In this final week of the year, The Arena is taking a break from new content, but I hope you will enjoy some highlights from this past year: posts and interviews that were popular with readers when they first ran, but also incite us to think more deeply about various aspects of human flourishing and the intellectual life in this season of celebration, reflection, and planning for the new year.
What is the focus of your current book project? What are the big questions that you are investigating and the main stories that you hope to tell in this book?
My book’s working title is “A Strange and Abiding Hope: Wendell Berry and the Rise of the New Localism.” It seeks to understand the rise of localist movements over the past sixty years in relation to the life and writing of Wendell Berry, who during this time became, arguably, the central figure of this general phenomenon, and even a symbol for it. The varying forms of national recognition Berry has been accorded—ranging from being awarded the NEH’s National Humanities Medal in 2011 to recent articles on his life in magazines like The New Yorker—bear witness not only of his importance as a writer but also to the significance of the ideals, causes, and movements for which he since the 1960s has been a public voice and emblem.
The expressions of localism I am studying are as diverse as locales themselves. Some are centered on commerce and economics, while others have to do with culture and the arts. If some are resolutely secular, others are deeply religious. Some are centered on the professions, while others are led by those for whom higher education has not proved necessary or consequential. But in many of these manifestations, Wendell Berry’s writing and presence have been present as a shaping influence, and it’s this that has led to the conception of this book. Since Berry has emerged as such a central presence among such groups, his correspondence (housed at the Kentucky Historical Society) is filled with letters from people across these varying sectors of activism.
It’s my hope that this book will add in significant ways not only to scholarship on social thought and social movements but also to the broader conversation in our common culture that’s happening at the intersection of ecology, technology, religion, economics, politics, and community health. I’m conceiving of this book as a companion to my book Hope in a Scattering Time: A Life of Christopher Lasch. In it I make the argument that Lasch and Berry stand as the two leading intellectuals in recent attempts to fortify the decentralist tradition in American political thought. My book on Berry will complement the earlier one, and will, I hope, yield more clarity about the ideological polarization we’ve witnessed over the past ten years in particular—and perhaps offer insight into how we might move beyond it.
Can you give us a taste of something surprising or unexpected that you have found in your work on this project so far?
The extent to which Berry’s life is bound up in a vortex of national, international, and cosmopolitan trends, patterns, and events has been striking. While his father-in-law Clifford Amyx, for instance, was an artist and professor of art at the University of Kentucky, he also had many family ties to California, particularly the Bay area. Amyx himself helped to oversee the New Deal’s Federal Art Project in San Francisco during the Depression—and so supervised a fresco by Diego Rivera.
When Wendell and Tanya Berry moved to California so that he could study creative writing at Stanford in 1958, they were heading to her childhood home, and they lived in fact with relatives of hers who were a presence in the Bay area’s arts community. And so, as close readers of Berry know, his work in the sixties and seventies especially bears the mark of his relationships within the so-called counterculture—in publications, for instance, like The Whole Earth Catalog, or friendships with people like Ken Kesey. In short, the matrix of Berry’s thinking and writing, while certainly centered in Kentucky, also extends to 1960s San Francisco. He has shaped his cultural and political vision in self-conscious reference to broader cultural and artistic currents.
What are the broader questions that fascinate you in your reading, thinking, and writing?
I find myself coming back over and over to the question of how human life is forged at the confluence of place, language, and faith. When I was thirteen my deeply rooted Pennsylvania family moved to Brazil, where my parents began, in their mid-thirties, thirty years of very fruitful work as church-planting missionaries. My adolescence was Brazilian, and I was just old enough to develop a simple but real awareness of the magnitude of what I was experiencing in coming of age in this radically different place. Like many so-called “third-culture kids,” I’ve been puzzling over (often marveling over) that experience ever since. I hope to write a book centered on these questions, with Brazil at its core, in the coming years.
I’m preoccupied with discovering ways to help us, in our communities, catch and maintain sight of wholeness, health, holiness—that whole constellation of ancient, utterly crucial words that describe what we’re made to be, what human flourishing looks like. And so necessarily this requires a concern to understand the forces, both without and within, that have been so disturbingly successful at diminishing this vision and its realization.
Eric Miller is Professor of History and the Humanities at Geneva College, where he directs the honors program. His books include Hope in a Scattering Time: A Life of Christopher Lasch, and Brazilian Evangelicalism in the Twenty-First Century: An Inside and Outside Look (co-edited with Ronald J. Morgan). He is the Editor of Current.