Wendell Berry, while still writing more than most of us, is squarely in the awards and laurels stage of his earthly journey. Who will continue the call for sanity and stewardship once he is gone? James Krueger is a new voice crying in the wilderness, and based on The Disfiguration of Nature: Why Caring for the Environment is Inherently Conservative, those of us on the front porch should lend him our ears.
Krueger’s compact, if at times circuitous, debut offering opens with epigraphs from Berry’s The Unsettling of America and Stark Young’s essay in I’ll Take My Stand—a promising beginning. Krueger describes his discovery of the Twelve Southerners’ manifesto as an epiphany. “Though it would be hard to take the proud Yankee out of me,” Krueger writes, “the discovery of I’ll Take My Stand has turned my world upside down.” I’ll Take My Stand was an intellectual, if at times overly romanticized, defense of the agrarian way of life first published in 1930. The Civil War had established northern industrialism’s iron dominance over a Jeffersonian vision of small landowners. (It also brought about the demise of the peculiar and diabolical institution to which ante-bellum southern society was inexorably linked.) Despite the odds, Stark Young, Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom and their compatriots still raised their call to reject a frenetic dynamism and embrace a life bound, not by the chains of slavery, but by the limits of the land and the more noble traditions of their Southern heritage. Their work has continued to influence those, like Berry and Krueger, who have read it in the decades since.
Several hours north of the New York City that an exhilarated Berry left heading south, Krueger and his wife now lead a homesteading life in the Catskill Mountains that would likely make the sage of Henry County, Kentucky proud. As a writer, Krueger is still mastering his craft, but much of what his pen produces would similarly be quite welcome in Berry’s company. For example, when discussing Edmund Burke, Krueger affirms, “Our decisions and actions, and how we pursue or refuse change, must be measured by criteria that extend beyond our own personal ambitions, desires, conveniences, profits, and lifetimes.” Speaking of the modern fetish for individual rights, Krueger argues, “Without stability, without calm, without enduring convention, families, communities, and societies crumble. Rights and choices can never belong solely and absolutely to a single person; they are always social.” There is much here that will cause the head of a Berry-loving communitarian to nod.
Yet, Krueger is no mere Wendell-wanna-be. For one, he does not share Berry’s aversion to institutional religion. Krueger is an Anglican priest who leads a congregation and a retreat center near his mountain home. And most strikingly, Krueger takes head-on two issues where Berry’s twenty-first century equivocations have perplexed many of his long-time admirers. Krueger sees the yoking of environmentalism to the Democratic Party and that party to abortion and gay rights as a strategic and philosophical disaster. “The attitudes that lie behind the practice and proliferation of abortion—attitudes elemental to the founding principles of organizations such as Planned Parenthood—are incongruent with the environmental cause,” Krueger implores. “The same can be said,” he continues, “of many of the core assumptions forwarded either explicitly or implicitly in LGBTQ narratives.”
The author spends about a third of his book’s 151 pages fleshing out these claims. The crux of his argument is that the sacrificial love of parenting is more conducive to loving the earth than the self-centered individualism that is at the heart of an abortion-on-demand culture. Similarly, he asks how one can call for accepting the limits of nature in one breath while denying basic distinctions that nature gives us, like gender, with another.
Writing as a longtime Democratic voter who still echoes progressive concerns about issues such as guns and people such as Donald Trump, Krueger may gain a hearing from some on the left. Already, he has been heard by Eric Freyfogle, a law professor of some renown in environmentalist circles. Freyfogle has penned a sympathetic forward arguing that Krueger, whom he calls “an original and forceful moralist,” deserves to be read by those who might at first regard his takes on abortion and gay rights as apostasies. While I do not view the connections Krueger makes as “surprising” nor his positions on social issues to be heretical, I will nevertheless second Freyfogle’s motion. Krueger—whose prose can at times brim with the passion of John the Baptist even as his mellow songwriting is more reminiscent of John Denver—deserves a hearing.
His is a needed call of return. “It is time,” Krueger writes, “to come home again; to come home to this land, home to our neighbor’s company, home to ourselves, our sanity, our integrity, our bodies, our places.” With a sequel already in the works and a life story that demonstrates a determined willingness to follow through on his convictions, Krueger is establishing himself among a new generation of prophets picking up Wendell Berry’s mantle.
