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On Literature and Culture

Words made Fresh: Essays on Literature and Culture by Larry Woiwode


Although not being familiar with Woiwode’s works of fiction nor his essays, this book was a welcome treat to read. First, in this collection of essays, we see Woiwode’s keen eye for the details of literature in the likes of both Wendell Berry and John Updike. In the chapter on Wendell Berry, Woiwode comments that “The heat of indignation rises through his prose, but finally the prose is able to remain irenic” (41). Woiwode is here capturing Berry’s aggravation at a government who takes great care to dismantle the wilderness to create human ‘lesiure areas.’ There is an eloquent sensitivity in the way Woiwode approaches the writing of Wendell Berry, taking into account his grand vision of nature and God’s good creation while entering into Berry’s continual frustration with the way land is handled by larger corporations and entities. You feel when reading this chapter on Berry that Woiwode has carefully memorized and selected the very best of his thought and distilled the meaning in language that is both accessible and enjoyable to read.

Secondly, you get a real sense at the way a writer like John Updike has affected the life of Woiwode. Woiwode writes, “In the spring of 1964, when I was twenty two and living in a rented room in New York City, I read my first Updike novel, The Centaur…..but I can, a la Proust, recapture the dimensional sparkle that rose from the objects of that dingy room as I descended upon Updike’s prose” (86). Like a famished peasant coming upon a steak dinner, Woiwode describes his encounter with Updike as being a sensory experience, enlightening the things all around him. I resonate with his writing here as one who was first struck with the complexity and prophetic nature of Orwell’s 1984, coming face to face with the consequences of a Big Brother in the lives of others. As Woiwode’s continues his discussion of Updike’s couples he links Updike’s writing in the Couples with that of neo-orthodox thinking, particularly of the likes of Karl Barth. A God that Updike describes here as being so transcendent as being unreachable. This point was rather remarkable to note since we don’t find the moorings of very many theological systems played out in the work of fiction.

Overall, I thought this work was very good, from the personal(Guns and Peace, Woiwode retells the story of his shooting a deer) to the unique and sometimes persuasive essay (Deconstructing God) about the public school system in American being overtaken by the virus like effects of the secularization of religion spilling into the humanities (129). The book is filled with interesting quotes from authors and a keen eye in critical thinking. I think this book goes a long way in supporting the thesis that critical review can be done well, without the garbage of over analysis to favor the presuppositions of the reviewer. Woiwode is to be commended for his insight and investigation to not only literature but the philosophy and underpinnings of literature in connection with belief.

Much thanks to Crossway for the review copy of this work.

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