Wendell Berry nomination for the Nobel Prize in Literature

JoAnn Baumgartner

Caxton Nobel Committee:
Their project and the process

For years, Caxtonian Junie L. Sinson had an extraordinary interest in the Nobel Prize in Literature and the activities of the Swedish Academy applicable to the awarding of the prize. Sinson conceived the idea that the prize involved areas of interest consistent with the focus of The Caxton Club, involving literature and the book.

The Rules of the Swedish Academy allow a professor of literature to nominate an individual for the Nobel Prize in Literature. It was concluded that, in conjunction with a professor of English, The Caxton Club could assemble a committee, which would work with the selected professor and assist in selecting an author for nomination. It was anticipated that that could be both a rewarding and an enriching project.

A committee of Caxtonians was assembled and the process was begun. Serving on the study committee, which met Saturdays at the Newberry Library, were JoAnn Baumgartner, Sherman Beverly, Michael Evanoff, Wendy Husser, Thomas Joyce, Truman Metzel, Charles Miner, Edward Quattrocchi, Scott Sinson, Robert Brooks, Michael Huckman, and Junie L. Sinson. Professor Robin Metz, Philip Sidney Post Professor of English, Knox College, Chair of the Department of English, and Director of the Program in Creative Writing, agreed to serve as the committee's shepherd.


t the initial meeting, May 4, 2002, The Caxton Club Nobel Committee embarked on a research project, which involved reading, evaluating, and critiquing books by proposed authors. Since the Swedish Academy does not grant an award for a single book, each member enlisted several bibliophiles to help summarize the character and breadth of a proposed candidate's work. The Nobel criteria stated that nominations must examine the "author's larger world human community" irrespective of political, social, economic, scientific, or religious ideology.

The committee considered more than 40 esteemed and established writers, poets, and playwrights. These included John Barth, Wendell Berry, E. L. Doctorow, Rita Dove, Barry Lopez, Norman Mailer, David Mamet, Arthur Miller, Harold Pinter, Philip Roth, John Updike, Garry Wills, August Wilson, and Maurice Sendak. (This latter author, illustrator, and composer was a nominee that the committee considered well in advance of the recent announcement that he was one of two recipients of the newly-established Swedish Prize for Children's Literature.)

Nobel rules indicate that to be accepted in the year of submission, a candidate must have been previously nominated; otherwise he or she would be subject to consideration the following year. Once a candidate has been submitted, his or her name is kept permanently for consideration. The probability is high that remarkable and deserving authors such as Pinter, Roth, and Updike have been nominated several times in the past. The challenge for the committee was to endorse someone who deserved recognition, but who may not have been previously considered. The original list of 40 authors was winnowed to 20, then 12, and finally, four finalists.

I nominated Wendell Berry and championed him; my paper and passionate speech on his behalf resulted in two people's changing their votes. In the final heated debate, the committee selected the substantial body of life-affirming work by the American poet, novelist, and essayist, Wendell Berry. The members were convinced that Berry seemed to fit the original criteria of Alfred Nobel as "someone who conferred a great benefit on mankind" and whose body of work is in an "ideal direction."

On December 5, 2002, Professor Robin Metz wrote an eloquent letter, submitting Wendell Berry to the Nobel Committee of the Swedish Academy. In his letter, Professor Metz said that Wendell Berry "stands not only apart from but also in the very forefront of contemporary authors, worldwide, who attempt to address the role and place of human beings within our complex, moral, spiritual, and environmental systems."

A Profile of Wendell Berry

You may have already seen the full-page advertisement in The New York Times, Sunday, February 9, 2003, called the "National Security Strategy of the USA," written by Wendell Berry, in which he described as an essayist, novelist, farmer, and author of more than 36 books, including his most recent book, In the Presence of Fear: Three Essays for a Changed World. The article was a reprint from Orion (March/April 2003) of Berry's political statement on the current war, questioning "why we made no effort to reduce our dependence on oil we import, why we made no improvement in our charity toward the rest of the world, why we made no motion toward greater economic self-reliance, and how we continued our extensive and often irreversible damages to our own land." You may have asked, who is this Wendell Berry?

