Samford University conferred
honorary doctorates on author Wendell E. Berry and historian
J. Wayne Flynt during Commencement May 20. Seasons interviewed
the two for Viewpoints.
Samford University conferred honorary doctorates
on author Wendell E. Berry and historian J. Wayne Flynt during
Commencement May 20. Seasons interviewed the two for Viewpoints.
|Samford University President
Thomas E. Corts, left, chats with honorary degree recipients
Wayne Flynt, center, and Wendell Berry at Commencement.
The New York Times described
Wendell Berry as "the prophet of rural America." In
28 volumes of fiction and nonfiction and another 15 books of
poetry, he has sought to interpret an America in danger of being
forgotten in today's consumerist culture. Many of Berry's novels
are set in the fictional town of Port William, Ky., which is
not unlike his actual home of Port Royal, Ky., where he lives
on a small farm. A former University of Kentucky creative writing
teacher, Berry received the Doctor of Literature degree. He was
recognized for "his efforts to protect an 'endangered species,'"
America's small farmers and their families.
You have written extensively of the
encroachment of agribusiness on the small, independent farmer.
Is there hope this trend might change?
Agribusiness practices the totalitarian economics of corporate
industrialism. It is undemocratic. It ignores the processes and
integrities by which natural systems and human communities perpetuate
themselves. It is heavily dependent on "cheap" fossil
fuels, toxic chemicals and other pollutants. Lots of people understand
this and are working for change. So of course there is hope.
What is America losing if it does not?
It is losing (it has nearly lost) its farm population and its
small, diversified family farms. It is losing topsoil and soil
health. It is losing the health, ecological integrity and beauty
of its economic landscapes. It is losing the quality and the
natural abundance of its water supply. It is losing its ability
to produce healthful food in local abundance.
What can be done to preserve the place
of the small farmer in America?
Urban and rural neighbors need to make a common cause of building
or rebuilding local economies, starting with food and going on
to other rural products such as fiber and timber. Such local
economies would have the ability to preserve the beauty, health
and productivity of the local countryside, as well as the livelihoods
of local farmers. They would hold the promise of justice to consumers
and producers alike. They would rest on the principle of neighborhood
rather than competition.
Tell us something of your farm and your
involvement in working it.
Our farm here is small, rough and steep, in several respects
marginal. Most of the work is done with draft horses. We grow
trees and grass and keep a small flock of Border Cheviot sheep.
We produce as much as we can of our own food, and we warm ourselves
mostly with firewood from our own trees.
Which came first: your love of the land
or your love of writing?
Love of land. I knew a good deal about farming before I knew
What factors encouraged you in your writing? What has made you
My mother loved books. So, as a result, do I. I had some good
teachers, in and out of school. I found good friends who consented
to be my critics. I have been productive, I suppose, because
I've seen a lot of work that I wanted to do.
You are a novelist, poet and essayist,
having published numerous volumes in each genre. How do these
complement each other? Are you now more comfortable in any one
of the three?
Different tools for different jobs. Obviously, what you learn
in one kind of work can help you in another. The proper business
of a writer is not to be comfortable in any genre.
Your literary works have received some
20 awards. Do you have favorites? Why?
A writer who wants to stay alive had better not think too much
about awards, which necessarily have to do with finished work.
The work to be interested in is the unfinished. The awards that
have meant the most to me are the ones that have come from nearest
What project(s) are you working on now?
Right now, I'm trying to get my mail answered and my pastures
Do you feel any other writers have influenced
What about the Vanderbilt Agrarians of the 1930s?
You can learn to write only from writers and from writing. I
have probably uncountable debts to other writers, from Homer
and the authors of the Bible to several of my contemporaries.
I owe a debt to the Vanderbilt Agrarians, and this I have acknowledged
in an essay, "Still Standing," in the Oxford American
(Editor's Note: The Vanderbilt
Agrarians were a group of academics who wrote a series of
essays defending a traditional culture with an agricultural
economic base which they saw threatened by a modern urban-industrial
society. They included Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate, John
Crowe Ransom, Donald Davidson and others. Their essays were
published in a book, I'll Take My Stand: The South and
the Agrarian Tradition.)
