“If any man hunger, let him eat at home.”
—1 Corinthians 11:34

Fred Chappell’s Family Gathering, his first book of poems since 1995’s Spring Garden: New and Selected Work, is a collection of short verse portraits that allows Chappell to display his considerable gifts for miniature (a talent also on display in his epigram collection C from 1993). There is no linear “plot” to this cycle nor a readily discernible “theme”; the book is a gallery of personages, a family, come together for an unnamed purpose. The subject is a familiar one for Chappell, and the command of his material is equalled by his display of formal dexterity’. But aside from providing readers with the pleasure of watching a master craftsman at work. Family Gathering is a sad reminder that families today hardly ever gather anymore.

Family Gathering reminds us of a better time, although it is in no way an anachronistic work. The whole spectrum of human experience is here, from greed to goodness, from chastity to concupiscence, from youthful innocence to old age which has not necessarily attained wisdom. What family has not suffered the scourge of an Uncle Einar, a cigar-puffing hick who has made a little money in his lifetime and now feels it is his duty to tutor others in the inexhaustible glories of capitalism?

When Uncle Einar lets his intellect

His groundling kinfolk sit around
and stare

As he sucks upon his velvety cigar

And expatiates upon his Cadillac car

Such sterling precepts from his wis-
dom pour

That every bromide glows like

As he explains the profits of peace
and war,

The economies of nations near and

And how to gain the peso, drach-
ma, kroner, yen, dinar.

By knowing who you know and be-
ing who you are.

Yet livid thunderstorms around
him roar

When he contemplates the multi-
tudinous poor

Who seem to lack the slightest in-
stinct for

Keeping the ravenous wolf outside
their door.

But lest they spoil the pleasure of
this hour,

Uncle Einar thrusts such thoughts

And pours a cognac from a Bac-
carat jar.

Or his resourceful wife Wilma, whose charm bracelet grows with ornaments each time Einar strays from the conjugal bed:

Your Uncle Einar and his shiny

Are more attractive than you realize

To certain types a little past their

His every misstep swells my

With cunning little animals that

And jingle on my bracelet display.

Adding music to my old refrain:

Any time I catch you, you will pay.

Or the secretive, impenetrable Cousin Lilias (the family black sheep?), who

Seems to move in time to a bell
that tolls

Beyond the carehil measures of
night and day,

Her mind a prospect of indifferent

Or Uncle Wallace, who, with sifter in hand, preaches the virtues of restraint in all things, corporeal and spiritual, and about whom the speaker says, “Never did we hear I Such praise of moderation from a man so potted.” In terms of religious belief, the family ranges from the “True Believer” (“Uncle Zack believes that we will thrive / By doing everything the Bible says. / Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live. / Whatever happened to Aunt Inez?”) to the “Nonbeliever” (“But Cousin Terry thinks Holy Writ / Holds no authority, not a whit, / Although to score a point, he’ll quote a bit. / Oh, what a filthy hypocrite!”).

In presenting these good country people, Chappell could easily have resorted to caricature or, worse, to the fashionable dysfunction that permeates all too many literary and dramatic works dealing with family relations today. He resists the temptation admirably; if, now and then, his skillful pen lapses into stereotype (as in his portrait of the bachelor Cousin Willoughby, who “owns an antique shop / And dreams of days when little boys / Were thought quite suitable erotic toys / For older men . . . “), then we should bear in mind that clichés are clichés because they hold some kernel of truth.

In Jayber Crow (the full title reads The Life Story of Jayber Crow, Barber, Of the Port William Membership, As Written by Himself), Wendell Berry also stages something of a family reunion. This is a culminating work, a summation of the themes Berry has been developing for more than 40 years now as a novelist, poet, and essayist. I would stop short of declaring it definitive or final, however, because Berry, while nearing 67, appears ever more fecund in these autumnal years of his life. Still, I get the sense that Jayber Crow is his grand pastoral symphony, his magnum opus. It is a profoundly beautiful book, simple in design and execution but intricate in its portrait of people and place.

It is about membership in a place, as the subtitle implies: in this case, Bern”s fictional Port William, Kentucky, the setting of all of his short and extended fiction—his geographical “postage stamp,” as Faulkner said of his own fictitious Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi. The novel cycle began in 1962 with Nathan Coulter, a gentle story of a boy’s initiation into manhood and responsibility, and culminated in at least one masterpiece. The Memory of Old Jack in 1974; now, with Jayber Crow, possibly two. Jayber Crow reunites many of the characters from those earlier books, some of whom, such as the Coulters, make a major appearance in the story, while others, like Old Jack Ketchum, make only a brief appearance. Having Crow be Port William’s resident barber is an ingenious way of allowing Jayber (a mispronunciation of the old Southern epithet “Jaybird”) access to all the major and minor personages and all of the important events that occur in Port William during a 70-year span of the 20th century (from 1914 through 1986, when the book is set). In this way, Jayber becomes the town’s “hovering bard,” to use Andrew Lytle’s classic phrase. In his memoir, he becomes its secretary, its recorder of deeds, its keeper of collective memory as well.

