Montaigne in Barn Boots: A Decidedly Green Bay Story
by Jennie Young
A few months ago, I found a “could not deliver” slip in my mailbox; someone had sent me a package that required me to go to the post office to obtain. My curiosity piqued (A secret admirer?! Have I won something?!), I drove to the post office to get it and found that it was C.O.D., which I didn’t even realize was a thing anymore because I truly believe the entire world operates like Amazon Prime. Of course, there was no way to know what was inside the box without forking over the cash, so I did. Inside the box was a copy of Michael Perry’s (whom I’d never heard of) book Montaigne in Barn Boots: An Amateur Ambles Through Philosophy. At first I was irritated – I didn’t ask for this book and didn’t even have time to read it right then. Plus – I’d had to pay for this book I didn’t ask for and didn’t have time to read.
When I read the back cover, though, I was immediately intrigued. It promised to deliver a “sincere, unflinching look at the vital need to be a better person and citizen in our modern world,” all contextualized within the unlikely combination of the author’s midwestern farm and the writings of sixteenth century essayist Michel de Montaigne, who happens to be one of my personal heroes.
Rather than a minor annoyance and nominal cost, I decided that this book I hadn’t asked for must be a Gift from the Universe (it wasn’t, of course; it was from HarperCollins – because I’m an English professor, publishers are constantly sending me books).
When I did a little more research on Michael Perry (how have I not read this guy yet?) AND discovered he was coming to UntitledTown, everything made sense. I dove into the book wholeheartedly. And what I found was an exploration that perfectly embodies Green Bay. Let me explain:
As a newcomer to Wisconsin, I experience both the benefits and the limitations of the outsider’s perspective. What I’ve noticed consistently since moving here is the presence of a set of juxtapositions that are at once diametric and evenly balanced: industrialism and intellectualism, football obsession and arts appreciation, conservative Lutheran values and an emerging culture of support for the LGBTQ community and for non-Christian faith communities, an enduring belief in bootstrap narratives countered by a community that in many ways seeks to institutionally level the playing field – children in Green Bay can eat lunch for free in a park every day all summer, for example.
Perry, a Wisconsin native who grew up on a farm and became a New York Times bestselling author (and a radio host, and a humorist, and a playwright, and a songwriter!), addresses the cultural divides he’s bridged with the common sense of the farmer and the literary skills of a career academic. He recognizes the tension between his upbringing and his current political orientations, noting that although he holds onto a “knee-jerk defensiveness on behalf of my roughneck class [and for the] fundamentalist Christians who raised me,” he is also “subscribing to new codes. New intersectionalities that press a wedge between me and the comforts of the past. So many guns. So many big bad pickup trucks. So much By God bravado. So much fear.”
I see this daily in my students at UWGB – kids who come from the farm or whose parents have worked in the paper factories suddenly being asked to wrestle with the ethical realities of factory farming and to write papers rather than produce them.
Perry talks a lot about these particular instances of intersectionality and shows how the Internet, which he calls “the ultimate intersectionality catalyst,” can be seen as a digital echo of the intersections Montaigne inhabited in the sixteenth century. Montaigne was born into wealth and privilege but intentionally placed among the commoners as part of his education; Perry, in a way, has experienced the opposite and managed to synthesize that experience in a way that offers something for all of us. He writes that he “especially cherishes the opportunity for the roughneck to intersect with the intellectual,” but that “intersectionality only works for the good if we’re willing to hit the brakes. Pause, and wave the other person through.”
His examination of Montaigne employs this generosity and even-handedness consistently, comedically, and inspirationally. He pokes fun at both contemporary society and himself, admitting that he recently “grumbled about selfie sticks and how they are the quintessential metaphor of our self-centered society when it occurred to me that I was currently writing my fifth memoir.”
Ultimately, he distills the lessons of Montaigne down to a simple two part mandate: “I am obligated. I must do better.” Which seems like a pretty useful directive for all of us.
You can see Michael Perry along with his band the Long Beds at UntitledTown on Thursday, April 25, 7-9 p.m. at the Tarlton Theatre. This is a ticketed event ($30).