How do you see your contribution to the flow of American literary history, or how do you fit into American literary history as a whole? I think I'm an American writer in as complex a sense as you could wish. I've certainly come along after certain American writers and have learned from them.
I need to mention especially three friends from my student days at the University of Kentucky—James Baker Hall, Ed McClanahan, and Gurney Norman—who have given me help and pleasure from then until now. And from our days at Stanford I have continued to honor Ernest J.
Gaines and Ken Kesey. I'm an inheritor of the American literary past, and I have big debts to a number of contemporaries. In the field of American literature, sometimes people speculate about the future and ask, "A hundred years from now, who are the writers that will be studied? One might argue that because of your connection with people like Thoreau or Frost or other authors you have mentioned, maybe your work is more central to the trajectory of American literary history in terms of what might get taught a hundred or two hundred years from now.
Well, I've been an advocate pretty consistently for the last thirty or thirty-five years. I've been mixed up in public issues and so on, and I think that a lot of contemporary writers have tended to shy away from those involvements. And then I'm a country person, and I think country people are marginal in this society. Can you talk about Emerson, just in terms of your own writing, and if you like, American culture in general? No, I don't think I can say much about Emerson, to tell you the truth. He meant a lot to me at one time, when I was younger, and I read a lot of the essays and probably learned something from them.
As opposed to Thoreau, whom you mentioned earlier. Is he someone with whom you identify? Yes, the essay on "Civil Disobedience" is never far from my mind. Walden of course was a formative book for me, as it has been to a lot of people. I don't think Emerson ever wrote anything that influenced deeply os many people as Walden has. But Thoreau and Emerson both could write a sentence, and it's important to learn how to write a sentence; they're good people to learn it from.
It's easy to write sentences that sound like Thoreau, and I've written some of those. There's a great sentence in Emerson's eulogy on Thoreau: In that eulogy, Emerson talks about Thoreau's "broken task.
Lundin, Roger 1949-
Are you familiar with bat book? It's mainly about seeds. Dispersion of the Seeds is really about Thoreau observing seeds. He asks, how does this tree get over here in the middle of nowhere? He talks about wind and water and animals moving the seeds. Squirrels or birds transport seeds, by eating them and excreting them, or by burying them.
The book illustrates a kind of obsession with the local economy and the local geography of seeding and fertility. Of course, I have noticed that like Thoreau, you use seeds in your poetry as metaphors of hope. Well he walked around enough to know a lot about seeds. All you have to do is walk around in the fall in the fields and woods and you come back with seeds in your shoes and your pockets and stuck to your clothes. He knew about that. I think maybe Thoreau, and Emerson too, are better for a young person. I mean when I was a young man they meant a lot to me because of their individualism, and that individualism appeals to me.
It has a deep appeal for me, maybe too much appeal. You know, I worked at being a loner, and it's odd that somebody like me would have become a defender of the idea of community, would have thought as hard as I have about what a community is and does and might do. Maybe, on the other hand, it's logical that people who try to be individuals and find pretty soon how limited that is—and how little you can do by yourself, how little you amount to by yourself—would become advocates for community life.
I guess you're right about writers like that meaning a lot more when you're young, but if that's true then which writers have meant a lot to you as you've become an older man? As you become older you look to the ones who became older. Old Williams matters to me immensely. I read to learn how to live. I've read to learn how to write too of course, necessarily, but I think I've learned a lot about how to live my life from the work of writers. I've been a reader of King Lear since I was a freshman in college, which was a fairly long time ago.
It seems to me there's immense teaching in that play. I mean not just the obvious instruction about the nature of evil and how it operates, how it takes people over who think they're going to try just a little of it, but also what it is to be a servant, what it means to be a servant. You started to talk a little bit about recent poetry in America, especially by younger writers. Are there poets that you admire? I don't want to get into that.
My reading is too partial, too incomplete, too fast and superficial. I mean, I'm not trying to keep up with the development of poetry, I don't have time. I have paid close attention to the work of some of my contemporaries. I read some fiction, but I'm as apt to read Dickens as I am to read a contemporary writer. But I read for my own sustenance, and that means I'm not trying to be a master of the literary scene.
When I was trying to learn to be a writer, what my contemporaries were doing was important to know. What are some things about your writing that you wish more readers and critics would notice? Are there things about your own work that you think have been overlooked or misunderstood? Well, insofar as I've been reviewed and responded to by readers, I think I've been read pretty well and with a lot of sympathy and great kindness.
I don't have any complaints. I need to qualify that: I mean I don't think you can write and think at the same time about who's going to appreciate your work. My preoccupation as a writer is with doing justice to the subject I'm writing about. I'm trying to do justice; to write something that's worthy of its origins in my life and my knowledge. That's hard enough without trying to please somebody. But I occasionally get reviews that move me very much because of their insight, their sympathy, and I get extremely rewarding letters from people.
