Book Review: The Unsettling of America

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Book Review: The Unsettling of America

by Phil Balla

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 11, No. 3, May/June 1979, p. 4 & 42
by Wendell Berry, New York: Avon Books, 1977, 223 pp. $4.95

If you drive through the New River Valley region of southwestern Virginia—the Virginia Highland—you will see as beautiful a land as you could ever imagine. A rural land, surrounded by the Blue Ridge Mountains on one side the Alleghenies on another, you’ll see rolling hills and gentle valleys, forests on the steep land, but mostly the farms and pastures all around. This is Appalachia, not coal-mining Appalachia with its tipples, strip-gashed mountainsides, and fouled streams everywhere, but farming Appalachia, the peaceful, pastoral, gentle land such as you might conjure or remember upon hearing Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Suite.

The people of the New River Valley are not, however, a rural people. Figures from the local, four-county planning district show that though the land—95% of it—is devoted to agriculture, forestry, and open space, onlv 3% of the region’s people are employed at rural-related occupations. Pulaski Countv, for instance, with 30,000 people, ha; onh 300 people whose work is agricultural. So as you drive through this land, don’t be deceived by all those farmhouses with their front porches and outbuildings, or the trailers parked ubiquitously throughout the countryside. Token gardens aside, most of the people living in these buildings have their primary relationships not with the land around them or even with their neighbors anymore: but with the jobs and shopping habits they have in town, in the various little towns throughout the New River Valley.

The story of how this came to be is an interesting one, a story of how, during World War II, the U.S. government took over thousands of acres of the best farmland for a powder plant and arsenal which is still the area’s largest employer. It IS a story of how a utility corporation flooded out some of the best farmland and rural villages in the immediate New River valley for a 110-mile coastline lake, for electrical power the urbanization boosters wanted. It is a story of how the local community college confiscated some of the best corn and wheat-growing land for the view its administrators wanted for themselves. It is a ston of an interstate highway cutting up Draper Valley, an airport taking more prime farmland, and consolidated schools, finally, removing kids from such traditions and familiarities their neighborhood schools had given them and setting them down, instead, in those modern, windowless buildings whose architecture and course content could be Anywhere U.S.A.

The story of urbanization is, of course, a much larger one than the little sketch I’ve drawn, but, simple or complex, it is a story the kids of this area don’t learn, ever, in any of their schools. It has been the job of teachers to uproot these kids, to teach them that their turns-of-phrase, their metaphors are inappropriate, wrong, and that their aspirations ought to be more primarily mainstream American. The teachers don’t really have a hard job of it because the kids themselves have their heads already turned to the culture which Los Angeles, Detroit, and New York have glamorized for them. At home the kids have already learned to denigrate their own culture from the simple fact they rarely see anybody cultivating, much less doing anything. All the adults drive off to work. Whether they go to the arsenal in Montgomery County. the furniture plant or clothing mill. in Pulaski County. or the chemical-fiber plant on the New River in Giles County, the effect is the same: kids almost n~ver have the chance to see adults doing meaningful or an~ other kind of work. Kids almost never experience anyone doing anything with the land all around them. and they go to school where the cycle is complete. where teachers in their turn ignore the local land and such experiences as are peculiar or interesting or relevant to these communities.

This whole process is what Wendell Berry, a farmer. writer. and former teacher calls the unsettling nf America. His latest book goes by that title, The Unsettling of America, and is precisely the book someone has needed to write for a long time. It is a book which ties up many strings which heretofore have been separate—or only imagined as separate. It is a book which picks up from an earlier extended essay, A Continuous Harmony: Essays Cultural and Agricultural. And it picks up from all the poems, the two novels, and the various essays written from the perspective that has been his, to cult fame only, there on his hillside farm on the bank of the Kentucky River.

The Unsettling of America is, if one word need do, Jeffersonian. It is based on the vision that was historically Jefferson’s: that the health and strength and beauty of America is and ought to be based on the diversity, neighborliness. and self-sufficiency of Americans rooted in their own regions, their own land, their own farms and communities. It was the Morrill Act of 1862, and its successors, the Smith-Lever and the Hatch acts, which mandated institutions to serve this great Jeffersonian vision. These were our land-grant colleges, each dedicated to serving local needs and problems so that local peoples might be nurtured. The prestigious universities were already based on the elitism of professions and the liberal arts: the land-grant schools would serve the sons (and daughters) of the working classes, preserving the skills and pride of such farming and mechanics as communities across America were in fact based upon.

