Growing Old in America
"Age and Authority in Early Modern England"
It is a truism that historians tend to ask questions about the past that are of direct concern to the societies in which they live. In the nineteenth century, the central issues were nation-building and constitutional law; in the early twentieth century, they were economic development and class relationships; today it is mentalité, that untranslatable French word meaning the way people regard the cosmos, themselves, and one another, and the values according to which they model their behavior toward each other.
The subject of the attitudes adopted toward old age in the past has hitherto been wholly neglected. The reason for this neglect lies in the current association of old age with death, although in fact the connection is a very recent one since in the past most people died young rather than old. This association has blocked research, since for nearly half a century we have been living in a society which thinks and speaks and writes more and more explicitly about sex, but thinks and speaks and writes less and less explicitly about death. We have lived through a period of “the pornography of death,” when it has been a taboo subject for polite conversation.1 In the last decade this taboo has collapsed, and historians, like the rest of us, have rushed in to fill the vacuum. There is now a special branch of learning called “Thanatology,” and historians of death, like Philippe Ariès or Michel Vovelle, have suddenly appeared on the scene.2
It is hardly surprising, therefore, that this revival of interest in death has, in its turn, brought about a growing interest in old age. Previously preoccupied, because of Freudian stress on the significance of this period for later development, with infancy and childhood (where Philippe Ariès was once again the pioneer3 ), historians have now suddenly turned their attention to the aged. It was time to do so, for the vacuum earlier historians left was filled by false images of a Golden Age. An English sociologist, Bryan Wilson, recently assured his readers that in preindustrial, traditional societies “an individual might anticipate old age with pleasure, as a time when declining physical energy would be compensated by social esteem for experience.” He had obviously never heard of King Lear. The chairman of the American branch of the International Association of Gerontology had earlier taken the same line, asserting that “before the Industrial Revolution, almost without exception the aging enjoyed a favorable position. Their economic security and their social status were assured by their role and place in the extended family….”4
What are the facts, as recently examined by Professor Fischer, Mr. Thomas, and others? In the first place, as anthropologists have known all along, traditional societies are very ambivalent in their attitudes toward the old. So long as an elderly person retains his faculties, he serves as the Nestor of the community, the venerated fount of ancient wisdom and folklore, the living substitute for history books in a preliterate society. But…
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