Wendell Berry's Jayber Crow
Students at the university where I teach are, for the most part, willing to suffer (at least a little) for the sake of the environment. In support of campus efforts to “go green,” many students report taking shorter showers than they took at home as high schoolers. Most struggle, uncomplaining, to balance plates and glasses in the dining hall; getting rid of cafeteria trays has resulted in both lower water consumption and less food waste. Members of a student-led group, Earthkeepers, haul the food scraps we do produce to a designated area behind the Science Center and, months later, transport compost to the campus garden. A number of these students find fuel for their resolve in the writings of Kentucky poet-farmer Wendell Berry.
One of my teaching colleagues, who has supplied some of these environmentalists with plenty of Berry, recently bemoaned his inability to remember the title of a particular essay he wanted to assign. After a while, he said, they begin to run together, and he’s not sure whether Berry really wrote the piece or if he thought up its central idea himself—under Berry’s influence, of course. Phillip J. Donnelly makes a similar point in “Biblical Convocation in Wendell Berry’s Remembering,” writing, “Whether we consider Wendell Berry’s poetry, his fiction or his essays, the remarkable integrity of his writing can make it difficult to discuss one aspect of his work apart from the whole” (275). Donnelly asserts, for example, that “Remembering is more effective than Berry’s nonfiction prose in challenging Christians to responsible stewardship of creation” (292). While I am eager to introduce my students to Berry’s insights on creation care, I also want them to learn from his observations about human relationships. To that end, I regularly teach Jayber Crow (Counterpoint, 2000). While several of Berry’s other novels would probably serve my purposes equally well, I justify my selection with Berry’s own affirmation of his 2000 novel. When Harold K. Bush Jr. asked Berry (who has authored more than fifty books) which of his works gives him the most satisfaction, Berry replied, “[I]f someone asked me what novel to start with, I would say Jayber Crow. I don’t think I can write any better than I was writing in Jayber Crow. The essays, some are better than others, pretty clearly, some that stick out in my mind; but they’re all occasional work, written to have something to say…. I like the fictions best” (221).
As love stories go, Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow is pretty strange. The title character, an introverted, balding bachelor-barber, watches as Mattie Keith Chatham, an attractive neighbor-girl, grows up; marries a local basketball star; bears, rears, and begins burying their children; ages; and dies. One of my more cynical students, disturbed by Jayber’s fascination with someone so much younger than he, described him as a stalker. Used to romances in which the boy gets the girl, or vice versa, this student and some of the others with whom I’ve read Berry’s novel don’t know what to make of it. I have to work hard to convince some of them that Jayber is not a stalker but a suffering saint. In this sense, the novel Jayber Crow is a passion narrative.
My students understand passion as we most commonly use that word. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “passion” as “Strong affection; love. Formerly also plural: [meaning] amorous impulses or desires” (OED def. 8a) and “An aim or object pursued with zeal; a thing arousing intense emotion” (OED def. 8b). Certainly, Jayber feels romantic desire for Mattie, and he pursues her zealously. Such devotion is indeed a form of passion, even if the two characters never share as much as a kiss. Jayber Crow is, however, a passion narrative of another kind: “the narrative account of the suffering and martyrdom of a saint; a martyr’s legend. Occasionally: (in extended use) any narrative life or legend” (OED def. 2b). Granted, Jayber doesn’t experience literal martyrdom; he doesn’t die for his religious faith. But from the perspective of most twenty-first-century readers (especially the perspective of most college students), he might as well have: he makes and keeps a vow of celibacy for Mattie’s sake. When he realizes that Mattie’s philandering husband Troy will never be faithful to her, Jayber breaks off with Clydie, his own good-time girl, and vows to be the husband Mattie deserves, even though his vow will likely always run one way. As Jayber’s unrequited passion for Mattie grows, so does his compassion—his participation in the sufferings of all his neighbors. Berry shows romantic longing to be a starting point not only for a far more encompassing human love but also for salvation itself.
