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.


Wendell Berry first living inductee in Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame

January 10, 2015

111218WendellBerryTE0032AWendell Berry at home, December 2011. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

When the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning announced plans in July to select the first living member of its Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame, I wrote that the process should be a search for Wendell Berry.

Kentucky has many fine writers working today, but none can match the range, craftsmanship and international acclaim of Berry, 80, who writes and farms in Henry County, where his family has lived for five generations.

So the Carnegie Center’s announcement this week should come as no surprise. Berry will be inducted into the Hall of Fame at 7 p.m. Jan. 28 along with five deceased writers, who will be identified that night.

The ceremony at the Carnegie Center, 251 West Second Street, is free and open to the public. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. Kentucky Educational Television plans to live-stream the event on Ket.org.

“To be recognized in that way at home is a very pleasing thing,” Berry said when I talked with him by phone last week. “And a relieving thing, actually.”

The Carnegie Center, a non-profit organization that promotes literacy education, reading and writing, created the Hall of Fame three years ago to draw attention to Kentucky’s rich literary legacy.

In its first two years, 13 deceased writers were honored: Harriette Arnow, William Wells Brown, Harry Caudill, Rebecca Caudill, Thomas D. Clark, Janice Holt Giles, James Baker Hall, Etheridge Knight, Thomas Merton, Elizabeth Madox Roberts, James Still, Jesse Stuart and Robert Penn Warren.

hall-of-fame-logo-final-300x165Neil Chethik, executive director of the Carnegie Center, said about 200 members of the public nominated more than 75 writers for the honor this year, including about 25 living writers. A short list was sent to a committee of writers and readers headed by Lori Meadows, director of the Kentucky Arts Council, which made the selections along with the Carnegie Center staff.

“Everybody pretty much said, ‘It’s going to be Wendell, right?'” Chethik said. “His command of all three major areas of writing — fiction, non-fiction and poetry — and his influence statewide and internationally brought us to him.”

Chethik said future classes of inductees may include a living writer, but not always. The criteria for all nominations is that a writer must be published; must have lived in Kentucky for a significant period or have a strong tie to the state; and must have produced writing of “enduring stature.”

All of which makes Berry a natural for the honor. The former University of Kentucky English professor has written more than 60 volumes: novels, poetry, short-story collections and essays. A fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, he received the National Humanities Medal in 2010 and gave the prestigious Jefferson Lecture in 2012.

The major theme of Berry’s work is that people should live and work in harmony with the land and their community. “He is so rooted in Kentucky,” Chethik said. “He speaks for a lot of Kentuckians.”

The-Unsettling-of-America (1)Berry’s 1971 book, The Unforeseen Wilderness helped rally public opposition to a plan to flood Red River Gorge. His 1977 book, The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture, is a bible of the international movements for sustainable agriculture and locally produced food.

Over the years, Berry has participated in protests against nuclear power and coal strip-mining. He was among a group of environmental activists who camped in Gov. Steve Beshear’s outer office in 2011 to protest state government support for the coal industry’s destruction of Eastern Kentucky mountains.

A year earlier, Berry cut his ties to UK and withdrew his papers to protest the university’s renaming of the basketball team residence hall Wildcat Coal Lodge in exchange for $7 million in donations from coal executives.

“The actual influence of writers in Kentucky is in doubt,” Berry said when I asked about his activism, and whether he thought it would ever sway public policy.

“As far as the future is concerned, I don’t sit around and think about the future in regard to what I’ve done,” he said. “It seems to me to be a distraction from the things I ought to be doing.”

Berry said he has been busy writing poetry and working on several long-term projects. He also is writing a short speech for his Hall of Fame ceremony about “Kentucky writing and what it means to be a Kentucky writer.”

“Kentucky writers over the years have given us a kind of record of life in this state, what it has been like to live in it,” he said. “Sometimes they have given us very important testimony about things that were wrong.

“They have been an extremely diverse set of people, and I think the quality of their work has been remarkable,” he added. “I don’t think there’s any worry about it continuing.”


