Claude Monet, View of the Village of Giverny, 1886 (Wikimedia Commons)

Reign of Love

The Fiction of Wendell Berry

In the last song of his luminous performance at last year’s Pittsburgh Jazz Festival, the Grammy-winning Gregory Porter left his listeners with a haunting, thrilling question. Do you remember? he sang. Do you remember when love was king? In his song Porter swept a crowd filling a couple of city blocks into the story of another realm, one “far, far away / where love was the rule of the day,” a land where justice, compassion, equality, and generosity made for a splendor we’ve yet to see in our rulers and their reigns. That splendor resounded in Porter’s emphatic baritone, worthy of many more awards. He turned those of us listening toward a deeper hope and a better way—even to a coming time, when daylight will dispel this all-too-present darkness.

Porter’s “When Love Was King” plays on the archetypal. It draws us into a frank encounter, too often denied, with our longings: for public virtue, civic beauty, richer life. It’s the place where the personal meets the political and it is, we know, a kind of dreamscape. The history of modern political ideologies teaches us that such dreamscapes can have a perilous relationship to the waking world of actual politics. But what are we when such dreams vanish altogether?

Wendell Berry has spent his life preoccupied with this very question. Like Porter, he knows that any fruitful response to our dream-defying times must come in many registers and keys. To our enormous gain, Berry, with his prodigious voice, has offered just such a multiform response.

After more than sixty years of writing, Berry is best known for his polemics: his prolific work as an essayist and speaker addressing vital questions at the intersection of ecology, morality, and politics. In this vein, Berry’s writings tend toward the contentious and hit like a minority report—and sometimes they report not on his dreams so much as his nightmares. “If we continue to be economically dependent on destroying parts of the Earth,” he succinctly warned in 2004, “then eventually we will destroy it all.” The title of that essay itself sums up his instinctive political response to the times: “Compromise, Hell!”

Berry’s dreams do emerge in his essays, and of course they inform them. His poems, appearing in dozens of publications across these decades, make his hope more vivid, more musical. But to see Berry’s dreaming vision of our world fully laid out, one must go to his fiction. In the early 1960s he began to publish an entwined series of stories centered on the fictional town of Port William in northern Kentucky, a town “without pretense or ambition,” as one of his narrators recalls, “for it was the sort of place that pretentious or ambitious people were inclined to leave.” To date Berry has produced eight novels and more than fifty short stories (along with some poems and at least one play) about this place, magical in its lowliness and mythical in its ordinariness—a fantasia of democratic, republican proportions. If it’s a profoundly flawed world, it is yet, in Berry’s telling, a good one. And therein lies his hope.

In one of these tales, the narrator tells us that “Uncle Peach,” buoyantly recounting a nonexistent episode in his past, “was just storying.” The pleasure Berry himself takes in “just storying” couldn’t be more evident; his narratives pulse with a range of voices, affinities, and ideals that he weaves together with palpable joy—a surprise, perhaps, to those who know Berry only from his essays.

But Berry’s joy in storytelling is rooted in more than love of his craft—it’s also an expression of his cosmology. He anchors his stories in a universe in which love indeed rules, and his purpose and challenge as a storyteller is to do justice to this reigning love. “Just storying” indeed.

 

Love grows fuller in its place in Berry’s stories and more central as a presence in our lives.

This notion of reigning love is an old, old story—but that does not make it any less difficult to believe in, however thrilling the thought of it may be. In a central passage in The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, Étienne Gilson contends that for Christians, the universe is most simply “a sum total of creatures owing their existence to an act of love”—the act of a creator who, “being charity...lives by charity.” Gilson imagines love flowing through the universe “like the life-giving blood through the body.”

Who can believe such things? Not us. Gilson’s truly grand narrative is a long way from our usual stories. We people our tales with solitary souls (or “selves”) struggling in a world of mechanistic order (or mayhem), searching for something that feels like peace and bears the touch of love. But on our telling, to fulfill such everyday hopes, we’re on our own—you, me, and whoever else happens along. For us such stories are a species of “realism,” true to what we moderns know of our interior lives and the supposedly empty universe in which we dwell.

But Berry takes up Christian cosmology as a kind of dare, a dare that’s theological and aesthetic at once. In an essay that began as a speech at a 1994 conference on “Spirituality and Healing,” he made clear the confession from which his work springs: “I take literally the statement in the Gospel of John that God loves the world. I believe that the world was created and approved by love, that it subsists, coheres, and endures by love, and that, insofar as it is redeemable, it can be redeemed only by love.” But he wasn’t finished. “I believe that divine love, incarnate and indwelling the world, summons the world always toward wholeness, which ultimately is reconciliation and atonement with God.”

