Wendell Berry Defends Rural America Against an Attack by New York Review of Books Writer

John Collins

An early photograph of Wendell Berry featured in the 2016 documentary Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry.

In the following letter to the editor, Wendell Berry — the 82-year-old Kentucky farmer, novelist, poet, humanitarian, environmentalist and all around agrarian icon — responds to a New York Review of Books essay that, in his view, exemplifies what big city liberals continue to get wrong about rural people, culture, politics and the economy. 

The story that prompted Berry’s well-mannered but caustic response was written by Nathaniel Rich, the 35-year-old son of former New York Times columnist Frank Rich, and originally published as the foreword to a new book by Joan Didion titled South and West—a collection of notes, interviews and observations spanning the legendary 83-year-old writer’s early travels and career.

Not concerned with the book itself, Berry’s critique takes issue with Rich’s parroting of the now ubiquitous mainstream narrative: That the election of Donald Trump was primarily the result of a nostalgic, racist and sexist subculture that resides in a still-reeling-from-the-Civil-War, socially-backward and monochromatic rural America.” 

This misguided conventional wisdom, Berry argues, conveniently ignores the decades of destructive economic forces rural communities have endured since the Eisenhower administration — a crony-capitalist-facilitated plundering” of everything not tied down — and the absence of any effective political response from Democrats in Washington.

Sympathetic pandering? Yes. Results? Not so much.

Agreeing on one thing, Berry writes, It is true that racism, sexism and nostalgia have counted significantly in the history of rural America until this moment. But to attribute the approximate victory of Mr. Trump only to those southern’ faults, and to locate them only in rural America, is a driblet of self-righteous ignorance.” 

Here’s Berry’s full response, including links to Nathaniel Rich’s reply and the foreword that kicked off the exchange:

To the Editors:

Since the 2016 election, urban liberals and Democrats have newly discovered rural America,” which is to say our country itself beyond the cities and the suburbs and a few scenic vacation spots. To its new discoverers, this is an unknown land inhabited by white blue-collar workers” whom the discoverers fear but know nothing about. And so they are turning to experts, who actually have visited rural America or who previously have heard of it, to lift the mystery from it.

One such expert is Nathaniel Rich, whose essay Joan Didion in the Deep South” offers an explanation surpassingly simple: over the last four decades,” while the enlightened citizens of American cities with international airports” have thought things were getting better, the southern frame of mind” has been expanding across the Mason-Dixon line into the rest of rural America.” As Mr. Rich trusts his readers to agree, the southern frame of mind” is racist, sexist, and nostalgic for the time when the men concentrated on hunting and fishing and the women on their cooking, their canning, their prettifying.’…”

This is provincial, uninformed, and irresponsible. Mr. Rich, who disdains all prejudices except those that are proper and just, supplies no experience or observation of his own and no factual and statistical proofs. He rests his judgment solely upon the testimony of Joan Didion in her notes from a tour of the Gulf South for a month in the summer of 1970.” Those notes contain portraits of southerners whom readers today will recognize, with some dismay and even horror” because (as Mr. Rich seems vaguely to mean) southerners have not changed at all since 1970. The Didion testimony alone is entirely sufficient because she saw her era more clearly than anyone else” and therefore she was able to see the future.”

What is remarkable about Mr. Rich’s essay is that he attributes the southernization of rural America, and the consequent election of Mr. Trump, entirely to nostalgia for a more orderly past,” without so much as a glance at the economic history of our actual country. The liberals and Democrats of our enlightened cities, as Mr. Rich rightly says, have paid little or no attention to rural America for more than half a century.” But it has received plenty of attention from the conservatives and Republicans and their client corporations. Rural America is a colony, and its economy is a colonial economy.

The business of America has been largely and without apology the plundering of rural America, from which everything of value — minerals, timber, farm animals, farm crops, and labor” — has been taken at the lowest possible price. As apparently none of the enlightened ones has seen in flying over or bypassing on the interstate highways, its too-large fields are toxic and eroding, its streams and rivers poisoned, its forests mangled, its towns dying or dead along with their locally owned small businesses, its children leaving after high school and not coming back. Too many of the children are not working at anything, too many are transfixed by the various screens, too many are on drugs, too many are dying.

In a New York Times Op-Ed, A. Hope Jahren writes: Farm policy hasn’t come up even once during a presidential debate for the past 16 years.” But the problem goes back much farther than that. It goes back at least to Eisenhower’s secretary of agriculture, Ezra Taft Benson, who instructed American farmers to get big or get out.” In effect that set the farm policy” until now, and thus sealed the fate of the decent, small, independent livelihoods of rural America. To that brutally stated economic determinism I know that President Clinton gave his assent, calling it inevitable,” and so apparently did Mrs. Clinton. The rural small owners sentenced to dispensability in the 1950s are the grandparents of the blue-collar workers” of rural America who now feel themselves to be under the same sentence, and with reason.

It is true that racism, sexism, and nostalgia have counted significantly in the history of rural America until this moment. But to attribute the approximate victory of Mr. Trump only to those southern” faults, and to locate them only in rural America, is a driblet of self-righteous ignorance.

Wendell Berry
Port Royal, Kentucky

In Rich’s defense, the United States has an undeniably racist origin story, one that continues to explain a lot about how we interact with each other. But if only to prevent it from ever happening again, both writers would probably agree it’s important for our historical record to accurately diagnose Donald Trump’s ascension. This requires acknowledging that, unlike Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton failed to make a compelling economic case to millions of Americans who are finding it harder and harder to get by. Lies or not, Trump did.

Identity politics aren’t going away. We’re grappling with a karma-guided hatchet that’s nowhere close to being buried. Unfortunately, ignoring the pain associated with that reality lends itself perfectly to the president’s (seriously stupid) #MakeAmericaGreatAgain hashtag. That said, blaming rural Americans for temporarily swooning over the off-the-cuff brilliance that was Drain the Swamp” — essentially a promise to a serially ignored segment of the population that, this time for realsies, things will change — is not productive or progressive. We are, after all, dealing with a political establishment that has for decades been losing sight of what We the People” means.

And none of this changes how fast Trump-the-candidate’s America First” rhetoric magically (freaking seamlessly) morphed into more foreign interventions, a cabinet stacked with statesmen” courtesy of Goldman Sachs and a torrent of policy proposals that clearly favor the rich. On second thought, perhaps it’s time for all Americans — the disappointed, the still-stoked and the terrified — to start focusing not on how this happened and who’s to blame (the diagnosis) but on what comes next.

In other words, what’s the prognosis?

To read Nathaniel Rich’s reply to Wendell Berry’s letter, click here.

January 3, 1968 — A futuristic cartoon published in the Arizona Republic. (Image: pale​o​fu​ture​.com)

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John Collins is the editor of Rural America In These Times. He lives between Minneapolis and La Pointe, Wisconsin, a village on Madeline Island in Lake Superior.
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