All that changed, the mission of the land-grant schools changed, Wendell Berry argues in The Unsettling of America. It changed drastically. All these schools, the Michigan States, the Texas Agriculture & Mechanics, the Virginia Polytechnic Institutes, they all reduced their services to small farmers and focused their energies on large-scale, mechanized farming. They helped with the growth of such corporations as John Deere, Ralston-Purina, and Stokely-Van Camp. The bottom line was no longer the individual farm family on its land, in its community, but the chemical and industrial-based business which drove tens of thousands of Americans from their land. And Wendell Berry cannot resist the irony, the hypocrisy of this continual constant mass migration: in the 1950s, he writes, Americans were decrying the forced removal of villagers in communist lands, meanwhile acquiescing here in the philosophy of Get Big or Get Out.

The land-grant schools, meanwhile. were taking care of themselves. The professors of agriculture, no longer desiring to have to measure their services according to the needs of little people, small farmers, understood nevertheless that their own jobs were predicated on all these people who were rapidly becoming ex-farmers. So the professors and the agriculture school administrators lobbied to have legislation passed which would define land-grant school services in terms of what the professors wanted to do. In 1955 Congress amended the land-grant school legislation with section 347a, which was, as Wendell Berry says, foolproof job security for these professors. Henceforth they could teach ex-farmers such skills as hotel-motel management, highway construction, sewer development, housing development and so on until, as Berry narrates. at the University of Kentucky, where he taught, he learned of one woman. a waitress. who had to sit through a course where the professors of agriculture wanted to teach her how to set a good table, for that was part of the service the professors had worked up to be their new mission.

Berry doesn’t underestimate the potency of the land-grant schools’ real mission: their service to agribusiness. He doesn’t deny their success, either, in driving Americans out of farming and off the land. As Earl Butz would say, proudly, it takes only 4% of us now to feed the rest of the nation and part of the world, besides.

Wendell Berry and Earl Butz debated these issues in public once, in 1978, at a school in Indiana not far from either Berry’s Kentucky home or Purdue. where Butz was dean. But it was a fruitless debate. Butz wanted only to bask in all the material advantages possible when so few people in a nation had to be on the farm. Berry wanted to consider the human losses of such a policy.

Though CoEvolution Quarterly published the transcript of that debate, and Appalshop people from Whitesburg, Kentucky, videotaped it, The Unsettling of America is the best place to go for the finest statement any American has written on the human losses in a nation which has given up so much of its original Jeffersonian impulses. They talk (scientists do) of farms of the future having human values deliberately blended with them. As if, Berry points out, these farms, mammoth, computer-run, had no human values of their own to start with. But how typical a prospect that is for us to face. After all, our bread and our cereals have so little nutrition in them that we allow scientists to enrich them for us. Our education is so antiseptically sterile that we require our curricula to be sweetened with “humanities” courses. We expect so little literacy of our “scholars” that we relegate the teaching of that skill to Freshman English and those low enough in collegiate pecking orders to be consigned to teach it. We endow a multi-billion-dollar-a-year cosmetics industry to disguise our ill-health, just as we have a multi-billion-dollar-a-year entertainment industry to help us forget how deadly most of our jobs are. There’s no reason for it, Berry figures, except some kind of growing national predilection to things quantifiable, measurable, and orderable. And so Wendell Berry is amazed at the ever-growing attempts of our scientists, our agricultural specialists, to reduce people and land to massively abstract and technological machinations.

What is it, Berry asks, which makes a scientist dream of multi-thousand-acre farms run by remote control, roofed, climate-controlled. At one level it is, he supposes, the same kind of value which inclines Audubon Society members to thrive on photos of landscapes beautiful in the proportion that they are empty, void of humanity or human traces. But at another level, he knows, it is the same impulse by which we all, to one degree or another, fantasize control over our lives. And scientists do this pre-eminently. The very process of specialization, for instance, means exclusion: the more a scientist excludes, the more he puts himself in charge of one possibility. And by leaving out all other possibilities, concludes Berry, “he enfranchises his little fiction of control.”

