Before the Fall
NEW ENGLANDERS GENERALLY, not to mention hordes of fancy estivators from New York and Washington, know Henry Beetle Hough as the fabled and enduring editor of a much loved Martha's Vineyard paper, the bi-weekly Vineyard Gazette. But the paper was sold soon after Hough's wife of 45 years died, in 1965. Hough himself is now edging toward 80. He lives alone in a seven-room house in Edgartown, Mass., with a philosophical three-year-old collie named Graham. Except for Graham, he regards the young as heading into a world far less attractive than the one he grew up in. He also finds many of them hard to talk to. "Every organism, animal as well as human," he writes, citing Microbiologist Rene Dubos, one of his favorite authors, "lives in a private world of his own to which no one else has complete access. It is like the Old and the Young."
Chosen Route. In this account of his own autumnal days on Martha's Vineyard, Hough, with great skill and charm, approaches the pangs and pleasures of aging in ways that very much recall Walden's formula: keep track of housekeeping details and the transcendental homilies will take care of themselves. At home Hough's day still begins as it has for years, with a predawn walk to Edgartown's harbor light. Graham goes along but does not always agree to the route his master has chosen, and, like many Americans, has "a weakness for excavation." If in his daily round of mail and meals, of musings and memories, Hough feels a pronouncement coming on, he shares it. "A house needs its identity of habitation," he thinks on returning from the walk, "yet I put beside this fact another I have tested for truth -- the joy at last of arriving home and finding no one there." Sleeping arrangements lead to an account of a lifetime's switching around of bedrooms in his house. "One general problem I share with so many of my age," Hough admits. "It is called 'getting through the night.' " Economies evoke Social Security: "I feel I am being paid for having lived so long, and therefore that my years have had a market value I never considered at the time."
Hough moves with an essayist's grace from lemonade to his dislike of meetings, from Virginia Woolf to George Borrow. He is never sentimental, but he does not give up on old affections either. He is master of the splendidly abrupt transition: "In December 1971 I threw out all my city shirts, hoarded since 1926." Or: "Today Graham ate a whole banana." Or, with drastic irony: "Someone is sure to mention sex." Perhaps predictably Hough has it in for Sigmund Freud because he feels that the good doctor unwittingly damaged the possibilities of romance and encouraged the adoption of "the obscene, as if by way of penitence, as the natural way of speech."
Secure Past. Like many older people awash in the shallow and intolerant present, Hough often finds himself on the defensive about the past. "I think I know of much that has been lost as I looked on," he remarks. "In New England there is hardly an alternative other than a furtive sense of having been conspired against, which, difficult of concealment, leads one's neighbors to say one has 'turned queer.' " Then he warns: "In age a man may become a stranger in his native land." He wonders, too, if the intense preoccupation with the future so often institutionally urged upon the aged is realistic. "The past is secure, the present only reasonably so, and the future, even looking ahead to Thanksgiving or Christmas, is -- who knows?"
Hough himself deftly ruminates on eras and how they end. Not large, dramatic chunks of history that close with a bang, noticeable to the world, but odd personal eras, those less obtrusive small changes that in retrospect loom large in the heart. Like the time, at the close of Prohibition, when Hallowell's restaurant in Edgartown got a liquor license and went to hell, gastronomically speaking. Or the introduction of offset printing in place of the old linotype at the Vineyard Gazette. At the time Hough, somewhat uneasily, one suspects, tried to see it all as progress. He quotes Carlyle: "He who first shortened the labor of copyists by the device of movable types was disbanding hired armies, and cashiering most kings and senates." Today he mourns the "three-em dashes"; and cries out, "Nonpareil slugs -- where are they now?" Just lately Who's Who in America wrote Hough saying ("This is delicately put," Hough notes) that he was being placed in their "noncurrent category." He would, however, soon turn up in Volume VI of Who's Who in American History. It probably does not matter so much where Hough is written up. But he should be read just about everywhere. If it is true that one learns to swim in winter and skate in summer, it is never too early to lay in supplies for the fall.