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January bookclubyear 1999
The Memory of Old Jack
by Wendell Berry
Bill Goodman: Hello everyone, and welcome to the bookclub@ket. And welcome to our book club friends, Cait McClanahan, Rochelle Riley, Jonathan Allison, and Dava West. This book, The Memory of Old Jack: Cait, what's it about?

Well it's about ... it's the story of a retired farmer, Jack Beechum. He is 92 years old; he lives in a small Kentucky town -- or he actually lives on a farm outside of a small Kentucky town -- and this story is his memory of his life throughout the course of one day. He is remembering his past and the events that have shaped his life.
Bill Goodman: And a fascinating life it is. What do you think Jack Beecham was like, Jonathan? As a young boy, what sort of growing up period did he have?
Jonathan: Well, that is interesting; because one of the things I liked so much about the book was the sense of history -- the way in which it recreates the history of Jack and his personal life. Also, the history of the place he grew up in, Port William. I think as a young boy he was very sad, and one of the reasons for that is because he associates the house that he grew up in with the death of his two brothers who died in the Civil War. And shortly after they died, his mother then died; and so then one of the problems he has is when he's a little boy he likes to stay away from that house, because it reminds him of the death of the brothers and of the death of the mother and it's almost as if it's haunted by ghosts. I think you know that the novelist makes it very clear that the little boy wants to stay away from the house and likes to play in the fields because the house makes him so sad and so I think as a little boy he was somebody who loved to be outside all the time, loves to be out in the outdoors in the fields but also somebody who had this whole family history of sadness in the background.
Rochelle: But I am glad you mention the word haunt because ...
Jonathan: Yes.
Rochelle: ... there was something really haunting about the book for me. It wasn't just the story of this Kentucky farmer. It was the story of old men.
Jonathan: Uh-huh.
Rochelle: ... and the way that they sort of move away from the lives they have. And they kept talking about him getting away from it and going, you know, where he is headed -- where we're all headed eventually. But it's such a romantic and haunting telling to get there; and it was like he was talking about my grandfather: There were characteristics throughout the book that applied to a North Carolina farmer, or just any old man who is at the end of his life and looking back. And I love that about it. This is my first Wendell Berry book, but I thought it was fabulous.
Bill Goodman: Dava, you are from a small town. Did you have the same impression, that Jack Beechum was sad as a young lad growing up in this Kentucky river town?
Dava: Yes I did get that impression. Definitely. But I don't think the book was sad, so much as the nostalgic sense about his life. Because I think the thing that really teaches is that Jack Beechum lived a life that is very basic to human experience -- like, he did good things and of course, he did lots of bad things. He cheated on his wife; he pretty much married a woman he really didn't love, he didn't know her that well. He just had lots of the problems that everybody has, and it's really ... I think the book's a triumph of the normal person. And, sure, things were sad and, sure, like his story is tainted with ...
Bill Goodman: ... some of those problems.
Dava: ... some of those problems. But he is so normal.
Bill Goodman: It was interesting to me because it seemed like he sort of grew out of some of that sadness and loneliness and went into sort of those middle years, before he met his first wife. What sort of young man do you think he was, Kate?
Cait: Well, he was a rounder.
Bill Goodman: Uh-huh.
Cait: He liked to have a good time.
[Everyone laughs]
Cait: He ... he, uh, he lived his life -- his young life -- with vigor [laughs], I must say.
Rochelle: Way to put it.
[Everyone laughs]
Bill Goodman: Rode horses, as everyone did at that time; was ... went to the dances on Saturday night. But ended up in church on Sunday.
Bill Goodman: Sometimes.
Rochelle: That's a great way to explain small town life, no matter what decade it is.
Cait: That's exactly right.
Rochelle: That happens now where I grew up. Well, not the riding of horses; but the rest of it. [Laughs]
Bill Goodman: What about your impressions of ... of those sort of late 20s, before he met Ruth, his first wife?
Rochelle: I just got the sense that he's one of those people that, on the outside, is easy to please. You know: There are only certain things you need in your life to be content; but that he was really fighting to find more ... to find a sense of excitement, somehow. And he wasn't finding it. He did all those bad things but he wasn't finding what he was looking for there, and I think that's why he thought he loved Ruth so much: Because she represented this elusive thing for him. Like, 'Oh, wow! Look at her! This is it, this is great.' And it wasn't close; and that was really sad.
Cait: Uh-huh.
Bill Goodman: That whole event -- meeting Ruth and all of that -- seeing her first, I think, in church, and realizing that he wanted more out of that relationship. How did that build, Jonathan? What was it? Was it something that was not to be from the very beginning?
Jonathan: Well I don't think it was apparent, at the beginning, that it was going to be a problem. Because he felt very strongly that this was the woman he wanted to be with. It was beautifully described. Actually, the whole falling in love scene and the courtship scenes were very well described I thought. I thought the writing was most passionate in some ways, at that point; and the bond that seemed to be between them -- it was it was romantic, it was sexual, but it was also ... it almost seemed spiritual for a little while. But I think that things did go wrong because they seemed to idealize each other. They seemed to not recognize each other for what they were. And they seemed to have higher expectations of the other than they really could cope with. So I think, you know, the question of being a rounder and a woman's man and a ladies man and so on, I think that's there. But it's also true, I think, that he seemed even more so from Ruth's point of view. I think he didn't really feel that he was such a sort of ... womanizer. I think that she did, and I think that it talks about how she saw dark energy within him which she was attracted to. I think that's very much the theme of the love affair: that is, her recognizing some wildness in him that she wants to have. But I think he finds it smothering in the end.
Bill Goodman: Everyone is leafing through their books, did you find something?
Rochelle: Yes. There was this passage that speaks to their relationship that just took my breath away. This is after they have just gotten together:
And so when he became her suitor and then her husband, Jack did not exactly occupy a vacancy; he usurped the place of some well-educated young minister or lawyer or doctor whose face and name were perhaps not yet known to the mother and daughter but whose place had nevertheless been appointed. And it was this hypothetical and shadowy figure that she held up to Jack as a standard.

