Finding Wisdom in the Letters of Aging Writers

The epistolary collections of authors such as Samuel Beckett, Saul Bellow, and Elizabeth Bishop suggest that old-fashioned communication can offer invaluable insight into the process of growing older.

Hulton Deutsch / Bettmann / AFP / Stringer / Getty / Library of Congress / The Atlantic

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.

Letters also give readers glimpses into the little everyday indignities and mishaps that anyone over 60 is familiar with. It’s comforting, at times humorous, and even liberating to read about the kind of falls and mishaps that are commonly left out of the biographies of Nobel Prize winners. “Might have damaged myself beyond repair last night in the bathroom,” Beckett writes at the age of 69 to his life-long mistress Barbara Bray in 1975. “Had got out of the bath & was drying myself with my back to it when my feet slipped & I fell in backward.” Two years later he writes, “I slipped & fell in the street yesterday, but could pick myself up & go on cursing God & man.” This elliptical sentence exemplifies what is great about Beckett’s letters, and about his approach to growing old. He falls down—he of course gets up. But then, in a perfect Beckettian flourish, he curses both God and man, though one can almost hear the wink-and-nod of Irish sarcasm, tossed in for the benefit of his reader.

The onset of middle age, and beyond, often prompts the second-guessing of old decisions. Some feel guilty about relationships pursued (or not pursued), while others wish they had followed an early passion or artistic impulse. In three separate letters, Beckett discusses his remorse about not going to work for the Guinness beer company in Dublin just as his middle-class father had repeatedly suggested. It’s a detail that many unfulfilled workers should ponder: A life as a successful musician, or All-Pro quarterback, or even as a Nobel Prize-winning writer for that matter, does not exempt one from the pangs of occupational regret. You can be brilliant; you can write Waiting for Godot, you can have an apartment in Paris and a house in the French countryside, and still wonder if you’d be happier being a 9-to-5 drone in a Dublin office cubicle.

In 1988 Beckett’s life took its most severe turn when he entered a nursing home in Paris. He understood this was his final home. He writes, “Still here with the old crocks [Beckett’s slang for old people], it sometimes feels for keeps.” A year later, during his final year, his letters become shorter, terser, more like emails than epistles. In one of the more touching lines, he ends a letter to his friend Rick Cluchey by writing: “Silence is my cloister.” A long life, by its very nature, ensures that one will witness the death of close of friends, potentially even a spouse, and many others who have formed one’s community. And when one is removed to a nursing home, social isolation becomes a reality—and there is no roadmap for such challenges. But perhaps Beckett did understand the nursing-home experience as something of a monastery-like place of contemplation, a place where loneliness and isolation could, perhaps, be spiritual fodder for personal redemption.

Like Beckett, Bellow lived into his 80s, facing a type of decline that both Bishop and Lowell avoided by dying in their 60s. Yet with Bellow, aging takes on a much different look, and a distinctly American one at that. Though born in Canada to Russian immigrants, Bellow’s work ethic, passions, and “adolescent ambition” (his words) seemed to perfectly mirror his adopted nation’s  exuberant rise during the so-called “American Century.”

Aging forces many people to modify their work habits and face the reality of diminished energy and output. Bellow was a man whose rise to literary fame was accelerated by his endless reserves of energy. He could write all day like a fury, and as he aged, he began to watch this productivity falter. In 1975, at the age of 60, he writes of arriving in Spain in an exhausted state: “I let myself go, here, and let myself feel six decades of trying hard, and of fatigue.” In 1984 he writes in a similar vein: “To age is to understand that the powers of total recovery are gone, are no longer anticipated (except by those who, having lost their marbles, no longer know what to anticipate).” Yes, Bellow wrote well into his 80s, publishing Ravelstein in 2000. But along the way, he had to curb his famous output, make compromises and admit limitations. In 1991, at the age of 76, he writes his friend and fellow writer John Auerbach:

I am trying to meet a deadline imposed by a contract that I signed in order to spur myself to work more quickly. But I haven’t got the energy I once had. Well into my late sixties I could work all day long. Now I fold at one o’ clock. Most days I can’t do without a siesta.

The joy of Bellow’s letters—in contrast to Beckett’s straightforward correspondence—is that they often combine geriatric insight with his customary literary flare. In a 1997 letter where he mentions a recent ICU stint, he adds, “Then there is the stamp of old age on the face, head, hands, and ankles. These blue-cheese ankles—what a punishment for narcissists!”—a perfect image of how the human body changes and how this process agonizes the ego. And then, astutely describing the sense of both violation and intimacy one feels toward aging, he writes two years later, “I often feel these days that death is a derelict or what Americans nowadays call a street person who has moved into the house with me and whom I can find no way to get rid of.”

And if aging feels like an unwanted visitor, it is a visitor who offers seemingly endless opportunities to wistfully compare and contrast the present with the alien landscape of one’s youth: It is the pull of nostalgia, loss, and fascination with time’s passing that creeps in. This was ground Lowell often returned to; at the age of 48 he wrote: “This part of our lives has something of the real changing quality of childhood, more enjoyable on the whole, but with—not here yet, thank God, but ahead—diminishment, disappearance of friends, our own disappearance, etc., waiting. Premature old age! I feel we are now what the young inevitably look on as alien, but real.” Lowell reminds readers of the mixed blessings of aging: There is a certain satisfaction derived from maturity and lessons learned, yet it can be accompanied by the sour realization that most of one’s life has already been lived.

Yet Lowell didn’t stop with nostalgia—he was just as comfortable ruminating on the future and his own death. In his early 50s he writes, “I still feel I can reach up and touch the ceiling of one’s end,” and then four years later, he deploys another image of looming obstacles: “There’s a steel cord stretch[ed] tense at about arms-length above us, and what we look forward to must be accompanied by our less grace and strength.” Lowell suffered frequent hospitalizations for manic depression during his lifetime, and it is little wonder he had a tendency toward morbidity.

Bishop offers a counterbalance to this preoccupation with aging. She didn’t spend much time writing to Lowell with observations on the process, which suggests aging wasn’t at the top of her mind; and perhaps this was a more prudent approach, considering Bishop outlived Lowell by eight years. At one point she mentions her arthritis (“the only thing for it is ASPRIN—in huge doses”), but she generally seems unaffected by getting old. “I simply hate talking about myself, more & more, the older I get,” she writes in 1968, perhaps understanding that self-centeredness is often a barrier to achieving  happiness.

Aging is undoubtedly an intensely personal experience that gives everyone an opportunity to resist and accept its challenges in equal measures. No one can predict how they will feel upon turning the age that is like, in Lowell’s words, “the ceiling of one’s end.” Yet one can hope to possess, for example, the sound, sensible approach of Bishop, who wrote at the age of 56, “I minded being 35 very much, I remember, but haven’t been able to give a damn since—there are too many other things that one can do a little something about, possibly.” Then of course there is the Beckettian approach, which assumes you’ve been fortunate enough to have lived as long as he, and to have cultivated a certain gentlemanly détente with life and death, so that you have the perspective to confidently write, as he did about his wife’s death in 1989, “The end was gentle. The very end. Before the first rest at last.” He was writing about Suzanne Beckett, but once you’ve read and reflected on the man in these letters, it’s easy to suspect it is how he experienced his own last moments, his own gentle end, on a winter day in Paris, and just a few days before Christmas.