The Memory of Old Jack

By Wendell Berry

2,602 ratings - 4.31* vote

In a rural Kentucky river town, "Old Jack" Beechum, a retired farmer, sees his life again through the sades of one burnished day in September 1952. Bringing the earthiness of America's past to mind, The Memory of Old Jack conveys the truth and integrity of the land and the people who live from it. Through the eyes of one man can be seen the values Americans strive to recap In a rural Kentucky river town, "Old Jack" Beechum, a retired farmer, sees his life again through the

... more

Book details

Paperback, 170 pages
October 8th 1999 by Counterpoint

(first published February 1st 1974)

Original Title
The Memory of Old Jack
1582430438 (ISBN13: 9781582430430)
Edition Language

Community Reviews


A beautifully written and intimate portrayal of A farming man at the end of his days in rural Kentucky in 1952. As Jack reminisces about his life on the land, the town and his memories of bygone days we see the importance of community, family and the land and the struggles he endures with all of these.

While this was set in rural Kentucky America, I could identify with Jack and his love and struggles with the land. I loved how the author drew us into this community and made us care about the characters. I loved going back in time with Jack and his memories and at times I felt Jack was telling his story just to me.

Wonderful sense of time and place and and a time where community and values were different and I for one loved reliving them with Jack.
This is not a plot driven novel but a quiet telling of what an old man remembers at the end of his days and while its not edge of your seat reading, it has a quiet honesty and realness about it that makes you sit up and take notice, the sort of book that makes you think about and value the important things in life.

I listened to this one on audible and it is beautifully narrated by Paul Michael. I had previously read Stand By Me Stand By Me by Wendell Berry a short story by this author I really wanted to try one of his novels and I clearly wasn’t disappointed by this one.


Wendell Berry has inspired many, including writers, Michael Pollan, Barbara Kingsolver, and Bill Mckibben. I can’t tell you how many farmers, home gardeners, or aficionados of the local food movement have been influenced by his writing, but I’m sure they are many. Even though this is the first book of Berry’s that I’ve read, I’m familiar with him because of his far-flung influence, his quotes that I’ve come across in other books. I’m glad I finally got down to reading one of his books. I didn’t realize there was an order to his Port Williams books when I began reading, but in no way did I feel handicapped by reading this one out of order. It is a complete and sparkling jewel, all on its own.

My first impression of Jack Beechum is that of a man who is fully present in his life. As his nephew, Mat, meets the cows coming in from the pasture, Jack feels Mat’s stiffness and pain, both emotional and physical. Jack knows Mat’s movements because he is familiar with the rhythms of a life that moves with the seasons and the daily work of caring for a farm and its creatures. He is, however, less present than I at first thought, for Jack is now an old man, living more in the past than the palpable world around him. But what a vivid and alive memory! Jack’s mind takes flight, going back to an idyllic day when he rides out over the farm with his brother-in-law Ben, and Mat, then five years old, to show them his stock. Everything about the day settles in upon Jack, a memory just as vibrant as the day it occurred.

Two of Jack’s brothers die in the Civil War when Jack is four years old. Within a year, his mother is dead as well. Jack is raised by his older sister, Nancy, who cares for him and their father. Even more than that, however, he is raised by the fields and the woods that surround his home. With all the sorrow the house has seen, Jack is more comfortable outside, where mother nature nourishes and teaches him, answers his curiosity and gives him purpose. Later when he marries Ruth Lightwood and their marriage is not as he’d hoped, he again finds assuagement under the great open sky and the fields that open to him with possibility.

