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A Kinder, Gentler Thoreau

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It is a lazy Sunday morning. I am seated in my comfortable chair, wrapped in my old dressing-gown, my coffee in hand, having turned the final page of Jayber Crow: The Life Story of Jayber Crow, Barber, of the Port William Membership, as Written by Himself. It is a novel by Wendell Berry. Jayber was placed in my hands as a gift. A box of emeralds would not have pleased me more. He has become one of those rare friends with whom I look forward to sharing the rest of my life.

Jayber Crow is a book to read slowly, savour repeatedly and forget not at all. I lay it down, enjoy the last of my coffee, and look to the four thousand expectant faces inhabiting the shelves of my library in search of an afternoon companion. No one is speaking to me. There is a respectful and contemplative silence. Jayber’s voice has settled on the room like a benediction.

We began our journey together with a cautionary note from the author:

Persons attempting to find a ‘text’ in this book will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a ‘subtext’ in it will be banished; persons attempting to explain, interpret, explicate, analyse, deconstruct, or otherwise ‘understand’ it will be exiled to a desert island in the company only of other explainers.

I thought, you and I will get along just fine, Mr Berry.

Port William is a small river town in Kentucky, the kind of place where ‘people don’t have what you would call their own business’ and where memorable characters abound: Burley Coulter who ‘won’t own anything I can’t carry or that won’t follow me when I whistle’; Sam Hanks with ‘his pipe clenched in his teeth as if he expected to be picked up and swung by it’; Cecelia Overhold, the town snob, who ‘always went by without looking at me, her head tilted to indicate not that she did not see me but that she had already seen me, and once was enough’; and wise, old, lame Athey Keith

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It is a lazy Sunday morning. I am seated in my comfortable chair, wrapped in my old dressing-gown, my coffee in hand, having turned the final page of Jayber Crow: The Life Story of Jayber Crow, Barber, of the Port William Membership, as Written by Himself. It is a novel by Wendell Berry. Jayber was placed in my hands as a gift. A box of emeralds would not have pleased me more. He has become one of those rare friends with whom I look forward to sharing the rest of my life.