It’s a confession infinitely easier to make propositionally than to unfold artistically. Yet this is precisely what Berry has attempted. In the Library of America’s first of four projected volumes of Berry’s writing, Wendell Berry: Port William Novels & Stories: The Civil War to World War II (Library of America, $32, 1,034 pp.), twenty-three short stories and four novels bear bountiful witness to Berry’s creed and hope. The stories flow chronologically through Port William’s history—a “hard history of love,” as one narrator says—providing an ever deepening intimacy with both the world of Port William and the story of modern America.

But one can also read the volume chronologically in another sense: according to the date of each story’s original publication. Read in this fashion, Berry’s stories unveil a shifting understanding of the world. A close reading reveals, quite simply, that love grows: grows fuller in its place in his stories and more central as a presence in our lives.

 

Spiritual organicism doesn’t necessarily lead to theistic love. But for Berry it did.

If, as the literary critic Fritz Oehlschlaeger says, “the end” of Berry, across his oeuvre, is “the development of a comprehensive charity,” it wasn’t obvious at the start. Nathan Coulter, Berry’s first novel, was published in 1960 and set in the 1930s. Berry was just twenty-five, and the darker passageways of his time, and perhaps his schooling, color the story.

Each of the novel’s five chapters concludes with death of some kind—a cat, a mother, fish, ducks, and at its close, the grandfather of Nathan Coulter, the story’s narrator. In a familiar fashion, enmity and affection jostle throughout. Nathan’s grandfather and uncle “never had been at peace with each other,” we’re told, “and there never had been any chance that they would be.” One “Jig Pendleton” is “crazy for religion,” reading and rereading the Bible to “purify himself.” But “sooner or later he always gave it up and got on a drunk, and then he’d have to start all over again”—a carefully arranged peek at Protestant America’s underside.

If a distinctly Augustinian key sounds, it’s not a full chord; no bass notes of redemption ascend from below. “We were the way we were,” teenaged Nathan reflects after a bitter conflict abruptly rends his family. “Nothing could make us any different, and we suffered because of it. Things happened to us the way they did because we were ourselves.” Nathan comes to see that everyone he knows, in fact, is trapped in this travail of self and soul. “There was nothing anybody could do but let it happen.”

This is our first glimpse of Port William. It’s grim. But crucially, the longing for communion is ever present, marked especially by an acute awareness of its absence. One senses it in the keen, earnest voice of Nathan Coulter, and in the affection and devotion of his Uncle Burley, who, after the death of Nathan’s mother, offers years of steady nurture and care. The novel ends with Nathan walking alongside his aged and dying grandfather—a fitting image of a love that will, however troubled and forlorn, yield much good in Nathan’s life long after his grandfather’s passing.

Burley will go on to become a central figure in what he and his intimates in Port William begin to call, as Berry’s fictional world unfolds, “the membership”—and with it comes Berry’s own enlarging vision of love. Far from an exclusive circle, membership in Port William comes to mean exactly the opposite: the grateful inclusion of any who live in devotion to the wellbeing of the town and its environs. The membership isn’t self-appointed. But it is self-identifying. Those who are devoted to the place recognize one another by their mutual inclinations and sacrificial practices.

In Berry’s second novel, A Place on Earth, a flood devastates farms close to the river; Burley knocks on his friend Mat Feltner’s door in the darkness of morning to tell him of the danger an isolated family is in. The meaning of membership becomes clear in Burley’s explanation of his unexpected arrival. “Well, Mat,” he begins, “what I’ve come about really ain’t any of my business. I think it probably ain’t any of yours either, really. But the reason I come is that if it ain’t our business then it probably won’t be anybody’s.” The members know one another; they’ve made evident their vows, though none are spoken—to speak baldly would diminish them. Being a member is simply what one does. Who one is. The only announcement that membership requires sounds from the life that is lived.

Such lives create neighborhoods. And for Berry, any neighborhood includes not only people, but the land and all the creatures therein. More, a neighborhood’s care requires an intimacy with its past, since the past is, as Berry sees it, “the interior of the present.” Berry’s stories thus rove over nearly two centuries of history, layering the imagination with wisdom and vision and warnings that come to the reader through a past that speaks presciently into our time. Young Mat Feltner’s turning away from his impulse to avenge his father’s murder, in the story “Pray Without Ceasing,” leads to a communal richness that would have been impossible had he satisfied his rage. Neighborhoods grow not only through such acts, but through stories of such acts, stories of paths taken and shunned.

Since the inspiration for Berry’s fiction begins with his own history—Port William is the fictional counterpart to his own Port Royal, where he has lived nearly all of his life, the sixth generation in his family to farm there—a personal urgency pervades his storytelling, the urgency, as one of his characters says, to “tell the stories right.” When, in A World Lost, Berry’s fictional alter-ego, Andy Catlett, sets off down the trail of history to make sense of his uncle’s murder, which occurred decades before, we sense that there’s more than a story being told: there’s something at stake. If the place’s history can be recreated, if its members’ lives can be understood, then a vision to help guide the community in the present just might emerge.

What, if not something like a membership, can secure a future for those we love? The effect of Berry’s fiction is to enliven our sense of just what such sturdy and enduring communion demands—and what it promises.