The community of friends and kin are as important as the landscape in this novel. Berry writes of them so distinctively, Ben Feltner’s good eyes, how he sits astride his horse, at ease; of Ruth Lightwood, “The look of her reminds him of a young girl on a horse, simply trusting herself to a power she has not measured and does not know,” of Sims McGrother, a neighboring farmer with whom he will find himself at odds “His hand would, with equal indifference, ruin a horse’s mouth or a hillside.” In a few words, he describes a core personality, a person that I can see and know. This is a world where the farmer's code places a high value on physical labor. Men who look for a way to avoid work are known and not valued as much as the man who lives by his sweat. My parents and grandparents were gardeners and I have to go back to a great-grandfather to find a farmer, but physical labor was valued in my family as well. In my family, there began to be a move away from the land toward town, furniture work, and later, a push toward higher education. I see a push-pull. The land is a hard taskmaster; we began to think that an education made life easier. Berry makes you think about these things and what we’ve lost as we moved away from nature and the land. The way Berry writes about nature and farming feels spiritual. Jack’s physical nature was embedded in and with the spirit of nature. Although Jack’s life is hard physical work, he also knows how to be still and reflective. Even though his mind has mostly left the present, he was the kind of man who lived a life of engagement with mind and body alert and aware. This seems a rare person, to be fully present in daily life. Most of us have to meditate to achieve that, but Jack lived everyday life as if it were a meditation, a working life as holy as any monk's.

Connie G

"Though he stands leaning on his cane on the porch of the hotel in Port William, looking out into the first cool morning of September, 1952, he is not there. He is four miles and sixty-four years away, in the time when he had music in him and he was light."

Old Jack Beechum's mind wanders back to his younger days. At ninety-two years old it's not surprising he is a little confused and dreamy. He thinks back to how his family was devastated when his two older brothers died in the Civil War. Jack was raised by his sister, and her later husband who was a role model as a man and a farmer in rural Kentucky.

Jack was strong, stubborn, and a hard worker on the farm he inherited. He had an unfortunate marriage to Ruth who wanted him to be ambitious and rich, but Jack was content with his life as a farmer. Neither Jack nor Ruth could be what the other needed in a partner. Like many farmers, he had problems with debt but his hard work paid it off.

There was a strong bond between the neighbors in Port William that was formed from years of helping each other when the crops came in, and meeting at the general store or the barber shop. His family and friends shared a lifetime of memories with Jack who appreciated the kindness of a home-cooked meal. Although the book revolves around Jack, it also spends time with other Port William characters that seem like beloved real people.

Over Jack's lifetime there was a change in the way of life as people moved from farms to the cities. The children wanted to attend college, and find other occupations. It was hard to make a living on small family farms using horses and a plow. Farming was becoming more mechanized, and run by big businesses.

Wendell Berry is a poetic writer who has a great love of the land. His books are gems that show us an old-fashioned agrarian way of life that has been disappearing in America.

Diane Barnes

"He has no fear of death. It is coming, there is nothing to be done about it, and so he does not think about it much. It is the unknown, and he has come to the unknown before. Sometimes it has been very satisfying, the unknown. Sometimes not. Anyhow, what would a man his age propose to do instead of die? He has been around long enough to know that death is the only perfect cure for what ails mortals. After you have stood enough you die, and that is all right."

This is Jack's last day. He doesn't know that yet, but it's okay, he's ninety-two, and he's ready. We relive Jack's time through his memories of a sometimes sad and difficult life. There was the wife whose goals didn't match his own, a daughter who was distant and unknowable, problems with the farm and debt, difficulties with his own nature and the times in which he lived. But there was also the joy of owning his farm, of improving the land entrusted to him, of doing an honest days work and feeling good about it. And, because this is Port William, the friends and neighbors ready to help when they can.

In addition to Jack's memories, we see him through other's eyes as well, specifically Hannah Coulter, Andy Catlett and Mat Feltner. Our community is made closer by all these shared things, as happens when we are part of a world created by Wendell Berry, but inhabited by those of us who enter the pages of his books. This was unbearably sad in some parts, but Jack's life was not unusual in that, and made all the richer for the good it contained.


Gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous. Reading this book is like dreaming coherently--it just unfolds in front of you like liquid, with images so clear and so simple that you're instantly standing in the bodies of the characters--treading the dirt they walk on, breathing through their mouths... It is a patient book, and you must be patient with it and trust its pace. Wendell Berry is incredible in many ways, and this book is beautiful. It is a journey through Old Jack's life, but the imagery and ideas and questions and observations extend far past the narrative structure's simplicity. I will reread this book--I already cherish my relationship with it and the conversations it created with myself.


