Wendell Berry on Ideas over Ideology

The farmer-novelist Wendell Berry discusses politics, faith, land, and economy.


| Summer 2015


A native Kentuckian, Wendell Berry is a farmer and philosopher, essayist and poet, environmental activist, and localist. He has written over 40 works of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, on topics ranging from sustainable farming to biographical novels to cultural commentary. Over the years, Berry has been the recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship, the National Humanities Medal, and the Richard C. Holbrooke Distinguished Achievement Award—given for works that “advance peace through literature.”

Berry doesn’t easily fit political boxes: Though many of his views on community and culture are traditional, his views on the environment and pacifism are more often associated with the politics and policies of the left. He often angers people on both left and right with his stances. Yet despite this, there is a marked consistency to Berry’s thought. He is concerned, first and foremost, with representing and defending his home: Port Royal, Kentucky.

Indeed, Berry’s fictional works all center on the town of Port Royal—known as Port William in the books—chronicling its heritage through the lives of its townspeople. One of his most beloved novels, Jayber Crow, tells the story of the town’s fictional barber. After an early life of rootlessness, Jayber anchors himself in Port William, living a quiet life of service within its community. The novel demonstrates, in a very straightforward way, the importance of local rootedness and stewardship.

The entirety of Berry’s work, despite its breadth, is focused on the relationship men and women have to the earth and to their townships—to the communities that are integral to human flourishing. Berry’s fame is growing as more people come to appreciate the role he has played in our national conversation—not as a prophet of conservatism or of liberalism, but as a vital thinker for our culture and country as a whole. The American Conservative associate editor Gracy Olmstead recently spoke with Berry about politics, faith, land, and economy.

The American Conservative: Jayber Crow is deeply rooted in his community. He’s opposed to war and much of the so-called “progress” that goes on around him. Would you call Jayber Crow a conservative?