Tuesday, October 6, 2015
We have mentioned Hendrik Hartog's book, Someday All This Will Be Yours: A History of Inheritance and Old Age, (Harvard Press 2012) on this Blog as we did on this post outlining a recent symposium law review with articles inspired by the book. I've been remiss, however, in not recommending the book directly.
So let me correct that oversight now. If you haven't read Princeton Professor Hartog's book, or if (as was true for me for too long) you have allowed the book to sit on your "to read" stack, it's time to get to it. The book is a treasure of analysis, commentary, legal history, critique and provocation arising from the simple proposition that in many relationships, someone often utters (or thinks they have heard) words to the effect, "when I'm gone, someday, all this will be yours." The underlying legal question is what happens when no document (such as a will, a trust, or a contract) puts that pledge into writing.
I find much to talk about when reading Hartog's words. One curious item he describes is a poem, "Over the Hill to the Poor House," published by Will Carleton in 1872. Hartog explains that the poem is the source for the now common saying "over the hill" to refer to persons of a certain age. But Hartog points out that the poem's poignancy comes from its all-too-true narrative by one woman about what it can be like to grow old, frail and widowed, even if you have a large family of loving children.
From the closing lines of the poem:
An’ then I went to Thomas, the oldest son I’ve got,
For Thomas’s buildings’d cover the half of an acre lot;
But all the child’rn was on me—I couldn’t stand their sauce—
And Thomas said I needn’t think I was comin’ there to boss.
An’ then I wrote to Rebecca, my girl who lives out West,
And to Isaac, not far from her—some twenty miles at best;
And one of’em said’twas too warm there for any one so old,
And t’other had an opinion the climate was too cold.
So they have shirked and slighted me,an' shifted me about-
So they have well-nigh soured me,an' wore my old heart out;
But still I've borne up pretty well, an' wasn't much put down,
Till Charley went to the poor-master, an' put me on the town.
Over the hill to the poor-house--my chil'rn dear, good-by!
Many a night I've watched you when only God was nigh;
And God 'll judge between us; but I will al'ays pray
That you shall never suffer the half I do to-day.
And for a colorful "sung" version of the poem, with a change in gender for point-of-view, go to Lester Flatt and Earl Scrugg's version of Over the Hills to the Poorhouse.
Over 140 years later, we still hear the phrase "over the hill" in less-than-kind contexts, but one hopes the prospects for care and assistance are not quite as grim as described in these verses.