Becoming Rememberers: How Wendell Berry Helps Us Grieve Our Time’s Tragic Tradeoffs

The only bookstore in the mountain valley where I live closed its doors this spring. We still have some stores that sell books around here, but you know what I mean. As jobs fade, families leave. Businesses fail. And now the bookstore has closed.

The Narrow Gauge Newsstand stood on the corner of the main intersection in the valley’s largest town, about a 20 minute drive from mine. It contained a rich magazine collection and among its books were best sellers, local history, field guides and children’s books. It had it its own special smell–a soulful blend of paper and people and popcorn.

But here’s the thing: I contributed to the bookstore’s demise, and I know it.

Jayber Crow_Wendell Berry's Unsentimental Mourning

Narrow Gauge was 20 miles away and a tad pricey. I’ve been buying most of my books online (and feeling bad about it) for some time now.

Even if I didn’t avail myself of online convenience, I couldn’t have saved Narrow Gauge, which may yet survive in a new incarnation as an indie book co-op. I wish the endeavor well, but it won’t be the same place.

About the time Narrow Gauge went out of business, I began reading Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow. I didn’t know, when I pulled the novel that’s been calling from my shelf for years that spending time in the company of Port William, Kentucky’s lonely barber would help me grieve the loss of a local bookstore.

But it surely did.

Jayber Crow broke my heart in exactly the way I needed it to be broken, allowing my changing-times sadness and confusion to flow.

Jayber’s growth of soul as he narrates his life from 1914 to 1986 (being Port William’s barber for 32 of those years) grew on me.

If you’ve been grieving the losses that have come with a modernized, technologically driven age, Wendell Berry can’t get the gifts of the past back for you, but he can help you honor them with an unsentimental grief.

He can help your soul to grow through facing those losses with an honest remembering and gratitude. He can help you consider what changes you might make in order live at least a little closer to what you believe.

Berry can even help you see your need to forgive yourself along with everyone else who, in greater or lesser degrees, allowed the lessening of localism and the desecration of the land to happen.

Mercy, love and humility swell in this story even as Port William diminishes. Jayber Crow is a deeply healing read.

Berry’s been known to me for some time through his nonfiction, his poetry and his unquestioned reputation as a man somehow able to live by convictions about the problems of modernity the rest of us only grasp at, if we try at all.

In a tribute celebrating Berry’s selection as the NEH’s 2012 Jefferson Lecturer, David Skinner sums up the greatness of this true rememberer:

Wendell Berry continues as a great contrary example to the compromises others take in stride. Instead of being at odds with his conscience, he is at odds with his times. Cheerful in dissent, he writes to document and defend what is being lost to the forces of modernization, and to explain how he lives and what he thinks.

Wendell Berry
Wendell Berry speaking in Frankfort, Indiana in 2007.

It is no small miracle that this lover of the land, celebrator of small people and small places, could remain “cheerful in dissent” while documenting and defending. He is prophet and protector, a cure to the temptation to curmudgeonry.

Port William is a fictional town Berry created to honor his own rootedness, the people in and of his place. Jayber’s Port William journey takes us through the time when the world was ravaged by two world wars and ravaged thereafter by industrialization.

Berry helps us see the destructive consequences these cataclysmic events have had on people and places many deem insignficant “flyover” territory. His remembering brings them to life and helps us remember our lives and losses, too.

Berry’s remembering allows our grief to rise.

But his work will not evoke tears of sentimentality. Jayber’s life is lonely, dark and real as the razor he employs in the barbershop where Port William’s men gather not only for a shave and a haircut, but for companionship and community.

His life as an outsider who slowly becomes part of the community’s “membership” reveals truths about our lives we desperately need to ponder. Among them:

  • How small communities strengthen and disappoint us
  • How war robs people and places far from the fighting
  • How debt comes to enslave those hoping to improve their lives
  • How trying to “be somebody” makes one weak
  • How school consolidation robs local places of identity
  • How gratitude is a sign of humility
  • How forgiveness is the path to healing
  • How love leads us into eternity

That last is the painful beauty of this book.  Jayber’s love for Mattie Keith is not realized in the traditional sense, but it is realized in a way that can make all our loves aspire to such realization.

Jayber is telling us a much bigger story than it appears at first. “This is a story,” he will eventually intimate, “about heaven.” His story mirrors Dante’s journey into paradise by way of a Kentucky community.

And that makes Jayber’s lonely life a hopeful tale after all. Berry does not despair as he looks about the landscape because he believes in eternity. Anne Husted Burleigh notes in a reflection in The Humane Vision of Wendell Berry  (which also contains Dante translator Anthony Esolen’s reflection on Jayber Crow):

What we are given in this world, though sometimes pierced with grief and sadness, is nonetheless drenched with the very love of God that will sanctify and redeem it. Any tears we must have must finally be tears not of despair but of hope and joy.

The Humane Vision of Wendell Berry

We so need hope in these destructive days.

If you find yourself a rememberer, needing to grieve the loss of small places and the small people who once kept them going, Wendell Berry’s unsentimental remembering can bring that grief to the surface.

We need to mourn the loss of these things without giving reign to bitterness. Berry can help us move beyond both sentimentality and curmudgeonry when faced with yet another casualty of advancing technology.

We need to take the time.

Reads & Other Seeds

Jayber Crow “has a very special appeal for readers who are searching for a new way to feed themselves which protects the environment and builds community.” Learn more at

Excerpts from the Writings of Wendell Berry on work and the local culture from Humanities, the magazine of the National Endowment of the Arts, is a great introduction to Berry’s perspective and principles.

Sparrowfare’s Music, Meaning and a Piece of Maria is not only a plug for my favorite new podcast, but a reflection on the way technology diminished my enjoyment of music purchases. And here’s a hopeful note: it’s also about how Song & Story:  a podcast devoted to conversations with songwriters about their songs helped fill the music void I didn’t know I had.  You have to hear this podcast!

Photo by Johny Goerend on Unsplash. Wendell Berry photo by David Marshall via Wikimedia Commons.

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6 thoughts on “Becoming Rememberers: How Wendell Berry Helps Us Grieve Our Time’s Tragic Tradeoffs

  1. We had the greatest local bookstore here, Pages for all Ages. I treasured going there and would break the bank with many visits. The smell of the store, the sight of so many bound treasures felt so reassuring to me. I was heartbroken when it closed and still miss it to this day.

    1. Oh wow. I love the name! You are a faithful soul to have kept it going as you did. Your response touches my heart. “So many bound treasures” … what a beautiful phrase. We need more souls like you Angie!

  2. Mourning without bitterness: sounds like a good idea. Particularly the “without bitterness” part.

    My memory of the mid-20th-century ‘good old days’ is far too good for me to mourn them in the sense of wanting their return. I’ll get nostalgic over bits and pieces, like the neighborhood I grew up in: which is now a parking lot.

    Some of the qualities – valuing family relationships, for example – seem to be returning. Not perfectly, and with some new issues; but without some of the problems ‘family values’ had before it became a political slogan. I think we learn: slowly, but we do learn.

    A. K. Fraily wrote about a similar situation – seen from a different angle and presented as a short story. Maybe you’ve seen it. ( )

    1. Oh thank you! I like her work but hadn’t read this story. Really glad you shared! And yes…I always need to remember the “without bitterness” part. Berry really helps.

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