Tag Archives: Ralph Colp Jr. MD

a disservice to Walt Whitman

 

 

Walt Whitman – NY Times 9-14-2020

 

 

Whitman to John Addington Symonds

 

 

re:

“Walt Whitman, Poet of a Contradictory America: During the Civil War era, the writer emerged as an emblem of the country’s dissonance. Now, in the midst of another all-consuming national crisis, his work feels uncannily relevant.”

By Jesse Green

The New York Times

September. 14, 2020

 

 

*****************************************************

 

This article includes “pictures, the essay’s writer and T’s editors chose some of their favorite passages of Walt Whitman’s poetry — excerpted below as he published them in the 1891-92 edition of “Leaves of Grass” — which the photographer, stylist and models referenced to inspire the images, taken on July 24, 2020, at St. Josaphat’s Monastery in Glen Cove, N.Y.”

Take a look for yourself to see how tawdry and pitiful this is.

 

 

*****************************************************

 

 

The following are excerpts from the article, by Jesse Green, the Times’s co-chief theater critic. With thoughts/comments by me in ALL CAPS.

 

The 13-part newspaper series on manly health he wrote a few years earlier, in 1858, under the pseudonym Mose Velsor, is full of epigrammatic dictums — “the beard is a great sanitary protection to the throat” and “we have spoken against the use of the potato” — but for long passages comes off as unintentional gay porn.

Of course, so do long passages of his signed work.

GAY PORN? COME ON! I HAVE READ THE ENTIRE 1858 NEWSPAPER SERIES BY WHITMAN REFERRED TO. (IT WAS RECENTLY PUBLISHED IN BOOK FORM AS Manly Health and Training.) GREEN DELIBERATELY MISCHARACTERIZES THIS WORK OR ITS INTENTION.

 

Six years before the war, in June 1855, Whitman published the first edition of “Leaves of Grass,” a book of poems he would prune and shape, like a massive topiary, until his death in 1892 at the age of 72. That he believed it to be not just his masterpiece but America’s, and that America somehow came to agree, seems so wildly unlikely when you actually read it that the reading throws you into a time warp. Are we in classical Greece, as the antique cadences and references sometimes suggest? Adamic Eden? The Summer of Love in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury? Pre-Columbian America? Or tonight on Grindr? (Polar Bear, highly verbal, Masc4Masc.) Not many other masterpieces of the 19th century fill their pages with kisses among “camerados,” testicular gropes (“the sensitive, orbic, underlapp’d brothers”), hydrothermal ejaculations (“the pent-up rivers of myself”) and the scent of armpits “finer than prayer.” Even in the unlikely event that Whitman merely imagined such things, they have the authenticity of aspiration. You can see it in the portrait he chose for the frontispiece of the first edition: an engraving of the author with his hips, hat and eyebrows all cocked, with his lanky frame in a louche slouch that any gay man in Brooklyn Heights today (I live a quarter-mile from the printing house where it was typeset) would take as a welcome, a come-on, a song of himself.

TOTALLY UNJUSTIFIED INSINUATIONS/INFERENCES, “CRITICAL OBSERVATIONS” ABOUT LEAVES OF GRASS. THE REFERENCE TO ‘ANTIQUE CADENCES” SHOWS IGNORANCE. WHITMAN WANTED, CHOSE DELIBERATELY, TO AVOID ALL ECHOES OF CLASSICAL LITERATURE.

 

It is only as an icon of queerness that Whitman’s legacy is sometimes denied, as if gay people, rooting through the crypts of time, had dug up the wrong body. For decades, heterosexual critics commonly treated the homoerotic passages as metaphor or, like Harold Bloom, asserted that all those loving comrades were actually just platonic friends. (Bloom called Whitman’s sexuality “onanistic.”) And though it’s true (as Justin Kaplan tells us in “Walt Whitman: A Life,” his 1980 biography) that in old age the poet casually, even cruelly, dismissed an anguished acolyte’s plea to acknowledge the actual sex shadowing the metaphysical sex in his work — “morbid inferences,” he answered in an 1890 letter, “disavow’d” and “damnable” — that hasn’t stopped gay men since liberation from celebrating the truth for what it is and making Walt their poster boy. After all, how metaphysical can an erection be? (In the preface to the 1856 edition of “Leaves of Grass,” Whitman pledges to restore the “desires, lusty animations, organs, acts” that had been “driven to skulk out of literature with whatever belongs to them.”) Whether or not he sired six children, as he sometimes claimed, though none are known to have come knocking in search of a handout or benediction, they would not be dispositive anyway: Most homophile men have until recently also had wives and children — and Whitman called at least one of his likely young lovers “dear son.”

RE WHITMAN AS AN ICON OF QUEERNESS, SEE MY COMMENTS BELOW.

