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.