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The Memory of Old Jack

(Port William)

4.31  ·  Rating details ·  2,557 ratings  ·  366 reviews
In a rural Kentucky river town, "Old Jack" Beechum, a retired farmer, sees his life again through the sades of one burnished day in September 1952. Bringing the earthiness of America's past to mind, The Memory of Old Jack conveys the truth and integrity of the land and the people who live from it. Through the eyes of one man can be seen the values Americans strive to recap ...more
Paperback, 170 pages
Published October 8th 1999 by Counterpoint (first published February 1st 1974)
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Bienzrw Only halfway finished, but it certainly feels that way to me. It's universal in that it explores the inner thoughts and feelings of individuals, some …moreOnly halfway finished, but it certainly feels that way to me. It's universal in that it explores the inner thoughts and feelings of individuals, some of whom have a conscious awareness of them and others perhaps sense them obliquely but would find it difficult to put them into words. Hannah seems more fully conscious: Old Jack both is, and is not, I think. (less)

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 ·  2,557 ratings  ·  366 reviews

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Oct 13, 2019 rated it really liked it
A beautifully written and intimate portrayal of A farming man at the end of his days in rural Kentucky in 1952. As Jack reminisces about his life on the land, the town and his memories of bygone days we see the importance of community, family and the land and the struggles he endures with all of these.

While this was set in rural Kentucky America, I could identify with Jack and his love and struggles with the land. I loved how the author drew us into this community and made us care about the ch
Wendell Berry has inspired many, including writers, Michael Pollan, Barbara Kingsolver, and Bill Mckibben. I can’t tell you how many farmers, home gardeners, or aficionados of the local food movement have been influenced by his writing, but I’m sure they are many. Even though this is the first book of Berry’s that I’ve read, I’m familiar with him because of his far-flung influence, his quotes that I’ve come across in other books. I’m glad I finally got down to reading one of his books. I didn’t ...more
Connie G
Dec 09, 2020 rated it it was amazing
"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 and sixty-four years away, in the time when he had music in him and he was light."

Old Jack Beechum's mind wanders back to his younger days. At ninety-two years old it's not surprising he is a little confused and dreamy. He thinks back to how his family was devastated when his two older brothers died in the Civil War. Jack w
Diane Barnes
Nov 04, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
"He has no fear of death. It is coming, there is nothing to be done about it, and so he does not think about it much. It is the unknown, and he has come to the unknown before. Sometimes it has been very satisfying, the unknown. Sometimes not. Anyhow, what would a man his age propose to do instead of die? He has been around long enough to know that death is the only perfect cure for what ails mortals. After you have stood enough you die, and that is all right."

This is Jack's last day. He doesn't
Aug 21, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous. Reading this book is like dreaming coherently--it just unfolds in front of you like liquid, with images so clear and so simple that you're instantly standing in the bodies of the characters--treading the dirt they walk on, breathing through their mouths... It is a patient book, and you must be patient with it and trust its pace. Wendell Berry is incredible in many ways, and this book is beautiful. It is a journey through Old Jack's life, but the imagery and ideas an ...more
A lovely book and it has such gorgeous writing. I dare you to read this and not tear up.