In this way, Jayber Crow recounts its protagonist’s progression toward sainthood. Jayber compares himself to Bunyan’s Pilgrim and Dante in the Commedia, calling himself “an ignorant pilgrim, crossing a dark valley,” and, like those two literary characters, he is journeying toward Heaven (133). He tells readers, “This is a book about heaven” (351), and he recounts his own preparation for going there, although he says that he didn’t always know that’s what it was while he was in the midst of it.
Jayber further resembles Dante, the Commedia’s author and narrator-protagonist, whose early glimpse of the girl-child Beatrice influenced his life ever after. Jayber recounts that when he was twenty-four, he first noticed the fourteen-year-old Mattie Keith, whom he comes to declare the proper “end” of his life (29). In pursuing Mattie, much as Dante pursued Beatrice, Jayber ends up pursuing Paradise. In this regard, the novel’s romantic plot, unconventional though it may be, is theologically charged.
A brief look at Charles Williams’s theology of romantic love reveals the plot’s significance and helps me advance my argument with students. Williams, an early twentieth-century Dante scholar who wrote poetry, fiction, and drama of his own, was a profound influence on his fellow-Inklings, C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, as well as on T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, and Dorothy L. Sayers. Williams asserted that the experience of romantic love is excellent preparation for knowing God—for entering heaven. In glimpsing the Beloved’s full potential, his or her glory, the Lover has the opportunity to see that all humans bear glory. Ideally, the recognition process will lead the Lover to the Source of that glory, the Creator God. In his study of Dante’s illustration of this phenomenon in the Commedia, Williams explains that “the record of the Dantean Way begins with three things—an experience, an environment of that experience, and the means of expressing that experience” (11). If all goes well, the process results in what Williams calls “the inGodding of man” (11).
“‘To fashion this ability’,” Williams warns, “is a personal, secret, and arduous business” (13). Wendell Berry illustrates this painful progression powerfully in Jayber Crow and reveals the purgatorial possibilities within romantic love. Jayber suffers as he moves toward glory—partly because he loves but cannot live with the married Mattie, but also because his love for her attunes him to her suffering and to that of their neighbors in Port William, Kentucky. His heart stretches to encompass her and those she loves, and he becomes faithful to God as he lives out his faithfulness to Mattie.
Jayber’s “experience” of his Beloved begins less dramatically than Dante’s did of Beatrice: Jayber says that his first memory of Mattie was of “a neat bright, pretty, clear-spirited girl,” kind to her peers and well-regarded by them (134). At first, Jayber simply wishes her well, just as he does the other young people who pass by his barber shop. He comes to feel protective of her, however, and wary of Troy Chatham, the handsome high schooler who courts her. Jayber realizes the extent of his interest in her two years later, when he is outraged by Troy’s proprietary manner with Mattie. On that occasion, Jayber reminisces, “[s]he was wearing a simple short-sleeved cotton dress, a white dress with little flowers on it. Her hair was tied back a little way from her ears with a ribbon. She was perfect” (138). Similarly, Williams writes of Dante’s vision of Beatrice: “A kind of dreadful perfection has appeared in the streets of Florence; something like the glory of God is walking down the street toward him” (20). Although Jayber’s vision of Mattie is not as theologically charged as Dante’s of Beatrice, her presence has initiated a similar process.
Also like Dante’s Beatrice, Mattie transcends time for Jayber. Of Beatrice, Charles Williams writes, “She was eighteen; she was thirty-four; her age in the poem is both, and eternal” (106). In reflecting on his love for Mattie, Jayber writes in similar terms:
[L]ove, sooner or later, forces us out of time…. It includes the world and time as a pregnant woman includes her child whose wrongs she will suffer and forgive…. I saw that Mattie was not merely desirable, but desirable beyond the power of time to show…. Like every living creature, she carried in her the presence of eternity. That was why, as she grew older, I saw in her always the child she had been, and why, looking at her when she was a child, I felt the influence of the woman she would be. (248)
This passage provides my students and me with plenty of conversational fodder, especially since much of their objection to Jayber’s interest in Mattie results from the characters’ age difference. Learning about the Dantean precedent helps them suspend their disapproval, if only briefly.
