An example and an antidote

 

Imagination in Place
Wendell Berry
196 pages,
hardcover, $24.
Counterpoint, 2010.

Wendell Berry, the author of 50 books of poetry, fiction and nonfiction, is a farmer who has lived his life in service to "local geography and local culture." By chance and choice, he tells us in his new collection of essays, Imagination in Place, he has lived "nearly all (his) life in a place (he doesn’t) remember not knowing." He has "farmed as a writer and written as a farmer."

Berry’s life and his books provide an antidote to one of the problems that plague our nation: a haunting sense of exile. He puts it this way: "The modern American version of exile is a rootless and wandering life in foreign lands or (amounting to about the same thing) in American universities." The university system has come to regard students as "customers" and degree programs as "products." Such a system graduates employees, not citizens. And a nation of employees is a corporation, not a nation at all. The one hope for America, Berry has been telling us for most of his life, is to come to know who we are as a people by coming to know where we are. For that, he counsels, we need imagination. You’ll need to read the book to truly understand what Berry means by this, but try this on: "(Imagination) is the power that can save us from the prevailing insinuation that our place, our house, our spouse, and our automobile are not good enough."

Other topics include fundamentalism and literature. In the essay "God, Science and Imagination," Berry takes on the argument for and against the existence of God, calling it "a piece of foolishness and a waste of time." We cannot know, he says, so why have we long been pretending that we do? And in "The Uses of Adversity," a beautiful, deep reading of Shakespeare’s King Lear and As You Like It, he asserts what we all know in this post-9/11 world: "There is nothing more disorderly and disordering in civilized life than the selfishness of people of power."

Imagination in Place is also a book about writing and writers, an homage to Berry’s "literary mentors, exemplars, teachers, and guides," among them Mark Twain, Jane Austen, Henry David Thoreau, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton and Blake. Other essays center on writers whom Berry counts as friends: Wallace Stegner, Hayden Carruth, Jane Kenyon and Donald Hall. These essays are sometimes critical, but they are not literary criticism. Berry writes about literature as a member of a reading and writing citizenry, not as a theorist or critic.

"Sweetness Preserved," the essay about Kenyon and Hall, poets who married in 1972, celebrates the beauty possible when two people bring together their lives and work, and so become one story:

"Two poets entered into it together, consenting to its foretold cost, lived it out, met its occasions, and made, separately and together, a life and a body of work, that for some of us, the world is now unimaginable without. ... And what are we friends and beneficiaries to say? Well, finally, maybe no more than 'Thank you.' "

There is no American writer with a more complete intelligence, a more honest wisdom, than Wendell Berry. Imagination in Place is filled with deep thoughts and big ideas, but Berry writes with such grace and clarity that you will not be left behind. Page after page, essay after essay, you will want to offer Berry the same grateful response he extends to his own friends: Thank you.

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