Tuesday, July 06, 2021

Wendell Berry, Soft Traditionalist

Photo from the New Yorker
Wendell Berry
(born 1934), the American writer and agrarian, has spent much of his life siding with the land against the industrial exploiters of the land, and of farmers, and of the American rural way of life. He has written essays and books, notably The Unsettling of America (1977), as well as poetry and novels, notably Nathan Coulter (1960). For some, he follows in the steps of Henry David Thoreau. In another way, he also follows in the steps of the English Traditionalist and environmentalist Lord Northbourne (1896-1982), who combined Traditionalist perspectives with the biodynamic theories of the founder of Anthroposophy, Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925). 

In 2008, the Maryami-affiliated publisher World Wisdom Books published a collection of Lord Northbourne’s writings, and Berry wrote a foreword to it. In this he noted that Northbourne had aligned himself with René Guénon, Frithjof Schuon, Marco Pallis, Ananda Coomaraswamy, Titus Burckhardt, and Martin Lings, and added “I have read the four last-named at length and have been strongly affected and influenced by them.” 

That Berry did not describe himself as affected and influenced by Guénon and Schuon makes sense: he generally keeps away from religion in his writings, as “religion is a far more difficult subject than agriculture,” as he wrote. Yet “those who take agriculture seriously enough and study it long enough will come to issues that will have to be recognized as religious.” 

What, then, was the influence of the Traditionalists on Berry? It is hard to say, as he does not often name them in his writings. He is certainly a “soft” Traditionalist, drawing on the body of Traditionalist thought without dedicating himself to it. He values quality and form over quantity, and is as critical of modernity as any Traditionalist, following Coomaraswamy (and before him Ruskin) in associating it with industrial civilization. In opposition to modern industrial civilization he places not tradition but the rural, but with reservations. 

In one essay he quotes at length a late-eighteenth-century Methodist minister describing the behavior of a group of men from Kentucky (where Berry was born and lives) who passed the time after dinner by fighting each other. “The significance of this bit of history is in its utter violence,” notes Berry. And not just the violence of the men fighting each other, but of the way they also fought the “Indians,” and also the way that they treated the land they were occupying—far more brutally than the Indians, or “the peasants of certain old agricultural societies, particularly in the Orient.” The difference was that the Indian and the peasant “belonged deeply and intricately to their places,” while Americans of European origin, did not belong in any place, and on the whole still do not. And from this results the environmental crisis, the loss of topsoil that Berry often laments, and the loss of the life properly lived.

My thanks to Travis Kitchens for drawing my attention to Berry.


Unknown said...

Rodger Cunningham said:

Thank you, Mark, for this important post. I've posted it to my FB page and to the Wendell Berry Society, and will probably post it to the AppalNet listserv. Berry's Traditionalist influences have only been touched on by writers on him, who tend to be much more concerned with expounding his ideas in terms of orthodox Christianity. His training was literary, and as far as I can tell, his entry to Traditionalist thought was via Kathleen Raine, whence Coomaraswamy, whence probably the others.

Unknown said...

Rodger Cunningham said...

Further thoughts about Berry: Though his mindset is certainly conservative in a broad sense, his politics tend toward the mild form of social democracy called "liberal" in America. This isn't an uncommon stance for Traditionalist-influenced Americans, cf. Charles Upton. I suspect that this may puzzle Europeans, but it's natural in a country where mainstream political "conservatism" means allowing corporate capital to destroy the planet. I also think that many Americans are first attracted to Traditionalism by its religious universalism, which is not at all "conservative" in American terms.

Robert said...

I believe I read (possibly in Berry himself) that he also read Harold Massingham, who was a key figure in the interwar rural revival movement, out of which grew the Soil Association. Although he was not a Traditionalist, Massingham's books insist heavily on the ties between traditional agriculture and Christianity. Northbourne's "Back to the Land" was a significant contribution to this literature too. If Berry was reading Massingham and Northbourne, he may also well have been reading others such as Robert McCarrison and Eve Balfour (founder of the Soil Association), who regarded as exemplary the farming practices of the Hunza in then-Northern India. Another earlier contribution to that literature was the American F. H. King's "Farmers of Forty Centuries", which described Chinese traditional agricultural practices. Of all these people, Northbourne is the one with a foot in both the rural revivalist and Traditionalist camps. If this general surmise about Berry is correct, then it becomes understandable why he refers to the "rural", rather than religion, and to "Oriental" agricultural practices.

Anonymous said...

I live one town over from Wendell, and am friends with his family. I have never heard him mention traditionalists, and they have virtually no presence at the Wendell Berry Center Bookstore (except for some Kathleen Raine and E.F. Schumacher), for what that is worth. The sources he is most vocal about are people like Aldo Leopold and and Wes Jackson. I suspect that the views he shares in common with them are more likely derived from his broad reading of the Christian tradition. I would love to know if he was directly influenced by Guenon or others.

Robert said...

I have finally taken a look at Berry's The Unsettling of America and, indeed, among its many references, one can find Albert Howard's The Soil and Health, an important book for the English interwar rural revivalists, and King's Farmers of Forty Centuries. I remain curious about Massingham's possible influence on Berry, for I see them as very much kindred spirits.