Portrait of Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry was born in Henry County, KY, in 1934. He is a graduate of the University of Kentucky, where he received both his B.A. and M.A. degrees. He has held teaching positions at Stanford University, New York University, and the University of Kentucky. As a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, Berry has visited France and England and traveled extensively since then. He left a successful life in the academic world to follow five previous generations of his family to begin farming. He lives and farms on 125 acres in his native Kentucky, where he and his wife live and where Berry continues to write books, which contribute to his prodigious literary output. His two grown children live nearby with his grandchildren.

As a champion of ecology and of biodiversity and as a lifelong environmentalist and social critic, Berry prefers the older ways of farming instead of modern methods. He eschews much of the modern farming equipment, which he believes disturbs and abuses the soil. Anyone who has traveled to Appalachia in Berry's native Kentucky knows that Berry has been a witness to the scourge of the land by strip mines. Berry also writes about cities disfigured by technology, pollution, and the effects of corporate greed; he worries about how families may be displaced by "labor-saving machines." Critics have attacked his views, saying Berry is against technology; he is not. He is against its mismanagement. Berry has written: "The worst disease of our society is probably the ideology of technological heroism, according to which more and more people willingly cause large-scale effects that they do not foresee and that they cannot control."

Berry believes individuals should be responsible guardians of the land and strongly asserts that one person can make a difference by speaking out against the gross mismanagement of farmland and by taking a stand against the wasteful use of water. He echoes these beliefs in his agrarian essays that appeal to Illinois and Midwest farmers and are read throughout the world by people who work small farms in countries such as Japan, Latin America, and Africa.

Although Berry's roots are in rural America, he addresses many other areas of our society. Critic John W. Hattman cited his essay, The Hidden Wound, (1970) as "one of the finest personal documents on racism." The essay is a compassionate study whose message is that if racism is left unchecked, it will always divide a society. After his grandchildren had visited the Holocaust Museum, Berry addressed the darker side of humanity and wrote this poignant remark, "Now you know the worst we humans have to know about ourselves, and I am sorry."

Berry's body of work is not restricted to writing about ecology and farming. He has also written over 36 books of fiction, poetry, and essays. In his book, Recollected Essays (1965-1980), Berry said he was "motivated by a desire to make myself responsibly at home in this world and in my native and chosen place. As I have come to understand it, this is a long term desire, proposing the work not of a lifetime but generations."

These essays reflect upon the environment and country life, but they also include descriptions of woods, the river, and creatures that inhabit the area around his farm. Berry shows us how to rediscover the sense of awe and mystery that are found in nature, which can add meaning to our lives and restore our spirit. In a quiet, reflective, and meditative way, Wendell Berry addresses everyone who celebrates the virtues of family, fidelity to a human and natural order, hard work, and reverence for all creatures.

A Writer of Place

In many respects, Berry's ideas are reflected in two great American authors to whom he has been compared, Henry David Thoreau and Robert Frost. Caxtonian Dr. Peter Stanlis has revealed in his writings on Robert Frost that the role of play must not be brushed aside; it is an important part of Frost's creative dualism. Many of Berry's poems are playful and wise, and, like Frost, he uses a particular rural setting. It is tempting for critics to say Berry's stories are "regional," an accusation that is still occasionally made about Robert Frost's poetry. The truth is that both poets share a distinctive landscape that transcends the locale. For Frost and Berry, the locale becomes a metaphor for the world. Their poems have a wider universal appeal that has no geographical limitation.

Just as Frost's poetry was "out of fashion" for a short time before being restored to its rightful place of honor, so has Berry's poetry been called "unfashionable" by a few critics. They have said that Berry seemed slightly "out-of-step" and accused him of being an "exasperated idealist." Despite this criticism, Berry's work has been sought after, his books have been reissued, and the demand for him as a lecturer has increased. It is a tribute to his personality that Berry has not sought the television appearances and media habits of many publicity-seeking authors. He prefers to let his books speak for him.

Dr. Stanlis had this to say about Wendell Berry: "In every genre he exhibits a mastery of form and techniques, which enables him to leap from sight to insight, from sense to essence, even from the physical to the metaphysical dimensions of reality…his prose contains much that is characteristic of poetry, particularly in his metaphorical use of language."