Jayber is no mere provincial, however, having tasted the wider world (as far at least as Frankfort, Kentucky, the state capitol). Orphaned at three by the early deaths of his parents, Jayber lives with elderly relatives until their demise. He spends time in the Good Shepherd, an orphanage, and later studies to become a minister until his own doubts thwart him and his instincts lead him back home. There, he plants himself to live out the rest of his days, any lingering wanderlust conquered. His homecoming is an occasion to unite past with present, the Port William he has left with that to which he has returned:

I looked at everything and remembered it, and let my memories come back and take place . . . The child I had been came and made his motions, out and about and around . . . All my steps had made the place a world and made me at home in it, and then I had gone, just as Aunt Cordie and Uncle Othey had been at home and then had gone.

His epiphany continues:

And like a shadow within a shadow, the time before my time came to me. I was old enough by then to know and believe that the old had once been young. Once Aunt Cordie had been Cordie Quail, a pretty girl. There had been a day when Uncle Othey and Aunt Cordie had come there, young, just married, to begin their life at the landing, to have their pleasures and to endure what had to be endured. There had been a time before they came, and a time before that. And always, from a time before anybody knew of time, the river had been there . . . And I saw how all a-piece it was, how never-ending—always coming, always there, always going.

Later, when he assumes the job of gravedigger in addition to his barbering duties, Jayber contemplates the dead in an absolutely lovely passage recalling the close of Flannery O’Connor’s “Revelation,” in which Mrs. Turpin stares into the night sky and sees the proper order of heaven’s multitudes making its way upward on a starry bridge:

The people had lived their little passage of time in the world, had become what they became, and now could be changed only by forgiveness and mercy. The misled, the disappointed, the sinners of all the sins, the hopeful, the faithful, the loving, the doubtful, the desperate, the grieved and the comforted, the young and the old, the bad and the good—all, sufferers unto death, had lain down there together. Some were there who served the community better by dying than by living. Why I should have felt tender toward them all was not clear to me, but I did.

Like Chappell, Berry is too wise a man and too skillful a writer to lapse into cliche or stereotype. His Port William is no Agrarian Shangri-la, and its denizens are as susceptible to temptation and frustration as any city dweller because they are human. But there is a difference: The people of Port William have found their place in the world and are happy to submit to its natural order. This gives them an advantage as they live and struggle and fight and die to maintain that order. Who are their enemies? Some, such as Cecelia Overbold, a transplant to Port William and the town’s self-appointed sophisticate, are flesh and blood. Having come to Port William in her superficial love for Roy Overhold, a native son, Cecelia proceeds to lord it over the townspeople with her own superior upbringing and “refined” tastes. “She did not like Port William pronunciation, diction, and grammar,” Jayber explains. “She did not like its public loafing and spitting. She did not like its preoccupation with crops, livestock, food, hunting, fishing, and weather. She did not like its taste in church windows. And so on.” Cecelia is afflicted with what Henry James once called a “mania for the huge and swelling.” Her ideal town is Los Angeles, where her sister resides: “California, in Cecelia’s mind, was the one Utopia of the world.” Like every Utopian, Cecelia has rigid ideas regarding the good life, and she perpetually attempts to implement those ideas on her fellow Port Williamites, whether they want them or not.

Other enemies lack a human face but are even more devastating in their effect: war, for instance, and mass mechanization. In one of the novel’s most powerful chapters, “A Period of Darkness,” Jayber summarizes the toll World War II takes on Port William, robbing it of its sons and brothers and nephews and leaving those behind in constant, silent dread of what they come to call the News—the confirmation that they have lost yet another of their young men.

Port William .. . had not caused the war . . . Port William has to suffer what it did not make. I have pondered for years, and I can’t connect Port William and war except by death and suffering. No more can I think of Port William and the United States in the same thought. A nation is an idea, and Port William is not. Maybe there is no live connection between a little place and a big idea. I think there is not.

The greatest champion of mechanized farming in Port William is Troy Chatham, an erstwhile sports hero and novice farmer who, unlike his father-inlaw Athev Keith, has no reverence for the land he is working. According to Jayber, Troy “thought the land existed to serve and enlarge him.” He shares Cecelia Overhold’s love of the big, the fast, the efficient. He is among the first farmers in Port William to use mechanized labor and is a regular sight plowing soil with his new tractor while his father-in-law stands by in uncertain awe. Athey, on the other hand, is the “farm’s farmer, but also its creature and belonging. He lived its life, and it lived his; he knew that, of the two lives, his was meant to be the smaller and the shorter.” Athey takes the long view: He knows `he is supposed to take from the land what he needs and no more; he knows it will be here long after he is gone but only in the shape he has left it. Unfortunately, Troy’s view seems to be winning, while all men such as Athey and Jayber can do is stand by and watch the result emerging.

I do not mean to imply that Jayber Crow is a polemic garbed in fictional clothing. It is a full-fledged novel, pulsing with real people and events. Its heart is the exquisite story of Jayber’s lifelong love for Mattie Chatham, Troy’s wife, whom Jayber has worshiped from afar for more than 40 years. It is a chaste love, as pure as Jayber’s love for his land and its people. Not being a modern man, Jayber does not inoan and rant about the injustices of the world. He merely takes things as they are and goes on.


[Family Gathering, by Fred Chappell (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press) 72 pp., $22.50]

[Jayber Crow, by Wendell Berry (Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint Press) 384 pp., $25.00]