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.
Neil 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.”
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.”