Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History

Interview with Wendell Berry, January 3, 1993

Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries
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00:00:03 - Introduction and background

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Partial Transcript: This is an oral history interview with Wendell Berry being conducted by Linda Beattie for the Kentucky Writers Oral History Project.

Segment Synopsis: Berry talks about his parents, grandparents, and siblings. His father was a lawyer and a farmer. His mother is a housewife.

Keywords: Authors from Kentucky; Port Royal (Ky.)

Subjects: Authors, American--Kentucky; Berry, Wendell, 1934-; Families.; New Castle (Ky.)

GPS: Port Royal (Ky.)
Map Coordinates: 38.555, -85.078
00:03:10 - Childhood / schooling

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Partial Transcript: Um, what was your childhood like?

Segment Synopsis: Berry talks about living in New Castle, Kentucky and spending time on farms. He enjoyed swimming and horse riding. He helped on the farm. He always wanted to be a farmer. In school, he was a mischievous student. He liked reading, but not for assignments. His mother loved reading too and often read to him. Some of the books he read were: "Swiss Family Robinson," "The Yearling," "My Friend Flicka," and "Thunderhead."

Keywords: "Swiss Family Robinson"; "The Yearling"; New Castle (Ky.); Reading; Reading habits

Subjects: Authors, American--Kentucky; Books and reading; Childhood; Education; Family farms

00:11:00 - Sports

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Partial Transcript: What about, um--(coughs)--athletics or other things?

Segment Synopsis: Berry recounts playing basketball and baseball. He expresses his views on what he thinks should be counted as real play, which is not something supervised by adults.

Keywords: Baseball; Tag

Subjects: Basketball; Childhood; Games; Play

00:12:35 - Time at Millersburg Military School

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Partial Transcript: Oh--(coughs)--you said you just went to 8th--through 8th grade in Newcastle.

Segment Synopsis: Berry talks about his time at Millersburg Military School. He found it confining, but it had good teachers and he started taking his education seriously. His favorite subject was literature.

Keywords: Millersburg Military School

Subjects: Authors, American--Kentucky--Biography; Childhood; Education

00:13:27 - Initial attempts to write / University of Kentucky

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Partial Transcript: When did you start your own writing?

Segment Synopsis: Berry started writing when in high school, but more earnestly when in college at University of Kentucky (UK). During childhood, he was more interested in hunting and outdoor activities than writing. He thought going to UK would help him become a writer. At UK, he was the editor of a freshman magazine called The Green Pen, and later also contributed to and edited Stylus magazine. He briefly talks about other future writers who were his friends at UK. He was close friends with James Baker Hall, with whom he shared an interest in T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. He also became good friends with Ed McLanahan.

Keywords: "Understanding Poetry"; Cleanth Brooks; Robert Penn Warren; Stylus magazine; The Green Pen; Writers at University of Kentucky

Subjects: Authors.; Education, Higher; Hall, James Baker, 1935-2009; Higher education; Mason, Bobbie Ann; Norman, Gurney, 1937-; Periodicals.; University of Kentucky; Warren, Robert Penn, 1905-1989; Writing

00:20:29 - Going to Stanford University / marriage

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Partial Transcript: Next year Ed went to Corvallis to teach.

Segment Synopsis: Berry talks about going to Stanford on a fellowship and what influenced him to do that. His friend, James Baker Hall had gone to Stanford earlier and his wife was from California. He met his wife Tanya at University of Kentucky (UK) and married her in 1957. He talks about going to Bloomington to take some additional courses while doing his MA at UK. After graduating, he taught for two years at Georgetown College. He talks about his experience there.

Keywords: Georgetown College (Ky.); Kentucky writers; Teachers; Teaching

Subjects: Education, Higher; Hall, James Baker, 1935-2009; Higher education; Poets--20th century.; Stanford University; University of Kentucky

00:25:54 - Wallace Stegner / regionalism

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Partial Transcript: When you went to Stanford, uh, I know you had Wallace Stegner as a major professor...

Segment Synopsis: Berry talks about the "evils" of regionalism, which he thinks Wallace Stegner, his professor at Stanford, had overcome in his writings. He expresses his views on the inherent value of each individual and how it is different from belonging to a group or category. He discusses his relationship with Wallace Stegner, who he thought to be quite reserved yet generous. He also talks about his relationship with Richard Scowcroft.

Keywords: Individual and universal; Teachers

Subjects: Authors.; Place attachment; Scowcroft, Richard; Stanford University; Stegner, Wallace, 1909-1993; Writing

00:33:17 - First novel / living in California

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Partial Transcript: What sort of writing were you doing when you in the workshop there and--

Segment Synopsis: Berry talks about his first novel--"Nathan Coulter"--which he finished at Stanford. Some parts of the book were perceived to be autobiographical even though they were not. He talks about his time in California and some of his friends there.

