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.

Kentuckians love a good story – and storyteller

November 6, 2009

Kentucky doesn’t just produce writers; it celebrates them.

The biggest annual celebration is Saturday, when about 200 writers — 150 of whom are Kentuckians — will gather at the Frankfort Convention Center for the 28th annual Kentucky Book Fair.

Authors will sit behind long rows of tables so thousands of readers can stop by, meet them, buy their books and get their autographs.

This year’s lineup includes pop ular Kentucky writers Silas House, Erik Reece, Bobbie Ann Mason, Ed McClanahan, Thomas Parrish, Richard Taylor and David Dick.

Also there will be retired Courier-Journal columnist Byron Crawford, who has put together a 30-year collection of his work in Kentucky Footnotes, and journalist Leslie Guttman of Lexington, who writes about a year in the life of a race horse hospital in Equine ER.

Coach Rich Brooks and co-author Tom Leach will sign their book, Rich Tradition: How Rich Brooks Revived the Football Fortunes of the Kentucky Wildcats.

And retired Keeneland chairman Ted Bassett will autograph his memoir.

National authors at the fair will include George McGovern, the 1972 Democratic presidential nominee, who has written a book about Abraham Lincoln.

“I’m always so proud to live in a state that supports literature the way Kentucky does, and the Kentucky Book Fair is real proof of that,” said House, who will sign his new novel, Eli the Good.

“Everywhere I go, all over the country, people assume that Kentuckians are illiterate,” House said. “And I always take that as an opportunity to correct them and tell them about our long literary history and how great the support for writers is in our state.”

When you think about that tradition and support, it makes perfect sense. Writing is about telling stories, and there are few things Kentuckians love more than a good story — and storyteller.

Jesse Stuart and me at his home, summer 1963. Photo by Marion Eblen

I’m the son of a school librarian and a bookstore manager. Writers, especially Kentucky writers, enjoyed celebrity status in our home. My first memorable encounter with that celebrity came the summer I turned 5, when my mother’s parents came up from far Western Kentucky for a visit.

My grandparents were Jesse Stuart fans and wanted to see the Greenup County he wrote about. While my father was at work one day, my mother took us to Greenup, thinking we could drive past Stuart’s home. What she didn’t know was that the narrow gravel road ended at his home.

It didn’t look as if anyone was home, so before she turned the car around, my grandparents urged her to look in the window beside the front door. When she did, Stuart looked back. Then he opened the door and invited us in to visit.

I had just learned to do somersaults, and, much to my mother’s horror, Stuart encouraged me to practice on the braided rug in his living room. I was barefoot, so when he took us to see the cabin where he wrote, he carried me out there, giving my mother a Kodak moment.

Writers such as Stuart and James Still found rich material in the people and places of Eastern Kentucky, just as Mason has explored the land and psyche of her native Jackson Purchase region, in far Western Kentucky.

I asked Mason last week about the importance of Kentucky writers, past and future. As you might expect, her response was well worth reading:

“Kentuckians have been confused about our identity, who we are and how others see us, what we have here and what there is in the larger world. Sometimes we feel smugly superior, sometimes inferior. Kentucky writers have always walked a tightrope between Kentucky and the Outside.

“Now even though the boundary lines are easing, and Kentucky is part of the wider mainstream, our writers can continue to lead the way on the most critical issues of our time, because we can write firsthand with passion and with historical perspective about what is happening to the land and its people. Our land of contrasts is an example and a warning to the rest of the world.”


Kentucky Book Fair

When: 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Nov. 7.

Where: Frankfort Convention Center, 405 Mero St., Frankfort.

Admission: Free.

Learn more: (502) 564-8300, Ext. 297. www.kybookfair.com (there is list of all participating authors).