What are the ‘core assumptions’ of the LGBT narratives? What does this guy find objectionable about them?
My guess is that Mr. Krueger really loves traditional gender roles, with men in charge and women scrubbing floors and occasionally gazing at our male betters with glowing. Nancy Reaganesque adulation. He hates feminism and finds the idea that women are actual humans with minds and personalities extremely unpleasant. Therefore, he will yell at us that women thinking or making decisions or wearing trousers is ‘unnatural.’ Thus, the modern version of the ‘we’re totally okay with the end of slavery but black people are really disgusting’ Southern Agrarians is ‘women are naturally suited to shit work’ alleged ‘Democrats.’
Karen- You seem to be responding to an issue unaddressed above, while caricaturing/demonizing/stereotyping a man you don’t know and a book you haven’t read. Your comment has no substance or integrity, and therefore does nothing for your cause (assuming you intended a thoughtful reply rather than sheer vitriol).
I looked up other reviews of this book, and they note that Mr. Krueger’s opinion is that the only reason a woman would ever terminate a pregnancy is because she’s selfish — apparently in world ectopic pregnancies don’t exist — and that gay relationships somehow involve pedophilia or bestiality. Everyone who accepts those arguments wants women confined to a purely domestic role, and Krueger apparently writes about the need to ‘honor the Feminine’ which in my experience always means ‘praise women only when they’re being weak, stupid, cowards.’
The post here never discusses Krueger’s positions on women’s rights or LGBT issues, only stating that Krueger rejects their ‘core assumptions’ without stating what Krueger says those ‘core assumptions’ are. So, I see a massive hole in the argument and see no reason why I shouldn’t note the hole. As for ‘vtiriol,’ I have never learned how to accept arguments that I am an inferior grade of human because I am female without ‘’vitriol.’ I think more women should be loudly vitriolic about how society treats us. Perhaps if more men suffered women’s real vitriol they would help us in our struggle for respect.
“Perhaps if more men suffered women’s real vitriol they would help us in our struggle for respect.”
Yeah, because like that old saying goes, “You catch more flies with vinegar than with honey.”
There’s also the old saying about never negotiating with terrorists and squeaky wheels getting the grease.
I have never seen anyone solve mistreatment by being kind to their bullies. Men mistreat and denigrate women all the time. Why should we be kind to you when you bully us? As for the specific post, it sounds like Krueger likes woodlands and forests but wishes he could protect those things while still being a Patriarch. That ain’t ever gonna work. You can’t preserve hierarchies in society while destroying the hierarchy that puts humans above nature.
“Men mistreat and denigrate women all the time. Why should we be kind to you when you bully us?”
To paraphase Spanky McFarland, “Whad’ya mean ‘you’?” I’ve personally talked to any number of young women, advising them that if they are not being treated well in their relationships they’re with the wrong guy, full stop.
“You can’t preserve hierarchies in society while destroying the hierarchy that puts humans above nature.”
I see no evidence that Krueger is attempting the latter. In fact, I’d be surprised to hear that he believes that humans are “above” nature.
Thanks for the book recommendation, John; I will definitely add it to my pile. A genuine question, though: has Berry in fact “equivocated” about same-sex marriage, and has that equivocation actually “perplexed” anyone? I will grant that Berry has been, as he is in the essay you link to, and as he as admitted to being in other writings over the years, in the mushy middle when it comes to abortion rights (which, of course, is where the clear majority of all Americans are as well). But regarding LGBTQ issues, I can’t think of anything I’ve read by Berry which was anything except supportive. He obviously was never on board with First Things-style American-natural law theorizing; he’s far too much the Protestant anarchist for that. But even aside from that, I don’t ever remember seeing anything from him which would suggest even they typical mid-20th-century American interest in distinctly categorizing gays and lesbians in any way. This is, in fact, part of the reason why a gay friend of mine has been such a Berry fan over the years: because the productive families and patterns and communities Berry calls us to, in my friend’s judgment at least, have no necessary heterosexual component to them. But maybe in Berry’s fiction, perhaps? Anyway, I’m genuinely curious here.
My short response is to point you here for Scott Moore’s excellent address: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MnfZOLEb7p4 (see especially at the 18:00 minute mark onward discussing, among other things, the Berry essay “Poetry and Marriage”).
