A Recent Interview with Wendell Berry
From THE SUN magazine
Jeff Fearnside: Stopping by a local eatery on the way here, I asked people what they might want to ask you. Henry County is small, they noted, and farming isn’t very profitable anymore. So, why did you stay when you could have left for, as one waitress put it, “glitz and glamour” elsewhere?
Berry: I just happen to have no appetite for glitz and glamour. I like it here. This place has furnished its quota of people who’ve helped each other, cared for each other, and tried to be fair. I have known some of them, living and dead, whom I’ve loved deeply, and being here reminds me of them. This has given my days a quality that they wouldn’t have had if I’d moved away.
There have been some good farmers here. The way of farming that I grew up with was conservative in the best sense. I learned a lot from people in Henry County. Probably all my most influential teachers lived here, when you get right down to it. I owe big debts to teachers in universities, to literary influences, and so on. But it’s the people you listened to as a child whose influence is immeasurable — especially your grandparents, your parents, your older friends. I’ve paid a lot of attention to older people. Of course, not a lot of people here are older than I am anymore, but some are, and I still love to listen to them, to my immense improvement and pleasure.
Fearnside: What are some of the things that they say?
Berry: They tell stories. They talk about relationships. They talk about events that have stuck in their minds. The most important thing is not what they say, but the way they talk. We had a local pattern of speech at one time. Now we’re running out of people who speak it. But there were once people here whose speech was uninfluenced by the media, and it had an immediacy, a loveliness when it was intelligently used, and a great capacity for humor.
Fearnside: A good friend of mine told me that she knows people from Kentucky who have trained themselves not to speak like Kentuckians.
Berry: That was the main goal of the school system: to stop you from talking like a “hick” and get you to speak standard American.
Fearnside: When you speak of what the elders here in Henry County discuss, it reminds me of a line from Barry Lopez’s short-story collection Winter Count: “That is all that is holding us together, stories and compassion.”
Berry: I don’t think we’re just stories — we’re living souls, too — but we’d be nothing without stories. Of course, stories that belong to a landscape are different from stories that don’t. In Arctic Dreams Lopez talks about how the Eskimos, the native Alaskan people, have a cultural landscape — the landscape as they know it — that is always a little different from the actual landscape, which nobody ever will fully know.
In a functioning culture the landscape is full of stories. Stories adhere to it. And they’re most interesting when they’re told within the landscape. If, say, an oral-history project records somebody’s story and puts it in the university archives, then it’s a different story. It’s become isolated, misplaced, displaced.
Fearnside: You’re a well-known advocate for local economies, yet you write for a much-wider-than-local audience, which means you must rely on the machinery of the corporate world to get your message out. Is there a contradiction in this, or is it simply an inescapable paradox that you must be pragmatic about?
Berry: There are contradictions in it, no doubt about that. There’s an absolutely lethal contradiction in my driving and flying around to talk about conservation and local economies. But you have to live in the world the way it is. You can’t declare yourself too good for it and move away. You have to carry the effort wherever you can take it. You’ve got to have allies. The thought of the Committees of Correspondence in the American Revolution is never very far from my mind. People have to stay in touch somehow. They have to meet and talk. They have to support each other. But that’s a network, not a community.
Read the full review:
WENDELL BERRY: LIFE AND WORK.
Jason Peters, ed.
Hardcover: UP of KY, 2007.
Buy now: [ Doulos Christou Books $28 ] [ Amazon ]
BOOKS AND CULTURE reviews a new book that
examines MLK’s “I have a Dream” speech
in its context
I have a dream … .” This simple collocation of four words has become one of the most instantly recognized quotations of all time. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s trademark refrain is frequently borrowed the world over by journalists, preachers, politicians, screenwriters, and other communicators seeking to convey to their readers and listeners certain visions to be actualized. It marked the high point of a grand and powerful speech delivered in the heart of his country’s capital, at a time of wrenching national soul-searching.
