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The Memory of Old Jack
by Wendell Berry

Book Description
A burnished day in September 1952 provides the framework for a narrative that movingly distills the lifetime of an uncommonly admirable if very human being. A new corrected edition.

"The Memory of Old Jack is a slab of rich Americana, eloquent testimony that `it's not a tragedy when a man dies at the end of his life.'" -The New York Times Book Review

"The account of Jack's courtship of his wife is a beautiful piece of writing...and worthy of a place among the best pieces of prose written by American writers of this century."-Library Journal

From: Robert Armstrong Date: Wednesday, November 17, 2004 08:02 AM Just two chapters in, and my first impression is of something solid, expressed with clarity and confidence, about what is valuable and decent in life. I like the portrait of Mat’s hired hand, Lightning Berlew, who exudes contempt like a faint odor. Lightning highlights what is extraordinary in ordinary-appearing Mat, just by contrast of character, all done with deft detailing by Mr. Berry. So far, a very fine read. Robt
From: Mary Ellen Burns Date: Wednesday, November 17, 2004 12:23 PM I'm also a few chapters in, and enjoying the clarity of the prose and the comfortableness of the story. Mary Ellen
From: Candy Minx Date: Wednesday, November 17, 2004 03:08 PM Oh my god!!! I am so out of it around here, I have no idea whats on the reading list. I just got so happy and excited to see the amazing Wendell Berry is here, and the Memeory of Old Jack (boy am I going to feel stupid if this is my nomination or something, heh heh) Ruth and Beej!! I see you on Updike, but don't miss this one! I can't wait to dig out my copy and read this one again. Yippee yippeee....
From: Candy Minx Date: Wednesday, November 17, 2004 03:10 PM Something about your comments Robert made me think how Berry uses characters...they seem to very gently challenge us on how do we live, what are our beliefs...these are real people...yet they make me think about ideas too...about how to live...what is the root of "doing the right thing"?
From: Beej Connor Date: Wednesday, November 17, 2004 08:02 PM Okay Candy, if you'll read it, so will I (but I'll be late, but it's only 170 pages long, so it shouldn't take long for me to catch up..) Beej
From: Richard L. Pangburn Date: Thursday, November 18, 2004 12:09 PM Wendell Berry is a treasure. I'll be joining in this discussion.
From: R Bavetta Date: Thursday, November 18, 2004 06:20 PM Ack, we've lost messages again. Maybe Tonya has Richard's note. Or Richard, could you repeat what you said? R There is nothing to do with a day except to live it. -----Richard Wilbur
From: Richard L. Pangburn Date: Friday, November 19, 2004 02:24 AM Beats me. I must be doing something wrong. Testing, one, two this thing on?
From: R Bavetta Date: Friday, November 19, 2004 11:14 AM It's not you, Richard. The website was down for a little while. We've lost messages before when that happens with our server. Often Tonya has them archived tho, and can restore them. R There is nothing to do with a day except to live it. -----Richard Wilbur
From: Sherry Keller Date: Sunday, November 21, 2004 07:56 AM I hope Tonya gets the messages up un-errored, because I'm about 3/4's through with this. Sherry
From: R Bavetta Date: Sunday, November 21, 2004 12:18 PM I finished this a couple of days ago, but haven't posted yet because I'm still mulling over what to say about it. It took a long time for me to get into it, and even then I never quite did. The question is why, and that's what I don't know. R There is nothing to do with a day except to live it. -----Richard Wilbur
From: R Bavetta Date: Sunday, November 21, 2004 03:46 PM Coming back to say the fault may be mine more than the book's. I was all ready to read the new Updike when I was reminded that this was on deck and decided to squeeze it in. I think I read it with one eye, the other on the new NYer, and thinking about hurrying to get to the Updike. Not exactly a fair read. R There is nothing to do with a day except to live it. -----Richard Wilbur
From: Sherry Keller Date: Tuesday, November 23, 2004 07:16 AM I finished this yesterday and thoroughly enjoyed it, although it was sad. I grew up on a tobacco farm, and the whole setting seemed familiar to me. What I really liked was the description of the marriage between Jack and Ruth and how such a mismatch of male/female spirits wasn't just the mistake of one woman and one man, but an on-going struggle that continued from generation to generation--Andy and Kirby being the next combatants. To be accepted just for who you are is a powerful desire, and one that rarely happens, I think. In the South, especially, there is (was) that pull toward the land and that pull to leave the land. It's a shame that there's such judgment surrounding the stewardship of the land, and that anyone who wants to stay put is backward. And it's also a shame that anyone who wanted to "better" themselves had to leave. Sherry
