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Tom Chaney: R713 - Memory of Old Jack, Wendell Berry

Of writers and their books. Review Memory of Old Jack by Kentucky writer Wendell Berry
The next latest Tom Chaney column:Tom Chaney: R712 - The catalpa's white week. A poetic essay on the famed Horse Cave, KY, landmark catalpa tree.

By Tom Chaney

Memory of Old Jack

This short novel is one of Wendell Berry's best pieces of writing. In all of his career Berry's poetry, essays, and prose have focused on man's task of living on the earth in context of earth's nature, its built-in demands -- in harmony with the land from which all life springs.

Jack Beechum, born in 1860, is reliving his life on the last day of that life in 1952. He has spent those years caring for the farm entrusted to him by his family. Learning from his brother-in-law, Ben Feltner, and his community -- and teaching others including Ben's son Mat. Jack has made serious errors during the ten decades he has been a member of the Port William membership.

His marriage to Ruth grows from the seed of love sown in the shallow soil of mutual attraction and withers in the realization that Ruth can no more buy into Jack's commitment to the land than Jack can accept her idea of progress.

In an attempt to please Ruth, Jack had bought a neighboring farm seeking to redeem it from neglect. He engaged a tenant with whom he worked well for a year or two. The relationship does not survive Jack's realization that the man had worked with no hope of involvement in the land. Jack retreated back into the farm he knew and for which he can care with his own labor and the help from his neighbors.

The relationship of Jack and Ruth deteriorated further after the still-birth of their son and the subsequent birth of a daughter, Clara. Clara became her mother's child with Ruth's ambition for upward mobility. Escaping the land, Clara married a Louisville banker who once drove his car right up to the porch at Jack's to avoid stepping in the mud.

On his dying day Jack recalls the only satisfactory love affair of his life. When the elderly doctor in Port William died, Jack and the doctor's much younger widow Rose began a satisfying, illicit affair ended only by Rose's death in a fire which consumed her house. "That was his failure: he had not united farm and household and marriage bed, and he could not. For him that was not to be, though the vision of what he had lost survived in his knowledge of his failure, and taught him the magnitude of his tragedy, and made him whole."

Jack had bought the family farm at the urging of his older sister, Nancy, who had become a mother to him when their mother died after the death of her two sons in the Civil War. He was encouraged and taught by Nancy's husband Ben Feltner. "Now, with Ben gone, Jack had his mind, and his eye too, on Mat [Ben's son]. He had loved Mat through all his growing up and had had the satisfaction of seeing him become a young man worthy, perhaps, of his father."

Memory of Old Jack is set on a day in tobacco cutting time on Mat's place. Mat, now himself a grandfather, keeps an eye out for Jack -- realizing that he is growing increasingly feeble. Mat and his wife Margaret bring Jack across the road from town to their house for dinner with the tobacco cutters. Those cutters include Jack's great, great nephew Andy Catlett -- off to college at the end of the day.

At the end of the day Andy receives upon parting the gentle touch of Jack's hand on his shoulder as a blessing, such as Jack had received from Andy's great grandfather Ben, and had himself bestowed upon Ben's son Mat.

After Andy leaves, Jack enters the boarding house where he lives, ignores his supper, lost as he is in his vision of his life. When the landlady asks Jack to join the other boarders before the television, he refuses, thinking, "[t]hat a whole roomful of people should sit with their mouths open like a nest of young birds, peering into a picture box the invariable message of which is the desirability of Something Else or Someplace Else; that a government should tax its people in order to make a bomb powerful enough to blow up the world; that a whole country would attempt a civilization with the exclusive aim of getting out of work -- all that is strange to him, unreal; he might have slept long and waked in a land of talking monkeys."

Jack makes his way back to his room, settles in a high-backed wooden rocker facing the window where he waits for light in the morning and darkness at evening. In his mind he walks along a track in his woods at the end of a day's work to a clearing containing a large walnut tree. "He turns from the wagon track and goes straight down across the pasture through the glow of the air to the tree. He sits at its root and leans his back and the back of his head against the trunk. All around him is still now. And he is still, his hands lying at rest in his lap, and within himself he is still. He can think of no other place he would want to be. Below him, among the trees along the creek he can see a pool of water white with the reflection of the sky."

Called by the landlady next morning when Jack does not appear, Mat finds what was left of him still in his chair, "the spirit was gone from his eyes. His eyes had become substantial and opaque. He had been dead several hours.

" 'At last,' [Mat] thought 'At last. And so well.' "

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at

Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749. Phone (270) 786-3084. email: Tom Chaney
The BOOKSTORETo see links to other Tom Chaney essays and book reviews, enter "Tom Chaney" in the search box

This story was posted on 2011-06-05 05:02:00
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