I'm sure that helps, but then when I sit down in front of a blank page, I'm not thinking about "the reading public. I'm not trying not to think about it, I just don't think about it. David James Duncan says that one of the great blessings of being a writer is that writing allows you to forget yourself in your work. Regarding the letters you receive from readers, I would be curious to know more about them.
I assume over the years you have gotten a lot of letters, and I wonder if there's any way you can characterize some of the things that you've heard on more than one occasion from people? There are two classes of things that seem legitimate to mention. One is people writing and saying that something I've written has been consoling to them in a hard time. Second, sometimes people write to say that they feel like I've spoken for them. Those seem to me to be legitimate uses for a writer's words, and I'm always pleased to hear those things. Do you have either stories or poems, or essays, or collections, that you consider great achievements?
Do you have works of your own that you are particularly very pleased with or proud of, or that people have mentioned a lot in letters? Well, there's something a little arbitrary in this. I always think the last thing I wrote is the best thing I've ever done. But if someone asked me what novel to start with, I would say Jayber Crow.
I don't think I can write any better than I was writing in Jayber Crow. The essays, some are better than others, pretty clearly, some that stick out in my mind; but they're all occasional work, written to have something to say. If I were a good extemporaneous speaker I probably wouldn't have been much of an essayist, but I can't say what I want to say off the cuff, so I have to write it out. That's where all those essays came from. There's a kind of a weariness that attaches to them now, and I'm strenuously trying to avoid invitations to speak. There's nothing quite like the weariness you can feel in listening to yourself make a speech.
I like the fictions best. Oh, I loved writing the fictions. To be at work on those, I just have taken an immense happiness from it. Especially after I began to learn how. It was a torment to learn how. A lot of struggle, a lot of clumsiness. I certainly was not any kind of prodigy, but the times I've spent writing those things have been happy times. This morning in the hotel, I was reading some of the sadder poems aloud to my wife, Hiroko, just savoring the sound of them, and I said to her, "Gee, I wish I could write something like that.
Well, some of those are very satisfactory to me when I look back at them. I heard a couple of my poems, old poems, read aloud yesterday by a young cousin. He read them well, didn't he? It was strange how applicable it was to the newly departed young man, even though it was written about an old man, but it worked.
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I wrote them about my grandfather at the time of his last illness and death. I feel a kind of intimacy with my work as a poet that makes me not very eager to talk about it. I think what you're trying to do always is to enlarge probability in a sort of Aristotelian sense, to give the larger world—the world of reality and the world of faith—a kind of standing, a kind of status of probability or believability. It doesn't have much to do with what now is called realism. When I've found the language to carry my sense of that larger world a little bit beyond what I expected, then I'm pleased.
Yes, in a disciplined way. The anger always—when you try to work with it in poetry—sort of metamorphoses into the immense sorrow that it's possible to feel now in the presence of so much destruction and political incoherence and the ruin of the physical world, the ruin of community life.
Those things have preoccupied me, and I suppose it's been a deliverance to say something about it occasionally. A lot of my work, I think, has been trying to push on beyond despair and depression, looking for the possibility that there's something somebody can do. Do you feel hopeful that the environment has lately become such a hot topic, with Al Gore having his film An Inconvenient Truth out, or with plentiful coverage on 60 Minutes and elsewhere?
I'm not pinning any hope on anybody in particular, I think I know better than that, but I'm hopeful because I know that, in the first place, it's a requirement, you're supposed to be hopeful.
Religion and the Environmental Imagination in American Literature
Hope is a virtue and that means you're supposed to have it. You've got to go hunt for the reasons, and I know that within limits, people can change. I've seen the proof. I know that people can do good work, and I've seen the proof of that. I know that people can cooperate and help each other, and I've seen the proof of that. So there are always grounds for hope if it's possible to tell the truth. Do you envision in 50 or years the kind of worldwide cataclysmic effects of climate change and global warming—viruses, famine, flooding— that many scientists talk about?
Well, I think that's easy to envision, but totally useless, illegitimate. People are always having visions of the future, but I don't think that we're called upon to do that. It's so much more important to have a vision of what is right. You can't outfox all the variables that are weighing on the future. Nobody foresaw that the election of would be decided by the Supreme Court. I think that's a very foolish game that people play, saying "the water will be 18 feet deep in Manhattan'' or something like that.
