The Place of Imagination

Wendell Berry and the Poetics of Community, Affection, and Identity

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Joseph R. Wiebe
  • Waco, TX: 
    Baylor University Press
    , February
     270 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


A disclaimer: I was co-pastor of Port Royal Baptist Church with my wife, Kandy Queen-Sutherland, in the early 1980s, and we have known Wendell and Tanya Berry since that time. As a friend, I resisted but finally accepted the opportunity to review Joseph Wiebe’s book  on Berry’s novels, The Place of Imagination: Wendell Berry and the Poetics of Community, Affection, and Identity. Most attempts to analyze Berry’s works from particular academic quadrants of scholarly commitments leave me somewhat empty. Although contributing to scholarly assessments on “our greatest moral essayist,” according to Bill McKibben, critical treatments usually leave me with a feeling that they shortchange the full complexities of Berry’s thinking.

Not so when I read Wiebe’s treatment of Berry’s fiction. Wiebe’s work is, in my opinion, the best critical understanding of Berry currently available. Wiebe gives us an interpretative key for understanding Berry’s fiction and, for that matter, all of his writing—the moral imagination. Wiebe begins with an insightful chapter on how Berry understands imagination as essential to interpreting our experiences in the world. Imagination is not the popular conceptions about “clever imitation” or “dreaming up,” but a moral faculty of the mind that enables us to experience the human and nonhuman world around us with sympathy. In turn, sympathy enables affection. This logic depends upon a focus on the local, personal, and at heart, place. In contrast to engaging the world from a purely rational perspective, an approach that Berry argues is one of the negative outgrowths of the Enlightenment: imagination opposes rationalism and its primary mode of operation, reductionism. Although Wiebe does not mention it in this context, anyone wanting a snapshot of Berry’s thinking on this fundamental contrast should read “Two Minds,” in his Citizenship Papers (Counterpoint, 2003).

Wiebe argues convincingly that imagination functions as a hermeneutical key for Berry. Wiebe recognizes that Berry does not attempt to develop a consistent program or systematic ethic. Wiebe recognizes that through his fiction, Berry, like other great writers, functions on the “subflooring” of an ethic, what we might call a pre-ethic. As Wiebe points out, great literature does not engage the human will first, rather the imagination (25). Therefore, Wiebe interprets what Berry attempts to do in his fiction as parables. His storytelling does not attempt to provide models for moral instruction, but parables about experiences of people with neighbors, enemies, misfits, and strangers. Experiential communities are not idealized, have no romanticized heroes and are unsystematic—they are never “complete.” Wiebe makes his case by leading the reader through an analysis of how Berry uses his fictional characters as parables of life in its fullest and frailest measures—with chapters focusing on Old Jack Beechum, Jayber Crow, and Hannah Coulter. Wiebe could have added weight to his argument by consulting David Buttrick’s works on the function of biblical parables. Buttrick argues that biblical parables do not intend to provide morsels of morality to live by. Rather, they construct a “world” that combines both ordinary yet unexpected features, and then ask readers how they would make decisions in that constructed world. Parables draw readers into a world and challenge the shallowness and exploitations in our present culture.

In effect, Wiebe shows that what Buttrick shows is the function of biblical parables is precisely what Berry does in his stories. Berry’s stories do not function as a template or something to imitate. Even less, they are not meant to be translated allegorically into contemporary, specific principles or applications. As Wiebe insightfully observes, Berry’s stories function to challenge and shift consciousness, to challenge the comfortable assumptions that makes us slaves to the effects of modernism (152-55).

Wiebe’s portrayal of Berry’s literary trajectories reminds me of Paul Ricoeur’s treatment of the ethical implication of the narrative in Oneself as Another (University of Chicago Press, 1992). Drawing on Walter Benjamin, Ricoeur points out that the art of storytelling is the art of exchanging experiences. This exchange constitutes settings in which the actions of characters are subject to approval, disapproval, praise, or blame. Ricoeur concludes that in the process of fictional narrative, moral judgment is subjected first to the imagination.

Wiebe’s understanding of the centrality of imagination in Berry’s writing and its connection to his ethical trajectories reflects that of Ricoeur. Berry creates stories of human experiences that may be understood as parables into which we are invited. We, then, may assess our own reality and imagine how we live and should live in our place. Furthermore, Berry’s understanding of human nature and behavior in his stories reflect that of Ricoeur’s view—as humans we are created good but inclined toward evil.   A primary thesis of his Fallible Man and Symbolism of Evil (Fordham University Press, 1986). Wiebe emphasizes this component of human nature in Berry’s characters throughout his book.

At times Wiebe moves slowly through storylines and their plots. Those who know Berry’s fiction may get a sense that they are reading a series of book reviews and yearn for more interpretation by Wiebe. Yet, for many who are not familiar with Berry’s fiction, Wiebe has done them a service. Those readers are not left behind, but benefit from Wiebe’s assessment. Another contribution: although the book is the outgrowth of a dissertation, the text reads smoothly, without tediousness. The scholarly interchanges about Berry’s work remain in the footnotes. While reading them will lengthen your time, they provide a wealth of information that fill out Wiebe’s fine discussion. Wiebe has done a good job of providing a needed contribution for both the casual and scholarly reader of Wendell Berry.

About the Reviewer(s): 

D. Dixon Sutherland is professor of religious studies at Stetson University.

Date of Review: 
July 21, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Joseph R. Wiebe is assistant professor of religion and ecology at the University of Alberta, Augustana.



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