Richard Selzer’s essays have appeared regularly for the past three decades in upscale magazines and are familiar, often painfully so, to American college students enrolled in analytical writing courses. His medical essays, densely written musings upon the meaning of life, are ideally suited to exercises in interpretation, and classroom uses have surely produced a loyal readership among the young and literate. Readers who approach Selzer uninstructed do best to savor the sound and balance in his use of language, and appreciate the challenge within the occasional impenetrable passage as one would if it were poetry, into which he sometimes slips. Selzer is a retired surgeon and Yale School of Medicine professor, but he has been an essayist as well since the early 1970s. His audience is not narrowly confined to colleagues, despite the fact that his vocabulary is occasionally obscurely latinate, and his approach to subject matter clinical and often bloody, as if he were filling a chart, but using the language of Wordsworth to do it.
Although Selzer shuns the plain prose expected of the essayist, his form is conventional and recognizable despite his florid but skilled use of language. He usually chooses and frames single ideas in ways reminiscent of Thomas Carlyle at his most whimsical, usually allowing for very plain Carlylean titles. Had Carlyle been a surgeon, he would surely have found in surgery what Selzer has found—a sticky, warm world where dying and dignity, suffering and silence are alliterative ideas and language holds the key to all philosophy. Like Carlyle, he does not attempt to be popular in his views and occasionally stretches his relationship with readers by blending moral analysis with twisted diction. He is a writer who claims to care more about truth than consequences, although consequences to essayists exist on a different plane from those faced by surgeons, a point clearly not lost on him.
Selzer anticipates readers who would note the professional dichotomy by never questioning himself in his professional role, when to do so would be inconvenient, even in the early essays written while he was still a practicing surgeon. In his essay “Abortion” (1974), he registers his disapproval of this practice through a deliberately artless shift to second person in which he describes the horror of a pedestrian who finds that he has stepped on a fetus, dropped from an overloaded garbage truck in a bag labeled “hazardous wastes.” “I am a surgeon,” he says, abruptly shifting to the first person, turning his back on the “Street of the Dead Fetuses” and the discomfited reader, who shares the knowledge that the second person is only grammatically distanced from Citizen Selzer while he proceeds to distance Dr. Selzer from the unnamed procedure. “I do not shrink from the particularities of sick flesh. Escaping blood, all the outpourings of disease—phlegm, pus, vomitus, even those occult meaty tumors that terrify—I see as blood, disease, phlegm, and so on. I touch them to destroy them. But I do not make symbols of them. I have seen, and I am used to seeing. Yet there are paths within the body that I have not taken, penetralia where I do not go. Nor is it lack of technique, limitation of knowledge that forbids me these ways.” From this explanation he proceeds to an abortion, which he has asked to witness. It is a late-term abortion, the mother a smiling, presumably healthy, bystander. He describes the procedure in lurid detail, placing the fetus in the central role, a conventional tragic hero. By the end, however, he is classic Selzer, immersed in his art, emotionally connected to the essayist, but completely estranged from the surgeon. “And who would care to imagine,” he asks no one, “that trapped within the laked pearl and a dowry of yoke would lie the earliest stuff of dram and memory?”
Selzer is impossible to read casually; however, he can be read for the pleasure of working through his thoughts. There are no indifferent readers or mixed reviews. The positive reviews are glowing, the negative vituperative, as has often been the case with essayists whose work falls in and out of fashion, but never fades. Joel Howell of the New England Journal of Medicine, a representative Selzer reader, identifies Selzer as a type, a scientist by trade who is by nature a poet and philosopher, and who succeeds in science only because of his ability to believe in his own power to dismiss the possibility of either order or chaos: “There are surgeons,” he writes, “capable of surrendering to romantic awe and wild philosophical speculation after confronting the body’s pulsating internal labyrinth, and who are driven to name the unnameable.” Selzer illustrates this type with a passage from his book on his own experience with Legionnaires’ Disease, Raising the Dead (1993), in which he imagines an uncomfortable confrontation between himself a dying patient and himself the doctor: “There is the sadness of a toad in his hazel eyes.
The familiar landmarks by which he could once be identified are no longer to be seen: the zygomatic circles surmounting the cheeks, the iliac crests, the tapered phalanges. He has become something I would not want to touch.”
One among many sources of difficulty to Selzer’s readers are the unexplained medical terms, many of them hopelessly obscure, which are not in lay dictionaries and can be frustrating for the reader who wants clarification. This is not the reader Selzer wishes to keep. The physician who knows the language gets no more out of this passage from “The Exact Location of the Soul” (1974) than the nonspecialist: “Women are physics and chemistry. They are matter. It is their bodies that tell of the frailty of men. Men have not their cellular, enzymatic wisdom. Man is albuminoid, proteinaceous, laked pearl; woman is yolky, ovoid, rich. Both are exuberant bloody growths. I would use the defects and deformities of each for my sacred purpose of writing, for I know that it is the marred and scarred and faulty that are subject to grace.”
Born 14 June 1928 in Troy, New York. Studied at Union College, Schenectady, New York, B.S., 1948; Albany Medical College, M.D., 1953; Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, 1957–60. Married Janet White, 1955: two sons and one daughter. Practiced general surgery in New Haven, from 1960; associate professor of surgery, Yale School of Medicine; fellow of Ezra Stiles College. Contributor to various periodicals and magazines, including Antaeus, Redbook, Harper’s, Esquire, and American Review.
Awards: National Magazine Award, for essay, 1975; honorary degrees from four colleges and universities.
Essays and Related Prose
Mortal Lessons: Notes on the Art of Surgery, 1976
Confessions of a Knife, 1979
Letters to a Young Doctor, 1982
Taking the World in for Repairs, 1986
Other writings: two collections of short stories (Rituals of Surgery, 1974; Imagine a Woman and Other Tales, 1990), the memoir Down from Troy: A Doctor Comes of Age (1992), and a book about his bout with Legionnaires’ Disease (Raising the Dead, 1993).
Stripling, Mahala Yates, “Richard Selzer: A Checklist,” Bulletin of Bibliography 47, no. 1 (March 1990):3–8
Anderson, Charles M., Richard Selzer and the Rhetoric of Surgery, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1989
Davis, Robert Leigh, “The Art of Suture: Richard Selzer and Medical Narrative,”
Literature and Medicine 12, no. 2 (Fall 1993):178–93
Elbow, Peter, “The Pleasures of Voice in the Literary Essay: Explorations in the Prose of Gretel Ehrlich and Richard Selzer,” in Literary Nonfiction: Theory, Criticism, Pedagogy, edited by Chris Anderson, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1989:211–34
Josyph, Peter, What One Man Said to Another: Talks with Richard Selzer, East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1994
Morris, David B., “Beauty and Pain: Notes on the Art of Surgery,” Iowa Review 11,nos. 2–3 (Spring-Summer 1980):124–30
Peschel, Enid Rhodes, “Eroticism, Mysticism, and Surgery in the Writings of Richard Selzer,” Denver Quarterly 16, no. 1 (Spring 1981):87–98
Schuster, Charles I., “The Nonfiction Prose of Richard Selzer: An Aesthetic Analysis,” in Literary Nonfiction: Theory, Criticism, Pedagogy, edited by Chris Anderson, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1989:3–28
Tavormina, M.Teresa, “Richard Selzer: The Rounds of Revelation,” Literature and Medicine 1 (1982):61–72
Whittier, Gayle, “Richard Selzer’s Evolving Paradigms of Creativity,” Centennial Review 33, no. 3 (Summer 1989):278–301
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