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  • Portraits of Old People in Children's Literature
  • Francelia Butler (bio)

Old people of all kinds are to be found in children's literature as they are in literature shared by children and adults and in adult literature. Unfortunately, the stereotypical old people prevail in all stories, as perhaps they do in life: the silly and addlepated, the obsessed, the pitiful, the overly genteel, the old notable mainly for their pathetic imitations of the young, the old and corrupt. Positive images of old people whose long experience has given them special wisdom are in the minority. But it is essential for the young to read books about these wise old. They provide role models at a time when people are living longer, and they suggest that the young should not lump all the old in a negative category but judge them individually as any group of individuals should be judged.

Some of the enduring classics, in children's versions, provide a noble picture of the old. Through them, children can become acquainted with the wise old counselor, Nestor, who appears in the Iliad, and can be touched by the devotion of Ulysses' old and faithful dog, who recognizes his master when he returns in disguise from his long voyages.

In the 1920s, many teenagers who took four years of Latin in high school (as I did in Elyria High School [Ohio] in 1926-29), translated Cicero's De Senectute (essay on old age), still one of the best statements of the problem. Later some educators came along and banished the classics and in doing so, deprived developing minds of considerable wisdom. Cicero observed that every period of life is wretched for those who have no inner resources; that old age is regarded as bad because people are no longer on active duty, because they are physically weaker, because certain pleasures are curtailed, and because the old are nearer death. To each of these Cicero had a rebuttal: Less occupied with detail, the old have more time for deep thought. "Sophocles," he wrote, "composed tragedies until he was extremely old" and the best Greek philosophers, including Plato, were active all their long lives. New pleasures can be substituted for old, such as learning a language, or learning to play a musical instrument. "I learned Greek in my old age," he said.

As for being physically weaker, Cicero, who was in his eightyfourth year when he wrote that essay, asked "Would you rather have [End Page 26] the strength of Milo the Croton, who could run a course with a live bullock on his shoulders, or the intellectual power of Pythagorus?" Cicero observed that he has "Never agreed to that old proverb that advises you to become old early if you wish to be old long." So much for early retirement.

He had no respect for "dull, indolent, sleepy old age." Such types, who were dull even when they were young, and who now belong to the bingo set, are the figures most often described in children's books. No wonder youth looks down on them. They have the cuteness and cuddliness of pets rather than the dignity of human beings. They are the kind who display those license plates that read: RETIRED. NO MONEY. NO PHONE. They could add: NO BRAINS. Cicero approved of the young who had something old in them and of the old who had something young in them. As for pleasures, he pointed out that there are pleasures other than bodily pleasures such as the pleasures of companionship, a quiet dinner, and good conversation. He found these pursuits delightful, and coupled them with the mild exercise of tending a fragrant garden. Greater than the pleasures of early manhood (which include over-indulgence and satiation), he found seemingly trivial and commonplace things more enjoyable, such as being greeted, made room for, escorted home, consulted. "Not every wine is soured by age."

As for death, he wrote:

I will either be free from misery or happy after death, so why should I fear it? So let me enjoy the fruits of old age, both material things and memories. Socrates, perhaps the wisest of all men, argued on the last...


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