The public image of what is known today as the civil rights movement has come to be symbolized by the 1963 March on Washington. There, from a stage erected in front of the Lincoln Memorial, King addressed some 250,000 supporters rallying for protections that would take form within the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968. The capstone of the historic assembly was his “I Have a Dream” speech, an oration televised around the world. Coming near the midpoint of King’s public ministry, the speech encapsulated the essence of a saga begun with the local bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955–56 and ended by his death from an assassin’s bullet in Memphis in 1968. So comprehensive has been the subsequent journalistic and academic treatment of the movement that that the meaning behind the famous words that now identify it is simply assumed.
Such unexamined assumptions can prove problematic, according to UCLA professor Eric J. Sundquist, who is author or editor of eight books on American literature and culture. In his latest offering, King’s Dream, the distinguished scholar grapples with the question of what King’s dream actually was. Taking the “I have a dream” speech as his unit of analysis and recorded history as his data set, Sundquist synthesizes, contextualizes, and answers the question in a number of ways.
Sundquist first reviews the history of American debates about racial justice, spanning three centuries. He then demonstrates how King’s speech pristinely embodies the story of African American freedom. Next, he surveys the extent to which the meaning of the speech “has been obscured by its appropriation for every conceivable cause.” He finally asserts its continuing relevance for contemporary arguments about equality. Covering some of the same territory explored in Drew Hansen’s 2003 book The Dream: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Speech That Inspired a Nation, but from a fresh perspective, Sundquist sets King’s speech within the cultural and rhetorical traditions on which the civil rights leader drew in crafting his oratory.
Read the full review:
Hardcover: Yale UP, 2009.
Buy now: [ Doulos Christou Books $22 ] [ Amazon ]
A Review of Robert Ellickson’s THE HOUSEHOLD
From THE NEW REPUBLIC
An economic maelstrom has struck the world. The Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped by 35 percent between last New Year’s Eve and the start of this year’s somewhat bleaker holiday season, making this the worst year for stocks since 1931. The crisis has already been responsible for massive political change, carrying in not only a new president but also a new appetite for large-scale government action. Who would have thought, a year ago, that America would be seriously considering a semi-nationalization of the automobile industry?
This crisis, which has buffeted every bourse and rocked every government, had humble origins. It began with ordinary homes in Las Vegas and Miami and Cleveland. The arcane magic of mortgagebacked securities meant that few observers realized just how sensitive the entire world had become to fluctuations in the American housing market, but that is exactly what happened. The troubles began, as is well known, in the subprime market, where a bout of extreme optimism led investors to think that the dross of no-down-payment loans to high-risk borrowers could be transformed into the gold of triple-A securities.
As mortgages began to default, the owners of mortgage-backed securities became de facto homeowners, acutely sensitive to the price of housing. Rising defaults, not coincidentally, were accompanied by falling prices. Between January 2000 and July 2006, the Case-Shiller home price index rose by 126 percent, the biggest nationwide boom in the history of housing. Between July 2006 and September 2008, housing prices dropped by 23 percent. Falling prices encouraged more defaults, since many homeowners owed far more than their homes were worth. Lenders’ liens became worth less and less.
Waves of policy proposals followed the path of financial disaster. First, there was a hue and cry to reduce the suffering inherent in millions of foreclosures. Then the banking crisis, created by the collapse in the mortgage market, led to billions of dollars of “emergency injections” to shore up the banking system. Now, the next administration is discussing a trillion-dollar fiscal stimulus to limit the damage of a full-fledged recession.
If housing policies are to be wiser in the future than they have been in the past — and they had better be — then they must be based on a better understanding of housing and housing markets. Robert Ellickson’s new book is a good place to start. In 1975, Ellickson wrote a seminal analysis of zoning law that described the beginning of a great change in American property rights. In the 1960s, he showed, the ability to build in much of America was relatively unlimited; but over the last forty years, increasingly stringent land-use controls have enabled neighbors to veto more and more projects, which has reduced construction and increased prices in America’s most desirable areas. In 1991, he wrote the classic Order without Law, which jump-started a legal literature on extra-legal arrangements that settle disputes and establish rights. Now The Household brings together his long-standing interest in housing with his interest in informal contracts.
THE HOUSEHOLD: INFORMAL ORDER AROUND THE HEARTH
Hardcover: Princeton UP, 2008.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]