Author Wendell Berry donates papers to Kentucky Historical Society

ctruman@herald-leader.comAugust 15, 2012 

Wendell Berry at his home in Port Royal, Ky., on Dec. 18, 2011. Photo by Tom Eblen |


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The papers of Kentucky writer Wendell Berry, many of which he pulled from the University of Kentucky in late 2009 over its ties with the coal industry, have been donated to the Kentucky Historical Society in Frankfort.

The historical society said Berry's materials, which include writings, research and incoming correspondence, are being processed and will be made available to researchers by Nov. 1. Berry has restricted access to his personal writings during his lifetime, requiring researchers seeking access to request his approval.

The papers, housed at the Thomas D. Clark Center for Kentucky History in downtown Frankfort, include documents previously at UK and additional materials that Berry donated directly from his home, according to Louise Jones, director of the society's special collections and library.

"This is a very substantial acquisition for the Kentucky Historical Society," said Kent Whitworth, the society's executive director. "We're delighted. These historical collections are the fuel that powers everything we do."

Berry's papers on literary and cause-oriented topics fill about 75 boxes.

Berry said he donated the papers in part to honor historian Thomas D. Clark, for whom the historical society's Frankfort center is named.

"I wanted to keep the papers in Kentucky because I am a Kentuckian, and I selected KHS for two reasons: First, it is handy to me, and second, because I know that the historical society was a favorite project of Dr. Clark, who was my teacher and my friend," Berry said.

UK had previously purchased some of the writer's papers, but in late 2009, Berry said he was taking many of his other papers away from the school because of its pro-coal stance and then-President Lee Todd's emphasis on science, technology and "Top 20" university status.

UK's board of trustees approved the $7 million Wildcat Coal Lodge in October, 2009. The proposal for the lodge came from Joe Craft, head of Alliance Coal, who put together 20 other people called the Difference Makers to fund the project. The lodge opened this summer.

"The University's president and board have solemnized an alliance with the coal industry, in return for a large monetary 'gift,' granting to the benefactors, in effect, a co-sponsorship of the University's basketball team," Berry wrote. "That — added to the 'Top 20' project and the president's exclusive 'focus' on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics — puts an end to my willingness to be associated in any way officially with the University."

Berry said he did not think UK "can be so ostentatiously friendly to the coal industry ... and still be a friend to me and the interests for which I have stood for the last 45 years. ... If they love the coal industry that much, I have to cancel my friendship."

UK archives director Deirdre Scaggs said in 2010 that she was stung by Berry's action, writing to him that it meant "an irreplaceable loss, but it is the students and researchers who will now pay the price."

Berry received bachelor's and master's degrees at UK and later returned to the university for two stints of teaching. He lives on a farm in Henry County.

His writing, including novels, essays and poems, often center on the themes of agrarianism, community preservation and the rural landscape.

Cheryl Truman: (859)231-3202. Twitter: @CherylTruman.

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