(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Robert Coles, James Agee professor of social ethics at Harvard University and a child psychiatrist, has published more than thirty books, most concerning his studies of children and young people. Coles’s research and writing, begun in the 1960’s in the Civil Rights movement-era South, is informed with compassion for his subjects and a zeal to understand personal values as reflected in the inner and outer lives of his subjects. In his introduction to Old and on Their Own, Coles writes that visiting older people has been his lifelong habit, one that to him seemed a natural connection to his study of children. Coles’s earlier documentaries of the lives of the elderly are The Last and First Eskimos(1978) and The Old of New Mexico (1989), this latter with photographs by Alex Harris. For Old and on Their Own, Harris and Thomas Roma provide the accompanying photographic study.

For Old and on Their Own, Coles over a two-year period interviewed eleven men and women seventy-five and older living in Massachusetts, New York, and North Carolina. Coles’s subjects are determined to live out their lives alone in rooms, apartments, and houses, not in nursing homes or with relatives. The essays Coles writes from these interviews make up the first 127 pages of the book. Appended to the essays is a chapter on suggested readings. The final section in the book contains forty black-and- white photographs taken by Harris and Roma in Brooklyn and North Carolina.

Coles’s accounts focus on what living through most of the twentieth century has meant to his interviewees, how that living relates to their common determination to live their lives “alone and on their own,” and what occupies their minds, day after day, after a long life and before a surely imminent death. Coles notes that his most frequent question was, “How is it going today?” In the end, Cole admits, the interviewees usually controlled the content of the interviews.

Coles writes the essays both from what he heard and what he observed, not only about his subjects but also about himself. He includes some direct quotes and some paraphrasing. Coles’s content makes the reader remember how difficult it is to listen to an elderly friend or relative, how often one might close one’s ears to the details of both a long life and a frustrating and painful present. Not every elderly person is a good storyteller, though some are. The reader sometimes feels a need to skim the seemingly mundane and savor the more interesting material.

In addition to his inclusion of some material that tests the reader’s patience, Coles uses a style that makes the reader remember how difficult it is to listen to an elderly friend or relative. Coles regularly puts phrases of his subjects in parentheses and clarifies their words with bracketed explanations. Such techniques interrupt the reading and annoy the reader. In one eight-line segment of a subject’s speech, for example, Coles puts three such physical breaks in the prose: “When there’s no moon we’re all blacked out—even the shadows are gone (for me at least)”; “I listen to the [venetian] blinds”; and “I listen to the doors open and shut down the [apartment] house hall.” Are the frequent parentheses and brackets there because they are Coles’s idiosyncrasy as a writer, or because he wants the reader to remember how difficult listening to the elderly can be, with their lack of specificity, their asides, their shifts in directions? Perhaps he wants the reader to recognize the rewards of overcoming those difficulties and hearing the elderly out, as he does.

The rewards of listening come in each essay. The three excerpts above are from the first essay in the book, “I Talk to the Light, I Hear the Darkness.” The excerpts hint at the depth of revelation that reward Coles’s patient listening and the reader’s patient reading. As usual, Coles does not include much description of the interviewee’s apartment or home setting or physical appearance until this description becomes integral to what the interviewee says or does. It is his subject’s words that interest Coles, the subject’s description of an inner experience that a younger Cole and younger readers have not had and probably do not often attend to when others want to tell them about it.

By listening carefully to a sometimes witty, often impatient Nellie Benoit in this first essay, Coles gains, as he does in each interview, new understandings of history, physiology, psychology,...

(The entire section is 1846 words.)