The View from Eighty

by Malcolm Cowley

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The View from Eighty

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This book is for everyone. Malcolm Cowley has, in his own words, entered “the country of age” and declared it “different from what you supposed it to be.” His essay is a “report, submitted as a road map and guide to some of the principal monuments.” Ninety-eight percent of the American population is under eighty years of age, and everyone can certainly profit from the wise, warm, and witty insights Cowley offers to those who will someday be old. The two percent of the population who are more than eighty years old finally have an experienced spokesman to explain what being old is really like, for, as he points out, a person who is merely in the sixties or seventies is not yet fully informed. They still, he says, “have the illusion of being middle-aged.” Cowley’s subject is life, and everyone needs to know more about that. He tells us what aging and old age mean and how to seek out the pleasures and tolerate the pains in the country of the old.

Cowley is unusually well qualified to appraise the patterns of a culture and offer measured judgments about large, important subjects. He is the premiere critic for understanding and articulating the events and ideas and personalities that dominated a major literary generation of twentieth century American literature: the “lost generation” that included not only Cowley himself but also Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, Stephen Crane, William Faulkner, e. e. cummings, John Dos Passos, Thornton Wilder, and more than 350 others, who lived mainly in the left bank area of Paris during the 1920’s. He told about them in two books. Exile’s Return (1934) established the idea that his generation, formed by the expatriate life and the experiences of war, differed significantly from previous generations of American writers. In part, they differed in that they came to believe an unexpressed idea that theirs was the generation that would change the world for the better in this new century. In A Second Flowering: Works and Days of the Lost Generation (1973), Cowley continued his finding of patterns, this time exploring the long careers of the major writers of the lost generation and finding that some of the most extraordinary writers of his generation “lacked the capacity for growth after middle age that has marked some of the truly great writers.” He also found that Faulkner may be the only one to remain a “world figure” in literature. Pronouncing such judgments became a career for Cowley, and his work is among the most respected criticism of the 1920’s as a reward for its excellence in clarity and perception.

The View from 80 benefits from Cowley’s special gift of writing with grace and simple eloquence. Typically, his books are part memoirs and part history. They are, in other words, created out of his own experience and reading, without relying much on other sources. Luckily, his books do not suffer from ideological biases or axe grinding. When they contain parts that are weak, the weakness derives from Cowley’s own lack of experience with the writer he discusses. The experience, however, on which he does report is wide ranging and without peer. He demonstrates his value twice in two recent books,—And I Worked at the Writer’s Trade (1978) and The Dream of the Golden Mountains: Remembering the 1930s (1980). In the first, he recalls his work as writer and editor and even offers a theory of literary generations in a chapter dealing with Hemingway. In the latter, Cowley provides a fascinating memoir of the cultural and social climate during the...

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Depression and New Deal. While he participated in Communist-front writers’ organizations, he did not join the Party. He is particularly good at detailing the consciousness of the middle class and professions and at explaining how the sense of decay of capitalism and, indeed, of American culture gave rise to a vision that was religious in its intensity. As the young became involved in this new vision, they could dream of “the golden mountains,” of merging with the workers, suffering their hardships, and being born again.

Those were the years when he was young. He lived life fully. He was not merely a writer, editor, and lecturer, he was a visiting professor at several leading colleges and universities; he helped organize the first American Writers Congress in 1935; he was associate editor for short periods of time for Broom, Cessation, and New Republic (1929-1944); he translated numerous books from the French; and he edited numerous works, most notably The Portable Faulkner (1946), which, more than any other factor, is credited with reviving Faulkner’s work for the reading public and paving the way for him to publish more, to receive the Nobel Prize, and to become one of America’s most prominent authors. From 1956 to 1959 and from 1962 to 1965, he was President of the National Institute of Arts and Letters. He also published three books of poetry—Blue Juniata (1929), The Dry Season (1941), and Blue Juniata: Collected Poems (1968). He is a man whose experience and accomplishments, one being to live past eighty, entitle him to educate others about what it is like to be old and to offer octogenarians some sage advice.