I have come to read several of Wendell Berry’s books set in the fictional Kentucky town of Port William. They focus on the families of the town, related by birth and their ties to the land. All are as kin, they rely on each other, know everything about one another and share common joys and sorrows. There is a shared understanding of each one’s weaknesses and strengths. The land on which they live and the tig
Jack Beechum is old now. He is unable to help when the men gather the crops, he is a fixture when old men gather at the local store, he has had to give up his farm to a tenant and reside in the Port William hotel, where he is one of several permanent roomers. But, Jack has had a full life, was once a strapping man who sat a horse like a king, has known love and failure and heartache, and his memories are richer than his current life would allow. Most importantly, he has friends and family who lo ...more
Apr 10, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: five-star-books
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 hou
Lori Keeton
Jack is the last of his generation of Port William and he knows that his time is near. Born in 1860, he lives physically in the present of 1952, but his mind wanders this day in September back in time to events in his life that he may or may not wish to recall. Jack has lived a hard life like many of this period who farmed the land and understood how to cultivate and care for the soil. His sole purpose in life was his desire to bring life to his inheritance and be free of his debts. He knows tha ...more
Dave Marsland
Aug 27, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Until recently I had never heard of Wendell Berry. I started reading The Memory of Old Jack at the same time as my wife started reading Jayber Crow. Our house was silent for days.
I immediately became immersed in the final day of Jack Beechum, reflecting upon his life, for better or worse. Critics may argue that there is little plot in this book, but that’s missing the point. This is tapestry weaving and what makes it so sublime is the language, which elevates it to dizzy heights.
A couple of the
Bob Brinkmeyer
May 13, 2017 rated it really liked it
For the past few months, I've been working through Wendell Berry's fiction, which overall is just marvelous. His novels and stories are consistently fine, but The Memory of Old Jack is just flat out the best Berry that I've read (I still have a few of his books to go). The Memory of Old Jack has all the virtues of Berry's other work (wise, deeply felt, environmentally and ethically challenging), but it has a level of emotional and sexual intensity that carries Berry's fiction to new heights, sor ...more
Joel Pinckney
Jun 07, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2016
What stood out to me in this reading of Old Jack were the narrator's words on ambition, in conjunction with the well established sense of place present in all of Berry's fiction. Through his narrator, Berry offers a critique of unconsidered ambition, or ambition that adheres thoughtlessly to the ladder of success offered by the surrounding culture. This emerges first in the character of Andy Catlett, who wrestles with the knowledge that he has a powerful and able mind and wants to make something ...more
Wow, this one is kind of hard for me to review. I have tried to read so many things by Wendell Berry, probably for about the past ten years, and I've never managed more than a short essay or a dozen pages of a novel before giving up. I've always felt guilty for this. A farmer from Kentucky who writes about the evils of modern agriculture, the joys of engaging in meaningful work, and the importance of being connected to nature and place, it is all right up my alley, why couldn't I get into it? Ma ...more
Simon Stegall
Apr 23, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Hold on. Trying to reattach my heartstrings here.


Ok. Now I can start. With many readers, reflective/poetical/memoir-type fiction can, depending on the readers' experiences and dispositions, cause either eye-dabbing or eyebrow raising; the eye-dabbers over-empathizing with the pregnant emotional themes of memoir types and the eyebrowers perhaps unable to empathize with too much sentiment. Wendell Berry's fiction is impossible to see this way. When his writing risks sentimentalism it plants t
Dec 08, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: fiction
I believe this to be one of Wendell Berry's finest. In it, he recounts the memories of an old man at the end of a long and eventful life. A man who spanned a good bit of the history of the fictional community of Port William, Kentucky. As he remembers or greets different characters, he remembers some story about that character and each one comes alive for those few, brief pages it takes to recount the tale. I cried at the end, but they were tears of recognition of a life well-lived. ...more
Jan 22, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Yes, yes, yes. Each sentence is a jewel from this farmer/poet/novelist. Read it carefully and within a few days' time. Don't miss it if you value land, relationships, reflection, drama. ...more
Nov 02, 2020 rated it really liked it
The saddest and loneliest book of Berry’s that I have read. Berry writes beautifully. No two characters are created equal.
Tom Mathews
Nov 28, 2020 rated it it was amazing
'Old Jack' Beechum cannot remember what he had for breakfast. Nor can he remember the names of most of the people who are continuously dropping by to check on him. At age 92, he remembers almost nothing of the world around him.

The past, though, is a different story. He may have been able too young to recall events that occurred during the Civil War, but the years afterwards are old friends. People talk about how life flashes in front of them but with Jack, life is more a slow-moving river that
B. R. Reed
Jun 29, 2020 rated it it was amazing
It’s the early fall of 1952, tobacco harvesting season in northern Kentucky. Old Jack is 92 yrs old (born in 1860) and is standing/leaning on the front porch of his boarding house watching the opening of a new morning and thinking back on his life. Thus begins the story of Jack’s mind fading in and out with recollections of his long life as a farmer in Port William, KY. Wendell Berry does a great job of catching the unsteadiness of the mind of an old man. Jack has lived and worked in the same KY ...more
Apr 06, 2018 rated it really liked it
I was realizing as I read this book how few novels slow my thoughts down and make me reflect. Most either speed it up or don't affect it at all. And yet the ones that slow me down have stayed with me in a way that others haven't. Why do so few authors try this approach? I could use a lot more pauses for thought. I could use a lot more sit-with-it thinking.

