Kentucky Writers in Kentucky: A Special Feature by Wendell Berry

In the spring of 1964, Tanya and I and our children had been living in New York for two years. When my work in the city ended that spring, we loaded ourselves and our belongings into a Volkswagen Beetle with a luggage rack on top and took the New Jersey Turnpike south. We were returning to Kentucky—to settle, as it turned out, permanently in my home country in Henry County. On my part, this homecoming cost a good deal of worry. Just about every one of my literary friends had told me that I was ruining myself, and I was unable entirely to disbelieve them. Why would a young writer leave a good job in New York, where all the best artistic life and talent had gathered, to go to Kentucky?

There are no “control plots” in a person’s life. I have no proof that I would not have done better to stay in New York. But I see that in retrospect my story has gained the brightening of a certain comedy. When I turned my back supposedly on the best of artistic life and talent in New York and came to Kentucky, half believing in my predicted ruin, who was here? Well, among many dear and indispensable others: James Still, Harlan Hubbard, Harry Caudill, Guy Davenport, and Gene Meatyard. All of them I came to know and, I hope, to be influenced by. In 1964 also Thomas Merton was living in Kentucky. I can’t say that I knew him as I knew the others, but I had read The Sign of Jonas when it was published in 1953. Tanya and I by courtesy of Gene Meatyard visited Merton twice at Gethsemani, and to live here was to feel his presence and his influence. I met Harriette Arnow in, I think, 1955 when I first encountered Mr. Still, at the only writers’ conference I ever attended. Many years later I met her again, spoke to her and shook her hand, remembering from then on her eyes and the testing look she gave me. No book more confirms my native agrarianism than The Dollmaker.

My point is that in 1964, for a young writer in Kentucky and in need of sustenance, sustenance was here. In the fifty years that have followed, the gathering in Kentucky of Kentucky writers has grown much larger. It would take me a while just to call their names: old friends, allies, influences, members, permitting me to be a member, of an unending, enlightening, entertaining, comforting, indispensable conversation. My further point is that in 2015, for an old writer in Kentucky and in need of sustenance, sustenance is here.

***

Of literary or writerly life in Kentucky I have no worries. It seems lively, various, and dispersed enough to continue, which is all I can presume to ask.

My worries begin when I think of the literary life of Kentucky in the context of the state of Kentucky: a commonwealth enriched by a diversity of regions, but gravely and lastingly fragmented by divisions that are economic, social, cultural, and institutional. These divisions have given us a burdening history of abuse—of land abuse but also and inevitably of the abuse of people, for people and land cannot be destroyed or conserved except together. We all know our history of social and cultural division, from the Indian wars of the eighteenth century to legal discrimination against homosexuals in the twenty-first. And we know how our many divisions, beginning in the lives of persons, become fixed in public and institutional life.

Some public entities that ought to be divided are tightly meshed together. I mean, above all, the intimacy between state government and wealthy industries. Otherwise, the state’s institutions and organizations appear to be islands divided, and often in themselves further divided, by specialties, departments, interests, and sides. Where and when might one find a political-industrial-academic-conservationist dialogue on any issue of land use? When aggrieved citizens gather on the pavement in front of the Capitol to express their grievances, who knows it? Who listens? Who replies?

So far as I can tell, those are rhetorical questions, useless except to suggest the extent and seriousness of the fragmentation of our commonwealth. This fragmentation is made possible, and continually made worse, by a cloud of silence that hovers over us. We have in this state no instituted public dialogue, no forum in which a public dialogue could take place.

This public silence ought to be a worry especially to writers. What is the effect or fate, Kentucky writers may ask, of Kentucky books devoted to urgent public issues—Night Comes to the Cumberlands or Lost Mountain or Missing Mountains or The Embattled Wilderness? That is not quite a rhetorical question, but the answer is not obvious or easy. Kentucky writers write books of several kinds, and they publish them, sometimes in Kentucky, but none of their books contributes to a public conversation in Kentucky about books or anything else—in spite of our need for it, and in spite of the schools and other institutions that would benefit from it and could also contribute to it.

We have, besides several private presses, the University Press of Kentucky, which publishes sixty books every year, many of them of interest or concern specifically to Kentuckians. According to Steve Wrinn, editor of the Press, “many” of these books are bought, read, and appreciated by the people of Kentucky. And yet of those books, very few will be reviewed here. The Courier-Journal, to name one case in point, is suffering near-fatal typophobia , and publishes no book reviews not piped in from USA Today.

And so we can say that we have in Kentucky a sufficiency at least of writers of books, publishers of books, and readers of books. And yet when a Kentucky book is published it enters into a public silence, similar of course to such silences in other states, but in origin and character peculiarly our own. This is a problem that relates immediately to the hope for a sustainable and sustaining human culture in Kentucky. Such a culture, which we must hope for and work for, will depend and thrive upon our diversity of regions, and upon conversation among them. In my long conversation with Gurney Norman, he and I have often spoken as from opposite ends of the Kentucky River watershed. My long conversation with Ed McClanahan has gone back and forth across the hump of northern Kentucky, from two different countries. For me, these dialogues of friendship transcending regional differences have been indispensable sources of instruction and delight. I can’t imagine myself without them. Kentucky writers who see their placement here as a shared opportunity and a shared burden may still shape among themselves sustaining friendships and alliances. I hope they do.

***

These are thoughts that have come to me as a writer in Kentucky, in the United States, in the middle of the second decade of the twenty-first century, perhaps at the end of the age of literacy. What might be the use of the role of writers in such a place in such a time? I will say that writers now, as never before, must keep aware that literacy is their trade, until now a trade of supreme importance. Much that we now have that is of greatest value has come to us from books. Our Constitution and Bill of Rights—just to hint at an immeasurable abundance—have come to us from books and from readers of books. To keep our heritage viable and transmissible will require capable writers of books, capable readers of books, and a capable culture of literacy, however small it may have to be.

The survival of literacy in an age of illiteracy may require us to remember how physical, how much of the senses, the life of literacy is. By putting down letters in substantial ink onto a substantial surface for many centuries, we have been making words and then sentences. Putting down the letters, we have felt in our fingers and hands and forearms their shapes and the shapes of the words they make and their flowing together into sentences. We have watched as our hands have done this. We have read by seeing what we have written. As we have written, we have been hearing, at least in our minds, the sounds of our words and sentences. We have been making what Ivan Illich called “sounding pages.” If we read aloud what we have written, our breath carries our words into the air. We feel and almost taste the sounds as we shape them with our tongues, teeth, and lips. Writing may be the most completely sensuous of all the arts. How far it can be removed from bodily presence and from the bodily presence of people together, speakers and hearers in a settled community, and still function as language is a lively question.

Insofar as it involves language, literacy is communal. Insofar as it depends upon reading, Ivan Illich was right in seeing that it depends also upon “private space,” which is to say solitude, and “periods of silence.” I have been depending on and quoting from Illich’s book, In the Vineyard of the Text, in which he made a beautiful analogy: for a reader to “face a book,” preparing to read, is like sitting in a Gothic church in the dark, looking at a window that seems only a part of a wall. And then the dawn comes. The light passes through the window, brightening the colors and the forms of a story.

Essayist, novelist, and poet Wendell Berry has written more than thirty books. He lives and works in his native Kentucky with his wife, Tanya Berry, and their children and grandchildren.

There are 2 comments for this article
  1. Dudley at 4:31 pm

    The last two paragraphs on literacy should be written on the walls of every writer and every library. Nobody could ever say it better. As a North Carolinian, I am jealous of Kentucky for having such truths stated so beautifully. This man is as deep as any river. Hear him, politicians and readers!!

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