So I might as well say why I find Robert Penn Warren’s account of the “agrarian” critique of modern society to be superior to Wendell Berry’s. In his novels and poetry Warren presents ambivalence—a real tension and conundrum—over against Berry’s easy condemnation of greed. For Warren, it is neither rural community (“stickers”) nor big city ambition (“boomers”)—as Berry puts it following Wallace Stegner in his Jefferson Lecture—that is at the heart of the trouble of the American soul. Rather, there is a tension between the two.

For Berry, American history has been defined by the greed of the “boomers.” To be sure, Berry says we’re all—boomer, sticker or otherwise—complicit in this greed, but Warren’s poetry is far more ambivalent about terms like greed, and therefore far more questioning in his “agrarianism” than Berry’s literalism of the land. Warren is not a John the Baptist Berry condemning greed.

According to Berry, if only we all grew up in such conditions of a Jeffersonian freehold whereby stewardship of the land was a reality to make for republicanism then we would all be okay. For all of Berry’s wisdom, this is simply utopianism. He keeps talking about land, land, land, but only those as contingently blessed as his own inheritance actually have land to speak of as their own. Warren places these questions in contemporary terms. We don’t own freeholds nowadays, and we find ourselves living already insignificantly in industrial (nowadays post-industrial) capitalism. But we must make a case for our own impoverishment nonetheless.

Warren knows both sides of the equation—proud rural farming and proud urban bourgeois sophistication. Rather than blindly defending the land, Warren was willing to admit that wealth may be more than land. Berry agrees, but one wonders if he would ever admit that his own partisan thumos in defense of the land has not itself become a commodity to be sold on a market for urban types who feel alienated from their own small town and rural backgrounds. Warren understands that world and understands that which can easily be commodified in the character of Jerry Calhoun in At Heavens Gate , Berry on the other hand presents himself as a naïf (albeit a profitable naïf).

As Marx says—of which Berry-ism is derivative—our free human productive power is historically determined by the concentrated wealth of ownership and control of the mode of production by the few over the independent producer. Like Bo Duke, a person to be vilified in Berry’s account of making one’s own, Berry seems to think that we can have an economy whereby income and expenditures are related to work, effort and ability. If only he had read his Aristotle, he would know that money making easily becomes a rule over against wealth in terms of productivity. Aristotle and Berry both warn against this dangerous monetary abstraction, but there is nothing new to this insight, and while Berry speaks truthfully about economy as oikonomike, he assumes that piety alone will prevent economic aggrandizement from becoming simple money making.

In Plato’s Republic, Glaucon became sickened by a city of pigs. and therefore he sought more. Berry, like Adeimantus, has more in common with the Zapotec resistance to conquest in Mexico, and a spirited defense of one’s own. But, unfortunately for Berry, there is no history like the Zapoteca’s have to rely upon in the USA. Unless one points to English or Teutonic past, Berry can at best point to the 19th century or John Cougar Mellencamp. I suppose he could rely on John Niehardt’s Black Elk Speak s, but Berry doesn’t wish to speak of what Warren (borrowing from Indian lore) calls the “dark and bloody ground” of Indian wars and slaughter.

Don’t get me wrong, I want to defend what Berry defends too, insofar as he is critical of quantatative measures of all elements of human life. But this is a loser’s proposition in the USA. The Puritan city on the hill, the Declaration’s natural law, and the Federalist’s “new science of politics,” make one’s own foundations as one of innovation, and such innovation needs the latest of data driven information. There is a way to defend the founding from such rank positivism, but it is difficult to defend it in terms of Berry-like conservatism in a society with a history like our own. The “Straussians”—whether east coast or west coast—are better in this regard.

Even if I favor Berry-ism, it seems to be too fantastic.

Berry speaks of land. Well give me some land to work on. As Locke pointed out, land is scarce, and that is why you invent money. Sorry Mr. Berry if I seek to make my way through money. I don’t own land like you do. Should I be your serf based upon your humanistic values? If we speak of land as land, I might follow the Carl Sandburg—

“Get off my estate”
“What for?”
“Because it’s mine”
“Where did you get it?”
“From my father.”
“Where he get it?”
“From his Father”
“And where did he get it?”
“He fought for it.”
“Well, I’ll fight you for it.”

Berry might as well quote Gibbon or Montesquieu on the failures of the Roman empire. But he has a concept of the human being as limited. However, he won’t mention God, but he will mention the land. This indicates Berry’s naturalism and near pantheism.

Give me a break for all of this. Why should I take this guy seriously? He mentions Allen Tate, but then misses the whole point about human beings not being gods and not being beasts as well. It seems that Berry can’t take the negative and think the corollary that there may be a God and that humans are not beasts.

Meanwhile the rest of us must make truck with our talents, and these talents may point beyond what our forefathers said were limits. I wonder of these Washingtonians—deracinated from any productive skill or from any true local community—who applaud Wendell Berry in his near Gandhian, or at least Thoreauvian remarks of limits, place and simplicity.

This is an insult to the best that Wendell Berry has done. But then again Port William is no Yoknapatawpha.

No doubt, Mr. Berry is right about the data driven prowess of those who look at the land and humans as standing reserve. But apart from summer camp or weekends hunting, most Americans are far removed from the whole truth of what Berry says. We’re—-or should I say I’m—not so far removed from cotton farming (industrial as it was), or hunting for deer or duck.

Berry says important things, but Warren spoke to people living in the “industrial” and “modern” world that was personal as such, and didn’t make some ideological stance against what may have been the result.

In old age, Warren wrote deep/silly poems with Eliotic tiles like “Cocktail Party” which had such embarrassing stanzas and order like—

Beyond the haze of alcohol and syntax and
Flung gage of the girl’s glance, and personal ambition,
You catch some eye-gleam, sense a faint
Stir, as of a beast in shadow. It may be Truth.

Articles by John Presnall


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