To hell with it. I'm not interested in that. I mean, I'm unwilling to commit interest to that sort of thing; I have children and grandchildren and I have the appropriate fears for them, but the important thing is for me to fulfill my obligation to them. Which is to try to do the right thing now: But I don't like this futurology stuff. It doesn't move me. But you mentioned the importance of hope, and doesn't hope involve a vision of the future? Sure, but you can't construct a legitimate hope on the possibility that good people will come along later and do what they should.
The hope has to rest on the willingness of good people to do the right thing now. I mean you've got to rest your case on evidence, and we've got quite a lot of evidence. I don't think you'd need to feel speculative about whether good work, faithfulness, willingness to serve, honesty, peaceableness, and lovingkindness will support hope. They will, and that's all we have a right to ask. We don't have a right—we, living now—don't have a right to ask that our descendants will be better than we are, or that their world will be better. If we're not making a better world now, we don't have that right.
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I don't feel like building "a better future. The world now seems full of people destroying things of permanent worth for the sake of "a better future. We have had an obsession in America with Progress with a capital P, and you've written a lot of things opposed to that ideology, perhaps most famously Life is a Miracle.
And yet it seems to me that there is a progressive view of history presented in the Bible. Well, the Bible for me has a progression from the nationalist violence of the histories to the Sermon on the Mount. But then you go from there back to nationalist violence in the Christian nations. What's happened to progress now is that the contexts have begun to assert themselves beyond denial.
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It's a time of the restoration of context as a subject. It's a time of chickens flying home to roost. The things that we've relied on are so clearly coming to an end. For example, everything in this society is based on cheap oil—think of it—and then after cheap oil cheap corn, which is a derivative of cheap oil. As Michael Pollan says, the corporations have learned ways to make us eat oil. But that's over, or it soon will be, and people I've talked to about such things say that there's simply no way that you can visualize the repercussions of the coming of expensive energy.
Everything we've got is based on cheap energy. We've got two cars, Tanya and I do, for two people. We've got two vehicles burning up the world, because, as the result of the progress that the car has made, everything we need is far away. You can't buy pair of overalls in Port Royal anymore, let alone find a doctor or a barber or a mechanic. Do you think that the concept of Progress needs to be recovered or just abandoned? We've got to give up these abstractions, these holy cows that we've et up for ourselves, that permitted us to say, "We don't need to worry, everything is getting better.
We don't need to worry, whatever happens is inevitable. The whole professional system is based on some kind of doctrine of inevitability. The organization of intellectual life in the universities is based on the doctrine of inevitability. People are saying, "Well, if I just sit here and work at my specialty, everything will be all right.
There is now no such thing as a scientist who can take full responsibility for the results of his or her work. Who's going to appropriate it, and what are they going to use it for? The likelihood is very strong that it'll be used to kill people or poison them or rob them or do them some other form of drastic abuse. So I think that the issue of context is exploding these myths of Progress, of inevitability. We just can't believe them anymore. People are going to have to teach and work and study and live in some kind of community as committed members. The context is the world.
The context is most immediately the natural world. And we've assumed that it didn't exist, that it was all right for a number of people dealing in powerful disciplines to proceed as if it isn't out there, as if the ecosystem is not a context, as if the watershed is not a context. The coal industry is decapitating mountains in Eastern Kentucky, and throwing everything but the coal over in the valleys. They've destroyed, literally destroyed, whole mountains, whole forested watersheds. They're destroying the headwaters of the Kentucky River, and this is the water supply of Lexington, Frankfort, and all of central Kentucky, this river right here.
So you see they have received some kind of dispensation to ignore the context. Their business is to mine coal, not to worry about trees and topsoil and water and wildlife and human life. You have written about specialization in particular in Standing by Words. Oh, I've gone back to it a number of times, and I've tried to qualify my criticism appropriately. I'm not against all kinds and degrees of specialization; obviously if you want your bricks laid well, you've got to have a bricklayer.
Just anybody from "the labor pool" can't do it If you want farming done well you've got to have a farmer to do it; you've got to have somebody who is appropriately trained and appropriately responsible. The overriding issue is whether or not the specialist will accept the responsibility for the context, for the consequences. I think in the universities it's pretty common to notice that there's too much specialization. For instance, in a field like literature, the context includes our goals for students.
Why are they actually studying in the first place? Ideally, we are supposed to be educating young people or trying to make them better people. But what I frequently see in the universities is how specialization diverts the professors attention away from the students, who are the context of education.
Does that make sense? Yes, that's exactly what's happening. But then you've got these people who don't have a membership; they belong to their careers, not to a community. So these young people come in out of their communities, and the university acts as a kind of feedlot to fatten them up, so to speak, with learning. They're given a discipline and a credential, and then, instead of being sent back home to help, they're sent out into "the economy," which means most of them will go on being careerists forever and ever.
