The Roots of Memory

Near the end of Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow, the title character muses on the nature of remembering and history and the passage of time:

I am an old man now and oftentimes I whisper to myself. I have heard myself whispering things that I didn’t know I had ever thought. “Forty years” or “Fifty years” or “Sixty years,” I hear myself whispering. My life lengthens. History grows shorter. I remember old men who remembered the Civil War. I have in my mind word-of-mouth memories more than a hundred years old. It is only twenty hundred years since the birth of Christ. Fifteen or twenty memories such as mine would reach all the way back to the halo-light in the manger at Bethlehem. So few rememberers could sit down together in a small room. They could loaf together in the old poolroom up in Port William and talk all of a Saturday night of war and rumors of war.

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 cots. Finally a man stands up alone, scoured and charred like a burnt tree, having lost everything and (at the cost only of its loss) found everything, and is ready to go. Now I am ready.

Finishing a re-read of the novel last week, this quote spells out clearly why I liked the book more now than when I first read it years ago.

Berry’s words have been a part of my life since a friend introduced me to him in 2002, but I’ve always been more fond of his essays, polemics, and poetry than his fiction. Like many novelists, his stories are first and foremost outworkings of his core ideas. Whatever the scope of their narratives, they always circle back to unpacking some thesis or other—in Berry’s case, concepts of community (membership), care for the land (stewardship), and living within limits (simplicity). The philosophy-narration in his works is done with varying degrees of craft, such that someone familiar with Berry’s larger body of work might simply prefer to read him lay out the ideas in question more plainly in his nonfiction.

Jayber Crow is by most any standards a good novel, though—round and readable. Its exploration of the inner life of one man, his wrestling with questions of faith and hope and unrequited love give it a texture that transcends any untoward preachiness. As the quote above illustrates, it is a work of remembering, of setting a human being within a web of knowing and being known. Even where it makes overt gestures toward the themes of the decline of rural American life in the wake of the economic, social, and technological upheavals of the 20th century, these facts are so relevant to understanding our present place in the world that it feels crucial to the story.

Part of why the book resonated more this time around is because the world it records is even further away from the experience of most Americans now. When I read it first, my grandfather, born in 1924, was still living on his family land outside a small Georgia town where he’d been born. His sister, born in 1918, and her husband, born in 1914, still had their wits about them, telling stories of the Great Depression, working with the CCC, and life before cars and television. Their stories of farming, and making ends meet by hook and by crook, and the deep and wide knowing of a place and all who dwelt within it were still part of my life and experience .

That whole generation of my family is gone now. If my children and theirs are to hear those stories, warts and all, it’s up to me and others who have heard and remembered to keep a certain understanding of the world within their imagining. Berry’s achievement with Jayber Crow is the setting into print of the sound, sight, scent, and savor of the place that formed him and where he lives still (though with the cloaking veneer of fiction). The stories he conveys are likely based in things he grew up witnessing or hearing about, and the memory of his particular web of knowing is preserved for us all.

Knowing and remembering entail loss and grief, as Berry has Jayber tell us. You cannot grieve what you never knew. You cannot lament what you have never felt. The art of love is the art of memory and imagination—sifting through the debris of death to see what glistens. May we have the courage to remember people, places, and things as they truly were; may we discipline ourselves to call to mind that which was good and has been lost so that it may be restored; may we receive the grace to imagine a world as it might be so that we can live as though it is already.

Image: Oak and Limestone, Meigs County, Tenn., January 2021.

One thought on “The Roots of Memory

  1. Yes, we must keep those memories alive for the next generation, though often, now, their recollection brings sweet sorrow. Perhaps a talented writer in the fam can help us carry them forward in heartwarming style that all could relish. 😉

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