalpais, “it was a place very important to Tanya” and that after he lived in California, it “became an important place also to me.” Chad Wrigglesworth, ed., Distant Neighbors: The Selected Letters of Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2014), 245. Snyder is another Californian whom Berry has written to and about, and whose influence on Berry and vice versa deserves more recognition than it receives in this essay. The collection of letters is a good place to start.

[16] Stegner had a fraught relationship with California, but it was the place he chose to make his home, and he lived there from 1945 until his death in 1993.

[17] Mark McGurl has examined the influence of creative writing programs in the United States in the twentieth century in The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011).

[18] Wendell Berry, What Are People For? (New York: North Point Press, 1990), 55. In a review of McGurl’s The Program Era, Louis Menand discusses the negative reactions of ethnic minorities whose cultures are revealed by ethnic minorities in creative writing programs largely for the sake of outsiders or what Menand calls “literary tourists.” The New Yorker, “Show or Tell,” 8 June 2009.

[19] This theme occurs throughout Stegner’s work. One of the best places to explore it is in Wolf Willow: A History, a Story, and a Memory of the Last Plains Frontier (New York: Penguin, 1990), 127-138.

[20] Berry lists the regional writers that most inspired him in Imagination in Place, some of which predate Stegner, such as Sarah Orne Jewett. It is perhaps Stegner’s commitment to protecting his place more than his sense of belonging that led Berry to argue for his uniqueness (pp. 4-5).

[21] Berry, What Are People For? 54-55.

[22] Ibid, 49.

[23] Wallace Stegner, The Big Rock Candy Mountain (New York: Duell, Sloan, and Pearce, 1943). A cogent historical account of his childhood is found in “Finding the Place: A Migrant Childhood,” in Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs: Living and Writing in the West (New York: Penguin Books, 1992), 3-21.

[24] Stegner discusses his sense of where he is from most extensively in “At Home in the Fields of the Lord,” which is included and contextualized helpfully in Robert C. Steensma, Wallace Stegner’s Salt Lake City (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2007), 61-70.

[25] Stegner, Where the Bluebird Sings, 211-12.

[26] Berry, The Hidden Wound, 87.

[27] Berry, Imagination in Place, 125.

[28] Ibid, 15-16.

[29] Bell hooks, Belonging: A Culture of Place (New York: Routledge, 2009).

[30] Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn, Race Experts: How Racial Etiquette, Sensitivity Training, and New Age Therapy Hijacked the Civil Rights Revolution (New York: W.W. Norton, 2001).

[31] Berry, The Hidden Wound, 109-110.

[32] Included in The Long-Legged House, 75-88. Berry’s pacifism and willingness to take an unpopular stand in his home institution suggests that he did not need to go to California to “experience” the Sixties.

[33] Ibid, 109-110.

[34] Ibid, 62.

[35] Ibid, 109-110.

[36] Ibid, 133.

[37] Ibid, 61.

[38] Hooks, Belonging: A Culture of Place, 182-83.

 

Matthew D. Stewart is a PhD candidate in History at Syracuse University. His dissertation explores the intellectual history of the modern American West through the career of Wallace Stegner. He was a scholar-facilitator for the 2017 Idaho Humanities Council’s Summer Teacher’s Institute, “Wallace Stegner and the Consciousness of Place,” and is currently a Public Humanities Fellow with Humanities New York.

 

Copyright: © 2017 Matthew D. Stewart. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

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