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Years ago, perhaps when I was still in graduate school, I stopped at a Chattanooga used bookshop when passing through. One has a mental list of authors to check, and I happened to find an uncommon thing: a hardcover first edition of Wendell Berry’s 1970 book on race and the South, The Hidden Wound. The disappointment was that it clearly was an ex-library copy. An ex-library copy can be the ultimate disappointment–a rare book that is worthless to the collector.

But this first edition was different. It had been discarded by the nearby prestigious Sewanee: The University of the South, and on the front pastedown was a donor’s bookplate. It read: “This Book is placed in The Library of the University of the South by Allen Tate.” I paid whatever small price they were asking, thrilled at this unique association copy.

berry pic 4Allen Tate was a Kentuckian by birth, and one of the Fugitive Poets who attended Vanderbilt University in the 1920s. Several of them were later part of the The Nashville Agrarians who wrote the classic I’ll Take My Stand, a book that has had a great deal of influence on me.

During the 1940s, Tate, and his friend I’ll Take My Stand contributor Andrew Lytle, transformed the small literary journal The Sewanee Review into a national powerhouse. After a time away from the South teaching at the University of Minnesota, Tate returned to live in Sewanee, Tennessee during the 1960s.

It was during the ’60s that another Kentucky novelist, poet and essayist was rising to prominence. Wendell Berry was an authentic agrarian in a way the Nashville Agrarians had never been. Tate took favorable notice of Berry, and the two eventually began a correspondence.

I had long intended to show Wendell Berry my book as I felt like having it signed by him would bring its association full circle. But I was unsure how Berry might react. I can’t imagine one would relish finding one’s book discarded from a prominent university library. But it was the donor I thought Berry would be interested to see.

berry pick 3And indeed he was. When I showed the volume to Berry recently at his home he was visibly moved that Tate had seen fit to attach his name to it. Berry spoke of how he had once made a public quip about how few of the Southern Agrarians had seen fit to stay in the South. Tate, Warren, and John Crowe Ransom had all taken positions in the North. Tate had shown great patience with him, Berry said, writing to explain that they had had no choice: no university in the South had wanted them.

Berry told that Tate had felt that The Hidden Wound had been too apologetic on the race issue, although he pointed to Tate’s poem “The Swimmers” as an example of Tate himself wrestling with race and the South. In the poem, Tate tells the story of stumbling across a lynching as a young boy in Winchester, Kentucky when he and friends were on their way for a summer swim.

Berry happily inscribed the book, expressing his appreciation for Allen Tate:
“I am proud of this copy/of this book for I greatly/respect the memory and/the work of Allen Tate./Wendell Berry/9/2

berry pic 2Of all the different Wendell Berry volumes I own, this one is now the most special to me. Not only does it have such wonderful personal association value, but because of it I have the memory of the book giving Wendell such great pleasure at seeing it.

Books on this topic may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This essay originally appeared on Pinstripe Pulpit and is republished here by permission.

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2 replies to this post
  1. The Universities of the South did not want them, and the Moderate Seminaries of the Southern Baptist Convention did not want the Conservatives, not even if they would do a project for their lowly and inconsequential doctorates (that aren’t worth 2 cents) on an issue supposedly dear to the heart of pseudoliberals such as our Moderates. I had chosen to do my project on the subject, “Christian Love & Race Relations.” My Moderate professor who had replaced the regular professor (who had gone on Sabbatical) said, “You ought to have known better than to choose a controversial topic like this. If that church fires you, I will be right there behind them, supporting them.” When I did not get fired (being a Southerner, I knew to make an agreement and stick with it: Ten sermons in the A.M. Service on I Cors.12:31b-14:1a with no references to the race issue and ten lectures in Black History in the P.M. Service – this was in the Fall of ’75 –
    to who ever wanted to take part in the project and who would take the before and after test, if they so desired), the professor started to nitpicking my writing of the project to the point that by the Friday preceding the Baccalaureate on the next Friday it was still not approved. I blew up and called the President of the Seminary, threatening not to go to the Board of Trustees with a complaint but to the floor of the Southern Baptist Convention and raise one of the biggest stinks any one had ever seen. On Monday I received a call from my professor and by Tuesday, it was approved. On Friday I attended the Baccalaureate and on Saturday I received my doctorate.

    It took me several years to work through my ire at the SBC Moderates, but eventually I was able to realize that they are humans and fallible just like myself, even if their theology and view of Scripture is all wrong. One can have the right view and be wrong, too, if his or her ethical response does not magnify that pericope on Agape in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians from which I had drawn my sermons. I think it is falling down, laughingly funny, to consider how some folks have squirmed at finding out that Bonhoeffer took his views of Scripture and inspiration from the African Americans and their biblical sermons and Spirituals. Perhaps one of the real causes for the Third Great Awakening will be the African American Experience of the Christian Faith, if Zeph.2:11,12 can so understood and Arnold Toynbee’s surmise proves prescient.

    Interestingly enough, the most radical and liberal people of all will, in my reading of their history, prove to be the thoughtful Conservatives. Just consider how Roger Williams and Dr. John Clarke, Baptist Pilgrims and Puritans, wrought religious liberty in a day and a time, when such a thing was not tolerated or even considered by the powers that be. The folks that are using the Conservatives to advance their sorry causes will find that the latter are like Ogden Nash’s lassie:

    There was a young missus from Natachez,
    Whose garments were always in patches.
    When comment arose on the state of her clothes,
    She replied, “”When I itches, I scratches!”

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