“Los Angeles was the kind of place where everybody was from somewhere else and nobody really dropped anchor. It was a transient place. People drawn by the dream, people running from the nightmare. Twelve million people and all of them ready to make a break for it if necessary. Figuratively, literally, metaphorically —any way you want to look at it—everybody in L.A. keeps a bag packed. Just in case.” These are the words in a 2008 novel of Michael Connelly, mystery writer and former crime reporter for the Los Angeles Times.
Connelly’s words suggest that many people in L.A. followed the advice that nineteenth-century newspaper editor Horace Greeley was reputed to have given to those seeking better opportunities: “Go West, young man.” More recently the punk rock band Anti-Flag has sung:
Go west young man
Your future is untold
You can find your dreams on the California coast.
Wendell Berry’s Criticism of the Go-West-Young-Man Philosophy
In his poetry and prose (fiction and non-fiction) Kentucky farmer/writer Wendell Berry has given opposite advice. He praises rootedness. One conservative (Rod Dreher), in a book of essays about Berry, believes that the idea that “we should renounce our mobility” is “the key” to Berry’s politics. That may be going too far, but Berry has consistently criticized those seekers always ready to pick up and take off in search of better economic opportunities. He refers, for example, to the “orgy of gold-seeking in the middle of the last century”—think of California’s 1849ers.
In the late 1960s, Berry bemoaned the fact that early on in our history we had become “a nation of transients, both physically and morally,” as we ravaged our lands and then moved on. In his The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture (1977), he wrote that you could divide our history into a conflict between two groups, the exploiters (e.g., strip miners) and nurturers (e.g., small, independent farmers). “The exploiter’s goal is money, profit; the nurturer’s goal is health — his land’s health, his own, his family’s, his community’s, his country’s.”
In his 2012 Jefferson Lecture, he credits his mentor at Stanford U., Wallace Stegner, with defining two terms that could also apply: boomers and stickers. The boomers are “motivated by greed, the desire for money, property, and therefore power.” The stickers are “those who settle, and love the life they have made and the place they have made it in.”
Like many of us, Berry’s ideas have arisen from his own unique experiences. Growing up in Kentucky, he later recalled that “within about four miles of Port Royal . . . all my grandparents and great-grandparents lived.” The Port Royal area was then a small community, consisting mainly of farm families. Although his father was a country lawyer, he was also a farmer, and the young Wendell grew up loving the farming life and spending much time on the farms of his grandparents.
After obtaining a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree from the University of Kentucky, the recently married Berry came to Stanford University in 1958 to study creative writing under Wallace Stegner. Among his fellow students studying under Stegner were others who became prominent: Edward Abbey, Ernest Gaines, Ken Kesey, Larry McMurtry, Tillie Olsen, and Robert Stone. Berry’s first novel, Nathan Coulter, appeared in 1960. He studied in Europe on a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1961 and began teaching at New York University the following year.
But in 1964, against the advice of many of his colleagues he left the allure of one of the world’s most prominent cities to teach writing at the University of Kentucky. In 1965 he moved with his family to a farm in the Port Royal area, where his ancestors had farmed for many generations. He has lived there ever since, farming and writing works almost too numerous to count. His love of farming, small farmers, the lands they work on, and the environment in general is palpable. Most of his novels and stories are set in and around the fictional town of Port William, which closely resembles the real Port Royal community.
In one of his short novels, Andy Catlett: Early Travels, he contrasts the nearby fictional town of Hargrave—“though it seemed large to me, [it] was a small town that loved its connections with the greater world, had always aspired to be bigger, richer, and grander than it was—to “the tiny village of Port William, which, so long as it remained at the center of its own attention, was entirely satisfied to be what it was.” A would-be-“boomer” town versus a community of “stickers.”
Another novel, Remembering, is described this way:
Wendell Berry’s continued fascination with the power of memory continues in this treasured novel set in 1976. Andy Catlett, a farmer whose hand was lost in an accident only eight months prior, wanders the streets of San Francisco. As his perspective filters through his anger over his loss and the harsh city that surrounds him, Andy begins to remember: the people and places that wait 2,000 miles away in his Kentucky home, the comfort he knew as a farmer, and his symbiotic relationship to the soil. Andy laments the modern shift away from the love of the land . . . .
Toward the end of the novel, Andy returns to resume his life in his native community
and sees the town and the fields around it, Port William and its countryside as he never saw or dreamed them, the signs everywhere upon them of the care of a longer love than any who have lived there ever imagined. The houses are clean and white. . . . The fields lie around the town . . . each field more beautiful than the rest. Over town and fields the one great song sings, and is answered everywhere; every leaf and flower and grass blade sings. And in the fields and the town, walking, standing, or sitting under trees, resting and talking together in the peace of a sabbath profound and bright, are people of such beauty that he weeps to see them. He sees that these are the membership of one another and of the place and of the song or light in which they live and move.
He sees that they are dead, and they are alive. He sees that he lives in eternity as he lives in time, and nothing is lost.
