‘Jayber Crow’ and why we need the community | Editorial columnists
My goal here is to get you to read a book, and that book is “Jayber Crow” by Wendell Berry.
This is one of those rare books where when you read the last words of the last sentence you want to step back and take a different look at things.
Recipient of the National Humanities Medal in 2010, Wendell Berry is the author of 25 collections of poems, 16 volumes of essays and 11 novels and short stories. Since 1965 he has lived, worked and farmed on the Kentucky River with his wife and children. He and his family did their best to subsist entirely on what they harvested from their farm, only going to the store for the most needed unharvestable things.
As far as I know, Berry, who is all 86, continues to plow the fields with his horse and plow.
The main theme of Berry is that people change the land by living in it. And the earth changes them. If the land is used well and others are treated kindly, then these changes will be good, or at least not so bad. He has long been critical of modern individualism, unnecessary consumerism, self-aggrandizement and conspicuous consumption.
He is a Christian writer who “tries to take the gospel seriously,” but he makes supporters on both sides uncomfortable: no ideology can claim it. No one in culture wars these days wants to hear words like these: “Rats and cockroaches live by competition under the laws of supply and demand; it is the privilege of human beings to live under the laws of justice and mercy ”(extract from his essay“ Economy and pleasure ”- which is a very beautiful reflection on the great John Ruskin).
In this midseason season of social media, techno-reality, and frenzied commotion, Berry is turning the tide by quietly insisting that there is no human life without community and nature. A person’s life and work should be rooted and adapted to their place and the people around them.
Enter Jayber Crow, who did just that.
Wendell Berry is a sharp critic in his essays. But in his novels, he is a gentle artist. He portrays the citizens (or, what he calls “members”) of his fictional town of Port William with compassion. Even the wicked, who betray the human community and violate the earth and nature, are always treated humanely.
Port William is one of the most richly imagined communities in literature, certainly on par with Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County or Harper Lee’s Maycomb, Alabama. In each of his novels and short stories (and a few of his poems to boot), Berry has populated this city with honest representations of human nature, good and bad.
There are joys and there are sorrows. Jayber Crow, as Port William’s only barber, learned these stories firsthand in the confessional that was the old-fashioned barber shops. Jayber (whose name is really Jonah) was orphaned at the age of 10 and transferred to an orphanage in central Kentucky. From there, he attended Pigeonville Bible College, because he felt at the time that he had received the call to become a preacher.
But in Bible college, he struggled with too many difficult questions for him to preach in good conscience. “You’ve been asked questions,” his shriveled New Testament Greek teacher (whose nickname was “Old Grit”) told him, “to which you cannot be answered. You will have to experience them, maybe a little at a time.
There’s more than a bit of Berry himself here. He’s a Christian, yes, but certainly not what you might call a “confessionalist”. He is one of many who have rightly struggled with the organized church. So he got Jayber to say that “Some of the best things I’ve ever thought of I thought in bad sermons.”
Jayber left Bible College and headed for Lexington. After a few twists and turns, he found himself in his hometown of Port William and settled down.
He became the city’s oral historian. Oral history is the best type of history because it proceeds from the deep collection of community memory. “Telling a story,” Jayber remembers much later, when he is retired and over 70 at the time of its narration, “is like rummaging through an attic full of wheat and pull a handle.
There is always more to say than can be said. As almost any barber can attest, there is also more than there is to say, and more than anyone wants to hear.
What I love most about Jayber Crow is his growing – and resounding – recognition of his community in Port William, and what that community means, and the beautiful and poignant thing this community can be.
Despite his honest issues with religion, Jayber comes to his clearest view of God and his community – ironically for him – in church. Uncle Stanley Gibbs was the church janitor and gravedigger, but had recently gotten into trouble with his questionable vocabulary and the fact that he was too open about his plans to become a tomcat again once his former wife passed away. .
Jayber has become Uncle Stanley’s successor and meticulously cleans the church every Friday evening, in preparation for Sunday morning worship. He had avoided going to church for years, but now he sits quietly in the back. He enjoys singing (“In the sweet by and by” is his favorite) despite his scathing criticism of most sermons.
One night, while cleaning the church, Jayber falls asleep and lies on the floor. He closes his eyes and sees all the inhabitants of his beloved Port William – people he observes and loves. The chapter concludes, “They were right there. They didn’t say anything, and I didn’t say anything. I seemed to love them all with a love that was mine just because it included me. When I came to myself, my face was wet with tears.
Now it’s the community. It is what a city can and should be. Jayber’s best friend, Burley Coulter, explains this about what a ‘member’ of Port William is: “’The way we are, we are members of each other. All of us. All. The difference is not in who is a member and who is not, but in who knows and who does not.
The Port William “member” is any person who recognizes their place among – and responsibility for the welfare of – all the land, animals and people of the place. It is to be totally pro-life as in “all of life”.
Port William is, or should be, Edenton and Hertford, Elizabeth City and Columbia, Windsor and Belvedere. Your church and my church. Your neighborhood and mine.
Jonathan Tobias is a resident of Edenton.