And what a strange book this is. The memories of an old man. A man who failed in so many ways. Going over what was good in his life and in th
Jan 12, 2014 rated it really liked it
Full of himself, confident and cocky as a young man, Jack belongs to a farming community where families and neighbors work side by side to plant the fields, raise a barn or harvest the annual tobacco crop. Confusing lust with love, Jack plucks from a distant town a wife, Ruth, taking her into a marriage doomed by misunderstanding to leave both lonely and alone for all the years they share the farm house. You can't help but sympathize with both of them even as their walls grow thicker by the day, ...more
T. Rose
Nov 04, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
An absolutely glorious read!

I enjoyed this book and look forward to reading the whole series. This is the first Wendell Berry book I have read. I love all the characters and the painting of words to illustrate their lifestyles. Stories within stories in the life of Old Jack and his family and friends. Heartbreakingly beautifully written.
Jul 26, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Wendell Berry is a Master Storyteller!!

A good story transports us to another place and time. I love the folks of Port William, Kentucky. I relate to each character ... I can feel their joys and at times deep despair. I want to stay there in my thoughts where people worked hard, family and friendships were treasured and devotion to the land was at the heart of their labor.

Forever remember, Old Jack
Dec 17, 2009 rated it really liked it
4.5 stars. Wendell Berry's writing is so beautiful and elegiac, it makes my heart hurt. In a good way. ...more
Feb 22, 2020 rated it really liked it
4.5 stars

Melancholy but heartwarming, the third novel Wendell Berry wrote and one that is part of his Port William series is a slow thoughtful and beautiful read. As we follow Old Jack in his perambulation round the town of Port William we also follow his descent into the past, a past that is more real to him now than the present. We hear about his farm and what he goes through to be free from debt, we hear about the courtship of his wife Ruth and the course of this marriage as well as the frien
Kathryn Bashaar
Apr 29, 2017 rated it really liked it
This book is the story of Jack Beechum's last day on earth, and the story of his whole life. Over the course of his last day, 92-year-old Jack drifts back and forth between keen observation of the present and even keener memories of the key events of his long life. His first memory is of watching his much-older brothers leave to fight in the American Civil War. They will not return. And that is only the first of the heartbreaks that Jack will endure.
But overall Jack is fortunate. He is strong a
Dec 28, 2020 rated it really liked it
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Apr 20, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2019, book-girl
This story is slow and steady and takes place in one day. Having said that, Jack is reflecting on his life and how the events took place. He is a man with much tragedy and much satisfaction. He and the land are one. He is respected by those in the town where he lives. This story is one of community and love, respect and tolerance, misunderstandings and grace.
Chad Harrison
Apr 02, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Beautiful and heartbreaking and life-affirming. A portrait of an old farmer, told through his memories on the last day of his life. The writing is perfect, as simple and straightforward, and as deeply poetic, as Old Jack himself. Berry paints a picture of the goodness of man and of a man without giving a sermon. He lets Jack pine for older days of being connected to the land and to your "people" without coming across as blindly nostalgic.

It pains me how much like Glad Petit I am, how steeped in
Aug 16, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: pacific-u-mfa
Jack Driscoll, my MFA advisor, recommended this book to me and I recommend it for many reasons: long lines, ambling and ample rhythms, and full-mouthed words like ripe fruit, anabashedly poetic in their slowness but never showy. I agree with the reviewer in Library Journal that the chapter about Jack’s courtship of his wife is especially beautiful, and so sad: “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 ...more
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Wendell Berry is a conservationist, farmer, essayist, novelist, professor of English and poet. He was born August 5, 1934 in Henry County, Kentucky where he now lives on a farm. The New York Times has called Berry the "prophet of rural America." ...more

Other books in the series

Port William (8 books)
  • Nathan Coulter
  • A Place on Earth
  • Remembering
  • A World Lost
  • Jayber Crow
  • Hannah Coulter
  • Andy Catlett: Early Travels

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“The work satisfied something deeper in him than his own desire. It was as if he went to his fields in the spring, not just because he wanted to, but because his father and grandfather before him had gone because they wanted to - because, since the first seeds were planted by hand in the ground, his kinsmen had gone each spring to the fields. When he stepped into the first opening furrow of a new season he was not merely fulfilling an economic necessity; he was answering the summons of an immemorial kinship; he was shaping a passage by which an ancient vision might pass once again into the ground.” 5 likes
“Now when he walked in his fields and pastures and woodlands he was tramping into his mind the shape of the land, his thought becoming indistinguishable from it, so that when he came to die his intelligence would subside into it like its own spirit.” 4 likes
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