that flesh is heir to

An engrossing survey of the ills and ailments suffered by great writers



'Herman Melville is not well," one of the famously gloomy author's friends wrote in the 1850s. "Do not call him moody, he is ill." Melville's eyes, "tender as young sparrows," were so sensitive that he had a shaded porch built onto his house to spare them the full light of day. He also complained of severe back pain—a combination of symptoms that makes John J. Ross, a physician at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, suspect an inflammatory autoimmune disease. (He suggests, however, that Melville also had bipolar disorder.)
This diagnosis is only one of the puzzles that Dr. Ross considers in "Shakespeare's Tremor and Orwell's Cough,"his engrossing account of the illnesses endured by Shakespeare, Milton, Swift, the Brontës, Hawthorne, Melville, Yeats, Jack London, Joyce and Orwell. His book, which deftly mixes close reading and diagnostic acumen, will stay with me for a long time. My dominant emotion as I finished it was gratitude: for the courage of the writers, who rose above the pain, malaise, fevers, nausea, pus, palsies, blindness, tinnitus and engulfing mental disorders that should have silenced their muses; and for the advances that have made medicine infinitely more effective and considerably more humane than it was when these master spirits turned to doctors for help, swallowed their poisonous nostrums, and complied with their absurd, often intrusive, and sometimes lethal regimes.
Unsurprisingly, infectious diseases dominate Dr. Ross's literary ward round as they dominated all eras in which the germs that cause them were not understood and antibiotics not available. The usual suspects, syphilis (Shakespeare), gonorrhea (Joyce) and tuberculosis (the Brontës, Orwell), are joined by more exotic transmissible misfortunes such as yaws, a tropical disease that causes dreadful ulcers (London), and relapsing fever, or Brucellosis (Yeats). Bipolar disorder—in which frenzied productivity alternates with increasingly frequent crashes into depression—is plausibly ascribed to Melville, Hawthorne and London. Some of Dr. Ross's subjects seem also to have had mild autism, which made ordinary relationships agonizingly difficult. Their medical troubles were frequently compounded by heroic alcohol consumption, intended to mitigate their symptoms. Downwardly mobile parents and other childhood traumas also loom large in the literary C.V.
Job himself would have been grateful to have been spared the burden of illness carried by Jack London. A charismatic, handsome giant in his youth, he was a dying wreck at 40. His problems included yaws, gout, kidney stones, a rotten mouth from recurrent scurvy and massive fluid retention from nephritis. His self-medication with an entire pharmacy's worth of remedies was enthusiastically supported by his star-struck doctor. It included a cocktail of morphine and atropine that killed a man who had survived appalling ordeals at sea and in the Klondike and who, by the time he was 20, had outlived most of his waterfront mates. Even so, in the last week of his life, he worked for a 60-hour stretch, broken only by two hours' sleep, on a final unfinished novel. Melville similarly surmounted family tragedies, critical neglect, profound depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, alcoholism, cardiac failure and agonizing arthritis to write "Billy Budd," the late masterpiece that showed how his mind could still function at the highest level.
Though some of his stories are familiar, they have never, in my experience, been told so well. Given that many of Dr. Ross's subjects were suffering from infectious diseases, it helps that this is his area of expertise. But he is also a penetrating literary critic and a perceptive and humane observer of the lives of writers and of those in their orbit. His light touch with cultural, social and political history is something from which many of the professionals in literary studies could learn. This is a book to which I shall return again and again.

(The Wall Street Journal)

Lastupdate on : Fri, 4 Jan 2013 21:30:00 Makkah time
Lastupdate on : Fri, 4 Jan 2013 18:30:00 GMT
Lastupdate on : Sat, 5 Jan 2013 00:00:00 IST

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