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An Expostulation

Richard Selzer
Published: 1 January 1991

Abstract: ^An Expostulation Richard Selzer In the seven years between my first reading of volume 3 of Literature and Medicine and my rereading of it now, the journal has reached its puberty, and I my crabby senescence. In 1984 the idea of an issue devoted to the work of physician-writers seemed a good one.1 It was only natural that teachers and scholars be drawn to the work of writing doctors. Here were the stories, poems, and essays of physicians who were alive and probably writing at that moment! The authors were not remote; they were almost present in the classroom. Since the subject of our writings was apt to be our work as doctors, medical students, we thought, would more easily relate to them. There would be the shock of recognition, the ring of authenticity. Too, there was the long history of doctor-writers that we reached out eagerly to claim; it was, after all, our heritage. And, let me be honest, it is tempting for us who are writing to see ourselves in the continuum of that tradition. One's heart was gladdened by a volume in which John Stone and Dannie Abse were getting the attention they so richly deserved, and in which the dashing, energetic Michael Halberstam, so tragically murdered, was being eulogized in noble language. In addition , there was yet another article on William Carlos Williams's "The Use of Force," and an assortment of essays on Walker Percy and Dannie Abse. Halberstam, Abse, and Stone were shown, each handsome as coin, in full-page smiling photographic portraits. What a feast for anyone laboring in the vineyard of literature and medicine! Why, then, does this volume, which seemed like such a prize seven years ago, seem now to be merely well-intentioned? Perhaps it is that the enthusiasms of childhood are no longer to be indulged in the teenager. Let us have a look: Of the 168 pages of text that volume 3 comprises, seventeen are taken up with a eulogy of Michael Halberstam and a brief exchange of letters between Halberstam and Russell Baker and one J. Willard Colston, an editor for the New York Times Syndicate, to whom Halberstam is presenting his credentials as a columnist. Michael Halberstam, by all accounts, was a brilliant doctor, an energetic, right-thinking man, and a charismatic figure. One should like to have known him. But is his literary output of the caliber that ought to be so large a concern—one-tenth of Literature and Medicine 10 (1991) 34-41 © 1991 by The Johns Hopkins University Press Richard Selzer 35 an issue, after all—to the primary organ of scholarship in the discipline? He wrote one novel, The Wanting of Levine, which I have recently read, and a number of timely articles on medicine, society, and ethics that are examples of feisty journalism. About the novel, I will not comment other than to say that it is a peppy, superficial, and stylish performance that simply cannot be taken seriously as a piece of literature. It was tactful of Howard Tucker in his eulogy to refrain from commentary and to settle for a brief outline of the plot of The Wanting of Levine. Likewise, a careful reading of Russell Baker's letter to Michael Halberstam shows him to be equally neutral. The novel "reads damn fast," he writes, and "this ... is good" (p. 96). Baker goes on to write the author encouragingly on the possibility of a movie. This is followed by a couple of mildly negative remarks and a descent into facetiousness. It is clear that Michael Halberstam was included in this volume precisely because he was a doctor who was writing. That is not a good enough reason. Just because kittens are born in an oven, that does not make them loaves of bread. If this journal is to remain the voice of criticism in the field for which it is named, it must dispense with the notion that being a doctor is anything but incidental to the making of art. Writers who are also doctors must be held as rigidly to account as all other writers. To think otherwise would surely, in time, invalidate...
Keywords: who are writing / Medicine / journal / good / Richard Selzer / seven years / John

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