William Carlos Williams: A Doctor’s Faith, a Poet’s Faith
When I was a college student I wrote a long paper on the poetry of William Carlos Williams. He was then (1950) by no means the giant figure in American letters he would only become posthumously — when numerous awards were tossed at his memory. (He died in 1963 at the age of 80 — and so he had waited in vain for a long time to receive a nod or two from his writing colleagues.) I was a senior at Harvard when I wrote my essay, and my advisor was Perry Miller, who had given years of his life to a study of the New England Puritan tradition. I had hoped to pursue a similar line of inquiry myself — study early American Protestantism through recourse to history and literature rather than theology. But Miller must have sensed some restless anarchic energy in me, because he kept telling me I’d “enjoy” Williams’s poetry — no matter that important figures in Harvard’s English Department at the time had no great affection or respect for him! “You’ll like him; he gives hell to the Ivy League, and to lots of other fake ornaments of secular America,” I was told.
I did like Williams’s writing. Eventually I got to know him, and got to witness the medical part of his life. He was an old-fashioned “general practitioner,” who labored long and hard (and often enough, for little if any recompense) among the largely immigrant poor of northern New Jersey. When I applied to medical school (no matter my poor grades in the sciences) it was because I’d been much inspired by his example. He was forever being stimulated by his patients — healed by them, I began to realize, with the help of his wonderfully patient and shrewdly understanding wife, Flossie, whom I knew well and kept visiting until her death in 1976. “Bill was always complaining about how hard it was for him — to be a full-time doctor, and to write as much as he did — but he could never have done it any other way,” she once told me. She explained that observation with this terse follow-up remark: “He needed those visits to those tenement houses; the people there expanded his imagination, and I noticed over the years how much they healed him.”
He had, more abstractly, acknowledged as much several times in the course of our talks. I well remember one visit I made to him. I was a third-year medical student, and was feeling overwhelmed by the sheer volume of facts I had to absorb — not to mention the growing realization of the responsibility a doctor’s life demands. He listened to my worries and complaints, brushed them aside a bit impatiently: “Look, the rewards are great. All the time there is the satisfaction of doing something half worthwhile — and being helped to feel better about yourself by the appreciative affection of those you’ve treated. They treat you!” He was, himself, quite sick when he spoke those words — hence the poignancy of the next statement he made: “I miss my patients. I need them now. They’d make me feel a hell of a lot better — I know — if I could see them!”
No one who has written about Williams has said much about his religious views, his spiritual life — and understandably, I suppose. He was no church-goer; and he could be devastatingly sardonic as he contemplated the phony side of 20th-century Christianity, not to mention its long and sad institutional history: persecutions, wars, greed and plunder, murders of so many people — all in the name of this or that creedal orthodoxy. He had his own way of saying what the Catholic philosopher Romano Guardini asserted with these words: “The Church is the Cross on which Christ was crucified.” Williams’s words went like this: “They keep nailing Him — in His name!”
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