The diversity of Wendell Berry’s corpus makes a close study of his thought a challenge. Not only has Berry written one of the most important bodies of agrarian non-fiction in the 20th century, but he is equally skilled and more celebrated as a storyteller and a poet. Smith acknowledges the challenge of assimilating all the parts and is clear about the direction she takes, “I have treated Berry’s novels and stories primarily as elaborations of his social and moral theories.” Smith deftly and strategically investigates Berry’s fictional works as she tasks Berry’s fictional characters – the curmudgeonly yet compelling Jack Beechum, the tragic and heroic Elton Penn, and the sweat-stained Nathan Coulter all come to mind – to bring a narrative scope to Berry’s philosophy, a way of entering his thought and seeing a way for it to be lived. It leaves the agrarian reader hungrier for Berry’s fiction as an essential part of the development of his thought, as well as more of Smith’s careful and insightful analysis.
Smith’s book has appeal for those who may be coming to Berry’s work from very different places. While it is copiously footnoted and assumes some familiarity with Berry’s fiction and non-fiction work, it is certainly accessible to someone who is coming to Berry’s work for the first time, and it can serve as an excellent guide prior to diving into more specific parts of the Berry corpus. On the other hand, it is fundamentally a scholarly reflection of Berry’s work, and so it invites the criticism and careful thought of the seasoned Berry reader. Smith is obviously interested in Berry’s work, and she demonstrates significant command of the literature. Yet at the same time she is not beyond criticizing his perspective and illustrating its weaknesses (his distrust of corporate agriculture comes to mind), and the reader is invited to consider if Smith has hit her mark.
While the rural world remains in a state of uncertainty, it stands upon the precipice of a revival, and there are many who are called to see to its rebirth and reflourishing. The appeals to tradition, to community, to labor as essential ways of discovering meaning and human flourishing demonstrate that Wendell Berry has finally found his place as a philosopher in the modern world. Anyone who has ever been frustrated by our industrial world will be challenged by Wendell Berry to consider if there is a different way in the world. Maybe it isn’t the only way, but he has a vision that is certainly worth considering. For those who are invested in seeing rural America renewed as a place to find meaning and community, they can hardly have a better friend that Wendell Berry. And for my money, they could hardly have a better guide for the journey than Kimberly K. Smith.
Sam Chamelin is a licensed pastor in the United Church of Christ, serving at Lazarus Church in Lineboro, MD, and a student at Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg, PA. He is husband to Jennie and father to Caleb, Charlotte, and Brenna. He grew up on a dairy farm and is exploring the development of a small-scale homestead as a means of rural renewal.