Little wonder that Andy’s journey from San Francisco back to Kentucky is viewed by some scholars like Nathan Schlueter as a modern-day retelling of Dante’s passage from Hell through Purgatory (Andy’s flight home) to Heaven. But not too much criticism of San Francisco should be read into this. Andy’s journey is more of a spiritual one than a comment on the quality of that city. And Berry praised his mentor Stegner for his loving concern for California, where he long resided.
Is Berry Right?
As I read Berry’s works I often ask myself, “Is life really better in small communities like the Port Royal (or William) area than in big cities like San Francisco or Los Angeles? Are people really better off “staying put” and being rooted than moving around looking for better opportunities? And what if your memories of your childhood home and community are less idyllic than those of Berry? What if they were somewhere between stifling and horrid?
For the remainder of this essay, I will follow Berry’s own example in confronting the ideas of another writer, Edward Abbey, whom he greatly admires. In an insightful essay on him, Berry writes: “He is not always right or always fair . . . . who is? For me, part of the experience of reading him has always been, at certain points, that of arguing with him.”
My previous essays on Berry indicate how highly I think of him, but my own experiences have led me to regard rootedness and mobility somewhat differently than he does. And I imagine this is also true of many other people, including most readers of the LA Progressive. We are all shaped by our own backgrounds.
I left my hometown, Cincinnati, when I was 22, and except for a summer when I was 25, I never lived there again. Not that Cincinnati is a bad city. There are many things to admire about it. But unlike Berry and some of his fictional characters, I never sought to return to the community from which I came.
Why not? Because I perceived a better life somewhere else. But I was not a boomer “motivated by greed, the desire for money, property, and therefore power.” Nor, though, was I a “sticker.”
But we should note that as a young man, Berry was also no “sticker.” He went away from his community as a high school boarding student and then as one at the University of Kentucky. Then there was Stanford, Europe, and New York City before he returned to Kentucky. And only a year after returning, now over 30 years old, did he renew his heritage of farming, though he continued for more than a decade to commute in order to teach at the University of Kentucky.
How different his young adulthood was than that of some of his fictional Port William characters like Danny Branch, who always remained deeply rooted in his small community. Danny appears in several of Berry’s works. In his wonderful short story “Fidelity” he was “growing a crop of his own” before he started high school. “He quit school the day he was sixteen and never thought of it again.” Two years later he married. “Danny never had belonged much to the modern world.” Yet he matures into a rock-solid member of the “Port William Membership” and is the hero of “Fidelity.”
If I would have quit school at 16 and married at 18 (instead of at 25), my life probably would have been a disaster. By 1965 (age 27), I was living with my wife, Nancy, and daughter Jenny in the D. C. area, having begun graduate studies at Georgetown U. in 1962, after two years in the army in Oklahoma and France. Nancy had grown up in an Indiana town much smaller than Cincinnati, and we both found the D.C. area liberating. Of course, it was not just the capital that was liberating; it was also reading and continuing my education. As with Dorothy Day and so many others, literature was already offering me “an alternative view to that of the dominant American capitalist society and its values.”
I mention 1965 because that was the year that theologian Harvey Cox’s The Secular City first appeared. It argued that “the rise of urban civilization” was one of the hallmarks of our era, and he looked positively upon large secular cities and the opportunities they presented for theological and other types of liberation, including from rural and small town conventions and provincialism. He characterized urbanization as “a structure of common life in which diversity and the disintegration of tradition are paramount. It means a type of impersonality in which functional relationships multiply. It means that a degree of tolerance and anonymity replace traditional moral sanctions and long-term acquaintanceships. The urban center is the place of human control, of rational planning, of bureaucratic organization.”
His book also contained a short section on “Mobility,” where he wrote: “Many view the high mobility of modern life in the most negative possible light. A whole literature of protest has grown up, much of it religious in nature, which bewails the alleged shallowness and lostness of modern urban man. Countless sermons deplore the ‘rush-rush of modern living’ and the diminution of spiritual values supposed to accompany the loss of more sedentary cultural patterns.”
Except for Cox’s emphasis on the “liberation” possibilities of urban life, Berry would find it difficult to disagree with much of Cox’s characterization of urbanization and his linking it with mobility. Nor would he disagree with this Cox statement: “Industrialization not only lures people off the farms and into the cities; it also invades the farms, transforming them into food factories and steadily diminishing the number of hands required to do the work. The modern city is a mass movement.” But unlike Cox in 1965, Berry has viewed the phenomena that the theologian described as a one-sided, ongoing tragedy.
In the 1960s and even today, I see more of a mixed bag. I believed then and still do today that I escaped a certain type of provincialism by leaving Cincinnati and moving around to Oklahoma, France, and D. C. After I completed graduate work in 1967, our family moved to Wheeling, West Virginia for three years while I taught at Wheeling Jesuit College.