He was doomed from the start.

Bill Goodman: I sort of had that same feeling, the first time they came to the house, which he had worked to sort of fix up. Did you get that impression? That it even happened sort of early on in their relationship, but certainly when he took her to the place that they would try to have a home?
Cait: Oh, yes. He had such high expectations. I think -- because he is a man who is content with what he has, as opposed to her being never content with what she has or will ever have -- there was no way that was ever going to be enough for her. Whereas it seems never to have crossed his mind that it wouldn't be enough.
Bill Goodman: Did you think, Dava, that she felt that, too? You don't get a lot of insight into Ruth; or, at least, most of it is from his perspective. Do you think that she realized the relationship was not going to develop?
Dava: I think she did after the marriage. It's all through the courtship that you see the element of contention in the relationship.
Bill Goodman: Uh-huh.
Dava: They were just trying to rise up to each other's challenges. And Ruth probably felt that, if she held Jack to the standard of hers for long enough, he would he would become this young, up-and-coming man that she wanted him to be. And I think Jack thought the same about her: that, if he just hung with her long enough, she would become the accepting wife he wanted her to be. And it took them ... I think they realized at the same time it wasn't going to happen.
Bill Goodman: And, too: so much tragedy in the relationship, and what he went through on the farm. And all of that ... sort of ... building: the fire, and then along comes Rose. Or, at least, it happened in a time when he was sort of reaching out; and, I guess, long ago he had put the relationship with Ruth behind him. What about Rose? Rochelle?
Rochelle: I liked Rose because she was regular folk. And that's what he really needed: somebody who appreciated him for what he was. A man who worked with his hands, who got up every morning and did his chores. And she was glad for whatever time they had together. And that's what you want in a real, true love. And I couldn't help but notice: <Jack" and "Rose" ... in "Titanic," those were the lovers' names.
Bill Goodman: Is that right?
Rochelle: Whoohoo.
[Everyone laughs]
Rochelle: You know, I got kind of excited: "This was meant to be! Oh, yeah!" There was just something relieving about when he meets her. And it's like, "Oh good," you know ... and I always try to root for the wife, you know; it's just ...
Bill Goodman: [Laughs]
Rochelle: ... you know you want to do that ... but Ruth was getting on my nerves, with the sense that he would never be up to her standards; and he really needed some happiness. So I was happy when we got to Rose.
Cait: She was a spirit; she was like his spiritual partner.
Rochelle: Yeah, yeah.
Cait: And like his relationship with the land.
Bill Goodman: Hmmm ...
Rochelle: That's a great way to put it.
Cait: Very much a marriage ...
Jonathan: Yes.
Cait: ... a spiritual marriage, with the land and with her.
Rochelle: That's exactly right.
Jonathan: Well, you know, when he first met Rose, remember: He goes in with a knife wound in his leg; and and we are told that she did something that he hadn't expected. She was at the door, and she's married to the doctor, and he expects her to say, "Well, I'll go and get the doctor." But in fact she, herself, immediately goes to his leg and touches his wound; and I think that's in great contrast with his relationship with Ruth, which from the very beginning is described as really aloof and she very fastidious.
Rochelle: Or her skin would "contract" when he touched her.
