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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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[Mr. Shaw] does not say ÔFreedom now’ or ÔPower to the People.’ He says ÔMy color, the colored race of people on earth, goin’ to shed theirselves of these slavery ways, but it takes many a trip to the river to get clean.’
The trouble with Berry is that he, too, wants to homogenize society. The great majority of his essays promote the concept that everyone should live in a small, tight-knit rural enclave. Here is where Berry’s self-righteousness creeps in. While there may be numerous personal and environmental advantages to his way of life, anyone not living in this fashion is seen by Berry as an enemy. Farmers are the only good people in the world. Everyone else (computer-hacking environmentalists, “outside experts,” city-dwellers, etc.) has an inherent problem. This level of hatred is not deserved. While attacking critics for calling Edward Abbey a xenophobe (“A Few Words in Favor of Edward Abbey”), Berry neglects to see that he himself is one.
Berry does have some reason to resent big corporations, power companies, mining industries, and agribusiness. He has seen poor farm families driven off their land. He has seen land decimated and miners poisoned. But for him to harp on modern schooling (“A powerful superstition of modern life is that people and conditions are improved inevitably by education”) is unreasonable. Berry should remember that without education he would be unable to write his essays.
Berry too often stands on a soap-box. True, when we feel passionate it may be permissible to stand on one, but Berry never proves many of his statements, and this can frustrate his readers. Merely to say Abbey is a “cultivated man, a splendid writer” is unfair to Berry’s audience. Where is the evidence? Berry’s righteous indignation unfortunately tends to cloud his arguments. People who criticize him for implying that every writer’s wife must serve as her husband’s editor are “audacious and irresponsible gossips” (“Why I Am Not Going To Buy a Computer”). In this rush to always have the last word, Berry ends up appearing foolish, with terrible arguments:
[W]hen somebody has used a computer to write work that is demonstrably better than Dante’s . . . then I will speak of computers in a more respectful tone of voice, though I still will not buy one.
It therefore becomes easier to identify with critic Toby Koosman, who reminds us that “the value of a computer to a writer is that it is a tool not for generating ideas but for typing and editing words.”
In trying to attain any utopia, problems arise. The pre-industrial rural model of community life has its advantages, but no one can inspire everyone in America to follow his lead in adopting a model of community. Indeed, we may not be able to follow the lead. Even with everyone’s consent, it would be difficult to regroup the population into separated rural enclaves. The logistics of relocation, the confusion for our system of distribution and supply of goods and services, and the havoc visited upon our property values, are huge and prohibitive problems. Small is not always possible. Big hospitals are necessary to provide care and services unavailable from small hospitals. Big schools and universities are necessary to educate the populace and help us understand each other better. And “outside experts” in their laboratories are necessary to discover new ways of feeding everyone. The population problem is not going to go away. While certainly Berry is right in saying we should strive to cause less environmental damage, to do so we must remain down to earth. Ironically, Berry the Farmer hasn’t realized this yet.