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!