In literature, new attention to old age, dying

“A Spool of Blue Thread” by Anne Tyler tackles the topic of mortality head-on.

"O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark …"

—T.S. Eliot, "Four Quartets"


The Angel of Death — also known as the Old Ferryman, the Fourth Horseman of the Apocalypse or Mr. G. Reaper himself — is cutting a wider swath than ever through American literature.

In the past four months, three Pulitzer Prize-winning authors have released novels that walk their characters right up to the valley of the shadow of death.


Marilynne Robinson published "Lila" in October — the third book in her "Gilead" series about two elderly ministers approaching the end of life. One month later, Richard Ford's novel, "Let Me Be Frank With You," found comic fodder in the physical declines experienced by a man approaching his 70s.

The most recent entry into the canon of extinction is "A Spool of Blue Thread," by Baltimore's Anne Tyler. Her 20th novel, which was published last week, tackles mortality in a way the author has not done before.

"I've been interested in death as one of the quintessential human experiences," Robinson writes in an email, "having long comforted myself with the thought that if everyone else can do it, I can do it, too."

Tyler acknowledges that her current life stages tend to find their way into her books.

"I do find that the aging process is very interesting to me now as a subject," the author, 73, writes.

"How old people view themselves, how others view them, what sense old people make of their lives as they look back on them — I love delving into all that."

The central figures in "Spool" are, like Tyler herself, in their early 70s. Red Whitshank has already had a heart attack and is semiretired from the family construction business. His wife, Abby, is experiencing occasional mental lapses so worrisome that the couple's four adult children decide their parents no longer can live alone.

The mask of fiction seems to give Tyler permission to explore underlying worries and preoccupations she might deflect in her daily life. For instance, the author has watched close relatives succumb to Alzheimer's disease, and the experience left her anxious that she might some day develop that malady herself.


Many readers probably will interpret Abby's verbal mistakes — she is repeatedly unable to recall the name of her dog — as evidence of an impaired memory. That impression appears to be confirmed when Abby reflects that she has a family history of dementia.

But Tyler writes that she deliberately withheld giving Abby a medical diagnosis.

"Having watched my father's mother and my own mother go through the ravages of Alzheimer's, I don't think I could have relived that through one of my characters," she writes.

"To myself, I explain Abby's 'mental gaps' as a series of very tiny transient strokes — not lapses of memory but lapses of consciousness. … I did have Abby reflect that she actually has a very good memory. (Of course, some might say that Abby would be the last to know.)"

If modern literature seems engrossed with late life, age-related illness and death right now, it's not a new obsession, exactly.

Readers need look no further than Shakespeare's "The Tempest" or Tolstoy's "The Death of Ivan Ilyich," or to any number of poems.


As the late author Maya Angelou writes in "On Aging," a poem included in "And Still I Rise," her 1978 collection, "When my bones are stiff and aching and my feet won't climb the stair / I will only ask one favor: Don't bring me no rocking chair."

But some scholars think that 21st-century fiction writers have begun bringing a renewed focus to deaths from natural causes, reversing a 50-year trend.

Starting in the 1960s, says Herman Carrillo, an assistant professor of English at George Washington University, literary characters tended to die traumatic deaths. They were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan or the Nazis. They were killed in battle or died in gang warfare or from a drug overdose. Some gifted souls too sensitive to survive in the crass and callous modern world took their own lives.

Carrillo points out that fictional characters today are most likely to die in hospital beds or at home as they succumb to the infirmities and indignities of illness or old age. His 2005 novel, "Loosing my Espanish," includes the character of an elderly woman who descends into Alzheimer's.

"Right through novels that were written in the '50s, there was this sense that dying was a part of living," Carrillo says.

"In the '60s, the way we wrote about death started to change. America became a youth-obsessed culture. There was a sense of shock that something bad could happen and young people could actually die. We were the generation that thought that we were going to live forever and could fix anything."


The pendulum began to swing back when the AIDS crisis hit, he says. Novelists again began to chronicle "the long, slow gradual march" toward the grave.

"People began writing novels about death again that taught us something about life," he says. "How do we live a life that's graceful? How do we come to the end of the song?"

Anthony Wexler just earned his doctorate from the Johns Hopkins University; he wrote his dissertation on late life in literature, focusing on authors who witnessed the Holocaust.

"Literature always has been obsessed with youth," Wexler says.

"Partly, that's because society is so dependent on young workers. But more and more, we're starting to see writers featuring characters who are managing the losses that come with old age."

Wexler says that humanities professors didn't begin treating late life as worthy of scholarly inquiry until a 1975 conference on the topic at Cleveland's Case Western Reserve University. But momentum didn't begin building until 1992, when the term Vollendungsroman was coined to refer to literature about the completion or winding down of life.


For that shift in attention, we have to blame the baby boomers, that demographic behemoth that has dominated the cultural dialogue since the first wave of boomer infants were born in 1946.

In 2015, the oldest boomers will turn 69, while the youngest, born in 1964, will celebrate their 51st birthdays. In 2029, an estimated 20 percent of the U.S. population will be age 65 or older, according to a May 2014 report by the U.S. Census Bureau.

In addition, medical advances have contributed to a longer average life span, which in 2012 hit a record high of 78.7 years, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

Those who study death and dying often rely on contemporary fiction to bolster their arguments.

"Anne Tyler's novels are big in aging studies," Wexler said, adding that "her name pops up all the time" in scholarly articles written about late life. Other novelists mentioned frequently in these journals are Robinson and the British novelists Margaret Drabble, Doris Lessing and Kingsley Amis.

Jean McGarry is the chairwoman of the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins and, by her own admission, "a death-obsessed" novelist and short-story writer.


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She thinks authors who make up their plots have an advantage over essayists and memoirists when writing about death. Nonfiction writers are constrained by the facts. They're obligated to report what actually happened, and no one has ever died and then come back to tell us about what they went through. Novelists are under no such constraints.

"When you write or read a novel or a short story about death, you take a personal experience and make it into a work of art," McGarry says. "You're taking your grief and transforming it into something of value. It's no longer pure loss."

The psychologist Erik Erikson theorized that the task of the final stage of life is the psychic battle between integration and despair. As the end approaches, people reflect on their actions and on their choices. They come away feeling either fulfilled or bitter and regretful.

Watching authors fight that battle through the stories they write, only to emerge victorious on the other side is one of the great gifts provided by late-life novels.

"When I was younger I assumed that old people were dreading death, and that it would be tactless to mention it," Tyler writes.

"But the old people I have loved most turned out not to feel that way at all. … I could work up a good case of anxiety about how my own death will come about, whether it will be painful or annoyingly delayed, but now that my children are grown I don't feel any regret at all about the fact that it's going to happen someday. It seems to me that the fact of death is what gives life much of its texture."