In his essay on Charles Williams’s view of Dantean romantic love, Rodney Clapp calls the vision of the Beatricean Beloved “a true call—an echo from heaven” (7). Jayber perceives Mattie’s significance to be just as great. Early in the novel, looking back on his life, Jayber declares her to have been his “end,” or telos. He explains,
Telling a story is like reaching into a granary full of wheat and drawing out a handful…. I want to be careful to offer you only the proper handful—just enough to describe the course that carried me away from the Port William neighborhood and then twelve years later brought me back again to the proper end of my life, to the love of my life, Mattie Chatham. (29)
Later in the book, Jay recounts his youthful struggle to envision his own future and concludes that Mattie was that future. “[M]y future,” he explains, “as it turned out, proved to be elsewhere. I hadn’t even glimpsed it yet. I had imagined no future. Who she was who would have my heart to own I had not imagined” (62). Later still, describing his attempt to comfort a grieving Mattie at her young daughter’s grave, he recounts kneeling “beside her, according to my calling in this world” (207). While such a focus on another human being may seem at first to be obsessive, even idolatrous, Berry depicts Jayber’s love as deeply life-affirming. Rather than closing Jayber off to others, as romantic obsessions usually do, or to God, as idolatry does, loving Mattie stretches Jayber’s capacity for loving others in Creation as well as the Creator, just as Williams asserts the best form of romantic love should do.
Having Mattie, however unconsciously, lead Jayber to loving their neighbors illuminates the “environment of [the] experience” that Williams sets forth as romantic love’s second element. Moreover, it also enables Berry to develop a theme common to his work: that of the importance of community. In Jayber Crow, as in Berry’s other Port William novels, the Kentucky hamlet is the almost-idyllic alternative to contemporary communities in which people fail to forge lasting ties. In The Corrosion of Character, Richard Sennett bemoans the decline of the kinds of stable communities where members of extended families live out their lives and contrasts them with the cities and suburbs in which most upwardly mobile North Americans now live. “Such communities are not empty of sociability or neighborliness,” Sennett observes, “but no one in them becomes a long-term witness to another’s life” (quoted in Meilaender 210). Individuals who live in such places seldom have the opportunity to benefit from a healthy “experience of long-term, narrative time in fixed channels” (212). Although Berry also uses his novel to show the threat suburbanization poses to Port William itself, his account of Jayber’s long life there, a life spent as a “long-term witness to [Mattie’s] life,” illustrates the human capacity for and the worth of long-term narratives. Offering his narrative of Mattie’s life to readers enables Jayber to reach the third stage in Williams’s progression of romantic love: expressing his experience of the Beloved.
Less dramatically and more obviously, however, Mattie helps keep Jayber in Port William. Orphaned twice in boyhood, first by his youthful birth parents and then by loving foster-parents, Jayber has no blood ties to the area. After growing up in an orphanage and attending college on a scholarship, he ventures to the big city: Lexington. Although he at first enjoys his urban anonymity, Jayber grows lonesome. Pulled by his memories of his foster parents and by a more recent encounter with another kind man from Port William, he makes his way back. He happens into becoming the town barber and, later, the church janitor and gravedigger. As a lifelong bachelor, he remains on the community’s fringes, but loving Mattie helps him forge nearly invisible but nevertheless strong ties.
After vowing to be faithful to Mattie, Jayber reflects on his new sense of belonging to Port William:
Before, I had yearned for company, especially the company of women, and gone seeking it. Now I no longer went seeking, but taught myself (and not always easily) to make do with the company that came…. Now, finally, I really had lost all desire for change, every last twinge of the notion that I ought to get somewhere or make something of myself. I was what I was. “I will stand like a tree,” I thought, “and be in myself as I am.” And the things of Port William seemed to stand around me, in themselves as they were. (254)
As my students and I trace Jayber’s own image of the tree, we can see how his love for Mattie serves as a taproot in his life while his growing connections to others secure and nurture him further.
Jayber does consider uprooting both himself and Mattie from Port William, briefly entertaining a fantasy of declaring his love for her and persuading her to run away with him. In this way, he illustrates one of the dangers inherent in romantic love: focusing on the Beloved to the exclusion of the rest of Creation and the Creator. Wisely, however, Jayber quickly realizes that leaving her family and her extended community would destroy Mattie as he loves her (196). After launching what he calls his “strange marriage,” a marriage in which he is entirely alone, he begins to feel as if that family and community are increasingly his own. He explains:
Though I was divided from the female society of Port William as much as before, I did not feel estranged from it as before. I was involved, a participant. The community I lived in and served by my unillustrious yet needful work was Mattie’s community also…. We were thus joined. I lived as I thought she did: hoping for good, reconciled to the bad, welcoming the little unexpected happinesses that came.” (259)
Among those unexpected happinesses is the satisfaction Jayber takes in making barbering house calls when Mattie’s father, Athey Keith, suffers a series of strokes. After shaving Athey, Jayber often sits with him and the rest of the family—except for Mattie’s husband Troy, too wrapped up in his business to join them—telling stories and sometimes eating supper together. Jayber later remembers this period in his life as “a sort of family membership” (267) and “with the family I would most have chosen if I had had the choice” (265). During these visits, he becomes particularly close to Mattie’s son Jimmy, of whom, he says, “the two of us together made Athey a sort of son-in-law come lately” (265). Later, after Jimmy’s death, Jayber unselfconsciously takes his place with the family at the cemetery. He recounts, “When they had assembled, instead of standing well out of the way as I usually did, I took off my hat and stepped in under the edge of the tent” (293). “Of course,” he acknowledges, “I had no more right to stop and grieve than anybody else. For a while, though, I felt that I too was being unmade by grief. Grief and bewilderment…. I could not imagine him dead without grieving, or without imagining his mother’s grief, which made me grieve” (294).
Jayber’s strange membership in the Keith family, then, brings grief as well as joy, suffering as well as delight. He remembers his mixed emotions in response to Athey’s decline, explaining that “to have [Mattie] feel free to ask me for help was freedom itself,” while acknowledging the strangeness of having “Athey’s growing weakness… [bring] forth a kind of pleasure to me, but it did. That grief should come and bring joy with it was not something I felt able, or even called upon, to sort out or understand. I accepted the grief. I accepted the joy. I accepted that they came to me out of the same world” (264). As his heart expands to encompass Mattie’s family members, Jayber comes to understand his “membership” in the Port William community—a membership that brings him joy but that he must secure through suffering.
Fairly early in the novel, shortly after he begins noticing Mattie, he resolves “‘to share the fate of this place. Whatever happens to Port William must happen to me’” (144). When the community begins to lose its sons in the Second World War, he discovers the cost of that commitment as he joins his neighbors in grieving. “[M]emories were kept,” he says, “stories told, and everything funny treasured up and spread around…. I don’t believe that grief passes away. It has its time and place forever. More time is added to it; it becomes a story within a story. But grief and griever alike endure” (147–8). In enduring his community’s grief and becoming one of its leading story-tellers, Jayber comes to love it more deeply, just as suffering with Mattie and giving witness to her life deepens his love for her.
In loving Mattie, affirming the environment for that love, and giving voice to that experience—the steps Williams identifies in the romantic love process—Jayber returns to religious faith. In this way, Berry’s novel introduces the final element in Charles Williams’s romantic love progression: the “inGodding of man.” As grieving prompts him to ask why Christ declined to defeat suffering by coming down off the Cross and vanquishing his killers, Jayber concludes that:
He didn’t, He hasn’t, because from the moment He did, He would be the absolute tyrant of the world and we would be His slaves…. And so, I thought, He must forebear to reveal His power and glory by presenting Himself as Himself, and must be present only in the ordinary miracle of the existence of His creatures…. I could see no escape. We are too tightly tangled together to be able to separate ourselves from one another either by good or by evil. We are all involved in all and any good, in all and any evil…. That is why our suffering is endless. It is why God grieves and Christ’s wounds are still bleeding. (295)
Praying to know God’s love for the world, Jayber’s own suffering becomes certain. He explains,
Just as a good man would not coerce the love of his wife, God does not coerce the love of his human creatures, not for Himself or for the world or for one another. To allow that love to exist fully and freely, He must allow it not to exist at all. His love is suffering. It is our freedom and His sorrow. To love the world as much even as I could love it would be suffering also, for I would fail. And yet all the good I know is in this, that a man might so love this world that it would break his heart. (254)
Jayber’s allusion to and appropriation of John 3:16—“that God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten son”—suggests the degree to which he identifies with God—the “inGodding” Williams describes.
As he comes increasingly to view the world as he understands God to view it, Jayber experiences human relations as a web rather than as the tangle he mentions in the first of the two quotations above. (Indeed, the web is one of the novel’s most powerful images.) Leading Jayber to that unifying perspective is a vision he has one sunny afternoon after cleaning the Port William church. Waking after a nap, he sees all those who have worshipped in that church, and “[t]hey were just there. They said nothing, and I said nothing. I seemed to love them all with a love that was mine merely because it included me. When I came to myself again, my face was wet with tears” (165). Reflecting later on that vision, Jayber says that it became more expansive—a vision not only of the gathered church but also of others in the Port William community:
What I saw now was the community imperfect and irresolute but held together by the frayed and always fraying, incomplete and yet ever-holding bonds of the various sorts of affection. There had maybe never been anybody who had not been loved by somebody, who had been loved by somebody else, and so on and on…. I knew that, in the midst of all the ignorance and error, this was a membership… I saw them all as somehow perfected, beyond time, by one another’s love, compassion, and forgiveness, as it is said we may be perfected by grace. (205)
Ultimately, Jayber finds the grace to forgive and love even Troy, whose callousness toward Mattie and toward the parts of Creation entrusted to him has rankled Jayber for most of his life. Troy has squandered what Jayber sees as “the best opportunity of his life, which was to love, honor, and cherish [Mattie]” (338). Having been tormented by envy, Jayber confesses that he has even wanted to cut Troy’s throat as he sat in the barber chair (195, 342). Mattie, however, loves Troy, and her love makes Troy a part of the web in which Jayber lives, the membership of Port William. In the end, Jayber recounts, “[Troy] was redeemed, in my eyes, by Mattie’s long-abiding love for him, as I myself had been by my love for her” (361).
The story of Jayber Crow, then, illustrates the progression of redemptive romantic love Charles Williams discovered in Dante’s writings. In his essay on Williams’s theology of romantic love, Rodney Clapp explains:
Lived in the life of our faith romantic love…. can teach us humility and the reality of our dependence on God and others. It can show us… the beauty of God—seen through his image in a person he has made. It provides us an arena for sacrifice and charity; it can draw us toward better than we are or could be on our own. It reminds us of the wonder of gifts, and so of that gift of all gifts, grace. (7)
That process, as Berry shows in Jayber Crow, entails suffering, but it is suffering unto salvation.
Martha Greene Eads is Professor of English at Eastern Mennonite University.
Bush, Harold K., Jr., “Hunting for Reasons to Hope: A Conversation with Wendell Berry.” Christianity and Literature, 56:2 (Winter 2007): 215–234.
Clapp, Rodney. “What Hollywood Doesn’t Know About Romantic Love.” Christianity Today. 3 February 1984.
Donnelly, Phillip J. “Biblical Convocation in Wendell Berry’s Remembering.” Christianity and Literature, 56:2 (Winter 2007): 275–296.
Meilaender, Gilbert C., ed. Working: Its Meaning and Limits. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2000.
Sennett, William. The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism. New York: W. W. Norton, 1998.
Williams, Charles. The Figure of Beatrice: A Study in Dante. New York: Noonday, 1961.