Jonathan: Yeah. She doesn't want him to touch her because then she thinks of how he also touches animals and how she he also does all this farm work and it's almost as if she is too fastidious and aloof from him ... that the physical side of their relationship was never really consummated -- as well as the spiritual side, as well.
Bill Goodman: Let's leave Rose just a minute. We will come back to Rose, she is easy to come back to ...
[Everyone laughs]
Bill Goodman: ... but what about Clara through all of this? Not when she was a child; but as she grew and -- of course, we could do the math on this -- I'm not sure how old she would be when ... I think she was probably still probably a small child when Jack began this relationship with Rose ... but, again, the relationship he had with his daughter was not really a relationship, was it?
Rochelle: No, she was her mother's daughter. And -- I think that I have to call him "Mr. Berry" because, you know, he's like up here ...
Bill Goodman: Uh-huh.
Rochelle: ... but when he writes about this, you just get the sense that there are two families living in this home. There is the mother and daughter, this single-parent household over here; and then there is this guy who just wants to have a regular, loving life and relationship. And Clara was just sort of a pawn all her life. Even after her mother had died, she was operating by those standards that she thought were expected of her. And I don't think she was ever a real person, or a real caring person; even when she married, you know, into money.
Cait: Especially not, I think, when she married him.
Rochelle: Yeah.
Cait: She was ...
Rochelle: She did what her mother would have done, if her mother had done what HER mother wanted her to do ... if that makes sense.
Jonathan: Yes. She sort of fulfilled her mother's social ambition.
Rochelle: Thank you, that's it.
Cait: Yeah.
Rochelle: [To Jonathan] You should be a writer! That was exactly what ...
[Everyone laughs]
Jonathan: I should be a talker. But I think the whole way in which the novel satirizes Clara and her husband, the banker, is very important to the novel; because, in a sense, the novel is satirizing the whole aspect of the way we live today. The very materialistic life that the Pettit's live is something that he really hits hard at, I think, in the novel. And it is sort of the antithesis of the kind of life that Jack has lived.
Cait: Uh-huh.
Jonathan: And the other farmers had lived.
Cait: Exactly.
Jonathan: And to that end I think he makes Clara a rather shallow figure. I mean she ... in a sense she's just the butt of his criticism, you know, to some extent. I think that she's not a very fully drawn character. We don't really learn much about her.
Rochelle: No.
Cait: But I think that was deliberate: She wasn't a full person.
Jonathan: Well, it is deliberate. Oh, I see. Yeah.
Cait: She is an undefined person.
Rochelle: Yeah.
Cait: Like her mother is sort of an undefined person.
Jonathan: Yeah.
Cait: He is defined by his love of the land and his attachment to the local culture.
Jonathan: Yes.
Cait: But also there is the ... oh, excuse me ...
Rochelle: That's all right.
Cait: ... the funny character of that Lightning, the hired hand.
Rochelle: I can see him moving like lightning.
Cait: How he directly compares his daughter and her husband to that really ridiculous character.
Jonathan: Right.
Dava: I, like, noted that even the first time I read this. And that was one of the passages I had wanted to talk about, specifically, because ... I just want to read that, because in paralleling Lightning and Clara, and Pettit, her husband ...
Bill Goodman: Uh-huh.
Dava: ... they are like ... like you said: the actual antithesis of Jack. I just loved it, because it says -- it was talking about Matt Feltner seeing them -- it says:

