A Polite Disagreement with Jayber Crow and the Mad Farmer

Photograph by Genta Mochizawa

When I read Wendell Berry's poems, I find it easy to believe that he and I share a kindred spirit. I too care about resurrection and preserving the good and true and beautiful in a hell-bent civilization. But when I read Berry's fiction, I begin to suspect he would not much approve of me. As I read, I find myself constantly refuting, "Yeah, but . . .” to the author's scrupulous definition of the good life and general dismissal of anyone who'd wander off the narrow path. I can be contrarian too, Mr. Berry.

I read about the Coulters, the Proudfoots, the Branches, and Mr. Crow as if I know them personally, and I find them to be not representing themselves altogether truthfully. Both sides of my family going back several generations come from Port William-type villages in New York state. As I’ve matured, I've begun to blend the good with the bad in that heritage — the almost visceral knowing of the beauty of a creek bed, for example. When Mr. Crow moves to his final home, living out the rest of his life on a riverbank, I feel like he's speaking my family dialect. I know exactly the "substantial sound" of a boat line plunking into the wooden bottom and echoing across a quiet morning. I comprehend the language of a single fish slurping from the surface of still water. I know it because, by the grace of God and kindly grandparents, I've spent countless childhood days on a quiet waterfront. But I also think I know it because it's buried in my genes from generations before me.  

My earliest memory involves a cow pasture, a barbed wire fence, a lazy brook, a picnic lunch, and a homemade fishing pole. This was the location for my first caught fish, I’m told. I’m pretty sure it was my first and only. The pasture and the brook ran the edge of my great-grandfather's family town. He spent many early days wandering in that place, and — in some mysterious way — passed that knowing down to my generation.

In the quiet moments with Wendell Berry's farmers and town folk, I imagine myself accepted as one of them. I've known them — in my own family tree, in the contrarian churchgoers my father, a pastor, attracted for most of my childhood, and in the lives of my best friends still sharing family land with several generations of kinfolk.

Other moments I am angry. Mr. Berry's body of work lauds the unadulterated; how does he reconcile glossing over (or at least hiding from view) the ugly dysfunctions that prosper alongside the natural beauty of such villages and pasturelands? I've seen firsthand not only the ornery nature of such characters — wishing to deny, for example, a decent salary to their pastor who does not make a living with his hands — but also the ingrown, incestuous thinking that tends to breed in rural places. Eventually, my paternal great-grandfather brought his family to town, and he drank away the family income. I guess Mr. Berry might argue that moving into town, working for the man across the desk rather than staying close to the family land, they introduced their own demise.

I'd ask: What were they running from?

I've watched with my own two eyes a good country farmer fist-beat his own boy. They kept their farm by the mad farmer's standards. That did not make them good. I tiptoe around extended family members who fought their whole lives like Jayber Crow to avoid answering to "the man across the desk” but left a trail of fractured relationships in their wake.

My maternal great-grandfather — a Port William-esque village man — abandoned my grandmother when she was eight years old because his new wife didn't like her. The village apparently did not reject him for his decision even though they likely tended their own gardens, gathered their own eggs, and milked their own cows. The authenticity of their economics did not guarantee a purity of heart.

I slogged through Jayber Crow — mostly late at night when I couldn't sleep — carrying on this internal argument with the author. As a man Mr. Crow is good of heart, a model for any of us wishing to live a quiet life, work with our hands, and, if possible, be at peace with all men. His life work barbering the men of the town, lathering their faces for a shave over 363 pages depicting more than thirty years wore me down gently into an appreciation for his dogged determination to do good and be good in this world. Mr. Crow (like his creator) would not suffer a rush into his story or to hurry it along at any point. I had to come to the story on his terms or not at all. Hidden in the rhythms of this simple life, a reader is rewarded with insight into true love, altering grief, firm conviction, and Gospel salvation. They are their own reward as they do not seem to rouse suspense or surprise in the turning of the plot.  

So I submitted to the book almost as a dare from the mad farmer himself — he who welcomes his reader to the story with this preface:


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, analyze, deconstruct, or otherwise “understand" it will be exiled to a desert island in the company only of other explainers.


Fair enough, but by turns quite unjust since on many pages I felt like Mr. Crow served as a mouthpiece for an author bemoaning every generation come along since the Depression who dared to purchase produce from a chain-supermarket or drive their car across the river to see what was on the other side. My own rising ire leaves me abashed because, in truth, I mourn the same losses. Still, if I could speak to Jayber Crow (a.k.a. Wendell Berry) I'd have to ask "What about the sins of the fathers?" The 1960s — as turbulent as they've been accused of being — could not on their own produce a generation of shameless, ambitious, loveless consumers as you would have us believe. Someone raised that generation. Since we share the same theology of free will and depravity of man, I know not to make them solely responsible. Neither should you, Mr. Berry, make them entirely (romantically) blameless.

In other words, someone raised Mattie Keith to seek her life's love in Troy Chatham. Someone raised Nate and Hannah Coulter's children to leave home and never look back. How can it be that you see so clearly the connection between men and nature, both dependent on the other for flourishing and, yet, appear willing to overlook the interdependence of one generation to another?

Maybe I'm only projecting onto Mr. Berry my own frustrations with my father's generation. I knew a man once — just a few years younger than my dad, also a child of the fifties and sixties — whose favorite rabbit trail in any conversation involved words of admiration for "the greatest generation" and words of reproach for "kids these days." And I never could quite figure out how he managed to overlook the fact that his father — the drunken man he watched beat his mother  — was part of that generation lauded as greatest?

Ideals blind us, I suppose.

As does cynicism. I caution myself (and my generation) against the opposite extreme. Where Mr. Berry might romanticize, I do not want to villainize.

In no uncertain terms, Berry's Jayber Crow recognizes and shares with us true redemption. These are the lines that held me in place, kept me visiting his story:

For a long time then I seemed to live by a slender thread of faith, spun out from within me. From this single thread I spun strands that joined me to the good things of the world. And then I spun more threads that joined all the strands together, making a life. When it was complete, or nearly so, it was shapely and beautiful in the light of day. It endured through the nights, but sometimes it only barely did. . . . Many of the strands would be broken. Those I would have to spin and weave again in the morning.

Forgiveness and mercy chosen where hatred wanted place, warm meals and good conversation with friends, a settled sense of being in a world gangbusters with ambition: these are true callings for any generation.

In order to reconcile myself to the difference I feel between Mr. Berry's observation of the world and mine — at my own risk, according to his prefaced warning — I listen to him as I would a prophet rising to an appointed calling, announcing judgment to all transgressors, calling us to change the way we live in order to be spared. He is a surly prophet, but better an ornery prophet than unmerciful judge. I would not want you, Mr. Berry, as my judge. You seem too convinced of my guilt before hearing my story.

Occasionally, though, I'd gladly keep company with you as my priest. For the rare — but unmistakable — moments you recognize helplessness for all mankind, no matter their chosen economy. And for the moments in which you preach redemption for all the damned, which is all of us:

This is, as I said and believe, a book about Heaven, but I must say too that it has been a close call. For I have wondered sometimes if it would not finally turn out to be a book about Hell — where we fail to love one another, where we hate and destroy one another for reasons abundantly provided or for righteousness' sake or for pleasure, where we destroy the things we need the most, where we see no hope and have no faith, where we are needy and alone, where things that ought to stay together fall apart, where there is such a groaning travail of selfishness in all its forms, where we love one another and die, where we must lose everything to know what we have had.

My small-town lineage tells its own redemption stories. If I had an ounce of your skill, Mr. Berry, I'd write them in a book to share with you. Now that I've grown more humble in years, I too see the broken web of redemption in them. Every time my grandfather plays the banjo for dancing great-grandchildren, he mirrors the good of his own father, a legendary jolly singer of tunes (even when alcohol-induced). My grandmother, left on the doorstep of a stranger with one tiny suitcase the size of my laptop to hold all her belongings, once told a circle of her daughters and grandchildren it was the best thing that ever happened to her: "That was the house where I met Jesus, right on the knee of my foster mother."  

Her stories of that home and that life mixed tragedy and humor — milking cows, emptying chamber pots for wealthy Catskill tourists, waving goodbye to her foster father as he left for his daily milk truck delivery run. One of those mornings, his milk truck collided with a train, and my grandmother and her foster mother took in boarders to make a living. A living of which I'm quite certain Mr. Berry would approve.

Tamara Hill Murphy writes at This Sacramental Life, where she encourages her readers to see God’s presence through daily practices of art, liturgy, and friendship. She has written for Think Christian and Catapult* Magazine. Born and raised in the Northeast, she now lives in the bright city of Austin with her audacious and often-homesick family.

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