Wendell Berry and His Portrayal of the Elderly

I have written before about my penchant for works about old age written by the old, by those who have experienced it.  It is particularly interesting to compare a work about the old written by an author before he has entered that uncharted territory with a work completed in his own old age.  There are many authors whose writings spanned long lifetimes, but today I want to talk about Wendell Berry (now 88), and two of his best novels: The Memory Old Jack and Hannah Coulter.  Old Jack was written when Berry was 40 and concerns a character who is 92.  Hannah was published when the author was 70; the title character is 79.  Let me start by saying that they are both wonderful novels and fantastic reads.  Both novels will have you pining for times gone by, even though those times are depicted as challenging and tragic.  If you have never read Berry, these are good books to start with, but be sure you have in hand a genealogy of Berry’s Port William, Kentucky – there was one in Hannah Coulter, and I found it invaluable.  Hannah Coulter and Old Jack appear in each other’s novels; like Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha or Robinson’s Gilead, Berry has created a place and a community of people (referred to as “the membership”) that you will want to visit again and again.

But, back to old age.  The title, The Memory of Old Jack, has a double meaning.  Berry tells the story of Jack’s last day on earth through the eyes and memories of those around him. Jack’s past life comes out through his own overwhelming memories, which can be prompted by the smell of an apple pie, the creak of an opening door, a touch on the shoulder.  Sometimes these memories and observations intersect; the people around him are also the subject of many of his recollections.  But mostly, Jack’s own memories take over his whole being, and the ones who love him can just watch:

Old Jack has become a worry to them…. They have all found him at the various stations of his rounds, just standing, as poignantly vacant as an empty house.  And they have watched him, those who care about him, because they feel that he is going away from them, going into the past that holds nearly all of them.

And going into the past he is, seeing from a distance all that he could hardly comprehend when he was living it.  Like Sackville-West’s Lady Slane, “all passion is spent” and he is using his extreme old age to reflect on his past, something the elderly Lady Slane characterizes as “life’s last supreme luxury.”  Ah.

While Hannah Coulter also reflects on her life, it is in a more conscious manner.  The book opens with her memories of her dead husband’s memories (now alive only in her recollection of what he told her) and with her own story, told as she lives out an active life in the community that took her in and nurtured her when she was a young and lonely girl.  We get the past more consciously than we get it in Old Jack.  Berry is no longer writing of a sleepy, stationary oldster – Hannah is still living her life, as she takes time to reflect on her past: “Like a lot of old people that I have known, I am now living in two places: the place as it was and the place as it is.”  And place is critical.  “By those who have moved away, as my children have done, the dead may be easily forgotten.  But to those who remain, the place is forever a reminder.”  Jack is seen from a distance by a younger Berry; Hannah is perhaps the kind of old person Berry is or wishes to be.

Both Hannah and Jack are also preoccupied with their legacy – not in money or reputation, but in the stewardship of the land they tended for so long.  It is heart-breaking to both of them that their children did not return to the land.  Hannah’s children understand her attachment to the farm, but they know what farm life is and have made other choices.  Jack’s only child does not even understand.  Hannah thinks about leaving her land in some kind of conservancy; Jack tries to arrange for a young couple who have been renting his farm to buy it after his passing.

The two novels are different in many ways.  Old Jack is a figure of respect and care for the community.  He is on his last legs.  People round him up for meals and give him rides when they meet him on the road.  Hannah is still someone who is there to help.  She is a good elder in that she seldom offers unsolicited advice, but she is ready to help when people present themselves at her doorstep, as happens when she takes in a ne’er-do-well grandson.  Now, it is true that Hannah (79) is younger than Jack (92), but it seems that Berry has moved from musing on care for the elderly (in Old Jack) to the care and wisdom that the elderly are able to give to their community.

In an even later Berry novel, the title character, Andy Catlett, remembers his grandfather sitting empty-handed in a rocking chair and “studying” every night in front of the fire.  From a perspective of years later, the older Andy says that he had no idea at the time as to what the old man was “studying,” but “now I have aged into knowledge of what he was thinking about.”

This blog (When I Come to Be Old) is titled after a series of admonitions that Jonathan Swift wrote to himself about old age, when he was but thirty-two.  He promises himself not “to tell the same story over and over to the same People,” “not to talk much or of myself,” “not to boast of my former … favor with the ladies,” and so on.   The list is lively enough to show that Swift has given the matter some thought; it also shows a lack of sympathy with the elderly around him.  He is wise enough to end it: “Not to set up for observing all these Rules; for fear I should observe none.”  Old age is another world; Swift calls the state of extreme old age as being as a “foreigner in his own country.”  By the time that Berry has reached that stage, he is giving his older characters more depth, more autonomy.   Or so it would seem.  Both books are highly recommended.

This week’s story, “Skillful Means,” is about the distance between intention and reality.  It was written (partially) out of my own memory and my own good intentions.

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