Sunday, November 11, 2018

Writers Wendell Berry and Crystal Wilkinson speak up for rural America at Kentucky Arts and Letters Day

Moderator Debbie Baker talked with Wilkinson and Berry at Kentucky Arts and Letters Day. (Photo by Morris Grubbs)
Two great exponents of rural culture, writers Wendell Berry and Crystal Wilkinson, reflected yesterday about their work, rural America and its place in the rest of America.

Berry is an author, poet, farmer and philosopher who speaks for the old verities of agrarian culture and is one of the most widely admired writers of our time. Wilkinson, who teaches at the University of Kentucky, is the author of three widely praised books: The Birds of Opulence (winner of the 2016 Ernest J. Gaines Prize for Literary Excellence for rising African-American fiction writers), Water Street and Blackberries, Blackberries, based on her youth in rural Casey County, Kentucky.

Wilkinson and Berry had a conversation that concluded the fourth annual Kentucky Arts and Letters Day at The Berry Center in New Castle, which advocates for for farmers, land-conserving communities, and healthy regional economies, continuing the work of Wendell Berry and his late father and brother, John M. Berry Sr. and Jr.

Berry and Wilkinson said they had both had the experience of having their work discounted as too rural. One of Wilkinson's potential editors wanted "a modern book, not a country book," and another editor wrote a third party, "If she wants to write something more contemporary, let us know."

"I feel like I sort of stuck to my guns because I think that the agrarian story, the rural story, is so important," Wilkinson said. "I almost see it, not overtly so, as a mission -- but certainly in my heart -- and if I never get to New York, I'll be fine, and I'll keep telling stories of our people." That won a big round of applause.

Berry recalled writing, around 1960, an early manuscript of poems that an editor shared with a rising young poet, who said "the experience of the present and the coming world was urban, and this poetry was wrong because of its content," he said. "I don't think either of us decided to write about rural people because they're so interesting. . . . You go with what your inheritance is."

Berry took issue with Paul Krugman's Nov. 8 column in The New York Times, headlined "Real America versus Senate America," about the extra weight that the Senate gives rural voters. Krugman "made an absolute distinction between real America and rural America," Berry said. "People are convinced that the definitive experience, if not the only experience, that's of any account," is urban. "Paul Krugman is an economist. He knows that people have to eat, presumably . . . Well, my next project is to get rural America enrolled in the United Nations."

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