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Wendell Berry: What We Lose When Small-Town America Collapses (And How to Recover It)

Wendell Berry: What We Lose When Small-Town America Collapses (And How to Recover It)

What does America risk losing with the loss of small, rural communities? Writer and farmer Wendell Berry has spent much of his writing career contemplating this question. One way he has approached it is through his novels and short stories, and his fictional town of Port William, Kentucky, typifies all that is best about small-town American living—as well as the struggle to keep it alive.

Berry’s novel Jayber Crow chronicles the happenings of the tight-knit river town of Port William over the course of the mid-20th century through the eyes of one of its residents, Jonah (Jayber) Crow.

Jayber is an orphan and misfit who becomes the town’s lonely, yet highly perceptive and thoughtful, barber. He arrives in the 1930s, when the town is vibrantly alive with its local economy, its local characters, its local conversations and customs. But by the end of the novel, the new ways of industrial farming have profoundly altered Port William and the surrounding lands, bringing a metaphorical drought to the once-flourishing local culture and community.

In the first part of the novel, Berry shows us the wholesomeness of things as they once were all over rural America: men and women and children living and loving and working together in genuine community. The people are rooted in their homesteads, their history, and their relationships. They do things the way they’ve always done them, and life takes on a kind of rhythmic stability that has something of the eternal about it.

Everyone in Port William knows everyone else. Faces are not anonymous, nor are businesses, which are mostly sole proprietorships. The town has its doctor, its lawyer, and its barber (Jayber). Business bleeds over into friendship, into human community.

A number of loafers hang out at Jayber’s barbershop, sharing news, stories, arguments, jokes—the pulse of their lives. As Jayber puts it, the barbershop was “Port William’s living room, or one of them.” For Jayber, who lives above the shop, there is no sharp divide between his place of work, his place of living, and his place of socializing. There is integrity.

This ideal of integrity stands out most to me as a way of summing up what was, and perhaps in some places still is, so deeply good and human about small-town rural life.

In Port William, and all the old-fashioned rural communities it stands for, it is possible for a human being to be born and raised and educated and to see from start to finish the sources of human life and community and culture, the coming and going of the generations, like the scattering of leaves, as Homer says in The Iliad. It is possible to live a fully humanized life in which one knows one’s neighbors, where one’s food comes from and who grew it, and the inside of all the stores—and most of the houses.

This is a human scale. This is wholeness, the complete vision of our lives presented in a way that we can grasp, and therefore meditate on.

On the other hand, the modern city does not so easily reveal where the food, energy, and raw materials needed for its inhabitants’ existence come from. Cities are often a sea of anonymous faces, whose stories and histories cannot possibly be fully known and who are therefore known only in a fragmentary way.

While it’s true that a small town can become narrow in a negative sense, the small town of the past offers the wider, more complete vision of the world because its systems and processes of life, cultural and economic, are not fractured and disjointed.

Of course, Berry does not unrealistically idealize mid-century small-town life, either. Port William has its share of the gnarlier, fallen parts of human life and human nature. In Port William, there is pride, and gossip, and betrayal, and loss, and occasional violence, and infidelity.

Fidelity and infidelity, in fact, is the central binary of Jayber Crow. Berry asks, In a world that is increasingly fragmented and transitory and changeable, is real fidelity—to a place or to a person—possible?

The latter half of the novel tells of the decline of Port William, due, in part, to a loss of fidelity to the town and its old institutions. Jayber, with regret, describes the loss of the general store, the loss of the young people who go “make something of themselves,” the loss of family farms, the loss the town school. This last, Jayber says, “gave the community a never-healing wound.”

Much of the change is driven by the industrialization of farming and the metastasizing global economy, a subject Berry writes eloquently about in his acclaimed nonfiction book The Unsettling of America. As Jayber asserts, “a community, to be a community, has to do a certain amount of its business within itself.” Because there is an integral relationship between economics, culture, and community, one cannot be changed without affecting the others.

Port William suffers not just infidelity to its traditions but even infidelity to its persons. In fact, marital infidelity is at the heart of the novel’s central drama, and it becomes a microcosm of the larger-scale breakdown of trust and loyalty in the world. Toward the end of the novel, Jayber discovers that the woman he loves from afar, Mattie Chatham, has an unfaithful husband.

This discovery is a crisis for Jayber, psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually. He must reconsider the trajectory of his own unanchored life as well as the very nature of reality:

What I needed to know, what I needed to become a man who knew, was that Mattie Chatham did not, by the terms of life in this world, have to have an unfaithful husband—that, by the same terms in the same world, she might have had a faithful one.

And so a new path opens before Jayber as he determines to make real the possibility of fidelity. Following the lights he’s been given, he sets out to be that faithful husband, carrying his vow and his fidelity secretly in his heart, a warmth hidden under his jacket, telling not even Mattie.

And the great paradox is this: that in making this bold, almost ridiculous, needless sacrifice, in living a sort of “pseudo-marriage,” in which he takes on the self-denial without any of the self-gratification, the sufferings without any of the joys, without alleviating loneliness, Jayber discovers something. He discovers that fidelity, radical fidelity, is possible, even in this age of inconstancy. And he even finds a measure of joy in an increasingly lonely and alien world.

The character of Mattie personifies Port William, rural communities, and old-fashioned living. Her abandonment by her husband parallels the abandoning of Port William by its citizens and by the wider, more globalized world. She, like tradition and small-town America, has been abandoned and neglected by those whose duty it was to protect and cherish her. She is a discarded jewel, worth more than any financier’s empire, worth more than all her unfaithful husband’s airy ambitions.

Maybe it is for us all, then, to be Jayber Crows. Maybe it is for us to take up the old traditions and traditional ways of living that have been cast off by those who should have loved them. We might be poor substitutes, unworthy, really, of the great heritage of the West, born out of time, maybe coming to it late, but able, nonetheless, to quietly, persistently, carry fidelity in our hearts, in defiance of our modern world.

The heroism of Jayber Crow, who is a simple and flawed man, is of the quietest sort. And that is one of the joys of literature such as this: We can see in him a kind of heroism not out of reach, a heroism that we, also, might aspire to.

Image credit: Unsplash

Walker Larson
Walker Larson

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  • Avatar
    Linda Middlekauff
    March 26, 2024, 4:15 pm

    Thank you for this very moving essay, Mr. Larson. It brought me to tears with its powerful imagery of Jayber, his town, and his sacrificial fidelity. Because so much of what once was America has fallen throughout my adult life, it was particularly poignant to me. Faithfulness is a virtue sadly lacking in almost every facet of society, even within the church.

    As a Christ follower, I know "that in this world you will have trouble but be of good cheer for I have overcome the world" (John 16:33) Each of us is fallible, but each of us can ask God for the strength to become more faithful and to reflect God's love to others.

  • Avatar
    April 1, 2024, 2:17 pm

    Walker, another beautiful essay thanks!
    Fidelity. It makes the man. Infidelity breaks him, whatever he thinks of it.

  • Avatar
    April 2, 2024, 11:25 am

    Thank you for this introduction to a new-to-me author! I am preparing for a move away from suburban madness to a small western town and look forward to reading this series.


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