by Wendell Berry
Narrative poetry. Reflective memory. Contemporary commentary.
Wendell Berry lets us tag along with "Old Jack Beechum," a retired Kentucky farmer in his twilight year. As Old Jack meanders through his day, a series of regular encounters triggers memories moving and tragic. Berry writes:
"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 away and sixty-four years away, in the time when he had music in him and he was light."
This will not be the last time Jack drifts away before drifting off for good in mid-December. A passing wagon whisks him away to his troubled marriage to Ruth, dead now seventeen years. "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. . . . What if he had been a gentler, humbler man?" (41, 48)
Berry's descriptions of the inner thoughts of Jack and Ruth's courtship, marriage, and demise is as insightful as it is beautiful. It ought to be premarital prescribed reading.
We see Jack's inner demons and personal awakenings in his memory of anger compounded over a lifetime of silence and withheld affection from Ruth, his fight with Will Wells, and in the humiliation of the loss of his farm to McGrother. But we also see the power of his resilience and resolve.
"Old Jack" Beechum is a cultural outlier, his tempered resolve and turbulent contentment forged in the fires of debt, heartache, and loss. He is a reminder that a man of 92 is the same man of 28 with less muscle and stronger memory; in the case of Old Jack, a mind made wiser by the errors of his way.
Old Jack is a throwback to simpler days. He stands as an agrarian contrast to those in city and country engaged in that "persistently frustrated pilgrimage in search of Easy Street."(156)