Surgical Prose: On William Carlos Williams' "The Doctor Stories"

Surgical Prose: On William Carlos Williams' "The Doctor Stories"

William Carlos Williams | The Doctor Stories | New Directions | September 27, 2018 | 160 Pages


This month, The Doctor Stories re-introduces itself to the contemporary audience in a New Directions reprint of one of the publishing house’s “stalwarts”: William Carlos Williams. In the collection, the modernist poet known primarily for his strict dictum “no ideas but in things” here turns toward the rhythms of his own daily life as a doctor in small town New Jersey, a profession the poet occupied until his death in 1963. In this surprising, complicated collection of short stories, plums are left in the icebox and chickens return unwatched to their beloved red wheelbarrow. Willams’ characteristic vivid imagery is met with unflinching portraits of xenophobic doctors, horny doctors, alcoholic doctors—even Nabokovian pedophilic doctors. Here, we see Williams’ own struggles with his quotidian work, where medical practitioners like himself suffer from ethical quandaries, long hours, and often a lack of pay from their dearest—and certainly Williams’ dearest—impoverished patients. The poet’s loyalty to the working classes of his hometown of Rutherford, New Jersey reveals a rare homegrown populism, an aversion to the modern American elite born of the intense interpersonal relationship between doctor and patient.

I will confess: Beyond half-baked notes to my college roommates about “The Luna bar/You were probably saving for breakfast,” my knowledge of Williams was limited to undergraduate analysis of the same poem. He is consistently lumped in with Imagist poets like Williams’ longtime friend Ezra Pound. However, unlike Pound and another friendly rival, T.S. Eliot, Williams staunchly avoided the movements of the European académie, instead focusing his attention on whatever “hunted news” he gleaned “from some obscure patient’s eyes,” equal in all senses to “whole academies of learning, whole ecclesiastical hierarchies” that Williams believed founded themselves on the same glint of authenticity and human struggle.

This allegiance to those outside the academy motivated Williams’ practice as both a writer and a doctor—an “assault on the citadel,” to take his son’s words from the 1983 afterword, that followed Williams throughout his lifetime. From this position, Williams composed a short story collection that does not, and should not, sit comfortably in any classroom. The select grouping of tales, culled by psychologist Robert Coles from the writer’s earlier collection The Farmer’s Daughters, recount numerous startling collisions of social classes from a doctor’s perspective. In one story, a doctor refuses to answer the call of a working-class couple across town; in another, the physician in question mourns the loss of a Rutherford child to disease shortly after comparing her to a “born garbage hustler.” The stories, as such, take moral ambiguity as their invisible bedfellow, conjuring a negotiation of experience better suited, perhaps, for Williams’ patients than his professors.

Williams’ impassioned occupation of his dual professions was matched, somewhat unsurprisingly, by a lack of understanding in members of both communities. While Ezra Pound encouraged a young Williams to bring his wife to Paris and join the Imagist literati scene, Williams’ devotion to medicine pulled him back to Rutherford. However, in Rutherford, Williams was often met with skepticism; after hosting a reading of his own work to his colleagues that concluded with a reverential exclamation in Latin, a fellow practitioner asked, “Are you a Catholic, Bill?” Though obviously disturbed by the implication that his spontaneous incantation originated in religious ideology—a “system” of organizing belief that, like the ivory tower, Williams was deeply opposed to—Williams said he was not Catholic but was raised Unitarian, and continued with his reading.

Similar moments of misunderstanding trailed Williams throughout his career, and it was only after his death that he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for the poetry collection Pictures from Brueghel. The Doctor Stories may be best understood from this vantage point—Williams’ understanding of complicated power-laden relationships and stark imagery demonstrate the doctor-writer’s willingness to speak critically of structures deeply ingrained in the medical profession without the social remove of the literary elite. For an outsider, Williams was a diligent insider, committed to serving Rutherford’s deserving with a typewriter placed firmly and permanently at his side.

