Wendell Berry: Is anyone listening to Kentucky writers’ warnings?

January 31, 2015

150128KyWriters0027After being the first living author inducted into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame on Wednesday night, Wendell Berry, right, talked with Julie Wrinn, director of the Kentucky Women Writers Conference. At left is writer Jason Howard,  editor of Appalachian Heritage, a literary quarterly. Behind them, writer Bianca Spriggs. Photo by Tom Eblen


Elizabeth Hardwick was the eighth of 11 children born to a Lexington plumbing contractor and his wife. She grew up in a modest home on Rand Avenue and graduated from Henry Clay High School and the University of Kentucky.

From this ordinary Kentucky childhood, she went on to become a leading East Coast intellectual: an award-winning critic, essayist, novelist and founder of The New York Review of Books.

Hardwick earned a lengthy obituary in The New York Times when she died in 2007 at age 91. But if you stopped people on the street in Lexington today, I’ll bet at least nine out of 10 would never have heard of her.

That’s one reason the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning created the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame three years ago.

“This state has so many negative stereotypes that we have to battle every day,” Lt. Gov. Crit Luallen said in remarks at the Hall of Fame’s induction ceremony Wednesday. “But the truth is, we have one of the finest and richest literary heritage traditions in the nation.”

Hardwick was one of six inductees at the ceremony, which attracted a standing-room-only crowd that included several acclaimed Kentucky writers likely to be chosen for the Hall of Fame someday.

Four other deceased writers inducted this year were: Hunter S. Thompson (1937-2005) of Louisville, who created “gonzo” journalism; Guy Davenport (1927-2005) of Lexington, a UK professor and MacArthur “genius” grant winner; Effie Waller Smith (1879-1960), a black poet from Pike County whose work filled three books and was published in Harper’s Weekly magazine; and Jim Wayne Miller (1936-1996), who taught at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green.

They joined 13 other writers of the past inducted during the Hall of Fame’s first two years, including Robert Penn Warren, Thomas Merton, Jesse Stuart and James Still.

Most of the crowd Wednesday was there to honor Wendell Berry, the first living inductee. Berry, 80, of Henry County, has written more than 50 books of poetry, fiction and polemics. In the process, he has become an international icon in the land conservation and sustainable agriculture movements.

Luallen, who was appointed lieutenant governor two months ago after Jerry Abramson took a White House job, was probably a better representative of state government at this ceremony than Gov. Steve Beshear would have been.

Berry joined protesters who camped outside Beshear’s office in 2011 to protest state government collusion in the coal industry’s destruction of Kentucky’s mountains and streams. (Not that Beshear is unique; Kentucky’s governor and General Assembly have long been wholly owned subsidiaries of the coal industry.)

Luallen’s comments echoed the sentiments of many Kentuckians.

“When there are moments of darkness felt by those of us who cherish this land, a light has shown through that darkness, and the light has been the words of Wendell Berry,” she said. “Inspiring us, rekindling our spirit and reminding us of what we have lost as a people and what, without careful judgment and good reason, we have yet to lose.”

But in his acceptance speech, Berry gave a glum assessment of Kentucky writers’ consequence.

The state is “gravely and lastingly fragmented by divisions that are economic, social, cultural and institutional,” he said. “These divisions have given us a burdening history of abuse — of land abuse but also and inevitably of the abuse of people, for people and land cannot be destroyed or conserved except together.”

Berry complained that many good books by Kentucky writers critiquing the state’s problems have not received the media attention or sparked the public debate and policy changes he thinks they should have.

“This public silence ought to be a worry, especially to writers,” he said. “What is the effect or fate, Kentucky writers may ask, of Kentucky books devoted to urgent public issues — ‘Night Comes to the Cumberlands’ or ‘Lost Mountain’ or ‘Missing Mountains’ or ‘The Embattled Wilderness’?”

Afterward, Luallen said she thinks Berry underestimates those books’ impact. Without them, she said, things would be worse.

Berry’s speech gave a healthy edge to the evening’s celebrations. That was good, because another of the Carnegie Center’s goals for the Hall of Fame is to elevate the visibility and influence of writers in Kentucky’s public life.

Wendell Berry and his fellow writers are the conscience of Kentucky, not beholden to money or power. If we refuse to listen to them, we do so at our peril.

Wendell Berry: Ky. writers have too little impact on public discourse

January 29, 2015

150128KyWriters0027After becoming the first living author inducted into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame on Wednesday night, Wendell Berry, right, talked with Julie Wrinn, director of the Kentucky Women Writers Conference. At left is writer Jason Howard,  editor of Appalachian Heritage, a literary quarterly. Behind them, writer Bianca Spriggs. Photo by Tom Eblen


As the first living author inducted into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame, Wendell Berry lamented that many fine books the state’s authors have written about Kentucky issues have had little impact on public discussion or policy.

In most ways, Kentucky is too fragmented a state, Berry said in remarks at a ceremony Wednesday night at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning, where he and five writers from the past were inducted into the Hall of Fame.

“This fragmentation is made possible, and continually made worse, by a cloud of silence that hovers over us,” Berry said. “We have in this state no instituted public dialogue, no form in which a public dialogue can take place.

“This public silence ought to be a worry, especially to writers,” he said. “What is the effect or fate, Kentucky writers may ask, of Kentucky books devoted to urgent public issues — Night Comes to the Cumberlands or Lost Mountain or Missing Mountains or The Embattled Wilderness?”

Lt. Gov. Crit Luallen, who spoke earlier at the ceremony, said afterward that Berry underestimates the impact of those books and others like them. They may not have led to solutions for Kentucky’s many problems, she said, but things would be worse without them.

