Wendell Berry: “All his friends thought he was crazy to leave New York”

From The Writer’s Almanac:

Today is the birthday of Wendell Berry, born in 1934 near Port Royal in Kentucky. His family—on both sides—have farmed tobacco in Henry County for at least five generations. His father had a law degree and his brother was a lawyer but Berry knew his brain didn’t work that way. He went to the University of Kentucky and then received a Wallace Stegner Fellowship to study creative writing at Stanford, mentored by Stegner.

He missed the farm, but figured it was not in the cards for him. “My education had implied, over and again, that you couldn’t amount to anything in a place like this,” he said. “I grieved over that. I liked the work of the farms. […] But, at Stanford, I thought I was at the commencement of some kind of an academic vagabondage that would carry me I didn’t know where.” It carried him to Italy and to New York, and then one day he was offered a teaching job at the University of Kentucky. He took it, even though all his friends thought he was crazy to leave New York.

His first novel, Nathan Coulter (1960), was set in Port William, a fictional version of Port Royal. Over the years, he continued to write about Port William, using the same characters, re-creating the voices of the people around him. He said: “I have made the imagined town of Port William, its neighborhood and membership, in an attempt to honor the actual place where I have lived. By means of the imagined place, over the last fifty years, I have learned to see my 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 1965 Berry became the sixth generation to farm in Henry County. He bought a farm called Lane’s Landing and raised sheep and grew hay and corn. When he became a farmer his writing took a backseat. “I’ve known writers — I think it’s true also of other artists — who thought that you had to put your art before everything,” he said. “But if you have a marriage and a family and a farm, you’re just going to find that you can’t always put your art first, and moreover that you shouldn’t. There are a number of things more important than your art. It’s wrong to favor it over your family, or over your place, or over your animals.”…

Berry has written novels, stories, poems, and essays. His books include The Unsettling of America (1977), Jayber Crow (2000), Hannah Coulter (2004), and The Mad Farmer Poems (2008). His latest work is Stand By Me (2019).

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