Southern Studies

Sidney Lanier Prize

Mercer University’s Center for Southern Studies will award the 2016 Sidney Lanier Prize for Southern Literature to Wendell Berry. The prize honors significant career contributions to Southern writing in drama, fiction or poetry. The prize presentation will take place on Saturday, April 23, 1 p.m., in the Presidents Dining Room of the University Center on the Macon campus.

“For several years, students who took Mercer’s First-Year Seminar classes read Mr. Berry’s poem ‘Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.’ In that poem, he exhorts the reader to live freely and love the world. The poem, and Mr. Berry’s life, exemplify many of the ideals that Mercer aspires to uphold, and his prolific career as a writer, poet and activist have thoroughly enriched the tradition of Southern literature,” said Dr. David A. Davis, chair of the Lanier Prize Committee and associate professor of English at Mercer.

Berry was born in rural Kentucky in 1934. He earned his bachelor’s degree and master’s degree from the University of Kentucky and subsequently received a Wallace Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University. He would spend time in California, New York and Italy, before ultimately returning to Port Royal, Kentucky, where he bought a farm near land that had been owned by his mother’s family. There he pursued his vocation as a writer.

Berry has authored more than 40 works of fiction, nonfiction and poetry. He is also a noted environmental activist, cultural critic and farmer.

His first book, Nathan Coulter, was published in 1960 and is a coming-of-age tale of the titular character set in the fictional town of Port William, Kentucky. To date, Berry has set eight novels, 38 short stories and 17 poems in Port William, an established farming community that sits near the confluence of the Ohio and Kentucky Rivers, much like Port Royal.

Berry has received numerous awards and honors for his writing, including a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship (1962), the Vachel Lindsay Prize from Poetry (1962), a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship (1965), a National Institute of Arts and Letters award for writing (1971), the American Academy of Arts and Letters Jean Stein Award (1987), a Lannan Foundation Award for Non-Fiction (1989), the Aitken-Taylor Award for Poetry from The Sewanee Review (1998), the Cleanth Brooks Medal for Lifetime Achievement from the Fellowship of Southern Writers (2009) and the National Humanities Medal from the National Endowment for the Humanities (2010). In 2012, he delivered the 41st Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, and in 2013, he was named a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Throughout his career, Berry’s message to his readers has been to live in harmony with the natural world. He draws many of his core values from the long-standing tradition of the American family farm, a self-sustaining enterprise that places importance on one’s family and natural environment. These values include sustainable agriculture, appropriate technologies, healthy rural communities, connection to place, the pleasures of good food, husbandry, good work, local economics, the miracle of life, fidelity, frugality, reverence and the interconnectedness of life.

His activism has included statements and nonviolent civil disobedience against the Vietnam War, nuclear and coal power, U.S. foreign policy, the death penalty, and other humanitarian and environmental issues. In 2011, he established in The Berry Center in New Castle, Kentucky, to continue his family’s work advocating for farmers, land conserving communities and healthy regional economies.

Berry has taught at Stanford, Georgetown College, New York University, the University of Cincinnati and Bucknell University, in addition to two separate faculty appointments at his alma mater from 1964-1977 and 1987-1993. He retired from teaching in 1993 to become a full-time farmer, and currently lives and works with his wife, Tanya, on their farm in Port Royal.

The Sidney Lanier Prize for Southern Literature, first awarded in 2012, is named for the 19th-century Southern poet born in Macon. Lanier wrote “The Song of the Chattahoochee” and “The Marshes of Glynn.” Using his name recognizes Middle Georgia’s literary heritage and long, often complicated, tradition of writing about the South. The prize is awarded to writers who have engaged and extended that tradition. Past winners include Ernest Gaines (2012), Lee Smith (2013), Elizabeth Spencer (2014) and Yusef Komunyakaa (2015).

The selection committee for the Lanier Prize includes Mercer professors, eminent scholars of Southern literature and members of the Macon community. In addition to Dr. Davis, the committee includes Bob Brinkmeyer, Emily Brown Jefferies Professor of English at the University of South Carolina; Sharon Colley, associate professor of English at Middle Georgia State College; Sarah Gardner, professor of history and director of Southern studies at Mercer University; Minrose Gwin, Kenan Professor of English at the University of North Carolina; Trudier Harris, professor of English and African-American studies at the University of Alabama; Gordon Johnston, professor of creative writing at Mercer University; Michael Kreyling, Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor of English at Vanderbilt University; Matt Martin, Knox Professor of Humanities at Wesleyan College; and Pam Thomasson, past president of Historic Macon Foundation.

Mercer will also award Sidney Lanier Creative Writing Scholarships on April 23. High school juniors with high aptitude for writing may compete for the scholarships, and winners will receive up to $3,000 per year toward the cost of tuition at Mercer. To be eligible, students must complete an application and submit either a work of short fiction of no more than 700 words or two poems totaling no more than 700 words. For more information, contact the Office of Admissions at admissions@mercer.edu.


Video of Ernest Gaines receiving the prize in 2012: