THIS SMALL, WISE, candid and entertaining book is an expanded version of a notable article Malcolm Cowley wrote for Life in 1978. The forword quotes from some of the letters the article evoked from elderly readers whose handicaps had not sapped their vitality. The view from 80 is "a personal message" to each of his "comrades in age." With pleasantly rambling discursiveness Cowley surveys the various ways in which the always increasing body of octogenarians cope with the various mental and physical problems of growing old. Writing -- to borrow the title of a Hardy poem -- as "An Ancient to Ancients." he knows both the satisfactions and the infirmities, the virtues and the vices, of advancing age. He gives as examples some more or less illustrious individuals, especially (since he is a man of letters) writers and artists; he also takes account of the mainly nameless multitude who have their no less authentic experience and wisdom.
Cowley can cite statistics but, happily, he does not write as a sociologist or psychologist. He can also cite the sober optimism of Cicero and the "bleak pessimism" of Simone de Beauvoir. As a cultivated human being to whom nothing human is alien, he has a sympathetic understanding of both the sad and the comic, the inspiring and the depressing. His plentiful anecdotes must call up additional items in his reader's minds. For instance, when he speaks of avarice and the irresponsible accumulating of junk as familiar weaknesses of age, we may think of the spinster who left behind her a box labeled "Pieces of string too small for use." More often, perhaps, remarks on this as on other infimities make us think of ourselve; my wife and I, both incurable hoarders, have belatedly been trying to reduce the accumulations of 44 years of living in one house.
The View from 80 is smaller, slighter and generally more cheerful (or so it seems) than The View in Winter (1979), in which the Englishman Ronald Lythe recorded interviews with many old persons, predominantly of the working class. These, although they have survived to enjoy the benefits of the welfare state, often look back on a life of struggle; most of them had been sustained by sturdy fortitude. Cowley notes those benefits, and the English people's relative freedom from the fear of break-ins and muggings. But he also remarks that "England has been no more successful than the United States in finding useful occupations for persons retired from industry." Many of these, according to Blythe, spend most of their time peering out of the window or, on the water front, watching the waves roll in. Cowley admires the old who show an "heroic or merely obstinate refusal to surrender in the face of time"; and he envies those who "accept old age as a series of challenges." "Work," he declares, "has always been the sovereign specific"; but he can also sympathize with the old who merely enjoy sitting still in the sun and become, like a snake on a warm rock, a part of nature.
While Cowley does not neglect the poor and deprived, he is in general more concerned with the comfortable and educated; in these times even the latter may be troubled by the specter of poverty. All old people may be haunted by a conscious or unconscious ache because they feel themselves no longer of any use, mere bunches of dry seaweed decaying on the beach. And members of all classes may share the fear of becoming physically helpless or senile. The seventh and last age of man, according to Shakespeare's melancholy cynic Jaques, is "second childishness, and mere oblivion,/Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything." A while ago, by the way, because of an unsteady gait I was sent to consult a neurologist: when I mentioned the annoyance of forgetfulness (which Cowley touches on), he only laughed and said you don't need to worry until you forget where you live -- counsel which I found rather cold comfort. I might add that the subway fare of a dime (in Boston) is a dubious compensation for having to present the card of a "senior citizen" -- that horrid euphemism coined by a society which shrinks from the word "old."
I once heard of an old New Englnd rustic who pitied the wretched life of an old neighbor: "He don't chew, he don't drink, he don't swear, he ain't got any resources in himself." The last phrase, transposed into a higher key, might be called Cowley's main thesis. "Poet or housewife, businessman or teacher, every old person needs a work project if he wants to keep himself more alive." I endorse the principle but, since my last big job was published when I was 76, I haven't had the energy to start on another. Perhaps we ancients might be tempted, as Cowley is, by the specific project of "trying to find a shape or pattern in our lives" by searching our memories and records (if we have kept any). To quote his concluding sentence, "At least we can say to the world of the future, or to ourselves if nobody else will listen, 'I really was ' -- or even, with greater self-confidence, 'I was and am this .'" But we may be less sure than Malcom Cowley seems to be that such an ego-trip would be bracing. At any rate his small book is a very pleasurable mixture of stimulant and emollient; we could wish that it were less small.