Although Wheeling had its pleasant aspects, including many good people, Nancy and I found it too provincial, including too racist. In 1970, I accepted a position at Eastern Michigan U. (EMU), and we moved to the Ann Arbor-Ypsilanti area, where we have now lived for over four decades. We have found this area, with the University of Michigan and EMU being only about five miles apart, to be one that pleases us. We like the cultural opportunities minus the mega city congestion. We have never felt it to be too provincial. Many people living in college towns like Boulder, Madison, and Chapel Hill probably feel the same way.
Although we have been in the same area for over forty years, we have still travelled much. I’ve been to Europe and the USSR/Russia about a dozen times during this period, sometimes for as long as six weeks. Whereas for Berry rootedness is a main value, for me overcoming provincialism has been more important. The Oxford Dictionary defines provincialism as “the way of life characteristic of the regions outside the capital city of a country, especially when regarded as unsophisticated or narrow-minded.” I don’t care much about being sophisticated, but I see narrow-mindedness as aligned with intolerance and bigotry. And I think of provincialism as Anton Chekhov did about Russian provincialism, a narrow-mindedness from which to flee.
We are all born into cultures or sub-cultures that furnish narrow visions unless we take steps to broaden them. As a professor who taught 20th century global history for more than three decades, one of my main goals was to expand students’ perspectives, to better prepare them for this globalized world in which we live.
Although Berry is a tolerant man and one who cares deeply about Planet Earth, he does not view provincialism as I do. In a 2007 essay on “American Imagination and the Civil War,” he quotes favorably Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh: “Parochialism and provincialism are opposites. The provincial has no mind of his own; he does not trust what his eyes see until he has heard what the metropolis . . . has to say. . . . The parochial mentality on the other hand is never in any doubt about the social and artistic validity of his parish.” Berry says Kavanagh could be paraphrased as “saying that people who fear they are provincial are provincial.” This suggests that provincials are primarily apers.
In earlier works, however, he realized that some people regarded provincialism as meaning primarily backward and narrow-minded. He thinks of the conquerors, exploiters, and boomers, who are always on the move (either geographically or psychically), as justifying their exploitation by saying that “what they destroyed was outdated, provincial, and contemptible.” He also wrote that “a community, especially if it is a rural community, is understood by its public servants as provincial, backward and benighted, unmodern, unprogressive.” And about the proper “agrarian mind,” he adds: “Though this mind is local, almost absolutely placed, little attracted to mobility either upward or lateral, it is not provincial; it is too taken up and fascinated by its work to feel inferior to any other mind in any other place.”
In his 2007 essay Berry wrote, “I believe I can say truthfully that my particular part of Kentucky, at the time of my growing up in it, was in Kavanagh’s terms more parochial than provincial.” Yet he admits that “in our small communities segregation involved the wicked prejudice on which it was based,” but he adds that “it also involved much familiarity and many exceptions.”
Looking at Berry’s life and work from the outside, it seems that he loves his Kentucky farming community and the traditions that he inherited so much that he unconsciously maximizes the positive and minimizes the negative aspects of his emphasis on “localism.”
But he has so many wise things to say about the importance of love, community, reverence for the earth, the evils of industrialism, racism, militarism, and our capitalist consumer culture that I’ve been reluctant to quibble with any of his ideas. Besides, his thinking is integrated and complex, and I fear that by focusing on his attitude toward transience, I may not be doing justice to all of the nuances of his ideas. (See, e.g., the 2006 interview he gave and another more recent interview, when he said: “If you understand your own place and its intricacy and the possibility of affection and good care of it, then imaginatively you recognize that possibility for other places and other people, so that if you wish well to your own place, and you recognize that your own place is a part of the world, then this requires a well-wishing toward the whole world.”)
Earlier in this essay I quoted from Berry’s essay about Edward Abbey. Much of what he says about Abbey, I feel about Berry.
The trouble . . . I confess, that I am disposed to like—is that he speaks insistently as himself. In any piece of his, we are apt to have to deal with all of him, caprices and prejudices included. . . . His work is self-defense; as a conservationist, it is to conserve himself as a human being. But this is self-defense and self-conservation of the largest and noblest kind. . . . [He] is fighting on a much broader front than that of any “movement.” He is fighting for the survival not only of nature, but of human nature, of culture, as only our heritage of works and hopes can define it. . . .But the quality in him that I most prize, the one that removes him from the company of the writers I respect and puts him in the smaller company of the writers I love, is that he sees the gravity, the great danger, of the predicament we are now in, he tells it unswervingly, and he defends unflinchingly the heritage and the qualities that may preserve us.
I look forward to reading many more of Berry’s works and expect them to continue nudging me in the direction of his thinking. But we are all, like Abbey and Berry, unique individuals, with separate backgrounds, “caprices and prejudices included.” As long as we eschew narrow-mindedness, we can learn from each other. In that spirit, I hope that at least some LA Progressive readers will share their experiences and feelings regarding “arriving, leaving, moving, and staying.”
Walter G. Moss