Publication Date


Advisor(s) - Committee Chair

Joseph Survant, Joseph Millichap

Degree Program

Department of English

Degree Type

Master of Arts


Although Wendell Berry’s first book, a novel, appeared in 1960, he did not gain significant national attention until the publication of his nonfiction manifesto, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, in 1977. Since its publication, Berry has moved increasingly toward the prose of persuasion as he continues to sharpen his argument in support of a practical, continuous harmony between the human economy and Nature. His canon as a whole – the poems, essays, and novels – is an ongoing and thorough exploration of man’s use of and relationship to the land.

Arguing that the health of a culture is linked to the health of its land, Berry focuses on agriculture, particularly the growing conflict between traditional farming (which espouses a harmonious cyclic vision) and modern agribusiness (which espouses a discordant linear vision). As a traditional farmer wedded to the land, Berry derives his ideas and images largely from his practical experiences and form his devotion to careful and responsible land stewardship. He also, in his nonfiction, turns to several agricultural (as well as a few literary) writers of the past and present to lend support to his arguments.

Berry’s strong sense of Nature’s cycle is the basis for his imagery of departures and returns. As a crucial part of the cycle, death is prerequisite to life, and Berry shows the importance of understanding “that the land we live on and the lives we live are the gifts of death” (Home Economics 62). The power of Nature’s cycle is at once destructive and restorative; Berry teaches that by allying our human economy more with natural cyclic processes rather than with man-made linear – and ultimately destructive – ones, we and future generations can live with hope and assurance through the possibility of renewal.

Traditional farming has taught Berry the concepts which inform his poems and essays (as well as his novels and short stories, which merit a separate study beyond the scope of this paper.) For example, he has learned, and continues to learn, the importance of understanding and acknowledging the primal, and ruling, character of a “place”; of looking to Nature for guidance, instruction, and justice; and of allying farming practices to Nature’s “Wheel” of birth, growth, maturity, death, and decay. This cycle and related motifs unify and connect his central themes, particularly death as a means of renewal. In Berry’s view, one of the cruxes in the agricultural crisis is that, whereas traditional farming seeks a natural balance between growth and decay, industrial farming, because of its pull toward mass production, stresses growth only (a linear inclination), which wears out the land and leads inevitably to infertility. Tracing our modern crisis to our past and to our present character and culture, Berry shows the ramifications of our abuse of Nature’s “gifts.”


Agriculture | English Language and Literature | Literature in English, North America