 

Wendell Berry (James Baker Hall)

But what of a cosmology of love? To tell the story of membership is one thing; to knit it into a universe “born of love,” as Gilson has it, is another. How has Berry’s metaphysic shaped his fiction?

Berry’s early writing featured a strict, mysterious organicism. It followed Thoreau in its vision of harmonic, submissive participation in the world itself, human freedom tied to our embrace of a spiritually resplendent material order. A grieving mother in A Place on Earth, suffering the loss of her daughter in a flood, finds herself moving toward healing as she awakens one morning to a “brilliant pool of sunshine” in the room. The light, we’re told, “changed her.” Her psychic restoration comes through a kind of spiritual attunement to this transcending material reality.

Such spiritual organicism doesn’t necessarily lead to theistic love. But for Berry it did; by the 1980s he had begun to tack toward it. In an appreciative 1991 letter to Berry published in an edited volume on his work, the literary scholar Judith Weissman told him that his 1987 book of poems, Sabbaths, “touches me deeply, but also humbles me—because I know I cannot follow you in all of your Christian faith.” She admitted that, due to her formation in “the scientific tradition that you distrust,” these poems “are still a far-off light to me. I can see that it is light, but I cannot see it well enough to understand or identify it.” She sensed that his work was formed by a vision of what she called “wholeness”—against which “the last fifty years of literary criticism have been an attack.” This was a wholeness, she knew, flowing from Christian belief, and it required of Berry a costly vocational sojourn, leading him away from New York City and back to Kentucky. “What you cannot say for yourself or about yourself,” Weissman exhorted, “is what I want to say here: that your wholeness matters.”

In these years Berry’s cosmology of love—the wholeness he assiduously has sought to explore and express across his writing—began to inspire narratives threaded with more illuminating analogical dimensions, glimpses of earthly lives entwined in the eternal. In his 1994 story “Watch with Me,” set in 1916, we follow a band of neighbors who, over the course of two days, risk their lives to protect an armed and afflicted friend wandering through the woods; they fear he has become a danger to himself. It’s the parable of the lost sheep—we’re made to see that, like the afflicted man, all of us are, every day, “walking the rim of the world, a narrow, shadowy steely sloping margin between life and death.” The story features a devoted membership, to be sure. But the membership is not alone in the world; rather, the universe itself summons them together, toward union and care, though discord and the threat of dissolution are always near. It was only due to a “precarious interplay of effort and grace,” the narrator recalls, that “the neighborhood had lived”—and that’s how any kind of communion has ever lived, be it a marriage, parish, or nation.

Such stories fill this volume, stories with the ancient quality of a parable, with the everlasting shape of life. There’s Wheeler, the young nephew who, struggling one evening with the care of his drunken uncle, finally falls asleep beside him, “his hand remaining on Uncle Peach’s shoulder where it had come to rest.” There’s the grandmother who, in her last hours, whispers to her watching granddaughters, “Well, if this is dying, I’ve seen living that was worse.” If these souls find themselves, as one of Berry’s narrators puts it, “in a moral landscape exceedingly difficult to get across,” the possibility of a way through still opens, however treacherous and costly it may be.

At the close of A World Lost, Andy Catlett bears eloquent witness to this gentle mercy, this redeeming grace. Having in the course of the story faced not only the murder but the memory of his dearly loved and deeply flawed uncle, Andy is moved to consider the life beyond this one, the one toward which we all travel, whether in submission or resistance to our end. “I imagine the dead waking,” Andy says, “dazed into a shadowless light, in which they know themselves altogether for the first time.”

It is a light that is merciless until they can accept its mercy; by it they are at once condemned and redeemed. It is Hell until it is Heaven. Seeing themselves in that light, if they are willing, they see how far they have failed the only justice of loving one another; it punishes them with their own judgment. And yet, in suffering that light’s awful clarity, in seeing themselves within it, they see its forgiveness and its beauty, and are consoled. In it they are loved completely, even as they have been, and so are changed into what they could not have been but what, if they could have imagined it, they would have wished to be.

This is the light that, in our darkness, can heal grieving mothers, and that can move us each toward hope. The singular care with which Berry tells his stories reflects the extent to which he has himself embraced it. Love reigns, we come to see, even in these times. And love shall reign.

This is our story, our song. Berry’s achievement is to help us remember it. At a moment when a reckless dismembering afflicts us all, such remembering may be the most necessary act of all.

Published in the January 4, 2019 issue: 

Eric Miller teaches history and the humanities at Geneva College (Beaver Falls, PA), where he also directs the honors program. He is the author of Hope in a Scattering Time: A Life of Christopher Lasch, and Glimpses of Another Land: Political Hopes, Spiritual Longing.

Also by this author
Neighboring Souls

Please email comments to letters@commonwealmagazine.org and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Politics
Religion
Culture
Books
Books
Collections