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Wendell Berry and the Agrarian Tradition

A Common Grace

Kimberly K. Smith

New in Paperback: January 2014
x, 270 pages, 6 x 9
American Political Thought
Paper ISBN 978-0-7006-1969-6, $19.95

Also available in cloth:
Cloth ISBN 978-0-7006-1230-7, $34.95

book cover imageFarmer and conservationist Wendell Berry has published more than thirty books, making his name a household word among environmentalists. From his Kentucky farm, Berry preaches and practices stewardship of the land as he seeks to defend the value and traditions of farm life in an industrial capitalist society.

A central figure in the greening of American agrarianism, Berry has been an advocate of small farming and traditional values who has tirelessly reminded readers that sustainable agriculture is more than a catchphrase. Kimberly Smith now reveals the depth of his ideas and their relevance for American social and political theory.

Berry’s central teaching focuses on the fragility of our natural and social worlds; Smith’s timely book revisits the problem of living a meaningful life in a world filled with both deadly perils and unimagined possibilities. Hers is the first book to explore the implications of this central tenet and other key aspects of Berry’s thought, as well as his overall contribution to environmental theory and politics.

Smith shows how the many strands of Berry’s thought can be woven together into a coherent agrarian philosophy. Focusing on his relationship to the American agrarian and environmental traditions, she examines how Berry’s ecological agrarianism derives from the concept of “grace,” or living in concert with nature and society. Along the way, she defends his social theory against accusations of utopianism, shows how his moral theory subverts the notion of rugged individualism usually associated with farming, and reviews his political theory’s argument for decentralized democracy.

By assessing Berry’s reformulation of democratic agrarianism, Smith goes beyond any previous critiques of his writing, and her exploration of Berry’s moral vision shows that such vision is more relevant as America continues to move further away from its agrarian past.

“Should be appreciated by anyone who is interested in Wendell Berry’s critique of agricultural policy issues in the historical context of American agrarian, populist, and environmental thought, and in his corrective vision for those policies. . . . The value of [this book] is that it helps us understand just how rich and yet nuanced Berry’s thinking is. For this reason, Smith's book is worth a close read.”—Journal of Agricultural Environmental Ethics

“Smith’s analytical overview of Berry's thought is not only the first of its kind, but also a very good piece of work. . . . An exceptionally rich and instructive work. . . . Both a graceful piece of work and one for which we have much cause to be grateful.”—Review of Politics

“An intelligent, articulate exploration of [various] aspects of Berry's thought and its intellectual roots.”—Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment

“In this thoughtful and well-balanced critical analysis of Wendell Berry’s ideas, Smith synthesizes Berry’s views, weaving them together into a coherent agrarian philosophy. . . . A great strength of her study is the way in which she confidently navigates the complexities of Berry’s thought . . . . In distilling, organizing, and contextualizing Berry's writings, Smith performs a valuable intellectual service. . . . Finding much to admire in Berry’s vision, Smith does not hesitate to call into question particular elements of it. . . . All in all, Smith finds great power and value in Berry’s views, and her book becomes required reading for anyone interested in understanding ecology, agrarianism, and Berry’s contributions to them.”—Journal of American Studies

“Smith makes a compelling case for the significance of Berry’s ideas and of the agrarianism that Berry has played a major role in redirecting, and her sensitivity to the vulnerabilities as well as the strengths of his thought makes her pathbreaking book all the more persuasive.”—Register of the Kentucky Historical Society

“Wendell Berry is one of America’s most important cultural critics, and the beauty of [this book] is Smith's patient delineation of Berry’s vision and her focus on his ecological agrarianism. In bringing Berry to the forefront of an environmental worldview, she makes clear the necessity for us all to attain the ‘conditions necessary to live in harmony with the natural and social world.’”—Lexington Herald-Leader (KY)

“Smith’s book is the first substantial critical analysis of Berry’s thought to be published. . . . Smith's chapters on Berry’s moral philosophy are particularly useful in their synthesis and explanation of Berry’s complex ideas and large body of work. . . . [This book is] a must for anyone interested in Berry as artist and advocate, and it is a valuable addition to the growing body of ecocriticism.”—Environmental History

“A complex rendering of Berry’s work that sheds light on not only his thought but also his place in the general agrarian tradition. Recommended.”—Choice

“Smith’s main contribution is not just in trying to make sense of the huge volume of Berry’s writings, drawn largely from his many novels. Her real achievement is in constantly probing the agrarian traditions that influenced him, dissecting his agreements and disagreements with those, and illustrating the evolution of his ideas and those of many agrarian traditions over time.”—Perspectives on Political Science

“Kimberly Smith illuminates the integrity of Wendell Berry’s social and ecological vision with extraordinary clarity. While linking Berry’s writing in many persuasive ways to the larger landscape of stewardship and citizenship in America, Smith’s book never flattens his thought to make it fit more neatly into some particular category or lineage.”—John Elder, author of Reading the Mountains of Home and coeditor of The Norton Book of Nature Writing

“By showing us how Berry has revived and helped transform an agrarian tradition and how his writings identify a latter-day blend of environmental, democratic, community, and sustainable agricultural values, Smith has provided us a road map for understanding a new rural politics and intellectual tradition.”—Robert Gottlieb, author of Environmentalism Unbound: Exploring New Pathways for Change

KIMBERLY K. SMITH is associate professor of political science at Carleton College and author of The Dominion of Voice: Riot, Reason, and Romance in Antebellum Politics, winner of the prestigious Merle Curti Intellectual History Award given by the Organization of American Historians.


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