DOCTOR OF ARTS:

THE LIFE OF RICHARD SELZER,

THE MAN WHO TRANSFORMED THE LITERATURE OF MEDICINE

Dr. Stripling is writing DOCTOR OF ARTS: the Life of Richard Selzer, the man who transformed the literature of medicine.

  • Atul Gawande (The New York Times 26 October 2014) says, “Richard Selzer’s essays on his life as a surgeon—for instance, ‘Mortal Lessons,’ ‘Confessions of a Knife,’ and ‘Letters to a Young Doctor’—have stayed with me for years now. He and Lewis Thomas, Oliver Sacks, Sherwin Nuland, and Abraham Verghese are writers who transcend the term ‘physician-writers.’ They’re just writers, telling us about the experience of being human.”

  • Jay Dockendorf (Yale Daily News 3 March 2011) writes, “Whereas Emerson thought, ‘the poet is the only true doctor,’ Selzer complicates matters a bit, being one of the only true physician-writers writing today worthy of Rabelais, Keats, Chekhov, and William Carlos Williams.”

  • Abraham Verghese (The Wall Street Journal 10 July 2010) says that Richard Selzer's Mortal Lessons is among the five best books on doctors' lives.

  • Jerome Groopman (The New York Times 13 May 2007), who recommends Richard Selzer’s Letters to a Young Doctor as “prescribed reading” in his Harvard class, says: "Richard Selzer helped usher in the modern genre of medical writing in which the physician puts his experiences under the microscope for the lay reader’s scrutiny.”

CONTENTS

Chronology: Contextualizing the Work of Richard Selzer

Prologue: How I Came to Know him and Why You Will Want to

  1.     “A Family of Weepers”: Grandson of Immigrants, 1899-1927
  2.     Finding Beauty in Unlikely Places: Son of Doctor and Artiste, 1928-1940
  3.     “Little Dickie Selzer”: High School, Romance, and War, 1941-1945
  4.     Like Father, Like Son: Becoming a Doctor, 1946-1954
  5.     “It Haunts Me Still”: Serving in Korea—a Tragic Beauty, 1955-1956
  6.     Thrown Back into the Mix: Chief Resident and Practice, 1957-1967
  7.     “Surgeons Love Horror”: Finding his Voice, 1968-1975
  8.     Accepted by the Mainstream: Book Tours, Reviews, Fans, 1976-1979
  9.     Immersed in Artists’ Communities: More Time to Write, 1980-1984
  10.     Leaving Medicine Behind: The New Rounds to his Life, 1985-1990
  11.     “A Deep Black Hole”: The Doctor as Patient, 1991-1993
  12.     Venturing into New Territory: Playwright and Art Critic, 1994-2000
  13.     “What is a Soul?”: Finding the Spirit in the Flesh, 2001-2003
  14.     “Bag of Tricks”: The Writer as Teacher, 2004-2009
  15.     “The Angelic Imagination”: the Last Works, 2010-2016

Postscript: The Need to Feel Valued

Genealogy & Maps

Notes (includes abbreviations and sources)

Comprehensive Selzer Bibliography (1968 to present)

Acknowledgments

Comment from author:

In Doctor of Arts, I show how Richard Selzer, who died on June 15, 2016, at 87, was a rare gifted soul, unique among doctor-writers. He shared his private moments with patients in eloquent stories and powerful essays that help us see what medicine is all about.

Excerpt from chapter 9: Dr. Selzer saves John Cheever’s Life at Yaddo in 1980

Writing from 1 to 3 a.m. at his kitchen table wasn’t enough time anymore. So Selzer made regular retreats to Yaddo, a three-hour drive from New Haven to upstate New York. His third trip was a chilly October, and on the way he detoured into Troy to visit his mother, temporarily back in the hospital from a fainting spell.

At Yaddo the English-style mansion on the grounds was closed for the small season, so Selzer lived alone at Pine Garde, a woodman’s cottage at one end of the estate. "Ivy engulfs every speck of wall," he wrote his son Larry. "It has turned a spectacular red. Every time I reach into it to turn the doorknob, I half expect to get burnt. I have the darkest gloomiest rooms you could ever hope for. You know how cozy I get in mortuary digs. My metabolism has slowed to hibernatory levels. The ideal conditions for writing, altogether." And he had a good table to write letters on.

He joined a dozen other residents for a congenial breakfast and dinner, and in-between took a box lunch to his studio to write the entire day, 8 to 6. In the rhythm of Yaddo, he had written three books. That fall the group included the sculptor Mary Ann Unger, the writer Joan Silber, and the composer Lee Hyla. Selzer 52, was one of the oldest residents. And there was another older writer, a grand master whom Selzer very much hoped to befriend: John Cheever, then 68. Cheever, whose collection of stories had won the Pulitzer Prize the year before, was old-guard Yaddo, having depended on his working retreats to the colony since 1934. He had been, he wrote in his journal, "A young man here, then a mature man, and now . . . an old man. Here I have been rich and poor, sick and ecstatically well."1 During this visit—it would be his last—he worked in Hillside, a studio set in a grove of locust trees.

A heavy drinker until 1975, Cheever was showing the effects of alcohol. He had memory lapses and behaved erratically. At their first meeting, the craggy-faced Cheever led off by asking, "Richard, have you ever plagiarized?" He continued with "bitchy, gossipy, and insulting" behavior that disturbed Selzer and the small group around him. A resident mentioned that she had received a letter from a friend, a gay writer who considered Cheever his mentor. Cheever huffed, saying the man was "the only fellow who ever became an Eagle Scout on his knees."2 Cheever’s bisexuality was not well know at the time, and, like many of those in the closet during this time, he used insults to defray any suspicion. To Selzer, it seemed that Cheever found it hilarious to insult the man in front of the young painters and sculptors, "many of whom are very naïve people." Cheever went on to brag of sexual conquests with women on the couch in Yaddo’s Great Hall.

Cheever later challenged Selzer to a very long bike ride from Yaddo around Saratoga Lake, considering it a personal victory when Selzer, then a heavy smoker, declined. Selzer finally told the distinguished writer that he didn’t want anything to do with him, and he avoided Cheever as best he could.

One evening Cheever felt fatigued from a 22-mile bicycle ride. After dinner, he went to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, and later invited people to his studio to watch a World Series game, the Philadelphia Phillies playing the Kansas City Royals. In the seventh inning, the plastic cup filled with ginger ale crumpled in Cheever’s hand, and he fell to the floor in convulsions. A young painter ran the distance to Pine Garde, banging on Selzer’s door and shouting, "Hurry! John Cheever is dying!" Barefoot and wearing only pajama bottoms, the doctor sprinted down the moonlit path, bursting into the room where Cheever lay on the floor, blue and breathless. Selzer fell upon Cheever to perform mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Cheever began to breathe, and Selzer felt a pulse.

An ambulance arrived crewed by volunteers—a teenage boy and an elderly woman. Selzer got in the back and administered oxygen to the still-unconscious Cheever. When Cheever began to stir and moan, Selzer said, "John, it’s Richard. I’ll take care of you. We’re going to Saratoga Hospital." Still barefoot, the slight Selzer arrived shivering at the hospital. The doctor, he was told, was at home.

"We’re from Yaddo, and this man may be dying. Isn’t there a house doctor?"

"No," the nurse replied. "I’ll have to call him."

"All right, you are not going to believe me, but I am a doctor."

"Do you," asked the nurse of the nearly naked writer, "have privileges at this hospital?"

"I’m warning you not to ask me that question. It’s 4 a.m., and you had better do what I tell you. If anything happens to him, it’s your fault. I want you to get me an electrocardiogram machine, and I want an intravenous in this man now."

The nurse complied. When Cheever was plugged in and stable, Selzer told her to put him in intensive care overnight. Curtis Harnack, the president of Yaddo, arrived and gave Selzer a coat. Selzer told him he didn’t know what was the matter with Cheever, but that he wasn’t going to take responsibility for him; Cheever should go home for tests. With no medical equipment, and in light of Cheever’s temperament, Selzer had reason to feel that should the older man’s condition at Yaddo take any turn for the worse, he could end up in an unpleasant situation. If Cheever stayed at the colony, Selzer informed Harnack, he would leave. They drove back to get some sleep.

Early in the morning Selzer went back to see Cheever, who had been attended by a resident doctor by then. Cheever accused Selzer of "raping and violating" him in CPR. Selzer simply told him that he must go home, and he called Mary Cheever to explain what had happened. Against Cheever’s wishes, Selzer put him in an ambulance for Ossining and told the driver not to stop anywhere. A few days later Cheever wrote in his journal that medical tests proved "inconclusive," and he made light of his seizure. But he feared what it had done to his imaginative powers. In five days Cheever returned to Yaddo enraged at Selzer, claiming that he had exaggerated the whole thing.

Selzer steered clear of Cheever for the final week of his stay. As he was packing to leave at 2 a.m., there was a knock at the door.

"May I come in, Richard?" John Cheever asked.

"Well, you’re here. Come in and sit down."

Cheever said nothing about the incident, instead talking about his childhood. After an hour of this, Selzer said he had to be in the operating room at 8 that morning and showed Cheever to the door. "Shall I come see you in New Haven?" Cheever inquired, swaying toward him and gazing with great intensity. "I can’t think why," Selzer responded, avoiding the advance as he let him out. Cheever later wrote Selzer a garbled note, perhaps attempting to set things straight between them. He had quit drinking, accepting his homosexuality by then.

Not long afterward, Selzer read that doctors had removed Cheever’s cancerous kidney, then suspended bone cancer treatments. On June 18, 1982, his breathing became restricted, and he died. Learning this, Selzer wondered if Cheever’s behavior at Yaddo was the symptom of a brain metastasis. He felt "hollow with remorse": had he failed Cheever, "if not as a friend, then as a physician?"

1 Cheever J: The Journals of John Cheever. Ed. Robert Gottlieb. New York: Random House, 1991. 363-6.

2 Qtd in Josyph SAID 92.

Author's Note: Without medical facilities, Yaddo reserves the right to send its residents home. This story first appeared on July 11, 2001, as "Emergency at Yaddo" in Praxis Press. Unless otherwise noted, it is based on my August 9, 2000, videotaped interview with Richard Selzer in New Haven, CT. and subsequent correspondence with him, as well as letters and/or interviews with Curtis Harnack, Joan Silber, and Lee Hyla. Leaving no stone unturned, I also contacted Susan Cheever, but she had no knowledge of this event.

Back to top