Sunday, November 21, 2010
November 21, 2010: The Doctor is In (Print)
Since the advent of writing as a viable profession, which in America at least began with authors like Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper in the early 19th century, most of our nation’s most prominent and successful writers have explicitly focused their careers and efforts on that role. Many certainly have, like Robert Penn Warren, pursued parallel careers as scholars or teachers or public intellectuals of one kind or another, but those careers of course align closely with their literary efforts. Yet interestingly, if coincidentally, two of the most significant poets of the modernist era in America, Williams Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens, worked throughout their long literary careers at day jobs that were drastically different from that of professional poet: Williams was a pediatrician and general practitioner of medicine in and around Rutherford, New Jersey; Stevens a lawyer for and then the long-time vice president of The Hartford (the insurance company) in Connecticut.
Both men’s distinctive and impressive poetic voices, styles, and overarching interests and themes could definitely and productively be analyzed in conjunction with those careers and identities. But whereas Stevens kept his poetic and professional lives at least overtly separate, Williams brought elements and themes of his medical career much more directly and significantly into his writing. For example: you don’t need to know about Williams’ profession in order to appreciate “Spring and All,” one of Williams’ most intricate and impressive poems (available at the link below); but if you do, the poem’s grounding (literal and figurative) of its painfully hesitant and yet profoundly optimistic images of spring, birth, and identity in the landscape “by the road to the contagious hospital” (its first line) takes on multiple new layers of meaning. After all, a pediatrician doing general practice work in the first half of the 20th century—and doing so largely among the working and lower classes, as Williams did—dealt on a daily basis with tuberculosis, with polio, with any number of contagious illnesses that ravaged the nation’s impoverished and its children with particular strength; again, the poem does not exist simply in that context by any means, but those historical and cultural frames were unquestionably a part of Williams’ professional work, and only add to our understanding of this complex literary work.
More directly connected to Williams’ medical career and more naturalistic in style as a result, but still complex and impressive as works of literature, are his many short stories that feature doctor protagonists (sometimes first-person and explicitly autobiographical, sometimes more fictional characters). Those stories were published over many decades, but scholar Robert Coles collected them in a volume entitled The Doctor Stories (1984), which is where I first encountered them. Compared to the imagist style of much of Williams’ poetry, these stories tend to be, again, very naturalistic, grounded in extremely realistic settings and voices, both of the narrators/protagonists and of the people with whom they engage. Yet what they share with the poems, among other impressive qualities, is an eye for the world that is both critical and yet optimistic, willing to see the blemishes and yet deeply humane in its search for the best in each situation, each setting , each family, each character. Perhaps most emblematic of this dual perspective is “The Girl with the Pimply Face” (1961; most of it at the link below), and especially the first-person narrator’s gradual connection to the hardened and scarred (literally and figuratively) older daughter of the family of immigrants who call him to take care of their newborn baby; the narrator never quite bridges the gaps between his own identity and experiences and hers, as the similarly understated conversation with which the story opens and closes illustrate, and yet at the same time he finds a way to treat her acne and, perhaps, ease her transition into maturity in this new country and home.
The work that Williams did as a doctor doesn’t need any literary treatments to validate its value and significance, of course. And, again, much of his literary work exists and impresses well outside of that specific biographical and historical context. But there’s something especially inspirational—that word again—about the ways in which the two worlds intersected, not only in a life where he managed to sustain both so admirably, but also in his writing. At the very least, it makes Williams a unique and compelling American author, and one whose voice and life have a great deal to offer us. More tomorrow, on a brutal and horrific early American event and the striking moment of literary imagination that recreated it two centuries later.
PS. Two links to start with:
1) “Spring and All”: http://people.virginia.edu/~sfr/enam312/2004/wcwspring.html
2) “The Girl with the Pimply Face”: http://books.google.com/books?id=qLpwa9rjBuQC&pg=PA42&lpg=PA42&dq=william+carlos+williams+girl+with+a+pimply+face&source=bl&ots=Av5r1SVGQB&sig=PiU0FjSKsBsEt_JwTF6t4lQmlmA&hl=en&ei=K9LmTLKYJsP38Abl1JWjDQ&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=7&ved=0CDcQ6AEwBg#v=onepage&q&f=false