During the years I worked on Shepherd: A Memoir, I learned that literary folk interested in country matters wanted to know my agrarian pedigree was pure. Maybe that I had one. Those early draft-readers wanted assurance that I’d read Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson. At first this irked me. Sure, I knew their work. Their writings on agriculture and American society have informed my thinking from early adulthood; Berry’s Jayber Crow is one of my all-time favorite novels.
But why was it crucial that I let readers of my story know that?
From the start, Shepherd explored my boyhood hero worship of Ohio farm memoirist Louis Bromfield; and my being influenced as a practitioner by Bromfield’s more pragmatic eco-farming successor, Joel Salatin; and my discovery of Charles Allen Smart’s classic memoir, RFD, set in the same region where I ended up struggling to become a farmer. Plus my day job was in publishing, so there was plenty more about books in my memoir.
I finally decided that concerns about my literary lineage were a kind of backhanded praise. As if those readers were saying, “This book is by a writer, not just some farmer.” So I dutifully mentioned Berry and Jackson.
Now it strikes me as odd that nobody mentioned E.B. White.
It is not often that someone comes along who is a true farmer and a good writer. White was both.