Academic journal article Generations

Autobiographical Writing and Knowledge of Aging: Whom Do You Trust?

Academic journal article Generations

Autobiographical Writing and Knowledge of Aging: Whom Do You Trust?

Article excerpt

Dear May,

Although we never met, you have played a big role in my life. For a number of years I have argued that personal diaries offer a rich source of information about the experience of aging-aging viewed from the inside. In presentations at the Gerontological Society and elsewhere, in articles, and in my book Interpreting the Aging Self (Berman, 1994), I have talked about making a place within the field of gerontology for the systematic study of the day-to-day lives of older people as reflected in personal journals. In one paper I used the term admissible evidence to express the idea that the information available in journals is valid and valuable and complements information or data available from other, more conventional sources.

I have spoken or written about other contemporary diarists who have recorded the experience of later life-people like Elizabeth Vining (1978), Florida Scott-Maxwell (1979), Alan Olmstead (1975), Doris Grumbach (1991, 1993) - but none of them compares to you as a chronicler of life in the seventh, eighth, and ninth decades-you who have eight published journals to your credit, spanning the years of your life from age 59 to age 82 (Sarton, 1973, 1977, 1980, 1984, 1988, 1992, 1993, 1996). For someone like me who believes that the scholarly study of aging must include attention to the accounts older people give of their own lives, your work looms very large-as the song goes, "You can't get around it, you can't get over it, you can't get under it, you've got to go through that door."


And what a world is opened by passing through that door. Your diaries offer a rich ground for reflection about shifts in a person's self-understanding with increasing age and the vicissitudes of "felt age" (how old we feel). The diaries heighten readers' awareness of the tension between intimacy and isolation, between attachment and separateness. They immerse us in the themes of deep friendship, the great potentials of solitude, the beauty of flowers, the companionship of animals, the frustrations caused by illnesses and disabilities, and the time-bound nature of our existence.

Having come across your journals in the mid 1980s, I first had some catching up to do to learn who you were. I read not only the journals that had already been published, but also your fiction, poetry, and other memoirs. And then I, like others, looked forward to each new journal as it arrived to catch up on the great saga that was the life of May. As I read each new journal soon after it was published, I would think back to what I had been doing on a particular day you described-what, for example, I had been doing on the Labor Day 1990 you described in your journal Endgame and whether my mood had mirrored yours.

At moments, reading your journals led me to revelations of meaning so deep that it seemed you were speaking directly to me, especially when you described your conflicts over obligations to others versus obligations to yourself or when you described what we receive and what we give up in intimate relationships. These profound moments evoked a feeling of my sharing life itself with you, despite our differences in age, background, and gender. And in some ways you changed my life. You opened up my appreciation of gardening, and you linked me to others who also found inspiration from your work.

Toward the end of your life you let all of us readers know that a biography-a biography authorized by you-was on the way and would be published shortly after your death. In your journals you introduced us to your biographer, Margot Peters, a talented writer whose works include a biography of Charlotte Bronte. We Sarton fans anxiously awaited the publication of the biography to give us a fuller picture of the entirety of your life, a chronological account that would help us sort out the many powerful relationships and shaping experiences alluded to in the journals.

You died on July 16, 1995, at age 83. …

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