From Hudson Review, Summer 2001, vol. 54 #2


Dear Editor:

I understand perfectly that Mr. Harold Fromm's opinion of my book,

Life is a Miracle, is his business and not mine, and that it needs no

comment by me.

However, his review in your Winter 2001 issue contains one passage

that has nothing to do with my book or with responsible book

reviewing, and this passage does require me to respond. Mr. Fromm says

that he heard the speech I gave at the conference of the Association for

the Study of Literature and Environment in Kalamazoo in 1999, and

then he says: ". .. when his talk was done, he was unrestrainedly attacked

by the young graduate students and assistant professors who comprised

a good part of the audience. Among other things, his positions on

abortion, religion, and tobacco farming struck them as shockingly retro,

and they laced into him for hypocrisy."

I do not remember being "unrestrainedly attacked" for hypocrisy at

that meeting, and I have heard from several other people who were

there and who also do not remember an unrestrained attack. But I find

that the session was not tape-recorded, and so I cannot document my

memory. If I cannot document my memory of the response to my

speech, that must mean that Mr. Fromm also cannot document his-

unless he recorded the session on a machine of his own. In any case, he

did not document his story as published in The Hudson Review. Without

documentation, or even an explanation, his story amounts at best to a

piece of gossip, which he has used publicly to accuse me of hypocrisy.

To be accused in public of hypocrisy on the issues of abortion,

religion, and tobacco is a serious matter, and since Mr. Fromm has been

indulged by this magazine in his vague and unsupported accusation, I

think I should be permitted to say a little in my own defense. I am not

concerned at all with the charge that I am "shockingly retro," which is a

matter of opinion, but only with the charge that I am a hypocrite.

For a long time I have been opposed to abortion as a method of birth

control, because I believe that a child in the womb is nonetheless a

child, a human being. I have never pretended to think otherwise. My

thoughts on this subject have been made public, by me, a number of

times, most recently in Another Turn of the Crank, pages 77-85. I am not

embarrassed about what I have said, and have made no attempt to deny

or disguise it, or to apologize for it.

My work has been for so long and so often concerned with issues of

religion, and Mr. Fromm's accusation is so general, that it is impossible

to tell what hypocrisy he thinks I am guilty of. I believe that my thoughts

and attitudes about religion have changed somewhat over the years, but

what I have said I have said plainly. I have not attempted to deceive

anybody. There has never been a deliberate difference between what I

have said and what I have thought.

I have written only one essay on tobacco: "The Problem of Tobacco,"

published in Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community. My essay was a

defense of the federal tobacco program. That program, established

under the New Deal, combines price supports with production controls,

at no net cost to taxpayers, and it has been the mainstay of the small

farm economy in my part of the country for sixty years. A defense of the

tobacco program is approximately opposite to a defense of the tobacco

companies, and it has, in fact, little to do with the issue of smoking. To

destroy the program, and with it the small farmers, would not reduce

tobacco production or smoking, and it would do much harm. In

recognition of this, several anti-smoking organizations have been strong

friends of the tobacco program. I am still a supporter of the tobacco

program; I always have been and have never pretended not to be. But

Mr. Fromm apparently wishes to imply that I am an advocate or a

defender of smoking, and that is not true. Since 1993 I have been

involved in local efforts to help tobacco farmers reduce their

dependence on that crop. The sentence about the anti-smoking

campaign that Mr. Fromm quotes from Life is a Miracle, and which he

describes as "chilling," is quoted our of context and falsely described as

an "allusion to tobacco-growing." The context of that sentence is not

tobacco growing, but rather the medical profession's attitude toward

death. In that context it is not "a misfiring ironic sentiment," but is

exactly to the point.

Port Royal, Kentucky

Wendell Berry


Harold Fromm replies:

In the Summer 1996 issue of this journal, in a brief review of WendeI1

Berry's Another Turn of the Crank that brought to a close my more lengthy

account of the writings of Andrew Ross, I described Berry as an

ecological mystic whose vision of the past was more enriching than

Ross's trendy glibness about the future. Although I had reservations

about Berry's sometimes nostalgic uses of that past, I suppressed them

in order to praise the "wise, rich, persuasive essays, written with the

clarity, deftness, and simplicity of a venerable prose master" that

comprised his then Latest book.