Keywords: "Nathan Coulter"; Autobiography and fiction; Stanford University

Subjects: Authors, American--Kentucky--Biography; Authors.; McClanahan, Ed; Norman, Gurney, 1937-; Poets--20th century.; Writing

00:38:47 - Children / Europe visit

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Partial Transcript: Um, what about your children?

Segment Synopsis: Berry talks about his children--their names and when they were born. He spent some time in Europe on a Guggenheim fellowship. He did not write much during that time.

Keywords: Children; Europe; Family; Guggenheim Fellowship

Subjects: Authors, American--Kentucky--Biography; Families.; Writing

00:42:12 - Time in New York City

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Partial Transcript: And then you went to New York to teach, is that right?

Segment Synopsis: Berry talks about his time teaching English at University College of NYU. He taught there for two years and learned a lot about the city. He visited museums and art galleries.

Keywords: City College of New York University; Life in New York City; New York City (N.Y.); Teachers; Teaching

Subjects: City University of New York; College of the City of New York (1926-1961); Education, Higher; Higher education; New York (N.Y.)

00:44:08 - Writing in New York / return to Kentucky

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Partial Transcript: But you decided you didn't wanna stay.

Segment Synopsis: Berry talks about his move back to Kentucky when he got an offer to teach at University of Kentucky. One factor influencing his decision to come back was his realization that he was a "Kentucky writer." In New York, he was writing his novel "A Place on Earth," which was about Kentucky. He talks about his father's commitment to their hometown. He thinks writing is a financially insecure profession.

Keywords: "A Place on Earth"; Home; New York City (N.Y.); Sense of place; Writing profession

Subjects: American poetry; Lexington (Ky.); New York (N.Y.); Place attachment; University of Kentucky

00:50:19 - Teaching at University of Kentucky

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Partial Transcript: Uh, when you returned to the University of Kentucky, what were you teaching?

Segment Synopsis: At University of Kentucky Berry taught creative writing courses. He quit for 10 years in 1977. He joined back in 1987 and has been teaching composition courses for teachers and classes on agricultural readings and pastoral literature. He talks about his experience teaching creative writing courses. He was uneasy about the justification for those courses. A few of his students were good writers and got published, but he has concerns about the idea of teaching people to become writers.

Keywords: Creative writing; Creative writing classes; Reading and writing; Teachers; Teaching writing

Subjects: Authors, American--Kentucky--Biography; Education, Higher; Higher education; University of Kentucky; Writing

00:55:02 - Reading habits of students

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Partial Transcript: I'm always surprised at the number of would-be or creative writers who are not readers.

Segment Synopsis: Berry talks about the problem of aspiring writers not being good readers.

Keywords: Reading and writing; Reading habits; Students; Teachers; Teaching

Subjects: Authors, American--Kentucky--Biography; Writing

00:58:13 - Choosing writing genres

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Partial Transcript: Uh, I'm wondering, when you were a student yourself did you ever feel a need to choose a genre that you were going to write in?

Segment Synopsis: Berry talks about selecting the genre for his writing. He has been practical about it and chosen different formats - novel, poem, or essay - depending on his needs. The interviewer and Berry talk about the prejudice against writers who express themselves in various formats. Though many people in his community know him as a writer, he doesn't want to be dealt with as a writer, but as a regular person dealing with the same difficulties as others.

Keywords: Farmer writers; Literary critics; Writing genres

Subjects: Authors, American--Kentucky--Biography; Essayists; Poets--20th century.; Writing

01:02:43 - Concern for community

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Partial Transcript: Um, all of your books, novels, essays, poetry, uh, deal with your concern for community.

Segment Synopsis: Berry expresses his views about community. He has been a part of various communities in Kentucky, which he says are in decline right now; their economic integrity has been destroyed. The economic and cultural life in communities in Kentucky were connected earlier, but aren't now. He personally is not a very social person, but this issue concerned him much when he came back to Kentucky. Defending small family farms is important because they are necessary for good land use. But since families do not last long, community is the proper unit that should be protected.

Keywords: Cultural life in Kentucky; Economic condition in Kentucky; Protecting small farms; Small family farms; Small farms; Small farms in Kentucky

Subjects: Agriculture--Economic aspects; Communities; Community development; Economic development--Kentucky; Family farms; Farms, Small

01:08:23 - Community in an increasingly urban world

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Partial Transcript: The other thing I was asking was, do you think it's probable or even possible that...

Segment Synopsis: Berry talks about the necessity of communities in an increasingly urban world. A neighborhood or community is established when people start to help each other. He talks about how there is a kind of antithesis between career and community. He gives an example of how curating the works of a local artist might not be the best thing to do for one's professional development as a curator. Community requires that one serve the local life, while career requires one to do something bigger and beyond the local. Land-grant universities do not fulfill their goal when they neglect funding local research in order to focus on more career-oriented projects.