When readers tackle his impassioned essays, they are struck with how the essays are characterized by compassion, humanistic integrity, and poetic intensity. His essays are particularly poignant when they champion humanitarian ideals and freedom of thought. He has garnered a reputation as one of the great spirits of the environmental movement, which has been his lifelong commitment. Consider this excerpt from Preserving Wilderness:

We need wilderness of all kinds,
large and small, public and private
We need to go now and again
into places where our work is
disallowed, where our hopes and
plans have no standing.
We need to come into the presence of the
unequal and mysterious formality of

Berry's nature essays and poetry allow readers to have interior dialogues, to engage in self-examinations, and discover what is truly important and creative in the relatively short span of their lives. By probing our psyche, he helps us to rethink the values of self-reliance and rejoice in the healing qualities of nature.

Much of what Berry writes on ecology and the environment resonates with remarks made by Nobel Prize winner, Leon Lederman. Surrounding the Leon M. Lederman Science Education Center at Fermilab, Batavia, IL is land that has been restored to its original prairie state. As an articulate advocate for the earth, Berry would applaud the comments of Lederman, who has written that "we are inundated by a tide of unsustainable consumerism; the wonders of nature revealed pass us by; we lost the exposure to the spiritual beauty of nature." Wendell Berry's graceful prose and moral vision echo much of what this Nobel Laureate feels.

Poetic Reflections

In his second book of poetry, Openings, Berry addresses public issues and the need for finding meaning and love in our lives. He is convinced we need a replacement for our frenzied lifestyles to one that is more simple and quiet, unfettered by extremes of consumerism. Because many of his poems are meditative lyrics, he tells us some of his poems are to "be read in silence and solitude," that by withdrawing into nature we can discover our true nature.

With the war in Iraq being covered by the media 24-7, consider the wisdom of this poem by Berry, which invites the reader into the grace of creation:

The Peace of Wild Things

When despair for the world grows for me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake rests,
in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things,
who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief,
I water,
and I feel above me the dayblind stars,
waiting their light,
for a time, I rest in the grace of the world,
and am free.

In a recent novel, Jayber Crow, Berry reflects about a particular place and how people read to each other in that place. It is a study of longing and loss, the essence of friendship and virtues in a small town. This novel, like his poetry, allows us to think about how we live our lives and what we do with the time we have before we die. For Berry, life is a miracle, and his prose reflects this kind of spirituality. In this age of sound bytes, Wendell Berry, poet, novelist, farmer, and environmentalist, may seem out of step advocating a life of selflessness directed toward neighbors and the community at large; or does he represent the best of what America is all about? In an effort to celebrate our prospective Nobel candidate, I would like to quote what reviewer Larry Woiwode has said about him: "One of the rewards of being a faithful reader arrives when you open a new book and realize it's the one you've been reading for years. That has been this reader's experience with these books by Wendell Berry: Recollected Essays 1965-1980 and The Gift of Good Land. These books are like the kind you spend months with, hate to give up, and plan to return to soon and often. There is that much pleasure in them, both in the spare and crafted elegance of their prose, and in the breadth and depth of their content."

The significance of Berry's voice is that it counters the disrespect and hate that many countries feel about our country. Would they think more of us if they were to read the values, morality, and simplicity of American authors like Berry? And conversely, when Berry holds up a mirror to us, would we be willing to reconsider or change the gross mismanagement, greed, and consumerism he sees?

Freedom demands making responsible choices. It demands honesty, discipline, balance, and restraint. The virtues may be old-fashioned, but they are hardly irrelevant. Through Berry's narratives and elegant lyrics, his metaphors and irony, we are given signposts for transformation, and his voice is universal. Berry tells us that what he values most in the world is "the life and health of the earth and the peacefulness of human communities and households." It is an important message for our world.


Upon learning of The Caxton Club's recommendation and his nomination for the Nobel Prize in Liberature by Prof. Robin Metz, Wendell Berry wrote the letter above to Nobel Committee Chair Junie Sinson.

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