No Utopia Found in Wendell Berry’s What Are People For?

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No Utopia Found in Wendell Berry’s What Are People For?

The preface to Wendell Berry’s What Are People For? is in the form of a two-part poem, titled “Damage” and “Healing.” By carefully digging through its cryptic obscurities (“It is despair that sees the work failing in one’s own failure”), we find the main message: The more diminutive, local, and settled a culture, the healthier it is and the less “damage” it inflicts upon its people and the land. Berry can be called a utopian but not in the traditional sense. He pines not for the future but for the past. Basing his lifestyle upon his boyhood memories of fifty years ago as well as America’s pioneer days, Berry is confident he has found the answer to the perfect existence.

In this case, book and individual are difficult to separate. What Are People For? is Wendell Berry, so to criticize one is to criticize the other. His book is a compilation of contemplative essays on subjects ranging from literature to technology from the perspective of a Kentucky farmer. Having been in the same profession and location most of his young life, Berry in 1958 (at age twenty-four) accepted a Stanford University Stegner Fellowship. Intrigued, he decided to read Stegner’s books and take this professor’s writing seminar. Berry is reverent and testifies that Stegner filled the Jones Room of the Stanford Library with an aura of literary authority. It is here that Berry learns “responsible writing.” This is writing that contains the values one has “proven” by living exclusively in one country place and by perfecting one’s knowledge of the place so as to bring sustainable benefit to it. Responsible writing actively promotes “good agriculture and forestry” unlike writing “by self-styled smart people in the offices and laboratories of a centralized economy and then sold at the highest possible profit to the supposedly dumb country people.” What Berry says about his seminar experience is that it started him on his development toward working at home, and away from his assumption “that I was going to follow a literary career that would lead me far from [Henry County] to teach at a university in a large city.”

In important ways Berry has some very good ideas. Concerned that radio and television have done too much to homogenize society, he uses “Nate Shaw” (a pseudonym) to provide an illustration of a man who lived without euphemistic clichés.

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