It comes to Matt suddenly -- so that he first grimaces and then grunts -- that the Berlews and the Pettits represent the two halves of the same distraction. What the Pettits are is what the Berlew dream of being. Is not the Burlew's old car the hopeless dream of a Cadillac? Is not their tireless going a persistently frustrated pilgrimage in search of Easy Street?

And I think Mr. Berry says that what Old Jack had was an understanding of his station -- an understanding of his potential and ability -- and a peace with what he was. And what the Berlews and the Pettits ... that's exactly what they don't have. What they have is constant war with themselves. Constantly trying to move higher than what they are, never being at peace with what they have.

Jonathan: Yeah, that's right. Yeah.
Bill Goodman: Let's move on into Jack's life, and his relationship -- now we are back to Rose, if you will -- and again, of course, it reached this point where they both felt a finality ... but, of course: tragedy and sadness, with what happened to her. I think he -- we will refer to him as Mr. Berry, I like that -- has certainly a unique way of providing us with all these pictures ... and to me, quite honestly, it's profoundly sad in places ... and I think that was one of those instances, that wrought that from deep within.
Jonathan: When Rose dies you mean, when she is burned in the house. Yes.
Bill Goodman: Uh-huh.
Jonathan: It's a very final moment. It is a very brutal way of dealing with the problem as a novelist. You know they ... the character dies and, in a sense, that solves the problem for Jack. But, also, it creates a great gap in his life -- a great hole in his life -- from which he can only recover by applying himself to his work, I suppose. And this gets back to your point, Cait, about the intimacy with the land and his spiritual relationship with the land. He really defines himself, doesn't he, in terms of his work.
Cait: Yes.
Jonathan: And he is at his most dignified, and most fulfilled, when he's described as working with the mules or working on the plow. Is that something that you felt about the book?
Cait: Yes, very much so.
Jonathan: Yeah.
Cait: And it's interesting, too, that soon after that incident he pays off the debt and ...
Jonathan: Yes.
Rochelle: ... because he knows what his first love is and no matter what else happens, or who else he loses, he always has that.
Cait: He will have his land.
Jonathan: Yes.
Cait: And that's just what defines him. [Laughs] I keep bringing that up, but ...
Rochelle: It's true, though.
Bill Goodman: This novel was published in 1974. Mr. Berry was -- again, doing the math -- I think 40 at the time. He had, though, this striking ability at the tender age of 40 to put himself in Jack Beechum's shoes. And I think, Cait, you might have said that Jack, when the novel begins, is 92. He's at the end of his life. But don't you think it was remarkable the way Mr. Berry wrote in the way of an elderly person, looking back at all of these things? I thought that was such a ...
Rochelle: Farmers are wiser people than the rest of us.
[Everyone laughs]
Rochelle: That is true no matter what state you live in, no matter what your background is. There is something about a timeless way of living -- and generations after generations of living that way -- that you just gain a wisdom, an insight, that shoe salesmen and journalists don't get sometimes.
Bill Goodman: [Laughs]
Cait: It's education. It's a different sort of an education, but it's a different kind of knowledge -- of how things are done, to be done the correct way, properly, throughout years and years of handing down of information. But that's a different type ...
Bill Goodman: Sometimes it's done by silence, too.
Cait: Uh-huh.
Bill Goodman: I remember at the very beginning, when he would go out into the field or he would be ... the fathers and sons would be working; and sometimes they wouldn't even speak. But they realized what each other were doing, and what they were learning in that process.
