No one, but no one exemplifies the phrase “Less is more” than Wendell
Berry. In The Hidden Wound, an extended essay (100 pages and change) written in 1968-69, with an afterword in 1988, he takes on the subject of black-white race relations in America. He begins with KY boyhood memories of a couple of workers on his grandfather’s farm, then attempts to extrapolate from his experience with them to the inner lives of American blacks and whites in history and the future. He’s on risky ground, and his tentative tone shows it:
I suppose it is the aim of every writer to produce a definitive statement, one that will prove him to be the final authority on what he has said. but though my aim here is to tell the truth as nearly as I am able, I am aware that the truth I am telling may be a very personal one, the truth, that is, as distorted and qualified by my own heritage and personality. I am, after all, writing about people of another and a radically different heritage, whom I knew only as a child and whose lives parted from mine nearly a quarter of a century ago. As I write I can hardly help but thinking of the possibility that if NicK and Aunt Georgie were alive to read this, they might not recognize themselves.
He needn’t have been so cautious, for so many of his observations are both original and true:
In a racist society, the candor of a child is … extremely threatening. … The racist fears that a child’s honesty empowered by sex might turn into real and open affection toward members of the oppressed race and so destroy the myth of that race’s inferiority.
In the afterword, looking back twenty years later on what he had written, in the year Jesse Jackson nearly won the democratic nomination for president, Berry lifts the situation beyond race. What good does it ultimately do to dress black people in corporate clothes and hand them the same salaries as their white counterparts if they are practicing the same corrupt, impersonal, detachment from productive work and inner fulfillment as their white counterparts? To Berry, America began to lose it all when we lost touch with the source of our work, our creation. When the money we earned to put bread on the table came from abstract entities like stocks and bonds and oil futures instead of crops and crafts produced in some way by our own direct efforts. When whole communities became anonymous one from the other and we were no longer a nation of intertwined humans, but isolated entities each trying to strive and exist as an organism unto itself.
All these wonderful insights beg the question, so what do we do about it? The Hidden Wound has no real answers to that one, and twenty years later, even though we have elected a black president, no real answers have appeared. So why read this? Because it’s a sensitive, wonderfully written piece by one of the foremost authors of our time. And the only farmer-author left among us. At least as far as I know. From Kentucky.