As a teacher of writing for more than
25 years, what overriding theme(s) or technique(s) did you stress?
Get the diction, grammar and syntax right. Know what you're talking
about. Do justice to the subject. Be as clear and plain as you
I understand you write longhand on a
yellow legal pad. Any plans to upgrade?
What do you mean by "upgrade"? There is no better way to put words in line-no
way to make it easy. A computer is no better than a pencil. Or
(I guess) vice versa. I use a pencil because it is cheap and
quiet and portable. Also, I dislike paying money to computer
companies for machines that become obsolete even before they
break down. A pencil doesn't become obsolete or break down; it
has the decency simply to wear out.
Dr. J. Wayne
Distinguished University Professor
at Auburn University and a 1961 Samford graduate, Dr. Flynt is
the award-winning author of 10 books on Southern political history,
poverty and religion. His 1990 book, Poor But Proud, won the
Lillian Smith Award for Non-Fiction, presented by the Southern
Regional Council, and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Flynt
received the Doctor of Humane Letters degree. He was described
as "a teacher, scholar and writer whose high-wattage light
has beamed into the darkness surrounding issues of poverty, race,
education and state government."
You have spoken in favor of a new constitution
for Alabama. What will it take to get one? A new state constitution will not result from
the vision or leadership of Alabama's political elite. In fact,
that elite-driven by the special interests that dominated the
1901 constitutional convention and have since controlled Alabama
politics-have defeated numerous attempts to revise the antiquated
and now largely unworkable document. The initiative for change
will have to come from modernizers within the business, education
and civic communities who realize how badly hobbled the state
is by the restrictions, racism and lack of home rule embodied
in the 1901 document.
Do you believe it will happen?
Yes, I believe Alabamians will revise the state constitution,
either because of a crisis that causes a meltdown in state government
or because urban areas are simply so hamstrung they can no longer
function in a modern world.
What is the most important issue facing
Alabama today? Why?
I'd like to link this question to spiritual issues, although
I doubt that is the way Alabamians see it. We are caught up in
a highly material culture that defines every part of our identity.
Our national philosophy ought to be not "In God We Trust"
but "I shop; therefore I am." The best evidence of
this materialism in public affairs is the obsession with keeping
our taxes the lowest in the nation. Not justice. Not fair treatment
of the poor. Not quality education for all children, or a decent
penal system, or humane conditions in nursing homes or mental
institutions, or adequately funded public safety departments.
All that matters to most of us is whether we can afford the latest
gas-guzzling sports utility vehicle or upgrade for a pricier
house in a more prestigious suburb. A good question for all of
us to consider is: How and where would Jesus live if he returned
to earth to live in Alabama, and what issues would attract his
Are recent economic gains (Mercedes,
Honda, Boeing) signs that Alabama might be breaking its cycle
Recent business and industrial acquisitions are a tribute
to a new, more sophisticated economic development strategy.
For a century-and-a-half, Alabama touted cheap, unskilled,
nonunion labor and a variety of state tax incentives. And
the result was a revolving door by which exploitive industry
entered the state to acquire the benefits and left when some
other state or country offered cheaper labor or more favorable
tax exemptions. Now many development people understand the
connection between good schools, an educated work force and
quality economic development.
Put differently, economic growth, i.e., acquiring a new plant,
no matter how much it pollutes the water supply or exploits human
and natural resources, may actually be bad for the state. It
is quite different from economic development, which may include
developing excellent research universities that spin off lots
of high-tech businesses or quality foreign language programs
that develop heightened cultural awareness in the context of
a globalized economy.
At one time, historians said the South
was different from the rest of the nation because it had experienced
defeat. Was that true or an oversimplification? Does the South
remain different? In what ways?
