Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Learning Something New About Wendell Berry

Book Cover: The Hidden Wound

Last week I read a Wendell Berry essay I'd not seen before, and I had an "aha!" moment. The book was The Hidden Wound, 1989, originally published in 1970. The essay addresses the deliterious effects of racism in the American South, focusing particularly on the subtle damage caused to white people by their racist ideology. He is unflinchingly honest about himself and his family of origin, which cannot have been easy in 1970.

Book Cover: Life Is a Miracle I've been an admirer of Berry's essays since the 1970's. He writes about topics that interest me--conservation, agriculture, ecology, the philosophy of science, and American history--and he also brings new things to my attention. I took particular glee in his 2000 book Life Is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition, in which Berry effectively demolishes E. O. Wilson's 1998 book, Consilience : The Unity of Knowledge. Ed Wilson is an unpleasant, arrogant man in person, and not nearly as clever as he imagines himself on paper, and I was delighted when Berry made intellectual mincemeat of him. I only wish Berry had taken on Wilson's On Human Nature, which was much more widely read outside academia. Book Cover: Consilience Book Cover: On Human Nature

I've never met Mr. Berry, but he is a thoughtful, precise writer, willing to explore unpopular positions, think through difficult topics, and even criticize himself. As I read his essays, I nod in approval, note with surprise, and understand confusing topics better. Yet on completing his books, I often find myself feeling subtly annoyed. "Take your exquisite sensibility," I mutter under my breath, "and stick it where the sun don't shine." I've never understood this emotional response, but I have assumed that I would probably like Mr. Berry no better than I liked Mr. Wilson in the flesh.

Reading The Hidden Wound, I finally understood my reaction. Berry has described himself as a farmer, the descendent of farmers, someone who works his own land. This has informed his writing, and, as a farm girl myself, made me think he was "one of us." In The Hidden Wound, Berry reveals that his great-grandparents were slave owners, and his grandfather and father employed a "hired men," who actually worked the land. Wendell Berry is from a long line of "gentlemen farmers," not the same sort of people as my parents and grandparents at all. Berry works his own land himself, with horses, for pleasure and for a connection to the land and its past. He has made his livlihood as a university professor and author. To his credit, he understands he is doing this, and admits it to himself and his readers:

I became thoughtful of all the work that had been done there on my home ground either by despised men or by men who secretly despised themselves for doing the work of despised men--so many of the necessary acts of my history, neither valued nor understood, wasted in the process of wasting the earth.
The Hidden Wound, p. 88
He concerns himself about a right attitude toward work, and credits his father's hired hands for teaching him about this:

...[T]hese people made in themselves an astonishing endurance, a marvelous ability to survive. They have endured and survived the worst, and in the course of their long ordeal they have developed--as most of white society has not--the understanding and the means both of small private pleasures and of communal grief and celebration and joy.

The great benefit in my childhood friendship with Nick and Aunt Georgie, then, was not an experience of sympathy, though that was involved and was essential, but a prolonged intense contact with lives and minds radically unlike my own, and radically unlike any other that I might have known as a white child among white adults. They don't figure in my memory and in my thoughts about them as objects of pity, but rather as friends and teachers, ancestors you could say, the forebearers of certain essential strains in my thinking.

The Hidden Wound, pp. 63-64
"Most of white society" is apparently not what I or my neighbors in Pocahontas County belong to. I was raised to do what needed to be done, whether it was a pleasant task or not. People who shirked unpleasant work were morally defective. I got this at home, at church, and at school. "Never ask anyone else to do something you wouldn't do yourself," was the rule for bosses. As it turned out, this moral value got me into all sorts of trouble in graduate school and in my professional life. I think at some level, I have recognized Berry's connection with the people who despise manual labor, and have felt part of the underclass which he admires and despises, but does not belong to.

The notion that one is too good to do what it is neccessary for somebody to do is always weakening. The unwillingness, or the inability, to dirty one's hands in one's own service is a serious flaw of character. But in a society that sense of superiority can cut off a whole class or a whole race from its most necessary experience. For one thing, it can curtail or distort a society's sense of the means, and of the importance of the means, of getting work done; it prolongs and ramifies the life and effect of pernicious absractions. In America, for instance, one of the most depraved and destructive habits has always been an obsession with results. Getting the job done is good. Pondering as to how the job should be done, or whether or not it should be done, is apt to be regarded as a waste of time.
The Hidden Wound, p. 106

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