In 1964, Kentucky author Wendell Berry was a young, ascendant writer working in New York City, when the University of Kentucky tempted him back home with a teaching position, and he accepted.
“Just about every one of my literary friends told me that I was ruining myself, and I was unable, entirely, to disbelieve them,” the prolific author said during the 2015 Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony. “Why would a writer leave a good job in New York, where all the best in artistic life and talent had gathered to go to Kentucky? I have no proof that I would have done better to stay in New York, but I see in retrospect that my story has gained the brightening of a certain comedy.”
At the third annual induction ceremony, Berry became the first living author to be welcomed into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame, a recent initiative of the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning, in Lexington, Ky., to honor the diverse and lasting contributions Kentucky writers have made to the literary landscape.
After turning his back on New York, Berry returned to Kentucky, to find, not a state bereft of literary talent, but a cadre of influential writers, such as James Still, Harlan Hubbard, Eugene Meatyard, and Thomas Merton, ready to embrace the Henry County native.
“My point is, in 1964, for a young writer in Kentucky, and in need of sustenance, sustenance was here,” Berry said.
Berry has published over 50 books, including the novels “The Memory of Old Jack” and “Jayber Crow,” collections of poetry such as “The Country of Marriage” and “The Wheel,” and works of nonfiction such as “The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture,” which “has had a profound impact on the agricultural debate and policy around the world,” Neil Chethik, the Carnegie Center executive director, said during the induction ceremony.
“In the 50 years that followed (after returning to Kentucky), the gathering in Kentucky of Kentucky writers has grown much larger,” Berry said. “My further point is, that in 2015, for an old writer in Kentucky, and in need of sustenance, sustenance is here.”
The other authors included in the 2015 class of the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame were:
- Guy Davenport, a novelist, poet, translator, literary critic, and essayist, who taught at the University of Kentucky for decades
- Elizabeth Hardwick, a novelist and literary who, with her husband, author Robert Lowell, founded the New York Review of Books in 1963
- Jim Wayne Miller, a poet and novelist, as well as professor of the German language, who worked at Western Kentucky University for over 30 years
- Effie Waller Smith, a Pike County native and third child of former slaves, who the Oxford University Press has identified as one of the most important African American poets of the 20th century
- Hunter S. Thompson, a Louisville native and counter culture hero who brandished his invented Gonzo-style of journalism while covering sporting events, political campaigns, and American culture.