Finding Wisdom in the Letters of Aging Writers

In 1975, a 63-year-old Elizabeth Bishop wrote to her long-time friend and fellow poet Robert Lowell, who was then 58 and just two years from his death. “I’m going to be very impertinent and aggressive,” she wrote. “Please, please don’t talk about old age so much, my dear old friend! You are giving me the creeps.” In many ways, Bishop’s admonition of Lowell is the perfect expression of a particular antagonism toward the changes and challenges brought on by aging. This discomfort isn’t simply garden-variety fear, or even denial, but an insurgency-like resistance.

You see this attitude about growing older reflected in pop culture today. A recent USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism study looked at the 100 top-grossing films of 2015 and found that older characters were often discussed with ageist and “troubling” language, and that senior citizens are underrepresented in the medium. Popular music is, and has always been, dominated by the young, and TV rarely focuses on the lives of people older than 60 with the same nuance it reserves for the young. There are exceptions of course, but because of this broader cultural antipathy, the inner lives of late-middle age and elderly Americans remain the unexamined deep sea of the culture.

Even the TV shows, songs, or works of fiction by or about an older person don’t necessarily represent the artist’s private experience of the world. This is where the late letters of great artists, particularly writers, can offer a valuable window into the realities of older age. It’s through his letters that we learn that Saul Bellow realized even the world’s best fiction and drama could not truly capture the personal side of aging. In 1996, Bellow wrote to the critic James Wood, “I had, as a fanatical or engagé reader, studied over many decades gallery after gallery of old men in novels in plays and I thought I knew all about them.” Bellow then mentions a number of characters, including Prince Bolkonsky in War and Peace and King Lear, before concluding, “But all of this business about crabbed age and youth tells you absolutely nothing about your own self.”

Meanwhile, the epistolary collections of famous writers suggest that the ordinary letter, freed from the self-consciousness and professional considerations of the manuscript, can offer rare insights into aging. This year saw the publication of the fourth and final volume of Samuel Beckett’s letters, The Letters of Samuel Beckett: 1966-1989, representing his correspondence from the age of 60 to his death at the age of 83. This marvelous volume follows two equally important collections of letters from the past decade, Saul Bellow: Letters (2010) and Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell (2008), which have been singled out by critics as works destined to become classics.

As 21st-century writers have transitioned from letter writing to email, a specific literary tradition seems to have come to its end, one that offered a slower, more meditative, and writerly microscope into all aspects of life, including the aging process. Reading these letters is meaningful, not so much because some elderly people are “wise.” Rather, there is much practical and intellectual guidance to be gleaned from spending time with imaginative, highly articulate individuals as they face the existential realities of illness, declining productivity, the death of friends, guilt, and, finally, letting go of cherished activities and passions.

Reading the late letters of Samuel Beckett, it becomes clear his youthful pessimism positioned him quite well for the physical and mental challenges of aging. In his introduction to Beckett’s letters, the editor Dan Gunn writes, “There is a sense in which if ever anyone were suited to, and prepared for, the inevitable winnowings of old age, that person is Beckett, harbouring as he seems to have done, practically from the outset, an old man within him.”

Whereas Lowell and Bellow were prone to ruminate philosophically on aging, Beckett would only mention it occasionally, and matter-of-factly, with little reflection or prejudice. Writing in 1968 about his ongoing eye troubles in his early 60s, Beckett notes: “Nothing to be done about eyes for the moment. They are perhaps very slightly worse, hard to say. Well there it is, old age in all its beauty, funny I didn’t see it sooner.” Certain instances in the letters, such as the preceding one, read as if Beckett had achieved a kind of Zen Buddhist “Middle Way,” where aging was neither something to resist nor analyze, neither good nor bad. It is a rather uncomplicated outlook, and possibly a sensible curative to a cultural impulse to preserve youth at all costs.

But despite the benefits of Beckett’s attitude, he’s not quite an exemplar of healthful aging: His “lifestyle” was that of a Parisian Bohemian, and he seemed unconcerned about the harmful physical effects of smoking and drinking. After an illness in 1969, he writes, “I am almost quite well again. I have not smoked for nearly a year, but hope to light up again soon. Whiskey too was out for a time but has now resumed its kind offices.” This all may sound deliberately reckless and irresponsible in 2016, but in the final analysis, Beckett lived until he was 83 and was active and productive late into life. His letters are a reminder to avoid seeking out a single cookie-cutter approach to living a long and active life, since everyone must draft their own map through trial and error.

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