Romanticizing retreat

It isn’t quite so decadent as Rousseau’s celebration of American indians as noble savages, but could we please get over our sudden enthusiasm for rural America as a fount of yoeman virtue and r-e-a-l Americans? The latest iteration of this nonsense comes in a celebration of essayist Wendell Berry.

PORT ROYAL, Kentucky — Wendell Berry doesn’t like screens. The 85-year-old writer doesn’t own a TV, computer, or cellphone. If you call the landline at his country home in Port Royal, you won’t reach an answering machine. When he reads this profile, it will be because someone else printed it out. And, if his general approach to life is any indication, he will probably take his time.

It’s virtually impossible to imagine life in the modern world without our technological accessories, but Berry has consistently presented this spartan circumstance as a compelling proposition: An unplugged life, rooted in nature, he has argued, is the key to fulfillment.

Bah. I live in Franklin County, North Carolina, hard by Research Triangle Park. I live in a comfortable, modern home situated on a large lot, and good shopping, medical care, and chicken-to-go are minutes away.

But a peculiarity of North Carolina — much of the Old South, in fact — is that it is two societies. Go 20-miles west from my front door, and you’re amongst some of the country’s finest minds; go 20-miles in the opposite direction and you’re amongst some of the most backward-looking ignorance and degrading poverty imaginable.

Yes, America needs farmers, and I’m happy there are people who want to farm. A modern economy needs distribution centers, sometimes in otherwise remote locations, and I’m glad there are people who want to live there, too. But let’s not kid ourselves, either: a lot of rural America is trapped where it is because it thought the mines were coming back, that the textile mill would come back, that steel and concrete would go out of style and timber would come back, that the railroad would come back, that tobacco would come back — on and on. And after 10–, 20–, and 30-years of waiting without result the communities have grown old, the brightest kids have left town, and progress is when poorly-paying jobs come to town because they have to take what they can get.

Berry himself was once lured away by the promises of urban life. After graduating from the University of Kentucky in 1957, Berry landed a fellowship at Stanford University, followed by a Guggenheim Fellowship and a job teaching English at New York University.

In 1964, Berry lived in what many considered the intellectual and cultural epicenter of America: Greenwich Village. But against the advice of his colleagues, he decided to leave his position in New York after only two years. He loaded everything he and Tanya owned into a Volkswagen Beetle and headed west toward Kentucky.

Believe it or not, a lot of Southern Baptist seminarians have followed similar career paths — a real education, a few years in the real world, and then a return to the familiar simplicities of the seminary.

It takes all kinds. Rural life doubtless holds genuine appeal for some people, and it’s good there are open spaces for them. For many, however — most, probably — it represents failures of judgment and, like a lot of those seminarians, an innate unfittedness for the real world. Certainly, it says nothing about wisdom and character.

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