Right after Wendell Berry took the stage at the John F. Kennedy Center on April 23, he thanked the National Endowment for the Humanities for its “courage” in letting him speak. He was there to deliver the Jefferson Lecture, the annual address that the NEH solemnly describes as “the highest honor the federal government bestows for distinguished intellectual and public achievement in the humanities.” Berry specifically praised the NEH for not demanding an advance copy of his text, a comment that provoked anxious laughter from the audience.
Then Berry — bald, bespectacled, wearing a dark suit and tie — spoke slowly, often gazing down at his notes. The man is not a gifted orator, but he writes well, and he held a crowd that included Supreme Court justice Samuel Alito for about an hour as he delivered a jeremiad on the ravages of the free market. “We live now in an economy that is not sustainable,” he said (in the longer, written version of his remarks). “No amount of fiddling with capitalism to regulate and humanize it, no pointless rhetoric on the virtues of capitalism or socialism, no billions or trillions spent on ‘defense’ of the ‘American dream,’ can for long disguise this failure. The evidences are everywhere.” He grumbled about pollution, species extinction, soil erosion, fossil-fuel depletion, “agribusiness executives,” “industrial pillage, “the profitability of war.” Berry’s list of complaints seemed an almost inexhaustible natural resource. “Much has been consumed, much has been wasted, almost nothing has flourished,” he said. When Berry finished his lament, NEH chairman Jim Leach felt the need to lighten the mood with a joke: “The views of the speaker do not necessarily reflect the views of the United States government.”
Yet they do represent the views of many conservatives — or so it would appear, judging from the love that they’re showering on Berry. On July 20, Berry will receive the Russell Kirk Paideia Prize, named for the author of The Conservative Mind and awarded by the CiRCE Institute, which promotes Christian classical education, for “cultivating virtue and wisdom.” Last year, ISI Books, the imprint of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, published The Humane Vision of Wendell Berry, a collection of essays that seek to illuminate, according to the dust jacket, the “profoundly conservative” ideas of its subject. And although the 2012 Jefferson Lecture was a product of the Obama administration, Berry was regularly a candidate for the same honor during the Bush years.
What’s going on here? Why has this market-bashing prophet of ecological doom won so many fans on the right? On June 17, I drove to Berry’s home in Port Royal, Ky., to find out. He welcomes visitors on Sundays. “There ought to be a day when you don’t work,” he says. He’s well known for these engagements, and for years admirers have made pilgrimages, seeking conversation or advice. On my visit, we sit on his front porch, discussing his life, his books, and his views on everything from farm policy to gay marriage.
The 77-year-old Berry lives in an old white house on a steep hillside above the Kentucky River, about 13 miles south of where it flows into the Ohio. He bought it in 1964 and moved in the next year, determined to live in Henry County, where he grew up and his family has deep roots. He had spent a period away, earning a degree at the University of Kentucky, taking a creative-writing course from Wallace Stegner at Stanford, traveling through Europe, and finally teaching at New York University. Yet he felt called to go home and stay put. Since his return, he has churned out essays, fiction, and poetry, in a rustic life of letters that many writers dream about but few dare to pursue. “This is my family’s country, my own people’s country,” he says, in a border-state twang. “There was this idea that you couldn’t live in a place like this and amount to anything. I’m not bragging. I may not have amounted to anything.”