From: Candy Minx Date: Tuesday, November 23, 2004 11:01 AM Great points Sherry. I also think there is a lot of situations in the book about character and happiness. The marriage between Jack and Ruth was so fascinating to read through and see broken down. Both the people made decisions that did not gel with their core moral beliefs. And both believed that their own vision should supercede the other partners. Why would Jack go with a woman who didn't believe in him. I think this is a spiritual question about character and about power and ego too. I mean, he knew she judged him and did not accept him. I think of the cliche of the hard to get woman...and that some men want to conquer or win over that kind of energy. It's like they are more a man if they win over something that is not interested.... And why would Ruth, wanting material goods choose to be with a man who so obviously was interested in working the opposed to proving himself in the marketplace. There is an over riding idea of the "market place" showing who is "better" or who has accomplished something in the world. As I started to read this the other night I was completely overwhelmed at how sad it I have read this twice I already knew who Jack was and his to read the first few pages hit me and I felt so sad, as a matter of fact, it felt like reading about family and at page ten...I cried. Like a major cry because there was also something about the way the book opens.. it is almost abstract and floating...and I started thing about the title which I had always taken for granted...and I started thinking...the memory of old Jack... and this book as I read on hit me more about how it is told and written and how it really seems to evoke a sense of memory...I think it is as much an exploration on how our memory makes us and teaches us about life. Even though Jack came to his lessons late in life his dreamy memory was like a teacher...a bit like how Hamlet learns through talking out loud... well I just talked too much myself, haven't reached the end of book yet...look forward to hearing from other readers! Dale!!!! Are you in on this one? I think you'd like it, in fact, I'd be surprised if you haven't already read it... Ruth, I think you might enjoy Berry's short story collection more than this's called Fidelity.
From: Jane Niemeier Date: Tuesday, November 23, 2004 10:55 PM This was a very timely book for me because it reminded me of my father and how he is retreating more and more into himself. I loved the scenes when Jack is thinking about what a splendid, head-turning man he used to be in his youth. We all have our younger selves inside of us as Jack does, and he finds solace in going back to his young self. He really seems to be reliving those times. This is the one true form of time travel. What did you all think about the affair with Ruby? Jack had only a couple of years of true love before the tragedy. Jane
From: Sherry Keller Date: Wednesday, November 24, 2004 05:55 AM I think Jack and Ruth were well-intentioned, but they really didn't know each other very well before they were married. He thought her digs at him were a kind of flirtation that would stop when they were married. She mistook his passion for the land as ambition to succeed monetarily. They defined life in different terms and didn't find out about it until they were married. If only they had done more than banter during their courtship, they might have discovered some truths about one another. I think Jack's affair hurt Ruth, but she really didn't give him much of a choice, did she? She didn't want to have any more children, and in those days, there was no such thing as birth control except abstinence. Jack was too vital a man to live with abstinence for long. But I think the affair had way more to do with finding someone who really loved him instead of what he may or may not have represented. I thought it was interesting how the town used the affair as a kind of vicarious thrill. They disapproved on the surface, but were titillated. Sherry
From: Candy Minx Date: Wednesday, November 24, 2004 02:46 PM Excellent perspective on their marriage Sherry. I tended to be disturbed by it, but your voice of reason sets me calm. I guess it shows how communication and courtship really does pay. I think you nailed how they saw each others behavior and how wrong and why.
From: Candy Minx Date: Wednesday, November 24, 2004 02:47 PM p.s. I believe this novel transcends being just a "memory" or a soap opera of one man's life...but I am not sure how it succeeds to be fascinating has something to do with a dreamy quality...
From: Dale Short Date: Wednesday, November 24, 2004 03:32 PM What first drew me to THE MEMORY OF OLD JACK, besides the quality of the writing, was that it's a glimpse into a vanished era. The agrarian culture that my grandparents, great-grandparents, etc. were born into is often the backdrop for novels but I've never seen the particulars of the system itself treated in such loving detail as Berry does here. That overwhelming emotional attachment to one's land that Sherry describes was still around in a sort of ghost form when I was a kid, but you could only get a sense of it by listening to older people talk. It was even embedded in their language. Their ideal had been to live on land that you owned, and to earn your living by working alongside "your own people." The alternative was called "going off to the public works." At the time, the phrase "public works" didn't imply the utilities industry as it does today, but instead meant having to drive some distance to work for a stranger in a business that you did not own. There was obviously money and status to be had from this, and farmers seemed to respect a person's choice to take this route...especially a young person...but there was always an unspoken air of sadness about it, as if it represented a sort of comedown in the larger scheme of things. I'll have more to say about Jack in a while when I finish my re-read, as Berry makes him exceedingly real to me. >>Dale in Ala.
