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.

James Still’s posthumous novel retains some mystery

March 27, 2011

When Kentucky writer James Still died in 2001, three months short of his 95th birthday, he left behind a rich legacy of novels, short stories and poetry — and a mysterious manuscript in a leather briefcase that was held together with a belt.

That manuscript — a haunting and sometimes disturbing novel — has just been published as Chinaberry (University Press of Kentucky, $21.95). But much of the story remains a mystery.

Silas House, the author of Clay’s Quilt and other acclaimed novels, puzzled over the manuscript while editing it for publication.

“I’ve spent five or six years with this book, and I still don’t know what to think about it,” he said. But he does know this: Chinaberry is a master fully written story about the complexities of love, relationships, childhood and memory.

Still’s literary advisers and adopted daughter, Teresa Reynolds, approached House in 2004 about editing the manuscript. He said he was both honored and intimidated at the prospect of finishing the final novel of his literary hero.

Still’s work had always inspired House, who grew up in Laurel and Leslie counties and had dreamed of becoming a writer. The title of House’s 2003 novel, A Parchment of Leaves, is taken from one of Still’s poems.

House, 39, met Still a couple of times at the Appalachian Writers Workshop at Hindman Settlement School in Knott County, where Still lived for nearly 70 years. House was then an aspiring writer; Still was in his 90s and a bit gruff. “He certainly didn’t suffer fools, which I totally was in his presence,” House said.

Still was an economical writer; his few words were carefully chosen and arranged in precise rhythms. House said the manuscript’s chapters seemed almost finished, but they were in no particular order.

“Scenes were written in two or three different versions; it was like the Gospels,” he said. “Most of what I did was I found the best things from both versions and put them into one version so that (the story) moved in a more linear fashion.

“I really wanted every single word in the book to be his, and for the most part it is, except sometimes I would have to create transitional sentences,” he said. “It would take me weeks to write one sentence because I wanted to capture his rhythm and make sure every word was as carefully chosen as he would have chosen it.”

House said the biggest decision he made was the title: Chinaberry, the name of the Texas ranch that is as much a character in the book as any of the humans.

Still apparently began writing the story in the mid-1980s, biographer Carol Boggess said. I interviewed Still for a couple of hours late on the afternoon of his 80th birthday — July 16, 1986 — for a profile in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. In that piece, I wrote that Still said he was “hard at work writing a book he isn’t ready to discuss.”

He was still working on it almost 15 years later; the manuscript was in his hospital room when he died.

Unlike his other writing, Chinaberry is not set in the Eastern Kentucky mountains. It takes place in the wide-open cotton and cattle land of rural Texas nearly a century ago, and in Still’s native Alabama.

Chinaberry is about the epic journey of an unnamed boy of 13, who often seems much younger. He leaves Alabama with family friends for a summer of picking cotton in Texas. During the next three months, his life is transformed.

“I think it’s a love story on so many levels,” House said. “It’s a love story between the author and childhood, between a person and a place. I think there’s a palpable love for Texas in the book, and for a way of life that’s gone forever.”

At the heart of the story is the relationship that develops between the boy and the Chinaberry ranch’s owner, Anson Winters, and his second wife, Lurie. Anson virtually adopts the boy, treating him as a replacement for the young, handicapped son whose death he still grieves.

“What’s so brilliant about the book is that (Still) doesn’t make any judgments; it’s a psychological thriller in a way,” said House, who found some scenes almost creepy.

“Ultimately, it’s up to the reader to decide what is really going on here, and that’s the brilliant thing James Still does,” he said. “He gives the reader all the power. It’s a great book-club book for that reason because you can sit and discuss it on and on.”

Perhaps the biggest mystery about Chinaberry is this: How much is fiction, and how much is Still’s autobiography?

The boy and Still share the same Alabama home. The boy’s father is a “horse doctor” who lived in Texas as a young man, as Still’s father was and did. “There’s all this autobiography in the book, but nobody knows if the main thing is true,” House said.

Among the manuscript pages in the battered briefcase, House found notes that Still had made on things he read about selective memory. “He seemed to be struggling with what was true memory,” he said.

Whether it’s autobiography, fiction or some combination of both, House thinks Chinaberry is a worthy companion to Still’s masterpiece novel River of Earth, published in 1940 to national acclaim.

“It’s such a cinematic book; it would make a wonderful movie,” House said of Chinaberry. “I still don’t understand it, but I think that’s sort of the beauty of it.”

Click on each thumbnail to see complete photo: