May
23

Insights and Ideas from Summer Reading: Autobiography and More

Since the end of the spring 2017 semester, time has flown by! Over these first two weeks of summer, I have delved into my research project by reading books, poems, and scholarship both by and about my subject: William Carlos Williams. Some of these works include Williams’s own autobiography and many of his poetry volumes, as well as guides on modernist poetry and journal articles about Williams’s writing. These pieces have all come together to grant me deeper perspective into Williams’s life and career, as well as the nature of the cultural developments in both the arts and society that dominated the era in which he wrote.

Of the reading I have completed so far, my favorite piece as been the honest, intriguing, and, sometimes even funny Autobiography of William Carlos Williams. In this piece, Williams offers an account of his life from early childhood throughout his medical education and time practicing as a physician. He reveals an early and powerful interest in art and poetry, describing his admiration for his artistic mother and her paintings and providing an account of the writing of his very first poem. It gives extensive detail on Williams’s views on writing and literature, as he describes his belief in the power of the imagination, his reliance on poetry and fiction as outlets for expression, and his preference for his literary pursuits over his medical practice.

However, Williams also describes how deeply his medical and writing careers influenced each other. It is this element of the Autobiography of William Carlos Williams that has proven most fruitful in relation to my project’s focus on the doctor-patient exchange in Williams’s narratives. In his book, Williams reveals two major avenues through which his work as a physician enhanced his writing career. Firstly, he explains that the very study of medicine (independent of its practice) offers unique insight to the inner workings of the body and the self, providing the writer with a powerful knowledge of his characters’ core existence and leading to an understanding of other people and the world around them that allows writers to communicate the human experience with a uniquely deep and comprehensive outlook. Secondly, Williams explains that he saw his doctor’s badge as a “ticket” of sorts to witnessing the lives of the people around him. Through his encounters with patients of all genders, ages, ethnicities, and economic and educational statuses, Williams gained a glimpse of the true nature of the “American world” around him

In this sense, the communication between physician and patient grows into a communication between the physician and the culture of his surroundings, transforming their exchange into a means of uniting medicine and art. In this exchange, the patient possesses a commodity that the physician desires: a glimpse into the outside world and the creative inspiration that comes with it, while the physician possesses medical knowledge that the patient requires. Thus, communication and exchange in the medical realm becomes a central element in the art of writing and the production of literature—as the physician (such as Williams himself, or perhaps the doctor narrators of his medical narratives) uses his encounters with patients to enhance their worldly perspective.

As I continue to read Williams’s poems and stories, I will search for examples of this exchange between the doctor—who uses his medical knowledge and privileged access to the lives of the people around him—and the patient—who possesses inspiration and intriguing material to be expressed in writing—and attempt to connect them to Williams’s views on literature and the link between medicine and creative production. Furthermore, some of the works that I am just beginning to read, including The Cambridge Companion to Modernism and James Breslin’s book of scholarly criticism, William Carlos Williams: An American Artist, emphasize Williams as a “nativist” poet, whose writings were deeply rooted in the local and focused on the basic nature of the world around him—connecting to his views on medicine and his belief that the encounters he faced through his role as a physician provided him inspiration for writing. These pieces explain that rather than reaching to classroom-based or theoretical forms or writing in a Eurocentric style, Williams focuses on the local and everyday, communicating and even celebrating the sometimes harsh realities of the towns, landscapes, people, and culture around him. With these new insights in mind, I can look for such locally-rooted ideas in Williams’s writing, specifically applying them to depictions of the doctor-patient interaction and connecting it to his work as a physician as I continue my research on medicine, creativity, and communication!

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