However, there are moments in the collection that give a reader pause, that show us the deeply held prejudices and questionable morals that doctors, like people, possess. In one tale from the anthology, a young Williams-esque apprentice recounts a series of visits to a brothel with dope fiend “Old Doc Rivers,” an older and highly respected surgeon. Throughout the testimony, Williams refers to the reader’s own secret habits, our unique dens of iniquity. We, like the young doc, know exactly where the brothel is, where the halfway house sits in relation to the town’s jail. Old Doc Rivers takes pleasure in sleeping with women and treating them for their infections in the same breath. It is the doctor’s wayward humanity that, Williams writes, draws them to him; of his dedicated patients, the young narrator recounts, “They seemed to recreate him in their minds, the beloved scapegoat of their own aberrant desires—and believed he alone could cure them.” Williams’ doctor carries with him (and it is, indeed, a him) the weight of deviant complexity, a figure endowed with the ability to hurt and heal with contentious passions. It is this practitioner that holds Williams’ gaze throughout, signaling a well-earned fixation with the strange position patients (and readers) inhabit in relation to their doctors.

Williams’ physicians repeatedly clash with their own abominable convictions, unable to treat patients without encountering layers of prejudice within. In “A Face of Stone,” Williams adopts the perspective of an anti-Semitic physician reluctantly treating a young Jewish couple. Another story recounts a doctor’s attraction to his fifteen-year-old patient. Most of the women described by Williams are, indeed, objectified and insulted in the examining room. Perhaps Williams’ prose offered him a way to deal with his own internal moral struggles—or perhaps he saw his fellow doctors more critically than he let on, able to witness the moments where their identities inhibited fair treatment of patients. These sparks of internal conflict and deferential behavior provoke intense discomfort without the respite of resolution—Williams’ doctors don’t change their politics; they just do their jobs. In this way, Williams mirrors some of the tenets of fellow early Imagists, where even complicated relationships and aberrant personalities are treated directly as objects, not as concepts to be studied. Williams sought to represent the world as it was without reasoning or analysis. His poetry and prose rested on the lived, literal experience of Americans in industrial towns, striving for a new American dictum away from staid and inaccessible European tradition. So when an unnamed physician calls his young patients “cheap prostitutes,” it may (or may not) help to remember Williams’ commitment to a breed of sacred local realism, unfiltered through the ideas and biases of the writer. Williams’ shockingly vivid portraits of bigotry and bias ultimately serve to expose the normally opaque medical practitioner, examining the examiner where his flaws are most flagrant.

Williams’ morally ambiguous positioning in these accounts may not sit well with a 2018 readership accustomed to the moral clarity of their literary idols. It did not, for a time, sit well with me. Raised on the personal-as-political dictum of the 2nd Wave, I sought out the poet’s politics in between the lines of his prose. Williams recounted much of his life in his autobiography—imaginatively titled The Autobiography—and the grittier details are available in Paul Mariani’s posthumous 1981 biography, William Carlos Williams: A New World Naked. Strung through with extramarital affairs and nefarious encounters, Williams himself wasn’t too different from a few of his more red-blooded doctor-cum-narrators. However, unlike frenemies Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, Williams refused to align himself with the gallivanting and oft-Fascist habits of the expatriate community. His ideas were in things. I gave up the hunt: Williams’ politics and prejudices are revealed not in terms of some two-party system, but in his commitment to the voices of Americans who interested him most—his patients.

It was in his examining room, his home visits, and even his scalpel that Williams vigorously advocated for a new American poetic diction, one based in daily service to other people regardless of color or creed. His intense hatred of systems of knowledge and belief—he rails against any “dialectic” in the final pages of the collection—stems from their alienation of his friends, his patients, and his coworkers. Williams’ practice as a doctor in Rutherford was not just a day job, but also a way by which he found words to express modern American life in poetry and prose. The collection moves like a surgeon: It makes you uncomfortable and looks at you naked. Then, it changes you. I won’t be going to the doctor for awhile, but when I do, I’ll ask them if they write, too.

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