The Memory of Old Jack
© 1974 Wendell Berry
For years, Old Jack Beechum has been a fixture on the porch of Port William’s downtown hotel, where he sits staring into the distance until the arrival of a friend or the call to supper disturbs him from his reverie. Old Jack is a widower whose daughter long abandoned him for the bright lights of the city, but he’s far from a man alone, instead being a source of admiration for most of the men in town. Jack is the last of a generation which can remember the Civil War, the last of the men who were the true husbands of their fields and not merely the drivers of machines. He is notoriously stubborn, careful, and devoted — and The Memory of Old Jack takes readers on a journey both through his life and his final day as he is lost in memories while approaching that final rest.
As Jayber Crow noted in his own account of the town of Port William and the membership thereof, “telling a story is like reaching into a granary full of wheat and drawing out a handful. There is always more to tell than can be told”. That is ever the case with any Port William story, for they are richly interconnected with one another and with the town’s story through time. The passage of time is a theme in every Berry story that I’ve read — considering as he does the maturation or degradation of characters and the community itself — and that, combined with the fact that we encounter the same characters and some of the same stories from different angles in different books, means this is a fulsome fictional experience. Berry affects me like no other author in taking me through the full gamut of human emotions — youthful romance, debt-induced desperation, deep satisfaction in work well done, sadness and estrangement over an ill-considered marriage, rage and regret, and the deep sorrow of a parent whose child has become a stranger to them. I’ve encountered Jack in other stories, and was entranced by him here. As with any Port William story, this is not one of saccharine and happy endings; tragic things happen, and life goes on, characters making the best lives they can for themselves, and — fittingly — the story does not end with Jack’s death. He lived within a community, within a family, and their response to his death is just as important as its happening. One of the more touching moments of this particular novel is when a few of Jack’s younger friends, silver-haired men who he had mentored, gather after the funeral and swap their favorite Jackisms.
Berry’s fiction is exquisite, and The Memory of Old Jack easily ranks among my favorites along with Jayber Crow and Hannah Coulter.