Virtues of Renewal: Wendell Berry’s Sustainable Forms (The University Press of Kentucky, forthcoming).
Over the past fifty years, Wendell Berry has been arguing that our most pressing ecological and cultural need is a renewed formal intelligence. Such an intelligence does not look for big, one-size-fits-all solutions. Nor is does it look for hope to the latest political movement or slogan. Rather, it discerns and fosters patterns of health. When W. H. Auden famously declared that “poetry makes nothing happen,” he was correct that poetry, like the other arts, doesn’t coerce matter in the way that a tractor or an oil rig or a bomb does. Yet poetry is “a way of happening,” its beauty shaping readers’ imaginations to better perceive and understand formal patterns. Such formative work is not dramatic or quick, but it can foster the deep, lasting change needed to cultivate a more sustainable culture and economy.
In particular, Berry’s literary forms embody and cultivate virtues of renewal. While our contemporary culture fears and shuns death, natural ecosystems provide a model in which death feeds new life, and healthy human communities follow an analogous order. Cultures maintain such a sustainable order by practicing virtues of renewal, virtues that stand in sharp contrast to the techniques of control preferred by our industrial culture. Berry’s sustainable economy depends on attention rather than distraction or surveillance, on gratitude rather than productive busyness, on humility rather than moral codes, on hope rather than optimism, on memory rather than innovation, on fidelity rather than mobility, on convocation rather than independence. Combining literary analysis with wide-ranging cultural criticism, Bilbro argues that Berry’s literary forms shape his readers to desire and practice these virtues of renewal. While poetry can’t magically create a healthy economy, Berry’s poetry, essays, and fiction cultivate the kind of imaginative, virtuous people who can, as he puts it, “practice resurrection.”
Telling the Stories Right: Wendell Berry’s Port William Fiction, edited with Jack Baker (Front Porch Republic Books, forthcoming).
Wendell Berry thinks of himself as a storyteller. It’s somewhat ironic then that he is better known as an essayist, a poet, and an advocate for small farmers. The essays in this collection consider the many facets of Berry’s life and work, but they focus on his efforts as a novelist and story writer. Indeed, Berry had already published three novels before his seminal work of cultural criticism, The Unsettling of America, established him as an ardent defender of local communities and sustainable agriculture. And over the past fifty years, he has published eight novels and more than forty-eight short stories set in the imagined community of Port William. His exquisite rendering of this small Kentucky town challenges us to see the beauty of our own places and communities and to tend their health, threatened though it inevitably is. The twelve contributors to this collection approach Berry’s fiction from a variety of perspectives—literary studies, journalism, theology, history, songwriting—to shed light on its remarkable ability to make a good life imaginable and compelling. The first collection devoted to Berry’s fiction, this volume insists that any consideration of Berry’s work must begin with his stories.
The Saint John’s Bible and its Tradition: Illuminating Beauty in the Twenty-First Century, edited with Jack Baker and Daniel Train (Wipf and Stock, forthcoming).
In an age of e-books and screens, it may seem rather antiquated to create a handwritten, illuminated Bible. The Benedictine monks at Saint John’s Abbey and University, however, determined to produce such a Bible for the twenty-first century, a Bible that would use traditional methods and materials while engaging contemporary questions and concerns. In an age that largely overlooks the physical form of books, The Saint John’s Bible foregrounds the importance of a book’s tactile and visual qualities. This collection will consider how The Saint John’s Bible fits within the history of the Bible as a book, and how its haptic qualities may be particularly important in a digital age.
When the Word Became Type (and then Pixels): What a Digital Age Can Learn from Critics of Antebellum Print Culture
Amid all the hand-wringing over how Google is making us stupid and the paeans proclaiming that Twitter will save democracy, there is too often a lack of historical context. Our digital age is unprecedented, the popular thinking goes, and with so many hot takes to skim, we don’t have time to attend to the complex effects generated by previous shifts in verbal mediums. Scholars obviously know better, but most studies looking to put digital mediums into historical context focus on a handful of pivot points, such as the shift from orality to literacy that Socrates famously bemoans in Phaedrus or the spread of print in Europe following Gutenberg’s invention. My goal, however, is to examine how literary authors in nineteenth-century America questioned the assumptions of their print-saturated age, and then to consider how we might apply their warnings to our digital era.
Appeals to textual authorities played such a large role in America’s early republican culture because of the lack of institutional authorities—king, aristocracy, centralized church structure—that could unify the culturally and geographically diverse population. The absence of these other forces of social cohesion put an immense burden on texts. Antebellum America was a diverse and wildly disparate community, and in the midst of this rather chaotic situation, a national, unified culture was forged by reference to Biblical and Constitutional authority. These appeals shaped an understanding of print as definitive, authoritative, and unifying, when, as the facts on the ground stubbornly indicated, print does not always have these effects.
Indeed, the print technology which once seemed to promote unity across the sprawling American culture became increasingly divisive in the 1830s and 40s with the development of new paper-making and printing technologies that made newspapers and pamphlets much cheaper. The penny press, the rise of new religious movements, and constitutional crises undermined naïve confidence in print’s unifying power. In the face of this chaotic proliferation of viewpoints, readers were tempted to interpret selectively and selfishly, choosing meanings that suited their private interests.
In response, many literary authors imagined different verbal technologies and practices that might enable readers to navigate this sea of printed words, using them to serve truth and foster community. My project investigates how such textual metaphors influence the literary and material forms different authors use in constructing their own books. These metaphors and literary structures work to shift readers’ expectations and reading practices. They destabilize the plausibility structures of print and remind readers that meaning cannot be selfishly possessed, mastered, or controlled—as print tempts us to believe. In exploring the implications of these different verbal mediums, I hope to draw parallels to the proliferation of new verbal technologies in our digital age and consider what guidance nineteenth-century authors might have for how we should read on our screens. Understanding how a previous era was shaped—and in some ways warped—by the assumptions print technology engendered may enable us to recognize more clearly how our own verbal habits and practices are formed and deformed by our enmeshment in digital technologies.