Monday, April 12, 2010

Wendell Berry's The Unsettling of America: A Look Back at his Seminal Work

It is a difficult thing to believe that Wendell Berry’s The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture (New York: Avon Books, 1977) was released more than 30 years ago. To read this book in 2010, in what seems culturally to be the height of the ecological crisis—or, at least, of widespread acknowledgment and responsiveness to it—is to realize that the very issues that seem so pressing today, indeed that seem so controversial today, were not only present but an identifiable threat at least half a century ago! This is cause for both celebration and lament, for on the one hand, we recognize a man like Wendell Berry, and his extraordinary work, as a courageous godfather to the movement, providing the very possibility of recognizing today’s ecological crises in the language and forthrightness with which we speak. On the other hand, we are able to see how inexpressibly small, how unhappily futile, the fight against the abuse of the earth has been and continues to be. For that very reason, the clarion call that is The Unsettling of America has lost none of its voice or power, the realities and problems to which it spoke in 1977 being just as much present, and even more so, 33 years later.

The purpose of the book is straightforward: it is “meant to be a criticism of...modern or orthodox agriculture” (p. vii). Exactly what orthodox agriculture is, the reasons for its needing to be critiqued, and how it is related to the “culture” found in the book’s paired subtitle, is for the rest of the work to demonstrate. Berry’s thesis is multifaceted and his argument even more elaborate, but we might put it this way: modern industrialized agricultural practice and thinking are damaged and damaging, both in relation to and with roots in the broader context of contemporary America, such that the ecological crisis is a crisis not merely or only of agriculture, but of character and culture, too, for the health of the land is inseparably bound up with the health of the community, the body, and the spirit. The only appropriate response must therefore involve an equally complex diagnosis of every part, accompanied by a holistic vision of health that does not attend to one aspect of life to the neglect of another. This, though a daunting project and certainly not fully attainable in 223 pages, is the task Berry sets before himself.

In exact accordance with the aim of his project, Berry is firmly planted in his context. A farmer himself in Kentucky, the son of multiple generations of farmers going back, the story he tells and the problems he identifies are neither universal nor placeless, but the story of agriculture in America and the particular problems attendant to that place and that people. And as it is written in the late 1970s, the policies, politicians, and published works he interrogates belong to that particular time as well. Thus the book’s first chapter opens by setting the stage of the present with the initiating conquest of the past (“The Unsettling of America,” pp. 3-14), rendering the reader immediately aware that this is not, in an important sense, a new problem, but one inscribed in the very DNA of the American project. The last two chapters bookend this concern and commitment by telling the originally hopeful but eventually corrupted story of the agricultural colleges in America (“Jefferson, Morrill, and the Upper Crust,” pp. 143-69), and by concluding with the personalization and first-hand experiences of those on the margins of society and of orthodox agriculture, ordinary Americans unwilling to submit to the regnant “science-as-superstition” ruining the land and the people (p. 173; “Margins,” pp. 171-223).

In between the stories told in these chapters, and Berry’s assessment of them by the form of his telling, lies the body of the book’s argument. These proceed respectively as analyses of character, agriculture, culture, the ideal of the “future,” the use of energy, and the relationship between the earth and the body. Though these seem to be discrete “areas” of analysis, Berry does not allow them so to be separated, but rather includes each subject in every chapter, intrinsically a display of the overall argument that none can be separated from the others. A chief example of this interconnectedness is Berry’s discussion of health. Health cannot mean “merely the absence of disease,” but much more, for “the concept of health is rooted in the concept of wholeness” (p. 102-3). The wholeness of the human person includes body and spirit, the wholeness of the community all human persons, that of the land all creatures (human and non-human), that of the creation all of the preceding, together as one (pp. 103-12). This discussion leads in particular to the household, the sexes, marriage, and fidelity, but its presence and point here exemplify Berry’s unrelenting message throughout the book: that everything is connected, and to address only a partition here or there is inevitably to fail.

Stepping back for a moment, the impetus for Berry’s writing is the intolerable “exploitive revolution” (p. 9) and its devastating consequences for the land, for fellow creatures, and for human health, vitality, community. The idea that farms must be mechanized and industrialized, must be dependent upon petroleum and corporations, must be profitable to the nth degree—this is catastrophically disastrous for the care of the land and the cultivation of food, and therefore concomitantly disastrous for everything that is connected to the land and requires food—from which nothing, of course, is excluded. But because the industrial imagination has so quickly and so forcefully taken hold of the collective mind of the public, this orthodoxy must be challenged from every direction and on every issue. The resources for this challenge lie in a common heritage, in America’s “until now subordinate tendency of settlement, of domestic permanence” (p. 13). From this past a wholesome future may be forged in which men and women are not divided and conquered by money, but know their limits, work in gratitude, live by thrift, belong to a place, make enough but not more than they need, know their neighbors, contribute to their communities, exist in relative self-sufficiency, and raise up their children to do the same.

In evaluating the various strengths and weaknesses of Berry’s argument—and it really is the case that there is one coherent argument that constitutes The Unsettling of America, only cast and carried out in various ways and with myriad emphases—its very nature precludes a middling response. That is, one either buys it, or one doesn’t; there is little middle ground. The connections between house, place, household, ground, food, children, marriage, politics, and economy are as precisely intertwined as Berry presents them, and therefore his articulation of the problems or health of one implies that of all the others. Thus to agree or to disagree with him about one or another is almost certainly to lead to agreement or disagreement about all of them. In a sense, one would have to disagree about the connections themselves to get out of this predicament, a task I think neither possible nor attractive; in which case, I find myself agreeing in nearly every instance with Berry’s argument.