The View from 80 continues to offer anecdotes and appraisals of patterns that Cowley has established as his style. For example, he tells when an individual realizes he or she is old—the signs are subtle. He recalls the near-collision he had several years ago in a parking lot. When the irate driver of the other car saw him, he immediately cooled down and said, “Why, you’re an old man.” Then there was the time a young woman got up and offered him her seat on a crowded bus. While he declined her offer, he accepted a similar offer the next year, “though with a sense of having diminished myself.” So how do we start growing old? “We start by growing old in other people’s eyes, then slowly we come to share their judgment.” With this pronouncement is the implication that the casual judgment is more harsh than anger or outright condemnation, and this view characterizes a strong part of the book: that of challenging old-age stereotypes.

What are the signs of growing old, of entering the “country of age”? The body sends some messages on occasion. For example, “You are old” when the bones ache, when more little bottles of medicine crowd the medicine cabinet, when year by year the feet seem farther from the hands, or when a man “can’t stand on one leg and has trouble pulling on his pants.” More sadly, a person becomes old when “a pretty girl passes him in the street and he doesn’t turn his head.” Or, when everything takes longer, such as shaving, dressing, and the like—but when time passes quickly.” Also, when it becomes harder for the aging person “to bear in mind two things at once.” The old person “feels as strong as ever when he is sitting back in a comfortable chair.” There the person ruminates, dreams, remembers. The moment he rises to do something such as go hunting, however, as he did ten or twenty years ago, the body sends its messages.

What can one do in this situation, having become one of only two percent—or 4,842,000 persons—of the octogenarians? The greatest temptation is “simply giving up.” Society even aids the old to think less of themselves, to think of giving up, by making them “feel that they no longer have a function in the community. Their families don’t ask them for advice, don’t really listen when they speak, don’t call on them for efforts.” As Cowley points out for the readers benefit, the aging person, even before eighty, may undergo another identity crisis like that of adolescence. What one does is to deal with age by vigorous living, by a sense of purpose, accompanied by some work outlet—just as it is essential in earlier life.

Perhaps, although Cowley does not say this explicitly, if we “look at ourselves with a sense of humor, we can adapt to the limitations of age.” Besides “giving up,” Cowley explains the vices—“new vices”—of age and some less widely known “new compensations.” Among the vices of age are “avarice, untidiness, and vanity, which last takes the form of a craving to be loved or simply admired.” Some people hoard money, perhaps to take “comfort in watching it accumulate while other powers are dwindling away.” Is the untidiness resulting from accumulating junk derived from the feeling that “everything once useful, including their own bodies, should be preserved”? If the elderly person, in order to avoid the vice of untidiness becomes excessively neat, is that not also some milder vice? Are these efforts to avoid a sense of purpose, some useful work outlet or project? While Cowley does not say so explicitly, he finds these vices dismaying and recommends guarding against them.

Vanity as a vice deserves special attention, for apparently those who enter the country of the old often yearn for recognition of what one has been: a beauty queen, an athlete, a scholar, a leader, a soldier. Creams, powders, and dyes come into use. Photographs of younger versions of the old adorn the living room; and then there is the seeking of honors and “the innocent boast” at parties. “Attentions which seem trivial and conventional are marks of honor—the morning call, being sought after, having people rise for you... .” As Cicero observed, “What pleasures of the body can be compared to the prerogatives of influence?” Cowley does, however, point out the pleasures of the body and the mind that older persons can look forward to. Vanity can be avoided.

Pleasures include such nonstereotyped activities as simply sitting still “with a delicious feeling of indolence that was seldom attained in earlier years.” The older person at such moments “has become a part of nature.” The future does not exist for such a person; he is outside the battle. Meals, too, serve as “climactic moments of the day,” and sleep “has become a definite pleasure, not the mere interruption it once had become.” Those in nursing homes may be “busiest when their hands are still.” The stream of “persons, images, phrases, and familiar tunes” play in their minds, combining their past with their present. They may “conduct silent dialogues with a vanished friend ... often more rewarding than spoken conversations.” These pleasures require inner resources, and for those lacking these, he comes back to find a project, a sense of purpose—not to give up.

