Imagining membership and its obligations : the voice of John Ruskin in Wendell Berry's fiction.

Date

2012-08

Authors

Kimery, Millard J.

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Worldwide access
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Abstract

This study explores the ways in which John Ruskin’s artistic and social criticism illuminate persuasive elements in Wendell Berry’s fiction, primarily his three major novels: A Place on Earth, Hannah Coulter, and Jayber Crow. By attending to Ruskin’s voice, readers of Berry learn how ethical formation requires cultivation of the imagination through an attentiveness to particulars that is informed both by sympathy and an affectionate sense of obligation to others. This insight transforms Berry’s fiction from simply another mode of the social criticism found in his essays to a concrete vision of the good life. Chapter One establishes a link between Ruskin and Berry in the similarities between the Agrarian Movement in twentieth-century America and Tory Radicalism in nineteenth-century England. Chapter Two discusses intertextuality, exploring the literary relationship between Ruskin and Berry in light of Berry’s idea of “convocation.” Chapter Three addresses realism and reconciles Ruskin’s stance on realism with the emphasis on imagination that Berry claims for his fiction. Chapter Four examines Berry’s novel, A Place on Earth, in light of Ruskin’s argument with proponents of classical liberalism. Ruskin’s claim that obligations are not devoid of affection illuminates both community and care of the land in Berry’s fiction. Chapter Five places Berry’s short story, “Making It Home,” in dialogue with Ruskin’s speech to the military cadets at Woolrich Academy. The comparison reveals the close relationship between economic practices and practices of modern warfare, and clarifies the critique of military heroism implicit in the story’s end. Chapter Six takes up the question of imagination’s role in ethical formation. Ruskin’s art criticism elucidates the connections, in Hannah Coulter, between vision, desire, and agricultural practice, as Hannah learns that attending to particulars is never just a matter of material perception. Chapter Seven returns to the themes of obligation and autonomy with a study of the protagonist in Jayber Crow as a pastoral figure. Comparison with Ruskin reveals an opposition between pastorship and institutional oversight that is similar to the nineteenth-century debates over the Poor Laws and that places Jayber in dialogue with opposing interpretations of professionalism.

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Keywords

Agrarianism., American Literature., Victorian Literature., Liberalism., Imagination., Intertextuality., Realism., Pastorship., Affection., Berry, Wendell., Ruskin, John., A place on earth., Modern painters., Unto this last., Hannah Coulter., Jayber Crow.

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