Keywords: Academics; Career in academia; Communities; Community and individual; Individual and society; Land grant universities; Land-grant universities

Subjects: Authors, American--Kentucky--Biography; Communities; Land-Grant University Cooperating Extension Service; Place attachment; Regionalism; Scholarly publishing

01:15:27 - Community, alienation, and place

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Partial Transcript: In your essay "Poetry and Place" you argue that too often contemporary poetry lacks narrative...

Segment Synopsis: Berry discusses the issue of alienation in present society and what is required to start forming a community. Though alienated people could be connected - as in a network - they cannot form a community among themselves. Forming community requires establishing a practical relationship with the shared place. The most important question that a community needs to answer is not about shared ancestry or culture or past, but about the shared relationship to a place in the present. Keeping oneself alienated is easier than being part of a community.

Keywords: Alienation; Communal identity; Communities; Culture and community; Identity of a community; Place and culture

Subjects: Alienation (Philosophy); Communities; Group identity; Identity; Place (Philosophy); Place attachment

01:22:43 - Network vs. community

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Partial Transcript: Well, I was just talking about the kind of alienation...

Segment Synopsis: Berry discusses the difference between a network and a community. One can have a network and be in touch with other people without being dependent on them or living in the same place. Alienated people can have a sense of network but not a sense of community. He talks about the justifications given by people who live in areas without a strong sense of community. People do not like other people inquiring about their private business. But people don't realize that there is very little that can count as simply one's own private life. A community, just like human nature, has bad possibilities. But one cannot use this as a justification to avoid community.

Keywords: Communities; Justifications for avoiding community; Neighborhoods; Network and community; Networks; Sense of community

Subjects: Alienation (Philosophy); Authors, American--Kentucky; Communities; Place attachment

01:28:00 - Communes and communities

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Partial Transcript: And on the other hand, people who join together to form communes...

Segment Synopsis: Berry talks about the possibilities of successful communes. He thinks these intentionally made communities are useful - such as the monastic communities. He is himself, however, concerned with accidental communities - made up of people who happen to be "here," that is, in a particular place. He thinks that all associations are, in a way, accidents, and the goal should be to be faithful to the associations in which we find ourselves. Communities will have failures and successes depending on the frailties of human nature.

Keywords: Accidental communities; Ancient civilizations; Intentional communities; Monastic communities; Successful communities

Subjects: Communal living; Communities; Fidelity in a community; Marriage; Tricksters

01:33:42 - Creativity

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Partial Transcript: I've been asking everybody that I've interviewed what they believe the nature of creativity to be.

Segment Synopsis: Berry expresses his views on creativity. He thinks his personal history is a part of his creativity, but there are other elements in it. He believes in inspiration, but also discipline. He thinks that while creativity depends on deliberate work, serendipity is also a part of it. The ideas in his essays are a result of years of reading and experience. He talks about the process of writing fiction.

Keywords: Creativity in writing; Discipline in writing; Inspiration; Inspiration in writing; Serendipity and creativity

Subjects: Authors, American--Kentucky--Biography; Creative ability; Creativity; Essayists; Fiction; Poets--20th century.

01:44:03 - Fidelity

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Partial Transcript: "Fidelity," the title of your most recent book of short stories seems to be to describe to me an essential aspect...

Segment Synopsis: Berry describes what fidelity and commitment mean to him. The concept represents the guiding principle of his life. Being committed to your decisions and choices is the only way to find out if you made the best decisions. Fidelity cannot be imposed, but has to come from inside. He talks about the current situation in society, particularly the high rate of divorce and the impact it has on children. But one cannot ask someone to be committed to a marriage because there is no way of knowing their experience and situation.

Keywords: Commitment; Decisions in life; Divorce rates; Fidelity; Regrets

Subjects: Authors, American--Kentucky--Biography; Divorce; Marriage

01:50:33 - Dysfunctional families and the role of community

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Partial Transcript: Well certainly in teaching school you, you see that...

Segment Synopsis: Berry talks about dysfunctional families and about children without a father or mother. He says that it takes a community, not just a family, to properly raise a child. He is grateful that while growing up many people in his community felt they could correct his behavior.

Keywords: Community and childhood development; Family; Function of communities; Raising children

Subjects: Child rearing; Communities; Dysfunctional families; Families; Teenage pregnancy

01:53:10 - Silence and speech

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Partial Transcript: Um, in your introduction to your 1975 book "Sayings and Doings" you write, 'Memorable speech is measured speech.'

Segment Synopsis: Berry talks about his views on language and its inadequacies. Silence is the acknowledgement of the inherent failure of language. There is much that goes beyond understanding and language.