A longer response from me is coming soon.
My general rule regarding the “comments” section is to leave it to the commenters, and the few times that I have ventured in to respond (at other outlets such as First Things), I usually, in retrospect, regret having done so. But I will make an exception with hope of a different end result because of my admiration for the writing of Russell Arben Fox and because he properly highlights my imperfect choice of the word “equivocation.” That word is often associated with a desire “to mislead” and it remains my hope that Berry is not consciously trying to mislead his readers, but I do believe he is leading them in the wrong direction.
I and many others have been drawn to Berry’s work because he usually writes with a clarity sorely lacking in a society that seems all too ready to equivocate and even enthusiastically lie to itself about the implications of its decisions. On these issues of abortion and marriage, however, Berry’s thinking is far from clear. (As an aside, I’ll note that I did not include a hotlink to the 2013 Berry essay in the Christian Century in my original submission, but that was one of the examples in my mind and so I made no objection to the editorial addition.)
On abortion, Berry offered, what seemed at the time, a rather clear statement in Citizenship Papers (2003) that abortion was the “killing” of a “baby” and that it was “wrong.” It is worth reading the entire “Postscript” to his essay “The Failure of War,” a coda made in response to (and essentially in defiance of) editorial concerns that his treatment of abortion in the main essay would be opposed by “most readers.” That main essay text included these lines: “Abortion-as-birth-control is justified as a ‘right,’ which can establish itself only by denying all the rights of another person, which is the most primitive intent of war.” A bit later, “If a government perceives that some causes are so important as to justify the killing of children, how can it hope to prevent the contagion of its logic from spreading to its citizens—or to its citizens’ children? If you so devalue human life that the accidentally conceived unborn may be permissibly killed, how do you keep that permission from being assumed by someone who has made the same judgment against the born?” The “Postscript” includes this: “If the creature in the womb is a living human being, and so far also an innocent one, then it is wrong to treat it as an enemy. If we are worried about the effects of treating fellow humans as enemies or enemies of society eligible to be killed, how do we justify treating an innocent fellow human as an enemy-in-the-womb?”
It seemed reasonable from all this, as well as the general reverence for life shown in his fiction and in things like the non-fiction book Life is a Miracle, to assume that Berry could be classified as “pro-life” and against the state-endorsed killing of unborn human persons. I would have still assumed that such a position might allow for the possibility of some exceptions to protecting the unborn— such as ectopic pregnancies where the life of the unborn child poses a present risk to the life of the mother. But, on the fundamental underlying issue of personhood, it seemed that Berry had made his position rather clear. Again, it did not seem unreasonable to assume that Berry believed that society, acting though the government, had a role in protecting life both in and outside of the womb.
In 2013, however, Berry emerged to say that those on both sides of the abortion debate “substitute simplicity for clarity.” Abortion, however, was now not a simple issue for Berry:
Some equivocation seems natural and appropriate because one is attending to two possibilities, both unknown. Saints, heroes and great artists began as fetuses. So did tyrants, torturers and mass murderers. Choices do not invariably cut cleanly between good and evil. Sometimes we poor humans must choose between two competing goods, sometimes between two evils.
What was before an innocent human “baby” in the womb could now be rhetorically thought of as a potential tyrant. A decision that was once simply “wrong” is now described as existing in a place marked by “mystery, bewilderment and suffering” where “simplicity becomes obscure and heartless.” Berry continued, “[W]ithin the experience and history of abortion there must be many shades and mixtures of right and wrong. . . . We are not dealing with a choice between a shadowless light and utter darkness.”
With the waters now sufficiently muddied, Berry pronounces himself “somewhere in the middle.” Then, he seems to veer back to his previous position:
“I have said several times that I am opposed to abortion except when it is necessary to save the mother’s life. I stick to that, for I still feel strongly the old aversion. Unlike the proabortion side, I think that abortion is killing. What else could it be? And I think that the creature killed is a human being, for it can be a being of no other kind, and it is not a nonbeing.”
However, we soon learn that Berry’s opposition to abortion does not actually extend very far in practice. Before (in 2003) Berry saw clear links between the violent treatment of people in and out of the womb, but now he says this: “Whereas a person’s demonstrated willingness to kill another person already born requires us to look upon that killer as a public menace, a woman’s decision to kill the baby in her womb does not require us to look upon her as a menace to anybody else.” Apparently, the baby is not menaced by the decision to kill it and society is not menaced by its death (nor, one can extrapolate, menaced by the death of 60 million others so situated).
