Rural and small town America is nearly dead. A distinctive culture rooted in family farms, weakening since 1900 and seriously diseased since 1960, emerged from the 1980’s in a terminal state. In Iowa alone, the last ten years saw a net out-migration of 280,000 people, a full tenth of the state’s population, with most of the loss concentrated in the countryside and in hamlets of under one thousand souls. As a rural minister recently told the Wall Street Journal, “These towns are bleeding people.” Deaths now outnumber births in many Iowa counties. As another commentator remarked, “People who grew up with families and neighbors suddenly don’t have either.”

Amidst this accelerating collapse of the agrarian order, the most consistent voice of protest and warning has been that of Kentucky farmer and poet Wendell Berry. With good reason, his most recent collection of essays. What Are People For?, conveys mainly pessimism, even despair.

Berry remains a maddening figure for ideologues, both right and left. Conservatives have fumed over his lack of respect for industrial capitalism, and his new volume offers no recantations. Americans live “by the tithes of history’s most destructive economy,” he says. The author labels the economic ideal of competition as false, silly, and “destructive both of nature and of human nature.” He despises “agribusiness” in all its forms. Blasting both “industrial food” and “industrial sex,” Berry concludes that “[o]ur kitchens and other eating places more and more resemble filling stations, as our homes more and more resemble motels.”

At the same time, Berry repeatedly violates left-liberal sensibilities. He questions racial integration schemes, suggesting that “the two races are useful and necessary to each other because of their differences.” Berry doubts the wisdom of more immigration from Mexico, because a “generous immigration policy would be contradicted by our fundamentally ungenerous way of life.” He endorses child labor “in viable household and local economies.” Scandalizing the libertines and the universalists, Berry praises marital fidelity, the central importance of family life, and local loyalties. He denies the merits of feminist egalitarianism, arguing that “[t]o have an equal part in our juggernaut of national vandalism is [still] to be a vandal.” He condemns state education systems that “innovate as compulsively and as eagerly as factories,” and wants no part of schools that “serve the government’s economy and the economy’s government.”

Heir to the agrarian populists. Berry decries the institutions that have homogenized American life, battered self-sufficiency, and smothered family autonomy. “My small community in Kentucky,” he reports, “has lived and dwindled for at least a century under the influence of four kinds of organizations—governments, corporations, schools, and churches—all of which are distant (either actually or in interest), centralized, and consequently abstract in their concerns.” His key (and absolutely correct) point is that “the old cultural centers of home and community were made vulnerable to this invasion by their failure as economies.” When the members of a household or village no longer aid each other through productive endeavors, then the individuals involved “fall into dependence on exterior economies and organizations,” and lose their freedom.

In an insightful discussion of the novel Huckleberry Finn, Berry hints that American families and communities have been particularly vulnerable in this regard. Mark Twain’s real “failure” was not the oft-noted turn toward juvenile foolishness in the last third of the book, but the inability of the book’s only “adult” characters—Aunt Polly and Aunt Sally—to impress their notion of settled community on Huck. For him, the only choice in the end seemed to be between the dreaded “pious civilization” of Miss Watson and escape into some “territory.” Berry concludes: “Huckleberry Finn fails in failing to imagine a responsible, adult community life. And I am supposing further that this is the failure of Mark Twain’s life, and of our life, so far, as a society.”

Through most of his discourses. Berry sees little prospect for hope. Farm communities “are declining and eroding,” while “most of the enterprises of the old household economy” are gone. He sees “a diminished country,” marked by crumbling stone walls, sagging and fallen barns, and empty houses, all evidence of “human life poorly founded, played out, and gone.” Increasingly, country people live and think like city people, and so participate in their own demise: “Our garbage mingles with New Jersey garbage in our local landfill, and it would be hard to tell which is which.” He denies that individual protest is of any public use, eschews politics as corrupt and corrupting, and dismisses as presumptuous the idea that he might be part of a saving remnant: “One . . . had better understand that there may, after all, be nothing left to save.”

Yet in his own life, and sometimes in his words, Berry holds out the possibility of a better future. Like the Chestertonian Distributionists and Southern Agrarians before him, Berry is more adept at criticism than at prescription, but he does sketch out the shape of a “beloved community”: food production and distribution organized locally; ponds, streams, and woodlands harvesting a sustainable yield; and a system of decentralized, small-scale industries. Marriage would again have “at its heart a household that is to some extent productive” through housewifery, carpentry, gardening, woodlot management, and cottage industry. Every American, he says, could regain some control over his life by participating in food production, by preparing meals again at home, by buying local products, and by trading directly with farmers.

Berry, however, also demands a more painful sacrifice. Concerning the use of machines, he notes that “if we are ever again to have a world fit and pleasant for little children, we are surely going to have to draw the line where it is not easily drawn.” A few pages later, he adds: “We must achieve the character and acquire the skills to live much poorer than we do. We must waste less. We must do more for ourselves and each other.” Berry’s true summons is for a voluntary, secular war against materialism in both its socialist and capitalist forms. His tragedy is that this may be a lonely gathering in these, the waning years of the Second Millennium.


[What Are People For?, by Wendell Berry (San Francisco: North Point Press) 210 pp., $9.95]