From: Jane Niemeier Date: Saturday, November 27, 2004 11:29 AM Dale, I still have family members who are farmers, but most of them have other jobs. My cousin, Clay, is a teacher and a farmer. It is interesting that his son became a full-time farmer. This novel really does show that love for the land that all of you have mentioned. Berry's book is one that I will not soon forget. Jane
From: Mary Ellen Burns Date: Thursday, December 02, 2004 01:21 PM I finally finished this book; it was a slow read, but in a good way. The writing is so rich and tone elegiac, no need to rush to find out what's happening next! This really is a lovely tribute to a passing way of life, but also a gently-dealt diatribe against the forces that are making that way of life a thing of the past. I'm in the strange position of loving the book while not being sure I accept the philosophy that undergirds every word! (For example, Jack despises his banker son-in-law, in great part because he works in an office and not on the land. But aren't banks, in some form, needed to make farming possible?) I'm not sure which is the sadder thing: the story of Ruth & Jack or the story of Rose & Jack. I got the impression that the young Jack who courted Ruth (who herself must have been very, very young: 11 years younger than he!) was pretty full of himself. He wanted this beautiful woman to acknowledge his attraction to her, to be grateful for it -- and I think Ruth was always repulsed by the physical, from the dirt on Jack's hands to his physical passion. (I thought the "I don't want more children" was her excuse.) I wondered, as others have noted here, why Jack would choose a woman who was not satisfied with him. I suspect that he felt that no woman could resist him indefinitely! but I also think the pool of potential mates must have been small in this little community. It is a shame he didn't wait a few more years till that doctor died.... Mary Ellen
From: Robert Armstrong Date: Friday, December 03, 2004 12:23 AM One aspect that makes Old Jack such a memorable character is the way Wendell Berry makes him a great man within the parameter of so many flaws. I admire Jack incredibly. He has lived a life so unlike mine, and yet I aspire to know who I am as utterly as he did. Like Mary Ellen, I can’t say that I fully accept Jack’s philosophy, yet I respect it. I find much irony in this novel which I don’t think was intended—to start with, the use of tobacco farming for such high-minded praise. Doesn’t it seem heretical to consider that Jack is causing thousands of cancer deaths? Also, I have two close, gay friends who grew up on farms under the shadow of demanding, angry fathers. I have shuddered at their accounts. Jack could have been their father. So, which is he: Jack the Great or Terrible? Aren’t there people who could describe each of us as either option? Despite this ironic perturbation, I am swept up in the celebration of Old Jack’s life and the life of the farmer, and mourn the loss of it. Berry has conveyed to me, as no one else has, the value of this way of life, the way it dwarfs “progress.” The way Jack inhabits his memories (what Jane calls “the one true form of time travel”) is familiar to me from my experience of being very ill and teasing death. The way Berry shifts Jack’s consciousness between the present and past has allowed me to feel like a resident of Jack’s mind. Just to die for writing. I love this novel. Robt
From: Sherry Keller Date: Friday, December 03, 2004 06:32 AM Lovely note, Robert. I grew up on a tobacco farm in North Carolina, and it was really odd how, in the minds of tobacco farm families, the crop had nothing at all to do with cigarettes. It was still considered un-ladylike for women to smoke. Men didn't want their daughters to smoke, but didn't mind if their sons did. The sticky gum you peeled off your hands after a day of handling the leaves didn't seem to equate itself to lung disease. At least nobody talked about it. It was a big factor in my never smoking, however. When a whole way of life is dependent on a crop, there wasn't a whole lot of soul-searching. Sherry
From: Mary Ellen Burns Date: Friday, December 03, 2004 11:55 AM Sherry, thanks so much for your comments. Like Robert, I found it no small irony that Jack was a tobacco farmer. (Maybe if Berry were writing today, he'd have made it another crop?) Part of that dreaded progress, it seems to me, is the realization that that crop kills the people who use it. But, that little (!) issue aside, I also found Jack a very appealing character. I'm glad I got to know him through the medium of this book, though if I met him in the flesh, I'm not sure we'd get along too well -- I'd be one of those outsiders he wouldn't talk to! Isn't that one great thing about reading: it gives us an inside looks at people and places we'd otherwise never know! Thank you, thank you, to whomever suggested this book. Mary Ellen
From: Robert Armstrong Date: Friday, December 03, 2004 01:16 PM Mary Ellen, I nominated this book; however, it was Dale Short's high praise of it that got me to do so. Thanks, Sherry, for your comments. And I've enjoyed everyone's perspective on this thread (no surprise.) Robt


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