This comment response has now surpassed the length of the original review and has not even yet addressed your main question, so I will move with a bit more dispatch.
Professor Fox, you describe Berry’s position on abortion as in the “mushy middle” and he describes himself as “somewhere in the middle” but by the tests you both lay out, Berry is on the extreme pro-abortion side regarding the law. Berry, in his 2013 piece, sets forth four possible “legislative options.” (I will ignore the temptation to note at length that Roe v. Wade largely put legislatures out of the abortion regulation business and absolutized the matter as a constitutional right. Thus, Roe and Casey which modified it complicate the legislative analysis greatly.) Setting that aside, here is how Berry saw the options:
“1. Abortion could be forbidden absolutely, with no exceptions.
2. It could be forbidden, with specified exceptions.
3. It could be permitted, with specified exceptions.
4. We could permit it without exception, which to me means that we would have no law related specifically to abortion.”
Berry ultimately sides with No. 4! He writes clearly, “I am going to take the risk, therefore, of saying that there should be no law either for or against abortion.”
Professor Fox, the Gallup poll to which you link associates Berry’s absolutist position with only 29% of the US population in 2018. 50% of the population (including myself) answer that abortion should be “legal only under certain circumstances.” There’s a lot of important work to do in defining just what the allowable “circumstances” would, but that’s clearly the middle position and is essentially Berry’s 2 and 3 above (Berry just introduces the idea of overall default positions). In short, rhetorical claims aside, an analysis of the framework presented by Fox and Berry show that Berry (2013) is not in the middle on this issue.
I believe you can understand, Professor Fox, how this swing from what seemed a strong pro-life position to the announcement of an absolutist pro-abortion position from Berry came as a sad and surprising blow to many of us who otherwise admired his work.
OK, on we go to gay marriage. I can point to nothing in Berry’s pre-National Review interview work regarding gay “marriage” (pro or con) that is comparable to his 2003 statements on abortion. My prior assumptions about his views were drawn from inferences. In my fairly wide reading of his essays, and admittedly more limited exposure to his poems (e.g. “The Country of Marriage”) and fiction, I never encountered anything but a favorable view of one-man/one-woman marriage. The marriages are, of course, imperfect but the institution of marriage (i.e. the traditional type, broadly tied to the raising of children, though valid for the childless, but always centered on the bonding of two people, a male and a female, together in mutual fidelity) is presented as important and worthy of honor, celebration, and the active work needed for its preservation.
In my reading, it appeared that biological families were, for Berry, the basic and essential building blocks for the construction of a larger community (or “membership”) that is bound by a shared kinship—one that includes familial links but also extends beyond those biological ties. Thus, I do not agree with your friend’s judgment that “the productive families and patterns and communities Berry calls us to . . . have no necessary heterosexual component to them.” Heterosexual families seemed necessary to me. Certainly, while efforts are made in his fiction to keep what one might call the “misfits” within the protective web of the community (and Berry will sometimes trumpet their sometimes unexpected contributions to it), rebellious hyper-autonomy is never, to my limited knowledge, celebrated in Berry’s work. Such is never the pathway to “the good life.” Those who work within natural limits rather than those who hammer against them are the heroes. No sexual revolutionary was he (or so I thought).
Again, that was my working assumption pre-2012 based on my reading of Berry’s work. My inferences were formed from the lack of explicit practicing homosexual characters in his fiction; the presence of many heterosexual couples in the same fiction; and several essays and poems that dealt with male/female relations in marriage and seemed to celebrate (and defend against certain forms of hyper-feminism) the complementarity of the sexes while never highlighting homosexual relationships as an ideal (nor, to be fair, disparaging such relationships as negative object lessons). [My apologies for the lack of specifics here. My library is currently boxed up and, again, I realize this response grows very long.] Certainly, I was not alone in my surprise at his 2012 declaration. (Rod Dreher described himself as “shocked.”)