Before Berry’s remarks, excerpts from the work of the five deceased authors were read. The standing-room-only crowd that filled the Carnegie Center’s first floor included many writers likely to earn spots in the Hall of Fame someday.

The other new inductees were: Hunter S. Thompson (1937-2005) of Louisville, who created “gonzo journalism”; Guy Davenport (1929-2005) of Lexington, who during his lifetime won a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant; Effie Waller Smith (1879-1960), a black poet from Pike County; Elizabeth Hardwick (1916-2007) of Lexington, a novelist and critic who helped found The New York Review of Books; and Jim Wayne Miller (1936-1996) of Bowling Green, an author and poet.

Watch for my column Sunday with more notes and observations from the Hall of Fame ceremony.

 150128KyWriters0009State Rep. Kelly Flood of Lexington took a picture of Wendell Berry with Lt. Gov. Crit Luallen at the Carnegie Center on Wednesday night after Berry became the first living author inducted into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame. In the background, writer Ed McClanahan, left, talks with Steve Wrinn, director of the University Press of Kentucky.

Film about Danville artist debuts Wednesday

December 1, 2008

Stephen Rolfe Powell, the Centre College professor and internationally famous glass artist, has been profiled in several films and a segment of CBS’s Sunday Morning. But a new half-hour documentary is different: It was made by a former student who is now a successful filmmaker.

Fire and Motion debuts Wednesday (Dec. 3) at 7:30 p.m. at Centre’s Vahlkamp Theater in Crounse Hall. The presentation, which will include a question-and-answer session, is free and open to the public. Kentucky Educational Television will show the film as part of its Kentucky Muse program in December and January. Click here for the schedule.

If you’re not familiar with Powell’s large, colorful blown-glass sculptures, you may remember him from my Nov. 16 column about his friendship with Italian glass master Lino Tagliapietra, who visited Centre last month to work with Powell’s students.

Powell was in his first year of teaching at Centre in 1983 when Tom Thurman was his student. Since then, Thurman, a native of Christiansburg, has been producing and directing award-winning independent documentaries that focus on American art and culture.

His recent work includes a film about the late Louisville-born gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, Buy the Ticket, Take the Ride, which last year won the Jury Prize for Outstanding Achievement at the Savannah Film Festival.

KET’s Kentucky Muse program showcases creativity and artistic expression in Kentucky. Thurman is a producer for the series.

For sale: Hunter S. Thompson’s childhood home — bullet holes, Gates of Hell not included

May 7, 2008

The Realtor’s listing says it all: “Although the current children are perfectly normal – Hunter S. Thompson grew up here!”

That’s right, the Gonzo journalist’s childhood home in Louisville is for sale.

Thompson’s father, Jack, bought the two-story, stucco bungalow in the Cherokee Triangle for $4,100 in the winter of 1943. The asking price now for 2437 Ransdell Ave. is $435,000. (UPDATE: The house sold June 24 for $412,500, according to the property records database of The Courier-Journal.)

Thompson, who committed suicide in 2005 at age 67, is almost as famous for his wild drug- and alcohol-induced behavior as for his rambling, first-person narratives that became known as Gonzo Journalism. The Rolling Stone magazine correspondent and author of several books, including Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, is perhaps most famous locally for his classic 1970 magazine story, The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved.

“There are 40 million stories about Hunter in the neighborhood, and they all center around this house,” said Sandy Gulick of Kentucky Select Properties, the listing agent.

“Jim Thompson, nine years younger, remembered his older brother as a wild man who terrorized their house,” author William McKeen writes in Outlaw Journalist: The Life and Times of Hunter S. Thompson, which will be published in July by W.W. Norton.

McKeen said Jim Thompson told him about an elaborate tableau of the Gates of Hell that his brother painted on his bedroom floor. “He kept a rug over it, but required little prompting to reveal it to visitors,” McKeen writes.

Unfortunately – or, perhaps, fortunately – the Gates of Hell were sanded off the floor years ago, said McKeen, who heads the journalism school at the University of Florida.

The bullet holes also have been patched, said Hunter Thompson’s childhood friend, Gerald Tyrrell.

“I was in the house with him when he took his .22 rifle and, by mistake, put a bullet through the bedroom floor,” Tyrrell, 69, said in an interview Wednesday.

“The bullet went through the china cabinet downstairs and missed a plate by not much. There was a shard of wood in the corner of the cabinet that was just hanging. His mother and grandmother were out of the house at the time, so we glued it back and nobody ever noticed.”

Tyrrell said he has fond memories of the house: “We went to Hunter’s house every day after school, or all day if there wasn’t school. All of the neighborhood kids were there.”

Thompson amassed a large army of lead soldiers in the basement, which they used to wage epic battles in the in fortifications they dug in the backyard. His bedroom was filled with books – he was always a voracious reader – and lots of mementoes, including a flag he swiped from the nearby golf course, Tyrrell said.

When Tyrrell was in high school, his father made him stop hanging out with Thompson, who by then was frequently in trouble with the law for a wide assortment of petty crimes. After serving 30 days in jail on a robbery charge, Thompson left Louisville for the Air Force and returned only occasionally.

The 2,600-square-foot bungalow has been owned for 21 years by Rick McDonough, an editor with The Courier-Journal.

“An awful lot of people drive by and snap pictures,” McDonough said. After Thompson’s suicide, several people knocked on his door to express their grief, and somebody even left a filter-tip cigar and flowers on the sidewalk.

“It’s a curiosity,” he said. “But I don’t know that anyone’s willing to pay a premium for it.”