Wendell Berry’s voice is rich and mellow, carrying a slight grit that comes from weathering, age, and experience. His accent is strong enough to flavor his words but mild enough to soothe his listeners. It is a surprisingly gentle voice for one so radical.
I sit listening to the Kentucky gentleman. With me are a hundred or so other students, scholars, a delegation of sisters—Dominican nuns from Nashville—and an assortment of local and not-so-local notables.
We are gathered in a conference room of Louisville’s famed Seelbach Hotel, hosted by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, the Philadelphia Society, and the University of Louisville’s McConnell Center. The Seelbach is a glamorous relic, evoking the Roaring Twenties, when Fitzgerald sampled the hotel’s cigars and bourbon, and chose this sumptuous Bavarian tower as the site for Tom and Daisy Buchanan’s wedding reception.
Our luncheon guest of honor seems to feel slightly out of place within this monument to cosmopolitan living, and he has a renowned shyness when it comes to the public spotlight. So Mr. Berry does what all skilled wordsmiths do when wishing to deflect the mind’s eye of the collective from himself: He assumes the role of narrator. Instead of giving a speech, he renders himself invisible by telling a story and redirecting illumination onto the spiritual echoes of people who pass by and who have passed on.
I will not attempt to summarize, much less retell, Mr. Berry’s dinner-time tale. Suffice it to say that it is well invested with blood and memory, the only hard currency of storytelling, and that it serves an interesting contrast to Fitzgerald’s kind of narrative. Berry tells of graceful, slow people who knew themselves, while Fitzgerald told of blazing, fast people who lost their whole generation.
So perhaps this is an implicit question from Mr. Berry, arising from his very presence here among us as embodiment of an alternative way of being: Which people are we to be?
And perhaps standing behind Berry is Herbert Agar’s restless ghost, challenging us with another demand: Who owns Kentucky?
As the gentleman-farmer concludes his prose-song of the past and the room offers him the standing ovation he richly deserves, I must confess to a perverse thought: I can’t help but wonder who here would have rather heard a discourse on “the conservative movement” or the threat of “Islamofascism,” or would rather have received pointers on how to rationalize rallying round Romney. Berry has expressed skepticism about the military-industrial complex and concerning U.S. involvement in wars from World War II to the present, so maybe some would rather have heard a National Review darling; perhaps some would regard a Hitchens or a Lieberman as a more appropriate representative of the “War on Terror” and the other essential tenets of Republican family values.
This conference on agrarianism and regionalism is a product of our “interesting times,” as the Chinese curse goes—and the demographics reflect it. For the most part, the company is fantastic. At the table with my wife and me are several students from the Louisville Classical Academy, along with their school’s headmistress and founder, a well-bred and cultured lady from out East (Eastern Kentucky, that is). She combines practical savvy, faith, and a passion for substantive learning—three qualities that are in short supply among Kentucky’s other leaders at the moment. Her school exemplifies the maxim “Small is beautiful”: Students become part of a close-knit community in a stately old neoclassical house, which differs dramatically from the impersonal penitentiary environment of more “progressive” Dewey-inspired facilities.
Across the room, my brother—familial expert on bourbon, the law, and political anachronism—shares a table with Franklin Sanders and his son, Justin. Franklin is as impressive intellectually as he is imposing physically, and yet, like Berry, he is a gentleman who subsists from the fruits of his own property. These men make their own homes, think their own thoughts, and demonstrate innate, fairly untapped radicalism.
Plenty of party functionaries showed up as well. And there are some full-fledged neoconservative goofballs—or at least ill-disguised warmongers—present, though here, they don’t talk as loud nor walk as proud as usual. Their Sauronesque motto—Join us, and we can rule the Middle East together—doesn’t have quite the catchy ring it once did.