The reasons for the double-takes were summarized well in Scott Moore’s excellent address that preceded Berry’s 2013 speech at Georgetown College, a talk made in the wake of the NR interview controversy. (Upon re-listening, Moore now reminds me of Berry’s earlier defense of legal status for various “domestic partnerships” but there Berry did not go all the way to advocating gay “marriage.” Elsewhere, in “Poetry and Marriage” which I myself have not read, Berry appears to have directly defined “marriage” in a heterosexual manner.)
Unfortunately, Berry did not address Moore’s well thought out points (sidenote: Moore uses variations of the word “equivocation” in reference to Berry on multiple occasions). Berry instead chooses to politely (but completely) dodge the questions put before him by Moore. He instead speaks largely what you can read at Christian Century through the link provided above.
There is more I could say, but Moore says what I had in mind (and much more) and he says it much, much better than I could while typing from my couch on a Saturday afternoon. I hope that one day Berry addresses the actual arguments made by Moore. In the meantime, I am happy to see people such as James Krueger rise up to put on paper a very Berry-like vision which does not dodge the implications stemming from the major social issues of our time.
[ Link to the Moore and Berry speeches at Georgetown College: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MnfZOLEb7p4 ]
Thanks very much for the long and thoughtful response; while I take issue with a few of your interpretations of Berry’s writings, the fact is you’ve opened my eyes to what look to be some real inconsistencies in his arguments, and I appreciate the education. While I’ve read Berry’s Citizenship Papers, and thus presumably the “Failure of War” essay you mention, I obviously either didn’t read it closely or haven’t remembered it very well, because the line you quote from it, regarding abortion devaluing the “human life [of] the accidentally conceived unborn,” really strikes me. Given Berry’s well-developed and frequently demonstrated distrust of relying upon anything besides the local community when it comes to coercively limiting or regulating the choices of others, I could imagine him attempting to argue that his avocation of option 4) was simply a principled effort to extricate the state from arguments over abortion, nothing more. But that would run hard against his willingness to articulate the moral status of the “unborn” as explicitly as he did in the ten years before the linked essay above. So I was wrong to describe Berry’s position as reflecting the “mushy middle”; he may think it does, and maybe that description can even make some sense if the debate were viewed solely in terms of the relationship between grown citizens and the state–yet he himself had already introduced strong moral concerns into the debate, which makes his later position seem, to my mind, and I suppose to yours as well, as a significant shift. Again, I appreciate your laying out the issues in the way you did.
I am, though, less convinced regarding your suppositions about Berry’s lack of clarity in regards to matters of marriage, specifically the same-sex kind. I think you read into Berry’s descriptions of marriage an essentialism regarding male-female complementarity and fecundity that is simply, in my judgment, not there. (Interestingly, I have been using Berry’s short story collection A Place in Time this semester in an honors seminar I’ve been teaching, and the students and I have discussed just how frequently Berry’s characters are presented as permanent bachelors or in childless marriages–frequently enough, in fact, to make it hard to understand such arrangements as deviations from some natural norm, as opposed to just more examples of the innumerable ways people deal with the hardness of life.)
To be clear, I am not suggesting that I think Port William had some tiny LGBTQ neighborhood somewhere in the margins of Berry’s writings which he wanted us readers to subtly discover; nothing of the sort. He’s never written about gay people, to my knowledge. But that does not mean–again, in my judgment–that you can enlist, solely on the basis of the above absence alone, Berry’s fiction and his many vital essays on community, tradition, and belonging, as supporters of the assertion that the legal acceptance of one specific non-heterosexual form of sexual partnerships reflects “rebellious hyper-autonomy.” To do so requires one, in my view, to make the assumption that seeing marriage as a sacrament necessitates a doctrinal reading of the natural world which Berry, Protestant anarchist that he is, pretty obviously does not accept as an accurate construal of reality. I agree, it would have been nice for Berry to have gotten into it with Moore and actually turn the debate into the theological/philosophical discussion that at least some of us who engage in these debates assume it must be. But since I don’t see any reason to believe that such is where Berry is coming from, I don’t see any reason to be surprised by the fact that his opinion on marriage boils down to: “it’s already hard enough without the government telling us who can marry and who can’t, anyway.”
