After 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.