Wendell Berry believes that Edward Abbey and Wallace Stegner are misunderstood people, speaking from his own experience of getting to know them through personal interaction or by reading their work. Environmentalists are quick to judge Abbey for having beliefs contrary to those of an environmentalist, since having some ideas aligning with those of an environmentalist’s gave him the reputation of being environmentally-minded. Berry justifies that Abbey’s distinctive qualities of showing prejudice and humor are what make him down-to-earth and digestible. He’s a person capable of having different points of view on a variety of topics, despite not all fitting under one label for a person–such as an environmentalist. Wendell Berry greatly admires the work of Stegner, who he considered his teacher before he personally met him, and considers him to be even more so, long after he retired from teaching. As Berry’s teacher, the way Stegner encouraged his students when necessary, listened intently to what they had to contribute, and didn’t say more than he thought, inspired Berry. In “Style and Grace,” Berry makes the point that works of art or literature can have an impact on your life if you let it be, and demonstrates his lingering thoughts about Hemingway’s “Big Two-hearted River.”
One concept that I found especially interesting, is when Berry points out, “Any human product or activity that humans defend as a category becomes, by that very fact, a sacred cow.” I interpreted that to mean that people don’t like hearing that you have a neutral opinion or reaction to something, when they know you feel strongly about something else that’s related. For example, admitting that you used to like the music an artist produced but you feel neutral about their personality and their newly released music–meaning you don’t completely hate or love them–is hard for people to accept. In my experience, you’d be frowned upon or judged if you didn’t react to a situation the way someone who generally shares the same values as you would. Another concept that I want to highlight is how the mystery of the unknown is essential to the plot of “A River Runs Through It,” told by Norman Maclean. I find that when I feel neutral or unsure about a situation, it’s because there are a variety of different emotions that could be experienced and they’re not fully realized. Some people automatically go on the offense and get upset, without fully understanding the situation, while others think it over deeply. Rather than face the long and arduous process of figuring things out that often comes with acknowledging that there are unknown factors, some people choose to react angrily even if the situation does not logically call for it. Realizing the existence of the unknown can be a good thing. Not being sure about everything forces you to consider other perspectives and build your depth of understanding, much like how Wendell Berry did not completely understand “Big Two-hearted River” and kept thinking about all it could mean.
Class Discussion Question:
What is your interpretation of the fishing trip in Ernest Hemingway’s “Big Two-hearted River” being tragic?