This does not mean the work is without weaknesses, or that there are not questions or challenges that remain for Berry to answer or address. (Fortunately, in the decades since the book’s publication, Berry has written prolifically, so in many instances we have received such answers and responses.) Here we will focus on two areas of inquiry that pose challenges to Berry’s project: the nature of the past, and the source of his convictions. We will see not only that these are problematic for Berry, but that they are intimately related with each other.

As stated above, it is in “our history” that Berry finds “the answers” (p. 13). As a concrete example of this conviction, we find the influence and thought of Thomas Jefferson sprinkled throughout the book. Jefferson, however, is not an unproblematic character: when the man writes of land being apportioned to small landowners (pp. 143-4), he does so as a white man concerning other white men. And the land he himself owned was worked by African slaves. This particular case opens up a wider problem, namely, how to draw on a history and a tradition no more innocent than today. With what justification are the enormous sins of the fathers looked past for the sake of the “health” with which they apparently cared for the land, their families, and others—particularly if slavery, patriarchy, and conquest cannot be separated from the related issues of culture, agriculture, and character? To be sure, the colonization of America and the history it inaugurated are for Berry the beginning of an awful and self-incriminating story, whose fruit is the industrial revolution and all its abuses. His title for the inheritor of this history is the “industrial conquistador,” living far from his work, sitting lazily before a television, eating food unprepared by him or his family (pp. 52-3). So the problem is not that Berry does not recognize the problem; it is that he does not specify how and why the past may and ought to be submitted to and appropriated for the sake of healing contemporary alienated communities, their members and their work, and the land. It seems clear that the past contains resources rich and available for imitation and use today; less clear are the methods and standards by which to do so.

In a related way, it is unclear on what grounds persons with substantively different worldviews ought to agree with Berry’s argument. He seems to presume an American audience with shared cultural commitments, including a Christian religious heritage, a Western literary inheritance, and a liberal democratic political tradition. But what if one either does not share these heritages or, sharing them, does not share any commitment to them? And what if those in either of these groups constitute the majority of the nation? It is not that Berry’s arguments cannot remain compelling, but their ground and force are to a large extent swept away if, say, one believes marriage to be an unjust social fiction, or materiality a curse, or the good whatever is most profitable, or autonomy the summum bonum, or competition the heart of progress, or limits an imposition, or religion an opiate, and so on. Berry’s worldview is constituted by an interlocking set of inherited and personalized beliefs about the world, many of which he seems to project onto the broader American public. This projection may have been descriptive in the past, but it is certainly not so today. In one way this observation makes Berry almost doubly convincing, for instead of a universal appeal, his argument becomes even more particular and bound to a tradition—a recognition I believe he would welcome and has acknowledged in more recent writings—but it also unfortunately helps to explain the defensiveness and vitriol that often accompany responses to his writings.

For some, a chief drawback to Berry in general—one which is profoundly on display in The Unsettling of America—is the rhetoric with which he characterizes the modern predicament and lays waste to technological habits and assumptions. For Christians this can only be further evidence of the truthfulness of his speech, for, as Ellen Davis and others have recognized, this rhetoric is the same as that of the Hebrew prophets. And to be sure, Wendell Berry is an American prophet. Belonging to a place and to his people, with a ferocity of love that is the only explanation for his anger and resolve, Berry simply will not stand for anything but shalom—“heal, whole, wholesome, hale, hallow, holy” are his touchstones for health (p. 103)—and indeed, in the end, he holds up the “Christian agriculture” of the Amish as the paradigm for kindly use and care for the “unique, irreplaceable gift” of creation (p. 213). As much as anyone, the church ought to know that drastic times call for drastic speech, and The Unsettling of America is the programmatic statement, cast in language fit to the crisis, for a mission to reclaim, resettle, and resituate the earth—in joy, in hard work, in health, in gratitude. Given the scope of the task, Berry’s abundant success is all the more impressive.


  1. Daniel Quinn provides a much stronger critique on much larger issues with regard to agriculture in the Story of B.

  2. To generic viagra,
    ..."Third, we must see again, as I think the founders of our government saw, that the most appropriate governmental powers are negative- those, that is that protect the small and weak from the great and powerful, not those by which the government becomes the prolifigate, ineffectual parent of the small and weak after it has permitted the great and powerful to make them helpless. The governmental power that can be used most effectively to assure an equitable distribution of property, which alone can give some measure of strength of independence to ordianry citizens, is that of taxation. As our present economy clearly shows, the small can survive only if the great are restrained. And there is nothing undemocractic or anti-libertarian about restraining them. To assume that ordinary citizens can compete successfully with people of wealth and coporations, as our government presently tends to do is simply to abandon the ordinary citizens".
    This is a "memory" as you say of over 30 years ago...can you get any more germaine to the present situation on Wall Street, of the Occupiers, of the debate over Obama's plan to tax the rich? Regardless of the side you choose, the book is valid 30 years ago or matters of culture, politcs or agriculture.
    If you are looking for a paint by numbers book for sustainable agriculture, this isn't it, but if you want a philosphy from which to work off, this will do.