The South remains different from other regions, but perhaps
the differences are now shaped more by distinctive opinions
and attitudes rather than by keen memory of defeat or a separate
past. In some ways, the South has converged with the nation
because of the Americanization of the South due to federal
imposition of Civil Rights laws that broke down segregation
and the collapse of one-party politics. In other ways, convergence
results from the Southernization of America with the post-George
Wallace national political conservatism and its dominance
by Southern politicians; the national appeal of Southern-style
evangelical and Pentecostal religion; the attraction of arms
and a frontier kind of lifestyle; the popularity of southern
cultural exports from NASCAR racing to country music.
Whereas Southern distinctiveness is shrinking (it no longer includes
most of Florida, the D.C. suburbs of Virginia, or parts of the
Southwest), and it is changing (white Southerners are no more
likely now to resist integrated schools than white non-Southerners)-it
still does exist.
What stands out in your mind about your
academic experience as a Samford student?
I will always love Samford for exposing me to a remarkable faculty
who placed highest priority on undergraduate teaching. What good
is it to have a Nobel-winning person on the faculty if students
have no access to her? At Howard College, a teaching faculty
that could have been embittered by low salaries, lack of appreciation
and killing teaching loads challenged me to write, think, push
myself and explore the world around me in unfamiliar ways. I
wrote more than a dozen major research papers compared to none
required of my best friend in graduate school at the University
of Texas. Professors such as W. T. Edwards, David Vess, George
V. Irons, Hugh C. Bailey, Al Yeomans, Sam Mitchell, Bob Mashburn
and Mabry Lunceford influenced not only my writing and thinking,
but my entire philosophy of life. And in classes where I felt
entirely inadequate and unprepared, professors like Sanders Bishop
patiently tutored me to competence, even when excellence was
far beyond my grasp.
Many other fellow Florida State graduate students were better
prepared in terms of specific knowledge than was I. But none
had more experience writing or organizing ideas in deductive
and inductive reasoning. I still find myself using insights from
Edwards and Lunceford every week when I teach my Sunday School
class or from Vess and Bailey when I lecture my history classes.
And anyone who ever debated for Al Yeomans will testify to the
monumental imprint he made on each of us, more because of relationships
and his values than because of win-loss records or topics discussed.
Your books have received at least 13
awards. Do you have a favorite, or favorites, among them? Why?
The award I treasure most is the Lillian Smith Award for Non-Fiction
given by the Southern Regional Council. As the oldest book award
in the South, it is named for a woman whose courage, religious
values and vision I greatly admire. Previous awardees have included
historians such as C. Vann Woodward, Paul Gaston and others whose
historical writing has been wedded to concerns for social justice
and civic righteousness. It is a great honor to be included in
such company. And the book that was honored, Poor But Proud,
is my favorite book and the one that most nearly tells the story
of my own family.
What feedback do you get from readers
of your newspaper Opinion Page articles?
One reason I so much enjoy writing op-ed columns is that one
uses writing skills totally different from historical composition.
I have long admired the best newspaper journalists for their
communication skills. Many of them have become first-rate historians,
even without formal training. The challenge to compact a complex
issue into a predetermined space, the economy of words this requires,
the use of simple words and well-structured ideas, is scintillating
to me. And best of all are the follow-up letters to the editor
or directly to me after such a column. I have entire files of
letters from readers, many hostile and argumentative, others
supportive and laudatory. It is feedback third only to undergraduate
student evaluations and letters from former students in my hierarchy
of ego gratification.
Which is more important: college football
Fishing is far more important than football, especially if done
right. I will always owe the greatest debt of gratitude to Samford
history colleague James S. Brown, who is not only one of the
brightest people I have ever known and one of the finest teachers,
but is also the person who taught me the joy of creek fishing.
The formula is simple: Find a small Appalachian river or creek.
Seine your own bait. Walk in the creek if possible. If not, use
a canoe. Never fish a lake. Never ride in a boat with a motor.