“Decided to give William Carlos Williams one more chance out of simple Christian charity. Reread half a dozen of his doctor stories, and no, I can live very well without W.C.W. They are slapdash and carelessly wrought. I would rattle his pedestal.”
I would as well. Most writers today are overrated but few as extravagantly so as Williams. He reminds me of the musical illiterate who sits at the keyboard plinking, without a thought for others in the room. His influence has inspired thousands of tin ears to imitate his anorexic lines in poems and prose.
For me, the sentiment quoted above reads like an echo of a twenty-three-year-old conversation. It comes from Diary (Yale University Press, 2011) by Richard Selzer, the retired surgeon and professor at Yale. In 1992, I interviewed him by telephone when he published a memoir, Down from Troy: A Doctor Comes of Age. Troy, N.Y., where Selzer was born in 1928, is just up the Hudson River from Albany. I worked as a reporter for that city’s newspaper, and read the book as local history. Selzer’s father was a general practitioner in Troy. The only thing I remember from the memoir is Selzer’s description of the contents of the senior Dr. Selzer’s medical bag: worthless. The effectiveness of medical science in the first half of the twentieth century was more wishful than real.
A few weeks later, Selzer came to a small town outside Troy to give a reading from his new book. I got there early and we took a walk. I brought up the topic of doctor-writers – Keats, Sir William Osler, Chekhov, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Walker Percy – and I recall two of his judgments. In brief: Sir Thomas Browne, good. William Carlos Williams, bad. At least on this matter we were copasetic.
I’m skimming Selzer’s Diary. Unless one is already smitten with the author, one reads diaries, journals and collections of letters in search of small dazzlements or points of irritation. With a middling writer, expectations are low. Selzer’s mind and prose are not that interesting, and like most published diaries, his is a vanity project. He is a little too impressed with his own insights, but does tell a good story about surgically removing Robert Penn Warren’s gallbladder and a stone from his bile duct in 1954.