A lovely book and it has such gorgeous writing. I dare you to read this and not tear up.

I have come to read several of Wendell Berry’s books set in the fictional Kentucky town of Port William. They focus on the families of the town, related by birth and their ties to the land. All are as kin, they rely on each other, know everything about one another and share common joys and sorrows. There is a shared understanding of each one’s weaknesses and strengths. The land on which they live and the tight sense of community are the essence of these novels. The characters become individuals you care for; they come to feel as your own friends.

Readers meet the Beechum, Feltner, Coulter, and Catlett families. And others, such as Jayber Crow.

There is a sense of peace and continuity that pervades the tales. This is due to the writing. There is wisdom beautifully expressed--about human behavior and the inherent beauty, importance and value of land. After one’s own death the land remains. It passes from one generation to the next. One can draw a sense of peace and tranquility from this knowledge.

In this story one learns about Jack Beechum. It is 1952, and he is an old man of ninety-two. He reminisces. We follow his thoughts through the years. We learn about what has occurred in the town. We learn about its inhabitants, and we learn about him. I found his thoughts about his own life revealing. The central focus of the book is looking back at one’s life when it is almost over. What is important and what isn’t? It is about the appreciation of good memories and the acceptance of mistakes made.

I found this to be a wise and beautiful book.

Paul Michaels narrates this audiobook as he has narrated the others about Port William. His narration is absolutely perfect. This is how books should be narrated. Each character is given their own intonation and each one wonderfully captures that character’s personality. The speed is perfect, and every word can be easily heard. I have given both the narration and the written book itself five stars.

Even if this is my favorite book so far, I don’t think you should start here. It is better if you already know who the people in Port William are. I suggest reading the short story Stand By Me first. There is a free online link to it in my review. If the writing style appeals to you, then I would suggest continuing in the following order:

Stand By Me 4 stars
Jayber Crow 4 stars
A Place on Earth 4 stars
The Memory of Old Jack 5 stars
Hannah Coulter 2 stars
Nathan Coulter 2 stars

Andy Catlett: Early Travels TBR

Maybe this is wrong. I have not yet read all the books, but have I read the best?


Jack Beechum is old now. He is unable to help when the men gather the crops, he is a fixture when old men gather at the local store, he has had to give up his farm to a tenant and reside in the Port William hotel, where he is one of several permanent roomers. But, Jack has had a full life, was once a strapping man who sat a horse like a king, has known love and failure and heartache, and his memories are richer than his current life would allow. Most importantly, he has friends and family who love him, respect him, and value him still.

I’ve seen a lot of Old Jack as I have made my way through Wendell Berry’s novels about Port William, mostly as he is seen through the eyes of other members of his family and friends. This was his own voice, his own retrospective of his life and it left me with a much more complete and personal picture of who Jack Beechum is. I can relate so easily to all Berry’s characters, because they have life in their world and in mine. Jack could easily be my great-uncle Naman. My strongest memories of him are of a man working at the end of a hoe in a vegetable garden, bent slightly, but still strong and capable--a no-nonsense man when it came to work and a generous man of laughter when the work was done.

Old Jack’s hand, which she continues to hold, is a fixed and final shape, bent and worn, curiously inert. The stiffened fingers no longer move with an idle life of their own. They lie still until he has a use of them and then they move by deliberate will, like rude tools. His hands remind Hannah of old gnarls of root such as she has found washed up on the rockbars of the river, still holding the shape of their place in the earth though that place is changed by their departure. She holds the old, clumsy hand in hers, gently, for its own sake. But for the sake of more than that, for she is thinking, “We will come to this, my Nathan.”

I read this passage and was reminded of my own father’s hands, how they changed as he aged and how I loved to feel the paper-thin skin of them against my own. Then I realized those are the kind of hands my husband now bears, as his age slips upon him year by year.

Berry also captures the exact feeling of loss that we have when we know a whole generation of men and women are lost to us. When we see the last of them beginning to go, and we know that we are now the “older generation” ourselves.

Mat felt the change upon himself. Now he was the oldest, and the longest memory was his. Now between him and the grave stood no other man. From here on he would find the way for himself.

I have often said that the moment I became a complete adult was the moment I lost my mother. Age had nothing to do with it, it was born of the loss of the heart and mind that had always guided my footsteps and could guide them no more.

Have I mentioned that I love Wendell Berry? I love him with the fullness of a soul that you recognize in yourself. He gives me a gift that is inexplicable every time I open one of his books. He gives me my past, myself, and a little bit of himself--what more could anyone want from an author?


The Memory of Old Jack took me back to Port William, Kentucky, a fictional town that is home to a farming community that I have grown to love. This is my fifth book by Wendell Berry; it is also by far the saddest and most deeply affecting. Leave taking always is. In this story set in 1952, Port William bids farewell to one of their oldest kinsmen, Jack Beechum who is 92.

In the opening pages, Berry paints a tender portrait of Old Jack standing on a hotel porch, leaning on a cane, in the early hours of a fall morning. He is cold and contemplates where he can go to seek the warmth of a stove. We learn soon enough why in more ways than one ‘he is a man wrapped in shade.’ For the last eight years, Jack has taken up residence at Mrs. Hendrick’s hotel, a place the town barber, Jayber Crow, calls the local airport ‘where are gathered those about to depart into the heavens.’ Rather than live with his daughter and her banker husband in the city, Jack has chosen to board in this hotel in order to belong among people he loves and knows well.

As his health begins to fail, Old Jack increasingly takes leave of the present and retreats to memories of his past. We are told that ‘he is four miles and sixty-four years away in the time when he had music in him and he was light.’ Jack’s nephew, Mat Feltner and his wife, and the Port William folks, register this change with concern: ‘Old Jack has become a worry to them. In the last weeks his mind seems to have begun to fail... 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 now holds nearly all of him. And they yearn toward him, knowing that they will be changed when he is gone.’

The story of Old Jack’s life is built up gradually from his own reminiscence of times past as well as from the memories of various individuals in Port William who have labored side by side with him in the fields. Readers familiar with Wendell Berry’s writing will be pleased to meet again Ben Feltner, the Coulter brothers (Burley and Jarrat), Nathan and Hannah Coulter, Elton and Mary Penn, Wheeler Catlett, and his sons (Andy and Henry). These memories speak of Jack’s commitment to hard and honest labor, working off debts twice in his life, unhappy marriage, loneliness, and firm friendship with the men of Port William. We see Jack from the perspective of Andy Catlett (his great grand-nephew), Wheeler Catlett (his grand-nephew and lawyer), Mat Feltner (his nephew). Writing this, I become aware of how three generations of men have looked upon Jack as the salt-of-the-earth role model.

An astute reviewer pointed out that The Memory of Old Jack is a communal memory. It is a beautiful collective memory of how one generation gives to another. In his younger days Jack Beechum has looked up to Ben Feltner, his brother-in-law, a man of few words who keeps his judgment to himself. Berry tells us, ’Ben was the man Jack watched and listened to and checked his judgement against.’ In turn, Mat Feltner (age 69) has always depended on Old Jack for help when it is needed. ‘All his life Mat has had Jack before him, as standard and example, teacher and taskmaster and companion, friend and comforter. When Jack is gone, then Mat will be the oldest of that fellowship of friends and kin of which Old Jack has been for so long the center.’ The youngest of them all, Andy Catlett is torn between leaving for college and continuing the work of his predecessors who have given their lives to the land. The blessedness of the fellowship in Port William finds its expression best in Andy’s contemplation: 'Since the beginning of his consciousness he has felt over and around him the regard of that fellowship of kinsmen and friends, watching him, warning him, correcting him, teasing him, instructing him, not so much because of any ambition they have for him as because in him they see, come back again, traits and features of dead men and women they loved.'

The hardest chapter to read is the one titled ‘Return’ when Old Jack finally draws his last breath. By then, I can hardly hold back my tears. Now I know why one reviewer said, ‘I dare you to read this and not tear up.’

In case you think this is a sentimental book, it explores the struggles of life with clarity and wisdom. There is an abundance of goodwill, love, and care in Port William that spills beyond these pages to touch the reader, too. This may not be a book for everyone; its appeal may depend on one's season in life. It is elegiac in tone. Yet, like Old Jack, the reader will not fail to locate a warm stove between the lines to thaw the chill. Sadness is assuaged by the acceptance and love anchored in a community of faithful men and women. Lovely book!

Lori Keeton

Jack is the last of his generation of Port William and he knows that his time is near. Born in 1860, he lives physically in the present of 1952, but his mind wanders this day in September back in time to events in his life that he may or may not wish to recall. Jack has lived a hard life like many of this period who farmed the land and understood how to cultivate and care for the soil. His sole purpose in life was his desire to bring life to his inheritance and be free of his debts. He knows that he is not long for this world and that's just fine with him.

He has been around long enough to know that death is the only perfect cure for what ails mortals. After you have stood enough you die, and that is all right.

Much of what Jack has learned in his life has been out of sorrow. His earliest remembrance takes him to his childhood and the beginning of his understanding of this to the house he grew up in. The house bears the deaths of his mother and brothers. He begins to see where his future will be - in the land.
By his sixth year Jack's mind had already learned what would be one of its characteristic motions, turning away from the house, from the losses and failures and confinements of his history, to the land, the woods and fields of the old farm, in which he already sensed an endlessly abounding and unfolding promise.

Jack's memories take him back to times of great remorse and struggle in which he contemplates what part he played in each experience and how he could have done differently to make them better. He thinks about his ambition for more land and how the problems in his marriage only worsened as a result. His hardest struggles were with his marriage and family. He and Ruth wanted from the other what couldn't be given. Yes, there was love, but not the kind that is demonstrated unconditionally.

He was misled not by Ruth but by his own desire, so strong for her that it saw possibilities that did not exist, and believed in what it saw. And Ruth - an old tenderness wells in him like a flooding stream choked with wreckage and debris - Ruth too was misled, by him, by his foolish willingness to win her by indulging her misconceptions.

Through Jack's memories, we see the great cost that he bore with the destruction of his marriage, his financial hardship, the estrangement of his daughter. He endured much and contemplated what if? His life inside his house may have had a different outcome had his faith been there with his family. Jack, however, finally realized his faith was with and in his land. He sees himself in the psalmist who walks through the valley of the shadow of death as one who has seen his despair and come out of it worthy of what he has accomplished on his land.

He saw that he would be distinguished not by what he was or anything that he might become but by what he served....And when he knows that he lives by a bounty not his own, though his ruin lies behind him and again ahead of him, he will be at peace, for he has seen what is worthy.

We also see Jack's story through the eyes of some of Port William's beloved characters which was such a delight to me. Hannah Coulter, Andy Catlett and of course Mat Feltner provide their voice to Jack's story. While Jack's life was not an easy one, I am happy knowing that Berry felt it important to inform his reader, who loves this community, of the future of Jack's place. I was heartened knowing how it would turn out after he was gone, that Jack thought beyond the grave to his heart and love of the land ensuring its continuance.

Dave Marsland

Until recently I had never heard of Wendell Berry. I started reading The Memory of Old Jack at the same time as my wife started reading Jayber Crow. Our house was silent for days.
I immediately became immersed in the final day of Jack Beechum, reflecting upon his life, for better or worse. Critics may argue that there is little plot in this book, but that’s missing the point. This is tapestry weaving and what makes it so sublime is the language, which elevates it to dizzy heights.
A couple of the narratives stuck in my mind, one of them was Jack’s memory of being a young boy and watching his two elder siblings ride off to fight the Yankees
‘’This is not simply the knowledge of retrospect; because the vision of their departure met the knowledge of their deaths in the anachronistic mind of a child, the two have fused, so that it seems to him, in his vision, that he watches them depart with the clear foreknowledge that they will not return. They did not.’’
Or when Jack stands by the grave of the lover he took to escape his loveless marriage
‘’And always near him was the thought of the dead woman who had loved him as he was, and of the living one who could not.’’

This is just a beautiful book. Wendell Berry is a masterful story teller, in a class by himself.