An excerpt from BERNICE AND JOHN: FINALLY MEETING YOUR PARENTS WHO DIED A LONG TIME AGO:
There is an awesome human-ness to this attitude, expressed routinely as she took her young son on her lap, opened a small book, and began to read. Today, nearly 70 years after the fact, her vocal inflections are branded on my brain. That thin volume from which she read is among my most precious and treasured material possessions. Late at night I sometimes pull it down from the high shelf where it rests and open it, staring at the pages in silence. Once again I am four years old, with my mother’s arm around me, and I can hear her voice. The poem is entitled Jonathan Bing, and it concerns a man who tries to visit a king but cannot get past either the disdainful crowd or the palace guards, mainly because of his clothing, or lack thereof. Eventually, he gives up and goes home.
On the written page, Jonathan Bing comes across as somewhat of a dunce, but with my mother’s inflections, he becomes a character struggling with an authority who he knows demands respect but simply cannot get it because people on the street are not able to understand how a king might receive Jonathan without a hat. By her reading, Lillian Bernice makes that not only the king’s problem, but also, indeed perhaps especially, the crowd’s —read society’s—problem. We never know whether the king cared what Jonathan wore or not. The king may have been a wonderful beer-guzzling bear-hunting good old boy who’d slap Jonathan on the back, say thanks for showing up regardless of what you’re wearing, and toss him a couple of gold coins. Bernice cut him no slack; if he’d been that kind of a king, Jonathan would never have worried about what to wear and there would be no poem.
She cuts the crowd even less slack, however; in failing to describe the king himself, the poet leaves that personality to our imagination but clearly puts Bing at the mercy of the mob. Even when Jonathan goes home and puts on a new hat folks on the street, he’s still at odds with the palace guards, i.e., military-industrial complex. Needless to say, before the poem is over, Bing has forgotten various parts of his wardrobe, and finishes his encounter with the King by writing a short note, indicating that he’ll stay home, where he probably belonged in the first place.
Perhaps there is research to be done on the subliminal effects of vocalizations on very young children, research akin to that done on bird chicks hearing their parents call through an egg shell, thus establishing world views. To Lillian Bernice, and now to her children, it is those in positions of power who must prove their worthiness to their subjects, not vice versa. But it’s the crowd—the mob, the group, society—that is the real tyrant. And when Mr. Bing declares, to himself, that he’s better off at home than out on the street or in the company of kings, that conclusion has an immensely powerful sense of truth to it, especially if, like Bernice, you’ve made your home your library.
I tried to get permission to use lines from the poem “Jonathan Bing” in this book, but the copyright owners wanted $500 so I wrote around the problem. Fortunately, however, the entire poem can be found on the Internet at the following web site:
An e-book version of BERNICE AND JOHN can be found on smashwords at the following link:
For other Janovy books available electronically, see