Undercover: Old Jack—The Harvest Has Surely Come (12/04/75)

old jack

Wendell Berry‘s novel The Memory of Old Jack (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich paperback, 223 pp., $2.65) takes for its subject the thoughts of a 92-year-old Kentucky farmer, Jack Beechum, on the last day of his life. It is 1952. Beechum’s mind sets off on a journey that draws him back to the last days of the Civil War. Then forward, as he learns to work and to put himself in touch with his land. He moves through successes and failures, a friendship, enemies, courtship, a loveless marriage, a romance. Occasionally the present interrupts Beechum’s thoughts for a meal or a greeting as Berry effortlessly shifts the reader 50 years in mid-paragraph.

It is not a story that trades in nostalgia; nor even, until the last 30 pages, in any facile celebration of pastoralism or “lost values.” Up to those final scenes, which deal with the events following Beechum’s death (corrupt city relatives give Old Jack an obscene funeral and ride roughshod over those who learned from and took care of him), there is not a false note in the book.

Jack Beechum is senile. He experiences the present as a man going blind. The past is supernaturally clear; the way a long-dead friend turned a phrase or moved an arm can organize 20 years of Old Jack’s life. Like a field worked every spring for half a century, everything in Jack Beechum’s life that he refuses to surrender, or that refuses to surrender to him, has been gone over again and again, until it has given up its last kernel of meaning or mystery. His life exists at once in his mind and outside of himself, as if it were both predestined and a conscious creation, a work of art—a life that can simultaneously be reexperienced and judged for its worth.

The book at first seems to be a celebration of Jack Beechum’s character, but its genius is in Berry’s voice, a tone that harmonizes Beechum’s adventures into the past with his last hours in the present. The book is not about the past, or the way in which the past is a prelude to the present, but rather about the way in which the past can be made congruent with the present, made part of it. Following Old Jack’s thoughts, one feels a strange lucidity. When one understands that Berry intends this senility as an expression of Jack Beechum’s will, the book turns into poetry:

Having no longer the immediate demands of his place and work to occupy his mind, he began to go into the past. His place and his life lay in his mind like a book and what is written in it, and he became its scholar.

Only a few works in recent years have insisted that one man or woman’s life, lived in rhythms of its own, can make more sense out of the American past, and connect us to it more surely, than a chronicle of great events or biographies of the Men Who Made History. One can think of the TV version of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, the Band’s second album, Theodore Rosengarten’s All God’s Dangers. The Memory of Old Jack is of a piece with them. And that Wendell Berry loses his hold on the book once Jack Beechum is dead is perhaps as it should be. Berry invented a character, found its rhythm, and then let that rhythm play itself out. That done, there was nothing more that needed to be said.


GOOD COMPANY


The Sixth Directorate by Joseph Hone (Dutton). An intelligent, superbly written spy thriller about the collapse of a liberal conspiracy within the KGB. Intertwined is a convincing and, in the end, harrowing love story completely uncharacteristic of the genre: The people actually have motives and desires the reader comes to care about. The action has a few small holes in it, through which most of the plot leaks, but the book is so absorbing chances are you won’t even notice.

The Blues Line: A Collection of Blues Lyrics from Leadbelly to Muddy Waters, compiled by Eric Sackheim with illustrations by Jonathan Shahn (Shirmer/Macmillan paperback). First published in 1969 as a $20 hardback, this is an historic work on the country blues, and likely the most beautifully designed music book you will ever see. Lyrics have been set to convey each singer’s phrasing and rhythm; if Sackhelm needs three pages to get a blues across, he takes it. He has clearly lived these songs, and they come off the page full of life.

Washington Journal: The Events of 1973-1974 by Elizabeth Drew (Random House). Written from a Constitutionalist, patriotic perspective, Drew’s book sets down—for the ages, one imagines—just what it felt like to live through the time when America went to the brink with itself. The last section—the Impeachment Hearings and Nixon’s resignation—is the strongest; one really feels the Founding Fathers reaching across 200 years to keep the republic they made. Unquestionably the best book yet on Watergate, and conceivably, the best we will ever get. Most of the material first appeared in the New Yorker.

Sister of the Road: The Autobiography of BoxCar Bertha as told to Dr. Ben L. Reitman (Harper Colophon paperback). This reissue of a book originally published in I937 — the story of train hobo, whore, social worker, radical and all-around free spirit Bertha Thompson — has little to do with the movie of a few years back. It’s an adventure of the Anierican road, but for once that road is a woman’s road. Thompson’s finely drawn gallery of sisters she met across the country brings female characters to life with an unself-conscious compassion and an eye for detail rarely seen. Hers is a first-rate account of women on their own in the American underground of the Twenties and Thirties, and an autobiography of great spunk and charm.


Rolling Stone, December 4, 1975


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