How annoying it must be for an agricultural specialist, then, to be obliged to get involved with all the peculiarities and personalities of neighborhoods nearby the land-grant school itself. Dedicate yourself to a homogeneous agribusiness. Design all your universities to look the same, so you can work in them unaffected by local conditions as easily as you jump in and jump out of so many airports and motels that look the same. This transience, this rootlessness, appalls Berry. It is ruthless, it is un-human or anti-human, and notoriously geared to the bottom line:

The professor lives in his career, in a ghetto of career-minded fellow-professors. Where he may be geographically is of little interest to him. One’s career is a vehicle, not a dwelling; One is concerned less for where it is than for where it will go.

Berry picks out several scientists in The Unsettling of America and looks closely at their praise and blueprints for an even more technological agriculture. Some of these scientists are buoyant with their sense of where people, “free” even more from the land, would go. They’d have amusement parks, recreation centers, giant ski-villages, retirement complexes, and planned living units with every known luxury. Berry sees through this scientific Babbittry as he summarized, “People will be allowed to be free to do certain things in certain places prescribed by other people.” This kind of beneficence is, in a word, totalitarianism.

It is also violence. Reducing people to their quantifiable elements, and whole populations to their ordered places, invites only disorder. “Nothing,” writes Berry,

could be more organized than one of our large cities, with its geometric streets, its numbered houses, its numbered citizens, its charted routes and zones, its great numbers of police and other functionaries charged to keep order—and yet nothing could be more chaotic than one of these same cities during rush hour or after dark or during a riot or a garbage collectors’ strike.

It’s a symbiotic relationship, Berry guesses: order and disorder. Scientists might be happy with their own little fictions of control as they narrow themselves into departments and specialties, and as they conjure a world based strictly on quantifiable elements, but how long people can endure such narrowing is a matter not to be determined by our Earl Butzes glorying in color television sets.

And besides, says Wendell Berry, when did we forget that “people who have desired material quantities on such a scale have always been recognized as evil, and their stories have always involved a sort of ecological justice.” Looking at another scientist’s praise for the Heaven on Earth that data banks, sensors, and computers in agriculture can bring us—this time the vision of F.M. Esfandiary of New York City’s New School for Social Research—Berry gives all this “progress” the name and the attack long deserved by it: “gluttony … licensed and given an illusory respectability because of its claim to be ‘scientific.'”

Wendell Berry doesn’t think much of the various cloaks our scientists have worn as they’ve worked over the years to turn us all and price us all off the land. “Objectivity,” he says, “has come to be simply the academic uniform of moral cowardice: one who is ‘objective’ never takes a stand.” He picks to pieces those who have expressed “ignorant awe” and the “greenhorn’s ecstacy” over the wonders of our high-cost, chemically-based, people-need-not-apply, technological agriculture. They should know better: they should bring to aloof scientists some of the criticism these same scientists, for “professional” reasons, are incapable of bringing to themselves.

But in the final analysis. Berry notes. these specialists, these agribusiness planners, do cloak themselves in values beyond objectivity. They cloak themselves with the very pieties of Jefferson whose vision they are meanwhile undoing. They can’t help themselves. Cliches come easily in America. and anyone can shout freedom. dignity, and equality of opportunity—and sincerely believe one means it. He calls this a flawed consciousness .. but doesn’t really explain it further.

I wish he had.

My vantage point is the New River Valley region here in southwest Virginia. Here, nights, I teach people how to write. These are adults, average age thirty, all of them working in the daytime. Most of them are local, New River Valley born and raised. But they, too, all speak, or write, in cliche and generalization. And they can’t help themselves. They can’t because in their upbringing and in their schooling they were systematically taught to ignore and to denigrate their region, a land whose literature, Appalachian literature, shows it to have been rich in images, metaphor, and analogy. To be strong, it seems to me Jefferson was right: you need to be rooted, in touch with specific, peculiar places, to have pride and consciousness of those places as home, dwelling, community. You need this not simply for bread or for “scenery,” but so that your words have some meaning, so that your ideas and values are connected to things, people, and land that you will defend with your loyalty and nurture. If your words are not so rooted, then you will attach yourself like some passive molecule to whatever power system sweeps you up in it. Jefferson was afraid this might happen. Wendell Berry, in The Unsettling of America, shows how in fact it has.

Phil Balla is a former teacher who now lives on a 200 acre farm near Cloyds mountain in Southwest Virginia. 

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