The Museum of Clear Ideas
How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter
Donald Hall’s brief memoir, Life Work, is, as he himself declares, a bit of a brag about the amount of work—poems, books, lectures—he has been able to accomplish since giving up an academic job. On this point he can expect widespread corroboration from graybeards scattered around the country. An awful lot of academic activity falls under the head of make-work and routine busyness. By giving up the salary and the schedule one automatically gains four days out of every week for real work, if that’s what one happens to prefer. (But “work” in this context means the very reverse of “labor.”) Mr. Hall in his elected leisure organized himself like a oneman dynamo; few poets can ever have gone about their trade more systematically. What with secretaries and typists, programs and research assistants, lecture tours and grant applications, he kept his corner of New Hampshire awhirl with the doings of the Muses. I think he would be appalled to know he reminded this reader all too often of Arnold Bennett’s little self-help book, How to Live on 24 Hours a Day.
For a fact, the life of a free-lance writer is a helter-skelter of occasions; if he is to meet his daily obligations, he has to accept opportunities as they come along. In adapting to this existence, Mr. Hall was enormously stimulated by the example of his New Hampshire forebears, who had to turn a hand to every chore that turned up on a family farm in a sparse part of the world. From canning beans to getting in hay, from collecting eggs to milking cows to picking blueberries and hunting wild mushrooms, the farmer and his family work sunup to sundown seven days a week. In his journalistic endeavors Donald Hall emulated them.
It may be customary to say, in some circles, that so much energy so widely diffused tends to produce perfunctory performances but not much deeply labored achievement. I don’t think this wiseacre criticism applies to Donald Hall. He is not John Keats, but whatever he could achieve he has labored with all his might to achieve. He has worked over his poems with the singleminded devotion of a diamond cutter, and the fact that at the same time he was writing children’s books and giving talks to women’s clubs hasn’t limited his accomplishment. It’s a record over which he has every right to crow.
Still, work is the theme of only the first half of this very personal memoir. Halfway through it the author is struck with a dangerous, possibly fatal, cancer of the liver; and the second half of the volume is written under the shadow of this fearful ailment. Perhaps this is why Donald Hall dwells with particular relish on the strong, clear record of his grandparents. To talk about his own invalid condition cannot be very exhilarating; he gives few clinical reports. The topic of dying well used to be, in the long-ago …