Then, there are the Reaganites, for whom I have a soft spot. I can always identify with the sentiment of nostalgia, if not always with its object—in this case, a mythical Golden Age. The Reaganites are basically decent, intelligent, and likeable men who insist plaintively that the Constitution is alive, that Mr. Berry merely forgot to change his party affiliation back in the day when all the good Democrats were seeing the light.
As the luncheon crowd breaks up, a second, doubly perverse thought floats into my mind—that of Berry being elected governor.
It is doubly perverse because Berry himself would be mortified at the prospect. His natural role is that of truthsayer, not ruler. The suggestion of “Governor Berry” is, I emphasize, but a whimsical joke of mine, something to liven up the depressing and listless reality of the current governor’s race between Ernie Fletcher and Steve Beshear—which is rather like watching two weevils walk over a biscuit.
These two supposedly grown men vie for the privilege and duty of speaking for the Bluegrass Nation but can’t find much more to argue about than the legalization of casino gambling. Whether Kentuckian guardsmen should get shot in Baghdad, while their fields get renamed Little Costa Rica by developers, is not their concern, and they (especially Fletcher) will tell you as much.
Yet Ernie & Steve must also compete in the field of who can thump the Bible harder and present a more devoutly Christian image. (On second thought, I should concede some small consolation. As much as it might stick in their respective craws, both the Democratic and Republican machines have to reckon with the faith of the common folk.)
Of course, they’d rather be thumping their standardized educational textbooks. Or talking about “good jobs for Kentuckians.” Neither Ernie nor Stevie are strangers to controversy. They both stand for Education and Prosperity, and they don’t care who knows it, by golly. And, unlike Berry, they don’t let trivial questions about what Education and Prosperity actually are distract them from the more pressing matter of where to buy more of it. Warning voters of Fletcher’s mismanagement of education during his administration, Beshear’s campaign website noted with alarm that “fewer than half of Kentucky 3- and 4-year olds are in preschool.”
Color me scandalized! Somebody call Michael Moore and the Muckraker Battalion. Perhaps Kentucky should hire more truancy officers.
Next, Beshear will be warning us that the Commonwealth suffers from a disproportionately high number of live births.
I have repeatedly heard graduate students—natives, mind you—dutifully denounce Robert Penn Warren as another racist and sexist embodiment of the Dead White Male patriarchy. So much for “Kentucky education.” At best, our children are being programmed as office drones and technicians and wage-slaves, who will struggle to earn the rent on their own inheritance. At worst, the citizens of Kentucky are subsidizing assorted imperial high schools, colleges, and universities whose aim is to inculcate the benighted primitives with the blessings of p.c. civilization. The liberal-arts curriculum of our outposts of educratic hegemony exist so that the Commonwealth’s sons and daughters will instinctively spit upon their own poets, their own people.
In droves, the farmers of Kentucky have taken up second jobs to keep from becoming serfs of agribusiness. Family land is continually gobbled up by the wonderful whirring motors of progress and excreted in the form of long stretches of sprawl. Cities such as Phoenix and Detroit bask in cheap energy, while coal companies pay as little as possible to turn Appalachia into a replica of Mordor, only a mountaintop shorter.
Nearly 600 Kentucky guardsmen are deployed in places that most Kentuckians can’t pronounce. They serve a cause that has about as much to do with their fathers’ fields as the deconstructionist theories spewing out of Yale and Harvard have to do with the artistic genius of Bill Monroe.
In short, the Bluegrass State is being trampled, and Beshear and Fletcher want to see it trampled more.
So yes, “Berry for Governor” is a joke—but it’s a joke that is prettier than the momentary reality, I think. By the time you read this, the election will be history, but that only means we have that much more time to gather momentum for the next one.
But wait: We still have to find a running mate to put on the Agrarian Party ticket. Who will be lieutenant governor in the Berry administration?
I, for one, nominate a yellow dog.
Any yellow dog—so long as he’s loyal, knows the mortal limit of his own territory, and is trained to bark at plundering burglars and venomous rattlesnakes.