Jayber Crow is a book to read slowly, savour repeatedly and forget not at all. I lay it down, enjoy the last of my coffee, and look to the four thousand expectant faces inhabiting the shelves of my library in search of an afternoon companion. No one is speaking to me. There is a respectful and contemplative silence. Jayber’s voice has settled on the room like a benediction. We began our journey together with a cautionary note from the author:
Persons attempting to find a ‘text’ in this book will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a ‘subtext’ in it will be banished; persons attempting to explain, interpret, explicate, analyse, deconstruct, or otherwise ‘understand’ it will be exiled to a desert island in the company only of other explainers.
I thought, you and I will get along just fine, Mr Berry. Port William is a small river town in Kentucky, the kind of place where ‘people don’t have what you would call their own business’ and where memorable characters abound: Burley Coulter who ‘won’t own anything I can’t carry or that won’t follow me when I whistle’; Sam Hanks with ‘his pipe clenched in his teeth as if he expected to be picked up and swung by it’; Cecelia Overhold, the town snob, who ‘always went by without looking at me, her head tilted to indicate not that she did not see me but that she had already seen me, and once was enough’; and wise, old, lame Athey Keith, who carried himself, he said, ‘like a hatful of eggs’, and who once asked, ‘If the Devil don’t exist, how do you explain that some people are a lot worse than they’re smart enough to be?’ And of course there is Jonah Crow, known as Jayber, the town barber, who has a front-row-centre seat for the show.
Among the prerequisites of my office, I might as well say, were my customers . . . I liked them varyingly; some I didn’t like at all. But all of them have been interesting to me; some I have liked and some I have loved. I have raked my comb over scalps that were dirty both above and beneath. I have lowered the ears of good men and bad, smart and stupid, young and old, kind and mean; of men who have killed other men (think of that) and of men who have been killed (think of that). I cut the hair of Tom Coulter and Virgil Feltner and Jimmy Chatham and a good many more who went away to the various wars and never came back, or who came back dead. I became, over the years, a pretty good student of family traits: the shapes of heads, ears, noses, hands, and so forth. This was sometimes funny, as when I would get a suspicion of a kinship that was, you might say, unauthorized. But it was moving too, after a while, to realize that under my very hands a generation had grown up and another had passed away.
Jayber is a quieter, gentler Thoreau, a modern man so ill at ease with the modern age that he relinquishes the only automobile he will ever own because:
My wonderful machine sometimes altered my mind so that I, lately a pedestrian myself, fiercely resented all such impediments on the road. Even at my sedate top speed of forty miles an hour, I hated anything that required me to slow down. My mind raged and fumed and I cursed aloud at farmers driving their stock across the road, at indecisive possums, at children on bicycles. Ease of going was translated without pause into a principled unwillingness to stop.
Where Jayber’s mind really rages and fumes is against the erosion of self-sufficiency, and the consequent government interference by which an organized, industrial society is managed. He watches in distress as an older generation of farmers who distrusted banks, feared debt and never bought what they could make or do without, passes on, yielding their place and their land to a new generation of ‘agribusiness’ men who define their success not by the quality of what they produce, which perpetually diminishes as they overuse the land, but by the size of their debt and their planted acreage, only to discover that they are owned by the banks their fathers distrusted. Jayber’s anger is less strident, his distress at the trends of the modern age as deeply held as Thoreau’s but more thoughtful. It is the voice of a man who has lived the Waldenesque life not for two years but for five decades. It is Wendell Berry’s voice. (He is himself a Kentucky farmer who is deeply and vociferously distrustful of the modern age.) In place of Thoreau’s hodgepodge of Eastern mysticism we find a bedrock of evolving faith tempered by a hesitant, contemplative scepticism that is never cynical; a faith that grows as Jayber seeks the lessons of life that take ‘a long time to wear in’. Along the way we are treated to well-reasoned and often profound meditations on the meaning of family, the value of community (or as he would say, ‘membership’), fate, tradition, forgiveness, selflessness, hate, love and the ultimate survival of humanity. We feel the ache of a hopeful and honest mind and an expanding heart locked in a recurring struggle to impose a reasoned order on free will, fate, purpose:
If you could, I suppose, it would be a good idea to live your life in a straight line . . . But that is not the way I have done it, so far. I am a pilgrim, but my pilgrimage has been wandering and unmarked. Often what has looked like a straight line to me has been a circle or a doubling back. I have been in the Dark Wood of Error any number of times. I have known something of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, but not always in that order. The names of many snares and dangers have been made known to me, but I have seen them only in looking back. Often I have not known where I was going until I was already there.
There is also a measure of earthy country humour, as in this confrontation with the rural mosquito:
There were, in the hot, muggy summer days, sure enough a great plenty of mosquitoes. Big ones. And hungry. They could smell your blood beneath your skin at a distance of a hundred yards, and they came whining to the feast, so ecstatic with appetite that they didn’t even look up to see if you were watching. You could swat them several at a lick and they didn’t seem to mind. They were outlandish big. Burley Coulter used to say that they could stand flatfooted and deflower a turkey.
And always close to hand is the river, a metaphor for the soul, destiny, eternity:
The surface of the quieted river . . . is like a window looking into another world that is like this one except that it is quiet. Its quietness makes it seem perfect. Though that other world can be seen only momentarily it looks everlasting. As the ripples become more agitated the window darkens and the world is hidden. As I did not know then but I know now, the surface of the river is like a living soul, which is easy to disturb, is often disturbed, but, growing calm, shows what it was, is, and will be.
Ultimately, Jayber finds the only answers that matter. He finds peace. His knowledge, as it came, seemed to come at great cost, but ultimately he sees that it has come at no cost at all; that the loss and grief and disappointment and even hatred he has suffered have all been a gift, and in some way done him good. He has relinquished the world only to find that all the world is his. He has come exactly to the place he needed to be: the perfect place, which he didn’t recognize until the moment he arrived.
My life lengthens. History grows shorter . . . I whisper over to myself the way of loss, the names of the dead. One by one, we lose our loved ones, our friends, our powers of work and pleasure, our landmarks, the days of our allotted time. One by one, the way we lose them, they return to us and are treasured up in our hearts. Grief affirms them, preserves them, sets the cost. Finally a man stands up alone, scoured and charred like a burnt tree, having lost everything, and is ready to go. Now I am ready.
This is a beautiful book – an affirmation of life, of the possibility of redemption, of gratitude for having lived. Jayber has seen life to the bottom, and despite the evil of the world that is uncomfortably clear to him, he has found the world good. He is a man to make you laugh and cry and think. Late in his life, he says, ‘Often I fear that I am not paying enough attention.’ But he has paid close attention indeed for more than seven decades. It is a journey worth sharing.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 14 © Richard Platt 2007


About the contributor

An analogue man deeply suspicious of the digital age, Richard Platt was born at least a hundred years too late. He enjoys a life of leisurely pleasures and quiet anachronisms, and his library is cross-referenced on index cards.

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