And that means that a little village like ours exists in a lot of people's minds only as some statistic or idea; nobody knows it, nobody's loyal to it. So you would agree that the universities are fairly screwed up, just like the coal industry?
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Well, they would serve the coal industry at the drop of a hat. They've got the right experts, they've got the right departments, they'll teach you to build a road right through your own house. The "industrial model" now has invaded everything. Universities are talking about "business plans" and "return on investment. The trouble was there as soon as they started referring to their writings as "production. So teaching is entirely different from research and is subordinate to it. I'm not knocking research. Everybody who's interested in things benefits from somebody's research; there isn't any escape from that, but when you've started a reductive process and all research is reduced to page numbers, to get back from that is a problem, and I don't know how to solve it.
Some things you just raise hell about and hope somebody smarter than you can fix it. I do know part of your hope comes from the fact that there's some younger people now who are hard at work on these issues. There's Michael Pollan, and there's Eric Schlosser. I mean there are good people coming along. Have you seen Supersize Me , the documentary about McDonald's? He gets into the food system and lays the problems out to be seen. Maybe we're gaining ground. But we don't have the power; we don't have voices in the government. One of the things that has meant a lot to me, especially the past year or so as I was writing about some of your poems, is an essay from Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community.
It's called "Christianity and the Survival of Creation," and it describes the division between secular and sacred, the material and the spiritual. It recalls for me a great concept by Robert MacAfee Brown. He calls this division the Great Fallacy. Brown's book is called Spirituality and Liberation , and he argues that this division is really the root problem of much of modern society.
Could you just talk a little bit about how the desire to separate those things in Western Culture has been disastrous? Well, I'm not scholar enough or philosopher enough either to deal with this issue as it should be dealt with. But the dualism of body and soul, matter and spirit, creator and creation, Heaven and Earth, time and eternity, is destructive. Once you separate those things, the next step always is to depreciate what's perceived as the less valuable half of the dichotomy.
So spirit is more valuable than matter, the body is less valuable than the soul. In both books, the author makes a strong case for religious aspects of Dickinson's works and her overall life.
Frances E. W. Harper's Iola Leroy: Selected Bibliography
Harp wrote in the Journal of Ecclesiastical History: As such, it is a welcome corrective to the hitherto simplistic treatments of this important side of Dickinson's life and work. In From Nature to Experience: The American Search for Cultural Authority, Lundin examines how Americans went from accepting nature and religion as the ultimate moral authorities to a reliance on personal experience and pragmatism.
In the process, he examines why Americans value experience so much and how it affects their culture and daily lives. He raises the question of what people might look toward for answers when they finally reach the limits of their own personal experience. In Lundin's opinion, Americans should once again turn to religion to illuminate life's true meaning.
The author traces much of this thought through literature and other writings, from the poetry and essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson to the writings of the psychologist William James to the essays of Stanley Fish, a literary theorist and legal scholar. One of the areas that Lundin particularly examines is the nihilistic tendencies in modern literary criticism. It is an attempt to recover lost wisdom and reassert lost knowledge. As editor of There before Us: Religion, Literature, and Culture from Emerson to Wendell Berry, the author presents nine essays that explore the interplay between faith and culture in American literature from the Puritans to writers such as John Updike and Walker Percy.
The essayists offer critical analyses of the obsession American writers have with religion. It discusses the Bible as a powerful source in African American literature and the connection between religious beliefs and environmental responsibilities in writers from Henry David Thoreau to Barry Lopez. Among other topics, essayists also write about Melville's use of pity in his fiction and Mark Twain's concerns about religion. Lundin is also author of the book's introduction. Lundin is also the editor, with Daniel J. Theology and the Arts. The book stems from the Wheaton College Theology Conference and presents essays that examine the relationship between theology and the arts.
The book is divided into sections focusing on music, literature, and visual arts. Christian Faith and the Postmodern World, p. The American Search for Cultural Authority, p. Choice, November, , S. Graham, review of Emily Dickinson and the Art of Belief, p. Gibbons, review of From Nature to Experience, p. Gibbons, review of There before Us, p. Scribner, review of The Culture of Interpretation, p. Christianity and Literature, autumn, , Edward J.
Dupuy, review of Disciplining Hermeneutics: Interpretation in Christian Perspective, p. Christianity Today, April 3, , review of Voices from the Heart: Four Centuries of American Piety, p. Theology and the Arts, p. Interpretation, July, , review of Disciplining Hermeneutics, p.
Harp, review of Emily Dickinson and the Art of Belief, p. Publishers Weekly, July 17, , review of Voices from the Heart, p. Theology Today, October, , Kevin J. Vanhoozer, review of The Promise of Hermeneutics, p. Wheaton College Web site, http: Cite this article Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.