Author Wendell Berry doesn’t leave his Kentucky farm often, but this past weekend he agreed to be our honored guest at the Classical Consortium Conference in Louisville, Kentucky. Amid the gilded cornices and sumptuous chandeliers in the historic Seelbach Hotel, Berry graced us with a delicious reading of passages from his magical novels. Like obedient children we sat, tired, invigorated from a day of stimulating sessions, eager to step into the world of his rich imagination.
The conference on the theme Truth or Nothing marked the first joint event of a group we loosely call the Classical Consortium: Classical Academic Press, CiRCE Institute, Institute for Excellence in Writing, Memoria Press, and Professor Carol. This three-day conference celebrated the quest for Truth in our spiritual endeavors, teaching, and learning. Speakers, break-out sessions, delicious meals, and non-stop, passionate conversation abounded in the corridors, the elevators, the coffee table, and virtually everywhere the rays of those beautiful chandeliers would reach. A magnificent reception welcomed us at the esteemed Highlands Latin School, sponsored by Memoria Press. Then two full days of plenary talks (one by yours truly), breakout sessions, and panels, filled out the next two days. The crowning moment, of course, was the dessert reception and reading of Wendell Berry. Ah yes, life is very good.
Berry understands so much about American culture through his mastery of rural life. He has his finger (and heart) on the pulse of what once were the driving forces of American life. He knows what it means to plant various crops so as to withstand the caprices of nature, to rely on one’s gut and gumption, and to turn to one’s neighbors as they turn to you. He can paint any character you ever could imagine with a fine, gentle brush, and yet these characters are so strong as to be unforgettable.
Perhaps the best part of the evening, beyond the beguiling readings, was the “question” period. It was as if people were asking a wise uncle to tell them more about one’s long-departed relatives. The questions were about specific characters from his stories set in the imaginary Kentucky town of Port William. People had the most questions about two particularly beloved characters: Jayber Crow and Hannah Coulter from novels written in 2000 and 2004 respectively. ”How did you decide to have Jayber do such and such.“ Or, “When did you first hear Hannah’s voice in your mind?“ Berry had his usual gentle, insightful answers to offer—ones that kept begging more questions. It’s hard to express how engaging it all was.
The time evaporated and then it was over. People clustered around for pictures. One man told Berry that his daughter loved the author’s stories so much, she had photo-shopped a picture of her dad standing with Berry, so might he take a picture now and make it all real? Just watching it was fun. But we had a big day ahead of us the next day, so we drifted to the elevator and back to our rooms.
We hope to fill every event staged by the Classical Consortium with moments both enlightening and magical. We believe this conference had plenty of both, and certainly the time with Berry fed the highest goals we have for our agenda and our attendees. May we be so fortunate again in the near future. And yes, we are considering new conferences for this Autumn and again for Spring 2018, so stay tuned for more.