“Established in 1972, the Jefferson Lecture is the highest honor the federal government bestows for distinguished intellectual and public achievement in the humanities.” So says the website of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Since few of us are such renaissance persons as to be acquainted with the work of all the Jefferson Lecturers as they make their annual appearances in Washington, the lecture itself is potentially a valuable introduction for those making their first acquaintance.
And so I looked forward with some small measure of eager anticipation to this year’s Jefferson Lecture, given April 23 by Wendell Berry. In recent years a number of friends have urged me to give Berry a look. He is concededly a rare breed—a working Kentucky farmer who also writes novels, poems, and essays, and who might be described, with broad brushstroke, as anti-modern. The degree of seriousness with which he is taken as a profound thinker is quite something. He is the subject of academic studies and anthologies of essays by earnest young scholars, as though he were a long-dead philosopher—Hegel or someone of that rank—and not a living writer a bit younger than my own father.
Can one have an off day in giving the Jefferson Lecture (an off week or month in writing it)? I’d like to think so. For judging by the text of the lecture Berry gave in Washington at the beginning of this week, his thinking can be fairly repellent. Titled “It All Turns on Affection,” his lecture is chiefly a catalogue of Berry’s hatreds. He hates wantonly destructive land use, soil erosion, mountaintop-removal mining. So far so good.
He hates “agribusiness” and large-scale farming, though it is a great success story in the battle against hunger. He hates “corporations” and derides the notion that they are “persons” in the law, sounding as much like a wise man as the average backbench Democratic hack in the U.S. Congress. He hates “industrialism,” “plutocracy,” and “capitalism,” explaining why his thought is popular among a certain breed of college professors. He hates “materialism” but seems unable to transcend it at any point in this lecture.
Taking a breather from his litany of loathing, he indicates that he loves Nature, which he capitalizes, and draws attention to capitalizing, just in case we might be too slow to miss his implicit pantheism. He loves the local, and he loves the land, and he loves the impressive but largely vacuous sentences he composes about them. He loves E.M. Forster, a minor novelist of the last century who is remembered today chiefly for providing the raw material for some rather precious motion pictures.
He loves the “stickers” and he hates the “boomers,” terms he borrows from his teacher Wallace Stegner. Boomers are mobile creatures, moving from place to place and seizing opportunities”presumably like the first Berry who came to America centuries ago. Stickers are the ones who stay in place and sink roots in the land. Is there room in Wendell Berry’s moral imagination (he loves that word, “imagination”) for a good word to be said about each of them?
Not on your life, you boomer you. “The boomer is motivated by greed, the desire for money, property, and therefore power . . . . Stickers on the contrary are motivated by affection, by such love for a place and its life that they want to preserve it and remain in it.” The Berry family is a bunch of stickers, and Wendell is the Poet of Stickers. There is nothing redeeming or redemptible, not one thing, to be found in boomers. They’re hateful. So there.
And oh, does he hate James B. Duke. Who he, you ask? He’s the über-boomer in Berry’s universe, the guy whose name is on Duke University. A century or so ago, Duke briefly controlled most of the domestic tobacco market through his trust, the American Tobacco Company, which the government later broke up under anti-trust laws. It seems that once upon a time Wendell Berry’s grandfather took a tobacco crop to market and, after paying the transportation costs and being forced to accept the market price and pay a broker’s commission, came home with nothing to show for a year’s work as a farmer. This was all James B. Duke’s fault.
Over and over Berry comes back to Duke in the Jefferson Lecture, but he seems not to know a lot about him, or to care how little he knows. The telltale sign of this carelessness is the initial hedging of Berry’s assertions about the man. Duke “would have known” about such and such—never that he “knew.” “We may assume” this or that about Duke, Berry says; he has no idea whether his assumptions are true. But in the end the temptation to claim knowledge is strong. Here is an example of how a lazy writer can move fluidly from idle supposition to firmly asserted judgment, and from a representative of a despised type to a blanket condemnation of all members of the class:
It may seem plausible to suppose that the head of the American Tobacco Company would have imagined at least that a dependable supply of raw material to his industry would depend upon a stable, reasonably thriving population of farmers and upon the continuing fertility of their farms. But he imagined no such thing. In this he was like apparently all agribusiness executives. They don’t imagine farms or farmers. They imagine perhaps nothing at all, their minds being filled to capacity by numbers leading to the bottom line.
This is a sparkling example of an ideological mind at work. “It may seem plausible to suppose,” he gently begins, that a fellow like Duke “would have imagined” some kindly thought that would naturally occur to an enlightened sticker like Berry. Now comes the transition to certitude. “But he imagined no such thing.” Does Berry know this? He does not. He doesn’t actually claim to know it. He can’t be bothered with such a trivial thing as a single fact about a man, other than that he rooked Grandpa in 1907.
And Duke, safely dead, becomes a stand-in for all the living human beings Wendell Berry despises but hasn’t the courage to name”a whole class of human beings that he doesn’t know or care to know about any more than he cares to know about Duke.
James B. Duke may be one of the great villains of American history. This we cannot actually know from anything Wendell Berry tells us. His lecture gives us no grasp of a real man. It is an attack on a bronze statue on a college campus, not on an actual life a man once lived.
What we can know from this year’s Jefferson Lecture is that James B. Duke is a damned sight more interesting than Wendell Berry.
Matthew J. Franck is Director of the William E. and Carol G. Simon Center on Religion and the Constitution at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, New Jersey.
Nathan Schlueter, In Defense of Wendell Berry