Jonathan: It's very much about the generations, and about one generation's responsibility to the next generation, and what one generation learns from the previous generation. I mean, when you are reading, you sometimes feel like getting a piece of paper out, to try to draw up the genealogy of people because you get so-and-so's grandson, and his father, and his uncle, and his great-uncle, and his grandfather and, you know, it sometimes gets a little demanding to try to work out who is related to whom. But it's very clear that he keeps stressing this idea of the generations, and that Jack is an inheritor of land but also of the kind of responsibility that land is ... which he hopes to pass on. And I think he does: He gives the land, in the end, to Elton; and there is a sense at the end, I think, that to some extent this is going to continue. Did you feel that?
[General agreement]
Cait: It's a spiritual ... it's as if he ... it's like with Rose ... it's more of a spiritual son and daughter that he saw in Elton and his wife.
Jonathan: Yes.
Rochelle: Not by blood, but tied by the land.
Cait: Yeah, tied by the land. Because he recognized that these people had a deep appreciation and understanding, and they deserved it; whereas his own daughter certainly did not.
Jonathan: Yes.
Rochelle: What did you guys think about the structure of the book? Because I tried so much to be upset, or bothered, by the work that I had to put into reading it. And I couldn't make myself be bothered by it, because it was so beautifully done. But you start out with this 92-year-old man; and then all of a sudden he's three, and all of a sudden he's 20. And you are going with his memories. And once I got into that, I loved that: "Okay, where is he going next? Which fields in his memory is he going to?"
Jonathan: Yes.
Rochelle: And I thought that was great.
Dava: I think it illustrates how memory is relative, how we assign a certain space in our mind to a certain thing.
Cait: Uh huh.
Dava: What may have been years, time-wise, may only be a little glitch in our mind.
Cait: Yeah.
Dava: You shape your own.
Cait: Uh-huh.
Dava: Your own memory.
Bill Goodman: The vehicle that he used to do that -- of just a small and careful reference to going back into the beginning -- that thinking, I was so taken by that. It might have taken the first few pages to, sort of, adapt your thinking to "That's where he is going now with that"; but then, once you do that, you are ready to go with him.
Rochelle: Oh yeah. Oh I went every place he went, and loved it.
Jonathan: But it's initially puzzling, because it's always in the present tense -- because the writing is in the present tense when he's 92, sitting on the porch, and then all of a sudden he is maybe 8 years old and he is standing in front of the family house -- but again it's in the present tense. And so, for a moment, you think "Wait a minute ..."
Rochelle: "... I thought he was 92."
Jonathan: You want him to go into the past tense. But it brings you with him, in a sense, by staying in the present tense. And it's very, very skillful. The doorways into the past, really; which you really do want to follow him through.
Rochelle: [To Jonathan] Oh that was nice, too: "doorways into the past."
[Everyone laughs]
Rochelle: Well, I will tell you something else that really struck me, and this is something that -- you like to read what the critics say about books, particularly when they're ... when you were young when they were done (I was in school, and it was a long time ago) -- but his take on television, that's in the part where he is living in the hotel. He has moved, as an old man, to this hotel.
Jonathan: Oh, uh-huh, yes.
Rochelle: When he can't stay by himself at the house.
Jonathan: Yes.
Rochelle: And Mrs. Hendricks, the woman who makes his food, says "Don't you want to go in there and watch the TV?" And ...
Jonathan: Yes.
Rochelle: And he shakes his head, and says "No, God almighty, no." And I thought, "Oooh! Grandpa!" You know, I love it:

For the cost of living beyond his time is in putting up with the various noises and contraptions of these new times, this modern ignorance, as he has come to call it in his mind.

