Tanya Berry and the (Wo)man in the Wings

Photo by Ann Thompson from On Being’s flickr

Lately I’ve been thinking about Tanya Berry. The thing is, I need more models for her kind of quiet and unfussy intellectual endeavor with only behind-the-scenes contribution to output. I admire, too, that it’s combined with a commitment to place and community, but I guess because it’s by definition a quiet life, there are few publicized examples. I think maybe the Rev John Ames might be one fictional example. And maybe Anne Shirley Blythe in later years? Or Jane Austen in her own lifetime, mostly writing for her family’s amusement?

My interest in Tanya Berry probably started watching Look and See earlier this year. Its filmmaker notes, “I started this film thinking so much about Wendell and what a hero he is,” says Dunn. “But as a stay-at-home mom, as a woman, a homeschooler—the person who really stays with me, who I think about day in and day out, is his wife Tanya. She changed my way of thinking in this film. She elevates the domestic realm.”

A piece in Yes Magazine observes, “Over those years, she has honed skills in farm work and the domestic arts, while serving as perhaps the most important fiction editor almost no one has heard of, married to one of the most important American writers almost everyone knows. All this started more than a half-century ago with her leap of faith that an artsy city kid could learn, from scratch, what was needed to make a farm home. ”

I’m not sure I’d call myself an artsy city kid, but I certainly am more artsy city kid than seasoned and capable farm wife.

Her description is certainly appealing:

“Here’s my portrait of Tanya Berry: This white-haired 81-year-old is a fiercely independent thinker who embraces interdependence. Someone with a deep humility who gives others credit reflexively, and a self-confidence that makes her comfortable telling you what she believes she’s good at. A kind person who doesn’t hesitate to offer blunt advice. A woman who kept records of her prodigious canning in the kitchen while also serving as discerning first editor of every novel and short story written by her prolific husband.”

Isn’t that lovely? It doesn’t quite match John Ames in Gilead, who never strikes me as confidently blunt, nor does it sound like Anne Shirley, though she also weds (with debatable success) literary and housewifely skill.

Still, I’d like to take a page from her book. The Yes Magazine profile continues, “’I was working here, I was on the farm. I didn’t have a career […] And I’ve never felt guilty about not being something, not having a label.’ For Tanya, ‘not being something’ doesn’t mean not having important work, just that ‘I don’t have a title that I can retire from.’” That’s a perspective I could stand to channel.

Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch perhaps comes closer. Her author, George Eliot, reflects:

“For the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

Dorothea, bright with ambition, instead settles down to a contented anonymity, but even before her path is chosen, she argues:

“People may really have in them some vocation which is not quite plain to themselves, may they not? They may seem idle and weak because they are growing. We should be very patient with each other, I think.”

For both Dorothea and Tanya, a companionate marriage is a major factor in the development of their mission and path. In a recent interview, Wendell Berry comments, “She thinks better than I do about the community, its children, and their education.” She may indeed think better than he does, but for the most part, she’s content to let her thinking reach the world through her role in her husband’s writing.

Although I’ve highlighted Dorothea and Tanya, wives both, I don’t think I’m talking exclusively or even particularly about a role taken only by a woman — after all, I think John Ames may follow a similar trajectory despite being a celibate minister most of his life. It’s more an emphasis on participating in a wider, richer community while cultivating quiet ambitions.

In thinking about these women, I was reminded of Alice Rumphius, who I’m only just now encountering after Rosie Hill sent me on a quest for Barbara Cooney books. Miss Rumphius spends a stint as a librarian (which I can obviously get behind) and then gallivants around the globe, but in her later years, she settles down to a small life in a cozy seaside cottage. It’s only in this last, humblest chapter of her long life that she heeds her grandfather’s demand that she make the world a more beautiful place, scattering her community with enduringly beautiful lupine seeds.

I’m 32, and still not sure how I will make the world a more beautiful place. But I think the model exhibited here may be worth considering.

(Image via this blog and also, of course, Miss Rumphius)


7 thoughts on “Tanya Berry and the (Wo)man in the Wings

  1. I love all of this, Katherine. A friend recommended Miss Rumphius to me and Leo and I have been reading it on repeat the past few weeks. It’s so gentle and lovely.


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