Cowley does not exhibit any false hopes about aging, nor does he indulge in self-pity. Everyone wants to know the chances for living past eighty, so he cites the Census Bureau reports of 1978 that states that white males have a life expectancy of 6.7 years if they reach the age of eighty, white females 8.6 years, and black females 11.0 years. His considered opinion is that “without grave diseases or crippling accidents or inherited defects, and with a careful diet, the normal human life span might be about 90 years—a little more for women, a little less for men.” He notices that artists, if they survive their early life, live “longer productive lives” than those in other callings. Apparently, what they do stirs the blood, and that is essential to long life. Fiction writers apparently live too “hypertensively in their imaginations,” and they tend not to last long. Musicians, scientists, mathematicians, and philosophers seem long-enduring. Lawyers last long too, often by becoming judges. Cowley concludes from these observations that “a general rule might be that persons called upon to give sage advice—unless they are doctors—live longer than persons who act on that advice.”

The question that obsesses Cowley is what to do with the years the Census Bureau “grudgingly allowed” the aged. He worries about the ones who let themselves be isolated in retirement communities or nursing homes—“often too soon”—“where they are left without an occupation to dignify their lives.” He notes that the work force “won’t take you back” and that “older persons are our great unutilized source of labor.” “A growing weakness of American society is that it regards the old as consumers but not producers.” Even that is an error, as he notes, for the retired enjoy an average income far below the national median—so they make poor consumers. He cites numerous examples of those who have found in their neighborhoods a niche of their own, “their work.” “But at 80, what shall it be?”

He turns to books for guidance, yet, very few offer any personal experience. He finds that the few available writings were produced by men and women in their fifties or early sixties, “a time when most of them wanted to paint a bright prospect of their years to come.” He recommends Alex Comfort’s A Good Age as full of sound advice. Comfort agrees with Cowley: “What the retired need,” he says, “... isn’t leisure, it’s occupation.” Cowley thinks, however, that Comfort may be too tenderhearted about the prospects for long-continuing sexual energy. He regards Simone de Beauvoir’s The Coming of Age as stressing the grim picture of age without giving attention to the compensations of old age. He recommends her book for its many fascinating anecdotes, which is not damning with faint praise.

At a time of life when social horizons narrow—old friends vanish and new ones are hard to find, entertaining visitors and making visits become problematic—the older person “is drawn back into himself.” In this situation, Cowley offers a kind of wisdom from which at least ninety-eight percent of us can profit:Those who have led rich lives are rewarded by having richer memories. Those who have loved are more likely to be loved in return. In spite of accidents and ingratitude, those who have served others are a little more likely to be served.

Those who are selfish and heartless now “will suffer from the heartlessness of others, if they live long enough.” The basic fears haunt many of the old—“declining into simplified versions of themselves” is one. If they once were habitually dissatisfied, “they become whiners and scolds.” “If they were habitually kind, in age, they become, like Emerson, the image of benignity.” Or they may fear becoming helpless, “the fear of being as dependent as a young child, while not being loved as a child is loved.” Then there is the thought of death, often “less a fear than a stimulus to more intense living.” The “’flaming thunderbolt’ of imminent death sometimes rouses older persons to extraordinary efforts.” He ought to know, for Cowley himself has shaped a life in his old age that is the envy of many a young man or woman at the peak of a career.

Each person, Cowley pronounces, must discover his own purpose. “Every old person needs a work project if he wants to keep himself more alive.” The project “should be big enough to demand his best efforts, yet not so big as to dishearten him and let him fall back into apathy.” he suggests that a new project calls upon “aspects of the personality that were formerly neglected and hence may release a new store of energy.” Then there are those who take to painting or to speculating in Wall Street or to counseling or to caring for gardens. Whatever it is, he wonders whether we can all be artists, “each in his own fashion.” The one project that tempts Cowley is “trying to find a shape or pattern in our lives.” While our lives may seem random and “a monotonous series of incidents,” “each of them has a plot.” Cowley himself has set a lifetime series of good examples, from his first book in 1934 to this most recent one. First, one must untangle materials and memories and then arrange the stories in sequence. The result, as Cowley has found, “might lead to an absolutely candid book of memoirs.” The old have “nothing to lose by telling the truth.” The pursuit is fascinating and may “help us to possess our own identities.” Perhaps, he says, we can say “I was and am this.” Cowley himself has felt that he wasted his twenties by not writing the books of which he was capable. He has changed that pattern for the better and for the benefit of all.