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Wendell Berry
A Profile

Of the five writers featured in Living by Words, no one is associated more with an anchored existence than Wendell Berry. Not since Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County has an American writer been more closely identified with a specific region than has Berry with his stories of Port William (i.e., Port Royal), Kentucky.

Yet Wendell has not always been planted on his own little postage stamp of soil. Like Ed McClanahan, Jim Hall, and Gurney Norman, he enrolled in the Stanford University writing program and worked under the tutelage of Wallace Stegner. He later accepted a fellowship to study in England, and he taught for a time in New York City at NYU.

Time outside Kentucky did not come as easily for him as it did for the others, though, and it was certainly more brief. In a letter he wrote to Ed in 1970—a point at which our other four writers were still scattered around the country—Wendell explained what he had discovered in his travels about his identity as a writer and its connection to a sense of place:

“I think the crisis of my life was the discovery that I was a Henry County poet, a kind of creature that, so far as I knew, had no precedent in creation and that I feared was contrary to evolutionary law. I think I went around for years suspicioning that I was the sole member of an otherwise non-existent species. It was like I began with one foot on the ground, very uncertainly balanced, and all my work has been the slow descent of the other foot. Now I think the other foot has come all the way down and planted itself in Henry County along with its mate. And that was the only way I could get my head free of the fear and the combativeness I used to feel. I mean, when a Henry County poet begins at last to see himself as one of the natural possibilities of Henry County and not an evolutionary accident, then he quits worrying so much about getting stomped out and begins going out grinning, saying over and over to himself ‘I am possible. I am possible.’”

—Tom Thurman