Thanks for your thoughtful reply to my reply, Professor Fox. I appreciate your ability to be persuaded on the abortion point (persuadability is a rarity in our age of doubling down even in the face of new and clear information). I hope I am not beyond persuasion myself. I agree that the issue of marriage in Berry’s pre-2012 thinking is far less clear, and I belive you raise a valid point about the bachelors and childless couples in his fiction (again, my weakest area in the Berry canon). From my limited knowledge, though, I will just note that sometimes those characters (Jayber Crow comes to mind) are used as windows to tell the stories of couples, and I still can’t think of a character who engages in any deviation from traditional sexual norms (whether adultery, fornication, homosexuality, or something else) and is praised for it. Nevertheless, numbers matter, and your observation that Berry highlights characters outside the “married with children” norm (good news for a childless bachelor like myself) certainly could indicate he had some long-standing sympathies that, for whatever reason, he did not actively express in his writing. But the fact that he did not express them (while actively engaging on, say, race issues) led many readers like myself to be quite surprised by his 2012/13 declarations. That was especially true given, as Scott Moore points out, Berry’s clarion calls to “stand by words.” Homosexual relationships may (or may not) be wonderful things, but it is a dramatic new innovation to call them “marriages” and the claim of a “right” to such nomenclature is, as Berry himself points out, is still “birth wet.”
It is also worth contemplating just what Berry’s ideal in this area is and how that compares to the goals of others. Though often described as coming out “for” gay marriage (and some of his comments do track along those lines), Berry more often seems to be most passionately “for” getting the government out of the marriage business. This, at least, was where he was when the two of us discussed this issue a bit on his porch in September of 2013 and it seems to be the thrust of your closing quote as well. Many folks claiming the LGBT+ label, however, fervently want the active “stamp of approval” from the state. That seems to be something different than Berry’s largely libertarian view. It is also fair to ask whether Berry wants the government out of the counting business as well. If the two sexes are no longer the basis for a marriage, why limit such a term to couples only?
Well, this is all fascinating and I believe worthy of further discussion. Perhaps, it could be a topic at the upcoming FPR conference on Berry. That event can be just another effort in hagiography (and I am happy to give Mr. Berry another well deserved pat on the back) or it can deal a bit more critically with an imperfect but powerful prophet. I hope FPR takes the latter approach.
Thanks again for the thoughtful response.
Though often described as coming out “for” gay marriage (and some of his comments do track along those lines), Berry more often seems to be most passionately “for” getting the government out of the marriage business. This, at least, was where he was when the two of us discussed this issue a bit on his porch in September of 2013 and it seems to be the thrust of your closing quote as well. Many folks claiming the LGBT+ label, however, fervently want the active “stamp of approval” from the state. That seems to be something different than Berry’s largely libertarian view.
I think is exactly correct. I actually kind of like your use of “misfits” in your earlier response, because I suspect that Berry’s whole worldview, in a very real sense, could be not-inaccurately reduced to 1) an inquiry into that which “fits,” and then 2) noting the complications, damage, and occasional opportunities presented that which which doesn’t. There are those who want to insist that their every individual choice must be made to fit into whatever social construct they prefer, and then there is Berry, who seems to pretty rigorously hold to the idea that all us misfits will just have to make our own way as best we can, and should just be left alone to figure that way out as best we can. (Another observation from the stories in A Place in Time is the number of times Berry presents us with a character who has to live and work through some conundrum or heartache, and the narrator says something to the effect of “we don’t know how they dealt with it, but it was none of our business anyway.”)
I agree that it would be fun to engage in some of these ideas about Berry’s writings at the FPR conference in September. (You listening, Jeff?) Might you be attending? I plan on being there, and so if you are, I look forward to meeting you in person. I don’t know if I’ll have Krueger’s books done by then, but I’ll try!
I don’t know if we’ll have room on the program in Louisville, but the first issue of the print FPR Journal should be out this fall, and it will contain 3 or 4 essays responding to “Caught in the Middle.” So the conversation will continue.
Sounds great, Jeff. (Was there a call for submissions to the FPR Journal? Or is it, at least for now, by invitation only?)
The first issue was by the editor’s invitation (Jason). The plan, if we can pull it off, is to continue publishing themed issues and to announce those themes with enough notice that writers can, if interested, send in pitches.
The sociologists argued that the problems in the South stemmed from traditionalism which ought to and could be cured by modernization, the opposite of the Agrarian viewpoint.
Comments are closed.