Monday, March 08, 2021

Book Review: The Long-Legged House

I was introduced to Wendell Berry by Gene Logsdon in his book The Contrary Farmer, where he started out the book with one of Berry's Poems "The Contrariness of the Mad Farmer".  Logsdon was a great fan of Berry (they were of the same mind about many things, Logsdon farming in Ohio and writing, Berry farming in Kentucky and writing, both living on land that they had grown up on).  Logsdon also credits  a work of Berry's, "A Native Hill", as the single work that convinced him and his family to leave their life in urban Pennsylvania and return to Ohio to farm.

I have read Berry before; his book The Unsettling of America (originally published in 1977) asked a series of questions about agriculture in America that resounds to this day.  And I have another book - The Gift of The Good Land - which I also remember enjoying at the time.

That said, Berry is an author I approach with caution the way a young man or woman approaches someone they think they want to date:  cautious, optimistic even, but at the same time not wanting to commit to much lest they find out that deep down they hold deeply different world views and thus are to be disappointed.  I have this with Berry, things I can agree with him on but the sense that deep down, we are very different.

That said, I like Gene Logsdon and a writing that could inspire him to restart his life was worth investigating.

The book - his first - was originally published in 1969 - is series of essays separated into three sections (Berry is an essayist, an author, and a poet):  The first section ("The Tyranny of Charity", "The Landscaping of Hell:  Mine Morality in East Kentucky", "The Nature Consumers") reflects issues concerning state programs and the coal strip mining industry.  The second section ("The Loss of The Future", A Statement Against the War in Vietnam", "Some Thoughts on Citizenship and Conscience in Honor of Donald Pratt") deals with (not surprisingly) current events and to some extent the subject of pacifism.  The third section ("The Rise", "The Long-Legged House", "A Native Hill") are written about Berry's experience in growing up and then living along the Kentucky River.

Berry is an excellent writer - no surprise, he has an M.A in English.  And he writes passionately about his subjects:  "The Tyranny of Charity" decries the fact that the 1960's government will not fund a man who makes chairs by hand, the old way - and how terrible that is; "The Landscaping of Hell" paints in vivid detail the destruction wrought by open pit mining.  His last section - "The Rise", "The Long-Legged House", "A Native Hill"  - are as much travelogue and love letters of his part of Kentucky as they are essays.

Some quotes:

"It is not possible to escape the irony of the fact that the furniture maker - a man of skill and industry, whose craft is itself one of the most valuable resources of his region and nation, and who is engaged constantly in making products of great beauty and usefulness - is destitute in America, now.  This, it must be remembered, is the very man whose promise the American government was established to redeem.  By all our public claims he ought to be one of the prime beneficiaries of our system.  As it is, he is its victim.  And if he, with his skill and his devoted effort, has wound up under the heels of the exploiters, what hope can there be for those who are less able?...If a man continues long in direct and absolute dependence on the government for the necessities of life, he ceases to be a citizen and becomes a slave." ("The Tyranny of Charity")

"Knowing this valley, once one has started to know it, is clearly no casual matter.  Like all country places, it is both complex and reticent. It cannot be understood by passing through.  It does not, like Old Faithful, gush up its inwards on schedule so as not to delay the hurrying traveler.  Its wonders are commonplace and shy.  Knowing them is an endless labor and, if one can willingly expend the labor, an endless pleasure." ("The Nature Consumers")

"When the people have neither the incentive nor the moral means to resist and correct their institutions, they are poorly served by them.  They have become their servants' servants." ("The Loss of the Future")

"If one deplores the destructiveness and wastefulness of the economy, then one is under an obligation to live as far out on the margin of the economy as one is able:  to be economically independent of exploitive industries, to learn to need less, to waste less, to make things last, to give up meaningless luxuries, to understand and resist the language of salesmen and public relations experts, to see through attractive packages, to refuse to purchase fashion or glamour or prestige.  If one feels endangered by meaninglessness, then one is under an obligation to refuse meaningless pleasure and to resist the meaningless work, and to give up the moral comfort and the excuse of the mentality of specialization." ("Some Thoughts on Citizenship and Conscience in Honor of Donald Pratt")

"We haven't accepted - we can't really believe - that the most characteristic product of our age of scientific miracles is junk, but that is so." ("The Rise")

"I began to see how little of the beauty and richness of the world is of human origin, and how superficial and crude and destructive - even self destructive - is man's conception of himself as the owner of the land an the master of nature and the center of the universe." ("The Long-Legged House")

"Every man is followed by a shadow which is his death - dark,  featureless, and mute.  And for every man there is a place where his shadow is clarified and is made his reflection, where his face is mirrored on the ground.  He sees his source and his destiny, and they are acceptable to him.  He becomes the follower of what pursued him.  What hounded his track has become his companion.

That is the myth of my search and my return." ("A Native Hill")

This is a smattering.  There is more.

The thing that comes across most in the section three is the concept of Berry being committed both to the world at large, but really to this one specific place on the Kentucky River.  "The Long Legged House" is the story of a cabin his great Uncle built, which he restores as a youth as a camping site and then restores again as a house to bring his bride home to. "A Native Hill"  tells of his returning to his home for good from the lure of urban and "civilized" living.

As you can guess from this smattering of quotes he is a contrarian, a conservationist, a poet, and a man who is well grounded in the concept that a piece a land and a humble living can be the art of a lifetime (Ichiryo Gusoku, one of the mottos around here:  "One section of land (enough to feed a family), one suit of armor (minimal possessions but enough to defend it).

Would I recommend this book?  Yes.  Berry is a joy to read (speaking as one who reads and writes).  He uses his words well and with purpose, and in many ways (perhaps more than I had imagined) he and I share beliefs and points of view.  I do not know that this has relieved my caution any less, but at least it has made me more willing.

Wendell Berry is a writer, like Gene Logsdon, that not only wrote about returning home a making a life, but did it.  That alone deserves tremendous respect in an age where so many perceive the only place to find a life is surrounded by people in an artificial environment.


  1. Good review, TB. I'm a fan of both Wendell Berry and Gene Logsdon.

    1. Thanks Leigh. I hope I treated him fairly - I really want to like him, but I am worried that buried deep is something I will find so ridiculously wrong that I will have wasted my energy. Perhaps sampling in small doses.


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