Keywords: Language; Language and silence; Language and world; Nature of language; Nature of speech; Philosophy of language; Silence

Subjects: Authors, American--Kentucky; Interpersonal communication

01:56:07 - Writing habit

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Partial Transcript: Um, there was much controversy about an article you wrote stating that you had no use for and didn't own a computer.

Segment Synopsis: Berry talks about his wish to write for half of the day and work outdoors half a day. He writes with a pencil since he makes a lot of mistakes. His wife, Tanya, types up the manuscripts and serves as the first critic of his work. He sometimes discusses his writing project with his wife before writing.

Keywords: Critics; Editing; Writers' spouses; Writing habits; Writing process

Subjects: Authors, American--Kentucky--Biography; Writing

02:00:34 - Views on art

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Partial Transcript: You have in many places written about, um, the integrity of all types of work.

Segment Synopsis: Berry expresses his views on the integrity of different kinds of work and the usefulness of art. He thinks that art comes about from a kind of need. The community needs to remember itself through art. Though there are imaginative aspects to literature, the writing is still about a community in which one belongs. He talks about Tom Marsh and his pottery--he made beautiful and useful objects. It is not necessary to define "use" as simply utilitarian. For instance, a story doesn't have an immediate use value but it informs minds. Paintings have also, historically, served various purposes.

Keywords: Art's function; Communities; Community and art; Integrity of work; Role of art in society; Use value; Usefulness of art; Utility and art

Subjects: Art; Authors, American--Kentucky; Communities; Literature; Painting; Place attachment

02:07:22 - Port Williams stories / views on other writers

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Partial Transcript: Um, is there one piece of writing or one task that you would like to tackle more than any other?

Segment Synopsis: One of the projects Berry would like to finish before his death is the series of Port Williams stories. He talks about the Kentucky writers he admires. He thinks his three friends - Ed McClanahan, Gurney Norman, and James Baker Hall - are all great writers. Hall is one of the best short story writers from Kentucky.

Keywords: Ed McClanahan; Gurney Norman; James Baker Hall; Kentucky writers; Port Williams stories; Short stories

Subjects: Authors, American--Kentucky; Hall, James Baker, 1935-2009; Southern writers; Writing

02:12:10 - Views on recognition of poets

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Partial Transcript: Uh, you refer to poet watchers as the sort of people who hang on to poets' words as though...

Segment Synopsis: Berry expresses his views on the recognition of poets in a society. Sometimes this recognition could be too deferential, and not critical enough. Also, an undue attention to the poet instead of their poetry is not good. He talks about the current stage of American society, which he thinks believes in worshiping athletes and rock stars. He thinks that it is superfluous for writers to comment on their own work.

Keywords: Art and society; Poets in society; Recognition of poets

Subjects: Athletes; Authors, American--Kentucky; Literature; Poetry; Poets--20th century.

02:16:59 - Views on education--Teaching literature

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Partial Transcript: You've written strong essays on the lack of standards in education today...

Segment Synopsis: Berry talks about the state of education, particularly in literature, in the country. Very often literature is taught as a special field and made out to be more difficult and obscure than it is. The subject has to be seen as a generally necessary subject for everyone - not just for entertainment, but also for instruction. Literature teaches how to live one's life. He thinks there should be a literary canon with which children are familiar. Education cannot be painless.

Keywords: Education in literature; Education in public school; Literary canon

Subjects: Authors, American--Kentucky; Education; Literature; Teachers; Teaching

02:25:41 - Views on education--Subject-centered education

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Partial Transcript: Um, anyway, what--just to finish that up, there's so much emphasis now on the student-centered classroom...

Segment Synopsis: Berry talks about his views on education. He thinks that instead of student-centered or teacher-centered education, the focus should be on the subject. He also talks about a friend and his teaching style where no grade is given to students. He discusses the master-apprentice relationship as a kind of model for an education system.

Keywords: Educational reform; Evaluation of learning; Master-apprentice relationships; Public education; Student-centered pedagogy; Subject-centered pedagogy

Subjects: Education; Education--Study and teaching; Learning; Teachers; Teaching

02:29:08 - Views on organized religion

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Partial Transcript: You write about not participating in organized religion and about the spirituality you find all around you...

Segment Synopsis: Berry talks about his relationship to church. He thinks institutions get between people and knowledge (or light).

Keywords: Institutions in modern times; Obstacles to education; Role of church; Role of education

Subjects: Church; Education; Institutions; Religion

02:31:15 - Views on awards and recognition

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Partial Transcript: In 1992 you received from the University of Louisville the Victory of Spirit Ethics Award.

Segment Synopsis: Berry discusses his views on awards he has received. Though he is grateful for those awards, he doesn't think they have influenced what he has done or will do in the future.

Keywords: Art and recognition; Honor and awards; Honors; Recognition; Victory of Spirit award

Subjects: Authors, American--Kentucky--Biography; Awards