Carnegie Center asks: Who is Kentucky’s greatest living writer?

July 5, 2014

WendellBerryThe Carnegie Center is asking for nominations of Kentucky’s greatest living writer for its Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame. My nomination is Wendell Berry, shown here at his Henry County home in December 2011.  Whom would you choose?  Photo by Tom Eblen

 

The Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning has a new message as it seeks public nominations for its third class of inductees into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame: We’re not just for dead folks anymore.

In January, the center plans to add four more Kentucky writers who are no longer living to the 13 already in the Hall of Fame, plus its first living writer. So here is the question: Who is Kentucky’s greatest living writer?

“We are ready to show that great Kentucky writing is being created now,” said Neil Chethik, the Carnegie Center’s director. “It just doesn’t exist in the past.”

halloffamelogoThe criteria for all nominations is that a writer, living or dead, must be published; must have lived in Kentucky for a significant period or have a significant connection to the state; and must have produced writing of “enduring stature.”

Since he became director in 2011, Chethik has expanded the Carnegie Center’s mission of promoting literacy education, reading and writing to celebrating Kentucky’s literary heritage. One way has been by creating the Hall of Fame.

“People like lists,” he said. “They like awards.”

Nominations to the Hall of Fame are vetted by the Carnegie Center staff and inductees are chosen by a committee of writers and readers headed by Lori Meadows, director of the Kentucky Arts Council.

The first 13 inductees have reflected a diverse group of great writers spanning two centuries: Harriette Arnow, William Wells Brown, Harry Caudill, Rebecca Caudill, Thomas D. Clark, Janice Holt Giles, James Baker Hall, Etheridge Knight, Thomas Merton, Elizabeth Madox Roberts, James Still, Jesse Stuart and Robert Penn Warren.

“People have a lot of passion about who gets named to the Hall of Fame,” Chethik said. “We’ve even had some protests.”

For example, fans of two popular novelists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, James Lane Allen and John Fox Jr., have lobbied for their inclusion. So have fans of the late “gonzo” journalist Hunter S. Thompson.

They and others will be considered in the future, Chethik said, along with perhaps one living writer each year.

“I think we’ve got five-to-10 who are truly great writers working right now who are nationally known,” he said. “You can start making a list, but as soon as you start … well, I’ll leave it to you and others to make the list.”

I can think of several Kentucky writers who have produced impressive bodies of work over several decades, including Barbara Kingsolver, Bobbie Ann Mason, Ed McClanahan, Sena Jeter Naslund, Nikky Finney, Gurney Norman and Gloria Jean Watkins, whose pen name is bell hooks.

Kim Edwards of Lexington has won many awards for her short stories and best-selling novel, The Memory Keeper’s Daughter. Louisville native Sue Grafton has attracted a national following with her detective novels.

There are many fine up-and-coming Kentucky writers, such as Frank X. Walker, Silas House, C.E. Morgan, Erik Reece, Crystal Wilkinson, Maurice Manning and Bianca Spriggs.

You probably can think of others worthy of consideration, too. But for me, this competition comes down to a search for Wendell Berry. No other Kentucky writer can match the quality, breadth and impact of his work over the past half-century.

Berry, who turns 80 on Aug. 5, has written dozens of novels, poems, short stories and influential essays and non-fiction books. A fellow in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, he won the National Humanities Medal and gave the prestigious Jefferson Lecture in 2012.

The Henry County native and resident is revered internationally for elegant, no-nonsense writing that helped inspire the environmental, local food and sustainable agriculture movements.

Berry’s 1977 book, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, has become a classic. The Unforeseen Wilderness in 1971 helped rally public opposition to flooding the Red River Gorge. In recent years, he has been an eloquent voice against destructive strip-mining practices in Appalachia.

That’s my nomination for Kentucky’s greatest living writer. What’s yours? Email your suggestion, plus your reasoning and any supporting material, before July 15 to Chethik at: neil@carnegiecenterlex.org.

“We figure that when you’re arguing about who the best writers are, you’re in the right conversation,” Chethik said. “We want to spark conversations that will get more people to read more.”