2005 Lifetime Achievement Award
Text of Citation of Award Given in December 2005 to Wendell Berry
A little more than a decade ago, when an interviewer decided, in his words, to “probe [Wendell] Berry about his attitudes on the widely accepted virtues of the view of fragile earth from space,” the poet, novelist, and essayist responded, “That view didn’t do very much for me; it looked like a poor old Christmas ornament.… Let’s say you were from somewhere else,” he explained, “seeing this Earth from space for the first time. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t be satisfied with that view; I’d want to get closer, walk around on it, even get down on my hands and knees. That’s how I prefer to see Earth.”
As we gather today to honor him as the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Conference on Christianity and Literature, each of you who has read at least a portion of what this prolific man has written will no doubt recognize how accurately Wendell Berry the writer has summarized with this image the deeply admirable passions of Wendell Berry the man.
For more than four decades and in the pages of more than fifty books (and counting), Wendell Berry has combined a profound, sustained commitment to a particular place, to its people, to their past as well their future, with an equally intense concern for broader questions about the value of human life, the nature of our culture and our agri–culture, and the possibilities of human community. His voice is singular, ringing in its moral forthrightness and moving in the poetic clarity of its constancy.
What others might call Wendell Berry’s career – that’s not a term he would use – began with his training in English as an undergraduate at the University of Kentucky. That was followed by an M.A. in the same subject at Kentucky and by his participation in the fabled Stanford University creative writing program, where he was a Wallace Stegner Fellow and studied, along with Ken Kesey, Edward Abbey, and Larry McMurtry, in a seminar directed by Stegner. A Guggenheim fellowship came soon thereafter, as did an appointment teaching at the University College of New York University.
From the long perspective, this early career seems like the prologue to Wendell Berry’s discovery of his vocation, which cannot be summarized in any fashion within the confines of our categories of prestigious appointments, professional accomplishments, and disciplinary boundaries. Instead, for four decades his vocation has included among its central elements the myriad commitments he and his wife Tanya made when they chose in 1964 to take up farming on a Kentucky homestead not far from where his mother’s and father’s families had lived and loved and labored for at least five generations.
Although he was already a published author by the time that he returned to farming in his family’s region, it was there, in the rhythms of the seasons, in the hardness of the farmer’s lot, and in the mysteries of communal life, that Wendell Berry found the voice that has made him and will keep him one of our most important and enduring writers. “What I have learned as a farmer I have learned also as a writer, and vice versa,” he wrote recently. “I have farmed as a writer and written as a farmer.” With a respect for his subjects that is both tough and tender, he has consistently reported what he has observed in the fields around him and in the lives that surround him in Port Royal, Kentucky. In the same essay from which I have just quoted, he speaks of his life as “an experiment that is resistant to any kind of simplification.… When I am called, as to my astonishment, I sometimes am, a devotee of ‘simplicity’ (since I live supposedly as a ‘simple farmer’), I am obliged to reply that I gave up the simple life when I left New York in 1964 and came here.” For in New York, he concludes, “I lived as a passive consumer, … whereas here I supply many of my needs from this place by my work and am responsible besides for the care of the place.”
Wendell Berry has written voluminously on what the Christian church calls the doctrine of creation yet only sparingly, albeit with considerable feeling, about another of the church’s doctrines, that of the incarnation. Nevertheless, a number of us think of the incarnation’s mysteries when we read in his work of what he has learned through working the land and writing the life of a particular place at a perilous point in time. After all, when he says he doesn’t care about the view of earth from space, but instead wants to “get closer, walk around on it, even get down on my knees,” is not Wendell Berry also sounding one of the central notes of the Christian faith, which is that “Christ Jesus, … though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself,… being born in human likeness?”
We are grateful, then, for all that we have learned and continue to learn from Wendell Berry’s walk about this earth, for which he has cared so diligently. For the faithfulness of his and Tanya’s life as parents, as stewards of the land, and as servants of their people, and for the stunning accomplishments of his writer’s life and his life’s writing, we are honored to pay tribute to Wendell Berry’s past, present, and future achievements. We are also fortunate to have this chance to tell him, simply and with heartfelt feeling, “Thank you.”
– Roger Lundin,
presenter of award from Conference on Christianity and Lilterature