On March 1, Wendell Berry was awarded one of the nation’s Humanities Medals in a ceremony at the White House. This article relates his charming and ever-humble response to the attention. The President and/or attentive members of his administration deserve great credit for selecting America’s greatest living author for this high honor. And Wendell is absolutely correct that the best consequence of this award – aside from the well-deserved honor itself – is the attention that it will bring to the causes he’s written about for decades. “To have my work honored is a satisfaction … because my work has been to so large an extent an effort to promote good care of the land. And, of course, I’m still actively in efforts to do that. I’m glad for whatever notice that effort can receive.”

I think I speak for everyone who writes for FPR in extending our warm and enthusiastic congratulations, and gratitude, to Wendell Berry.

Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture


  1. The exchange between Berry and the President reminds me of the time Larry Halprin was awarded a similar medal for his landscape architectural works by G.W. bush. Standing in line and shaking hands with the President, Larry donned his medal and then the President remarked upon his shoes, which were the Merrells popular at the time. The President told the awardee that he liked his shoes and that everyone in the White House except Barney was always trying to make sure he didn’t wear them because they weren’t befitting the office. old curmudgeon Larry replied “Yea, they’re damn fine shoes Mr. President but you really don’t know who the hell I am do you?”. Needless to say, the affable G.W. admitted as much.

    Needless to say, we have graduated from a President largely oblivious to the fine arts and letters to one who is apparently appreciative and yet there remains little distinction in their personal expression of government.

    But, what the hell, many congratulations to Mr. Berry. What an honor to enjoy.

  2. Yeah, and I’ll bet Barrack Obama is an avid reader of Wendell Berry, too. But do you believe he’d be as affable as Bush was to Halprin if Berry was so uncivil and boorish as to use the 5 min. podium to ask Obama the same thing? By the way, do you suppose the issue of “mountain top removal” mining was brought up at any time during the “greenies'” medal-issue?

  3. ddenton,

    Of course, one could quite easily point out the compromises that had to be made by Wendell Berry to accept this prize, and denounce his lack of principle and hypocrisy (ironically enough, normally people criticize him for being too obdurate and unaccommodating). President Obama has thrown up some marginal barriers to mountaintop removal, but clearly won’t really stand in the way (his unceasing use of the words “clean coal” is incanted like a spell wishing for magical fulfillment). His educational policies (continuations of those of GWB), with the incessant emphasis upon STEM and utter disregard for the humanities, is anathema to Mr. Berry. One could go on. By this estimation, Mr. Berry should not have accepted. Ink could have been spilled about another principled stand taken by Wendell Berry.

    If one can find any cause for more capacious approval of this award – which I endeavored to afford – it would be 1. It is an honor conferred by the President – an office that deserves some respect – for work in the humanities, to which Mr. Berry has clearly made immense contributions. There are perhaps times when honor conferred can be accepted in good conscience; and 2., the award improves the possibility that people will be introduced to Mr. Berry’s work, even to find what is insufficient and even deeply objectionable about many arrangements in modern politics and society.

    Perhaps this latter desideratum is wishful thinking. After all, in the NYT notice about these awards, Wendell Berry didn’t even deserve a mention, in contrast to Philip Roth and Joyce Carol Oates. http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/03/01/roth-and-oates-to-receive-national-humanities-medals/. But one can still hope.

  4. I am Wendell Berry’s daughter and was with him in Washington when he received this award. My father talked about Mountain Top Removal at the press conference before the medal ceremony. He saw this as an opportunity to call attention to a cause that he has worked on for fifty years. And, by the way, Daddy has turned down more awards than he has received because he didn’t want to be honored by people or institutions he doesn’t respect. In this case, we all felt that to honor his body of work represents an acknowledgement of country places and people that might do some good. Cynicism is not useful. Thank you, Mr. Deneen, for your kind words.

  5. Ms. Berry Smith,
    Thank you for this clarifying and hope-giving account. I’m sorry that I wasn’t able to attend – please extend our warmest and most enthusiastic congratulations. I agree entirely that cynicism is not useful. Good work and good words are what’s needful, which your father has so amply and generously given to us all.

  6. Before this gets out of hand, let me make it clear I have been reading and appreciating Wendell Berry for more than 20 years, especially his articulate and prophetic warnings and observations about America from a traditional, small farming perspective. I have learned much from him over the years. What set me off was the comment attempting to score points off a former president in this same venue and situation when the one currently occupying the White House is anything but a learned, thoughtful human being, unless scripted by teleprompter. Yes, I could wish Mr. Berry was a bit more circumspect and selective in some of his public associations, but with his work and writing contributions, he’s allowed to associate with whom he pleases without checking with me. Perhaps my unawareness of the mountain top removal subject at the press conference can be excused because I will not have a television in my home, in no small part because of what I have learned from Wendell Berry, and I do not subscribe to any printed “news” publications.

  7. Congratulations, Mr. Berry. Your writings have been very inspiring and influential to both myself, and several of my good friends. Please, keep up the good work!

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