Book Review | The Achievement of Wendell Berry

August 17, 2011


By Ragan Sutterfield

[Ed. note: This article is part of our series of weekly reflections, called Deep Down Things, published on Wednesdays. This article originally appeared in the online edition of The Englewood Review of Books,]

I must admit, I haven’t yet finished Fritz Oehlschlaeger’s The Achievement of Wendell Berry: The Hard History of Love. Though I have been busy with a number of projects, I have had enough time in theory to read the book, so time hasn’t been the hold up. I can also say confidently that the other reason I haven’t finished the book isn’t the usual reason I abandon a volume midstream—because it’s simply unreadable. Instead, I haven’t finished Oehlschlaeger’s book for two reasons—Wendell Berry has indeed achieved and written so much and second, Oehlschlaeger is such a wise and careful conversation partner with Berry’s work that I can’t help but constantly want to bring Berry more deeply into the conversation by going back again and again to his work. So if you read this book, and you really should if you care for all things good and holy, set aside some time for it—a year or so perhaps.

“A year!” you may say looking at the pile of unread books on your table, not to mention your shelves. Yes, a year.

You could finish it more quickly, no doubt. Many could read it in a couple of dedicated weeks. But why rush it? What are you trying to get to? As the NPR “Monkey See” blog recently pointed out, there is simply no way you are going to get to all of the worthwhile books out there, so why not take a year and really explore the work of Wendell Berry in conversation with one of Berry’s best readers, a man who wrote that while his book is “a work primarily of literary criticism, it is also one of affection.”

So what is this book that we should take so long to read? It is a reading of Wendell Berry’s work—his fiction, his poetry, his essays—“with an eye toward learning from it, not simply about it.” This is not a hagiology, but neither is it a study of Berry’s work as literature abstracted from the impact of Berry’s work. Oehlschlaeger tries to understand Berry’s work on the terms Berry wants it to be judged—as an attempt to see his “native landscape and neighborhood as a place unique in the world, a work of God, possessed of an inherent sanctity that mocks any human valuation that can be put upon it.” In working from this attitude of both student and lover of Berry’s work, Oehlschlaeger as critic leaves the position of the professional, set upon by the standards and restrictions of specialized knowledge, and enters the work of reading as an amateur—one who works for the love of it.

One can get a sense of this amateur approach in the language of the book—the often poetic way in which Oehlschlaeger writes of Berry. This is no work of dry, academic prose—it is the language of love, always hinting at and verging on the poetic (in part reflecting the very poetic nature of Berry’s own very amateur work). Take this sentence from the first chapter: “He is not one of the thousands who hack at the branches of evil, but one who tries always to go to the roots”, or this sentence from later in the book, “Part of learning to live as a creature is to know that we live continually from what is given, not created by us, and therefore to know that we must use it humbly and with care for its renewal.”

One particularly helpful contribution of this work is its focus on Berry’s fiction. There are chapters here on Berry’s essays, his poetry, what Berry learned from running a mule team (virtue through a practice, à la MacIntyre), and Berry’s often difficult relationship with Christianity, but the bulk of Oehlschlaeger’s book explores Berry’s fiction (three out of seven chapters are completely dedicated to it). This is important work, because Berry’s fiction is the incarnation of his essays—the Christ of his three-genre trinity.

I must admit that I have not always been a fan of Berry’s fiction. I tend to like non-fiction, but when it comes time for a novel or short story I am far more often drawn to the gritty, stark stories and landscapes of someone like Cormac MacCarthy (my favorite contemporary novelist). Berry’s stories often struck me as moralistic, perhaps too heavy handed in the points they seemed to be after. But then the more I read them, particularly his story collection That Distant Land, the more I was haunted by the stories themselves—the lives and places of Port William. With Hannah Coulter I settled into my love of Berry’s fiction.

Oehlschlaeger delves deeply into Berry’s fiction revealing the deep themes of lives lived carefully and observed carefully. Particularly helpful are some of his reflections on the tricky business of being part of a place, particularly in the presence of such difficult questions like “whose place is it?”, as brought to mind in conflicts like the Arab-Zionist conflict or the fascist temptation of a certain kind of homeland. I had always searched for an essay on these subjects from Berry because these questions of place had always plagued me from when I first began reading Berry in college. Here Oehlschlaeger shows that Berry has explored them through his novels more than his prose, perhaps because these are realities best left to exploring in the context of lives lived rather than in the reflections of an essay.

Oehlschlaeger’s exploration of the practice of peace and place in Berry’s fiction made me want to run immediately to the shelf and pull down A Place on Earth and read it. Which I did, time and again, gathering essays, poetry, stories. It got to be a long and tangled process—one that required a great deal of time. But it is time we should spend because I believe there is no more important teacher of and for our time than Wendell Berry, and Oehlschlaeger is a beautiful conversation partner for his work, a careful and thoughtful reader who I trust as a fellow amateur. I can’t be sure how this book will turn out in the end, but it has already deepened my hope for the deep love of people and places, created and loved by God, that Berry calls us to see, and live in, as sacred.

Ragan Sutterfield writes, gardens, and gathers in Little Rock, Arkansas. He is the author of Farming as a Spiritual Discipline.

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