Walking Over Grandma

Growing Old in America

by David Hackett Fischer
Oxford University Press, 242 pp., $10.95

Age and Authority in Early Modern England”

by Keith Thomas
Proceedings of the British Academy, Vol.LXII, 46 pp.

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.

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 pioneer

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 once those …

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Letters

Old People’s Progress July 14, 1977