Because Mr. Berry is a speaker in great demand, I was impressed and

pleased by ASLE's success in getting him on the program in 1999, nor

was I disappointed by his talk, although there were a few moments

during which I squirmed a bit uneasily. But it was the very fact of my

high estimate of Berry's corpus of writings and his role as an ecological

guru that lay behind my feelings of shock and dismay at the hostile and

aggressive questions, amounting to an attack, posed to him by younger

members of the audience after his talk. I felt tense and uneasy during

the awkward moments when he tried to respond, not, I thought, much

to their satisfaction. My amazement was strong enough to prompt me to

exclaim to the woman sitting next to me, "Wow, they've really let him

have it!" So my sense of that response has remained with me too

strongly to regard it as a fantasy of my own invention. Nor would a tape

recording, even if one existed, reveal the disparity between expectation

and reality that prompted my reaction in the first place.

When I wrote that "they laced into him for hypocrisy," I certainly did

not mean that he was engaged in an act of dissimulation, saying one

thing while believing another, nor was I accusing him myself. For me,

Wendell Berry says what he means and means what he says. So I can

assent to his objection to my choice of the word "hypocrisy," a word I

used to convey the wounded reaction of impassioned young ecologically

committed auditors to their sense of the disparity between his iconic role

and some of his rearguard positions. He was perceived, I thought, as

hypocritical. But it would have been better to use the word "betrayal."

To them, his talk was a case of an environmental wise man who had

increasingly been letting them down by revealing that even he was

circumscribed by a time and a place that no longer spoke to a new

generation. How so? His views on abortion, tobacco farming, and

religion (among others) involve positions that antagonize younger

environmentalists. His attempt to refute ecological opponents on the

subject of religion in Life Is a Miracle brushes aside the dismal record of

human "dominion" over the earth and its creatures as sanctioned by the

Judeo-Christian tradition and explicated most famously in Lynn White,

Jr.'s essay "The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis." Indeed, in the

light of religion's bad record in this regard, I have been observing more

and more similarly unconvincing revisionist attempts to show that

Western theology has been on the side of the ecological angels all along,

a view the correctness of which would require a lot of "faith" to believe.

Of course, over the past twenty-five years even the churches have begun

to see the light generated by worldwide environmental crises.

My memory of the ASLE talk came strongly into play as I read and

responded to his latest book, Life Is a Miracle. I began to understand

what lay behind the hostile questions even more clearly than before, as

I too became strongly disaffected by a mentalité that had once seemed

dependably wise but that now seemed increasingly reactionary, hard-

line, and uncompromising when used as a weapon to bash Edward O.


My sympathy is limited, however, in regard to Berry's protestation

with respect to tobacco and disease, an impression he attempts to

achieve by means of a number of deflecting quibbles. The passage in

question is not about tobacco growing, he claims, not about smoking,

but about "the medical profession's attitude toward death." And then

he asserts that I have quoted him out of context. These claims seem to

me unpersuasive. With regard to the "context" of the remark I quoted,

there is no context except for the book as a whole. The statement

appears as one of series of apothegms on the book's general themes,

separated by empty lines and asterisks and reads, in toto, with nothing

fore or aft, as follows: "The anti-smoking campaign, by its insistent

reference to the expensiveness to government and society of death by

smoking, has raised a question that it has nor answered: What is the best

and cheapest disease to die from, and how can the best and cheapest

disease be promoted?" Berry may here be objecting to the translation of

health questions into questions of money. But in a society in which the

only universally acknowledged value is monetary, even questions of

morality and human well-being don't stand a chance unless translated

into dollars and cents. The environmental movement, the health

professions, the survival of churches and religions, the fate of the arts,

the plight of the underclasses, auto safety, crime, sex and violence on

TV, the survival of family farms (including those that grow tobacco): is

there a social problem in existence that will be taken seriously nowadays

if it is not put into financial terms? This is certainly an abysmal state of

affairs. But no matter how many times I re-read his remark, I am unable

to avoid experiencing it as an ironic deflection of blame from the

tobacco industry onto somebody else, as if Berry were to say, "Why do

you all keep picking on tobacco when so much else is equally

blameworthy?" But the tobacco industry's guilt with regard to the

suffering and death of staggering numbers of people throughout the

world is too unimaginably monstrous to exculpate in any terms at all

and, in this instance, the remark comes off as one of the parti pris

aspects of Berry's book to which I objected. If, as Berry claims. this is not

what he intended, then perhaps his remark can be regarded as a

rhetorical rather than an ethical misjudgment, like my choice of the word