Monday, November 15, 2010

Is Wendell Berry Kentucky's Leading Intellectual?

Wendell Berry favored Centre College with a fine reading of some of his poetry and a short story tonight. He will be meeting with students tomorrow, and then the Danville community at the public library.

It is hard to classify what kind of thinker he is, exactly. He has described himself as "an artist, of sorts, and a farmer, of sorts." He is a kind of agrarian social thinker, and an environmental activist in Kentucky.

When encouraging students to come to the convocation, I described Wendell Berry as Kentucky's leading intellectual. I have been thinking about this since I said it. I still think it is true. But I would welcome some critical thought and comment on the subject.


ceemac said...

I suspect that some would argue that it would be Mohler at Southern Sem.

Gruntled said...

Does that some include you?

ceemac said...

Three if's

1. If Mohler meets the definition of an intellectual and

2. if by leading you mean influential

3. If Louisville is considered part of Ky. (I know some parts of Ky do not claim L'ville)


I would have to say the Mohler would be way ahead of Berry on the list. Not just in Ky but the entire South. After all you are talking about someone before he was 40 yrs old had made classical Calvinism a major stream of thought in the SBC.

Disclaimer: Don't agree with Mohler on anything of substance

Gruntled said...

Fair enough. I think Mohler qualifies on all three counts. He is quite influential in a large, though well-bounded, constituency.

Berry's influence, I think, is broader and longer, but more diffuse - in part because Berry's program is much less specific than Mohler's, except for mountain-top removal.

halifax said...

I would definitely say that Berry counts as an intellectual, and I would also have little hesitation to call him 'Kentucky's leading intellectual' (though I suppose there might be some discussion about who else is in contention for that title).

Stefan Collini, in Absent Minds, suggests that intellectuals be understood as people who have made a definitive contribution in some autonomous artistic/academic/professional field and who then take advantage of their authority in that field to make pronouncements on a wider range of topics outside of their original field of expertise.

Berry is an internationally recognized poet and novelist, who has also made substantial contributions to contemporary social and political criticism.

I don't know Mohler, so I can't really judge between the two, but, as you might already know, I think very highly of pretty much everything that Berry has written.

Martin Cothran said...


I think Berry would bristle at being called an "intellectual," which makes it a little difficult to affix it to him. The word connotes a kind of narrow academic focus that seems inappropriate for Berry. "Scholar" would be better, but there's something about that term which doesn't seem right either.

This is a guy who spends his time lambing in the spring, harvesting tobacco in the fall, and fussing with his donkeys part of the rest of the year. Only when he's done with that does he go up to his cabin, where he writes his short stories, poems, and essays.

His focus isn't on academics: it's on life. What do you call an expert on life?

Martin Cothran said...

By the way, one of the things you wouldn't call an expert on life is an "expert."

Martin Cothran said...

My wife has suggested "sage."

halley said...

Is he a conservative?

Gruntled said...

He is off the normal left/right chart. He is highly opposed to corporate profits at the expense of the land, so I think that puts him more on the left than the right.