And then when he talks about television in particular:

That a whole room full 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 of that is strange to him ...

I thought: "You GO, Mr. Berry!"

[Everyone laughs]
Rochelle: That was just wonderful, and that applies now.
Cait: And it couldn't be more true now.
Rochelle: That's some good writing.
Bill Goodman: What do you think the readers, the first time readers, take away from this novel? What do they carry away from the table -- or the chair, or the bedside -- when they finish this?
Jonathan: Well, you have great affection for the character of Jack. And, you know, you learn to see things through his lens. You may not agree with everything he says or thinks, but you ... he's a very interesting character. He is described in great complexity. And I think, also, you get a strong sense of the community of which he is a part, and this includes the community of workers: I think some of the strongest passages were describing the men coming in from the fields sitting down to a meal.
Rochelle: Uh-huh.
Jonathan: And the dialog between them, and the banter and so on. It was very ... it seemed in some ways a very attractive world, and a world which is very cohesive; and I think that's one thing you bring away from it.
Bill Goodman: Well, we don't have to vote; but I sort of get the sense that all of you enjoyed this immensely.
Rochelle: Oh ...
Cait: Loved it.
Rochelle: This is one of the best books I have ever read. And this is my first Wendell Berry book.
Cait: One of my all time favorites [laughs]
Bill Goodman: And Dava?
Dava: This is the first time I have read a Wendell Berry book; and, to my recollection, the first time I have read an actual book by a Kentucky author.
Everyone: Wow, ohhh.
Bill Goodman: We are going to have a good time. You know, Jonathan, the other thing that sort of strikes me is that I don't know how often you run into writers that write in so many disciplines as Mr. Berry. The novelist, of course, we see here. But as essayist, poet, he does so much, in so many. Do you find many writers so widely read and in their own profession doing so many genres, if you will?
Jonathan: I think it's quite unusual because many people here are ... very good poets tend to stick to that, and if they write essays they tend to be essayists or write about poetry. But, of course, Wendell is very well known as an essayist on the environment and so on. I will give you an example of that. Once I was in the Caribbean snorkeling, and I was going out in a boat. And there were these two people from California who said, "Where do you live?" And I said "Lexington, Kentucky." And they said, "Oh! That's where Wendell Berry lives!"
[Everyone laughs]
Jonathan: And I thought, "His fame has spread."
Rochelle: He is sometimes more recognizable outside of Kentucky, I think.
Cait: That's true of a lot of Kentucky writers.
Rochelle: Yes, but I can tell you, as a writer, after I read it -- and I loved this character so I mourned even though it was his time, I mourned the funeral -- but, as a writer, I was so depressed. Because I said: "Now I have to be a poet! I have to study poetry, become a farmer, go back and study all of this ... to get to this point." I mean, this was just ... it was inspiring, but it also made me think "God!" You know, those of us ... we think we are writers. But then you read this kind of work, and you see just how much more work you have to do.
Bill Goodman: Did it leave you sad at the at the very end? I mean it did ...
Read on for February's Bookclub@KET with The Secrets of a Fire King, by Kim Edwards ... and keep the conversation going online at
Bill Goodman: But still, I mean, just honestly: I was very saddened when it was inevitable. Don't you think?
Rochelle: Yeah.
Bill Goodman: Or did you think?
Jonathan: It was beautifully described, wasn't it?
Bill Goodman: Oh, wonderfully.
Jonathan: It was described almost like a sort of re-entry into nature. I mean he ... it was ... it seemed another memory but he went off into the woods, and then he sort of seemed to ... he just disappeared into the shades of the woods. It was very well described.
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Last Updated:  Wednesday, 15-Jun-2011 13:09:29 EDT