Wendell Berry – In Search of a Coherent Community


by Terry Hogan


You may not have heard of Wendell Berry.  But that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t have.  He is a writer, a poet, a philosopher, a soft-spoken speaker, and a dreamer of what should be.  I first learned of him as a novelist, writing of a fictitious rural Kentucky community.  Over the years, he has written about generations of families from the fictitious Port William.   


But he is also a philosopher, a speaker, and a voice of what should and perhaps, could, be.  His message should have some resonance in Galesburg and other similar towns victimized by the loss of good paying industrial jobs.  I had the opportunity to hear him speak and to talk briefly with him recently.  He is a kind, gentle, humble, but thoughtful man who has the habit of closing his eyes to think before he speaks.


Wendell Berry is the world economists’ opponent.  Wendell believes that communities, to stay communities, need to strive to become more self-sufficient, and less dependent on the “world market place.”  He believes that local store owners, who think that they have much in common with the new national or international stores, are wrong. Wendell believes that all the members of the community need to think about where the products they buy come from.  Who produced the meat? Who baked the bread?  He is an advocate of buying locally produced goods from local merchants.


Communities need to be self-sustaining to keep their jobs and to keep their families together.  Wendell used the example of a farmers’ market.  It has local produce for sale, and being sold by local farmers.  It is more than a transaction. It becomes a meeting of neighbors, making or renewing acquaintances. It is building community bonds.   The same can be said for the local merchant who sells local goods.            


Wendell is not a friend of the big national or international companies.  He doesn’t use a computer.  He cuts as much wood as he can to limit how much of his money he has to send to the large power company.  He supports keeping money working locally.


In many ways, the computer is a icon for what Wendell believes is threatening our communities.  He writes, “…if I am partly a writer, and I am offered an expensive machine to help me write, I ought to ask whether or not such a machine is desirable.  I should ask, in the first place, whether or not I wish to purchase a solution to a problem that I do not have.  I acknowledge that, as a writer, I need a lot of help.  And I have received an abundance of the best of help from my wife, from other members of my family, from friends, from teachers, from editors, and sometimes from readers.  These people have helped me out of love or friendship, and perhaps in exchange for some help that I have given them.  I suppose I should leave open  the possibility that I need more help than I am getting, but I would certainly be ungrateful and greedy to think so.  But a computer, I am told, offers a kind of help that you can’t get from other humans; a computer will help you to write faster, easier, and more.  For a while, it seemed to me that every university professor I met told me this.  Do I, then want to write faster, easier, and more? No.  My standards are not speed, ease, and quantity.  I have already left behind too much evidence that, writing with a pencil, I have written too fast, too easily, and too much. I would like to be a better writer, and for that I need help from other humans, not a machine.  (The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry)


Not surprisingly, Wendell opposes NAFTA and similar programs. Wendell observes that by letting products be produced at the least price (least labor cost), it is reducing labor (peoples lives and their communities) to nothing more that a raw resource to be tapped like coal or iron. The national and international companies do not care about the local disruption to Galesburg resulting from a factory closing and loss of jobs.  It is merely the inevitable outcome of the shifting of labor from one marketplace to a cheaper marketplace.  Nor do they care about the shredding of the community’s bonds of friendships and structure that result from the loss of jobs. 


Wendell has equal concerns about the loss of the family farm.  Agribusiness is just another big business that eliminates the self sustaining local community.  Large fields of only soybean or only corn do not support a local community’s food needs.  Further, such mono-species fields require more pesticides to avoid weeds and disease, causing surface and ground water contamination.  Wendell holds the Amish community up as an example of the ideal, but I think he stops short of believing that it is an attainable ideal.


Wendell’s writings, when it all comes down to it, provide a broader insight and context for what many of us already know.  The international marketplace doesn’t care about local labor disruption and the strain on the local community.  It is the inevitable byproduct of the marketplace seeking least cost products.  It is left to the unemployed and the embattled community to try to put the pieces back together again.   


If you used to work at Admirals, or Butlers, or some other place that “downsized” or “right-sized” or some other euphemism of the day for putting folks out of work, you may find his writing all too pertinent.


Relevant Wendell Berry writings:

What Are People For? 1990. North Point Press


Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community. 1993. New York and San Francisco: Pantheon Books.


A Continuous Harmony.  1972. Shoemaker and Hoard.


The Art of the Commonplace:  The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry. 2002. edited by N. Wirzba.


Jayber Crow. 2001. Counterpoint Press (fiction)