RE “In old age the poet casually, even cruelly, dismissed an anguished acolyte’s plea,” [ITALICS ADDED], THE LETTER OF WHITMAN TO AN ENGLISH ACOLYTE (JOHN ADDINGTON SYMONDS) IS PRESERVED IN DRAFT FORM — I.E., A DRAFT BY WHITMAN. SYMONDS’S LETTER (I.E., FROM WHITMAN TO HIM) HAS NOT BEEN PRESERVED APPARENTLY. (IT HAS NOT BEEN PUBLISHED.) I HAVE POSTED HERE (ABOVE) AS A WORD DOCUMENT MY TRANSCRIPTION OF WHITMAN’S DRAFT. TO CALL THE LETTER OR ITS TONE CRUEL AND TO SAY THAT IT AMOUNTED TO CASUAL DISMISSAL IS OVERREACH — TO SAY NOTHING OF BEING INACCURATE.

GREEN DID NOT STUDY WHITMAN’S DRAFT LETTER CLOSELY. HE LEARNED ABOUT IT FROM JUSTIN KAPLAN’S BIOGRAPHY OF WHITMAN. KAPLAN STATES THAT WHITMAN’S LETTER (DRAFT OF SAME) TO SYMONDS WAS “CALCULATINGLY CASUAL,” WHICH IS NOT THE SAME AS CASUAL. IN FACT, WHILE WHITMAN DID TRY TO KEEP THE TONE MEASURED, IT IS OBVIOUS HOW CAREFULLY HE DRAFTED THE REPLY. WHITMAN, IN WRITING TO SYMONDS, CLEARLY WAS ON THE SPOT, FELT DEFENSIVE. HE WRITES WITH RESERVE AND ISSUES A FIRM DENIAL. NOTHING LESS AND NOTHING MORE.

 

What he isn’t, at least at the time he went on his milk diet, nor during the years when he produced the first editions of “Leaves of Grass,” is amatively mature. “The best I had done seem’d to me blank and suspicious,” he admits in the same poem. “Many I loved in the street or ferry-boat or public assembly, yet never told them a word.” Despite their enthusiastic (and unquestionably transporting) wide-world embraces, these early writings often suggest high school aesthetes pining in diaries for high school athletes. They want more from others than they dare say directly.

THIS IS PSYCHOBABBLE TRIVIALIZING THE WORK OF A GREAT POET (AMERICA’S GREATEST), AS IF HE WERE THE WRITER OF LYRICS TO POP SONGS OR PERHAPS GRAPHIC NOVELS.

 

 

… his need for the “comradeship and sometimes affection” of stevedores, farmhands and omnibus drivers begins to make sense when you recognize that unresolved split in him. Here was a nascent voice of the common man but also a mama’s boy, theater buff and opera freak who shared elderberry wine with Oscar Wilde. Wobbling like an adolescent between wanting to possess the other and be him, Whitman — and, because he represented America, America — did not yet know what destiny held or how to find it. In that way, his diet was spiritual: a means of annealing his body for the great work ahead.

MORE JEJUNE PSYCHOBABBLE.

 

 

Whitman embodied cognitive dissonance. His freethinking coexisted with a lifelong project of self-editing, literal and otherwise, in service not just to his art but his ambition. “Leaves of Grass” was no less ruthlessly pruned and reshaped over the decades than his own public persona; he could not have become The Good Gray Poet without sanding down his pervy edges in deference to prejudices he may or may not have outgrown himself. It remains impossible to say whether his denial of gay affairs, like his denial of full personhood for Black and Indigenous people, was unexamined prejudice or savvy self-promotion.

“COGNITIVE DISSONANCE” … “PERVY EDGES”: MORE PSYCHOBABBLE AND DEMEANING WITH CANT.

 

How different he sounds from his contemporaries, even American ones, except for Emily Dickinson, whose similarly pioneering and proto-queer work would not become widely known until after her death in 1886.

NOTE THE SNARKY, CONFIDENT ASSERTION THAT EMILY DICKENSON’S POETRY WAS “PROTO-QUEER.” THIS IS MORE CUTE GLIBNESS. SERIOUS LITERARY SCHOLARS HAVE RECENTLY WRITTEN ESSAYS INVESTIGATING WHETHER EMILY DICKINSON HAD LONGINGS FOR WOMEN AND RELATIONSHIPS WITH THEM. IT MAY BE TRUE. IS IT PROVEN?

 

 

*****************************************************

 

 

My former therapist, Dr. Ralph Colp Jr. – a highly literate and well-read person and a scholar in his own right, how many MDs and psychiatrists or therapists can this be said of? – made two significant observations to me about Whitman. First, that gays were very eager to claim him as one of them, and that this reflected something gays tend to do. Second, that he (Dr. Colp) felt that Whitman handled questions about his sexual orientation very well – meaning discretion, not disclosing more than he wished to – as Whitman’s way of dealing with such inquiries.

A comment (responding to the Times article) that was posted on the Times site yesterday reads as follows:

Samuel, Denver

Sept. 15

It’s not that anything this article says is wrong. It’s just that because of the lens the writer writes through (proud gay) and the contextual pictures (over-expensive clothing), there is nothing quite right here either. Whitman celebrated sexuality — all sexual desires and behaviors — and he celebrated freedom, including the freedom to NOT be defined by any particular bent of those sexual desires. This is the exact opposite of modern gay movements, which insist on the definition of the self by one’s sexual preference. This is why Whitman denounced “an anguished acolyte’s [John Addington Symonds, not named by Green] plea” – because the acolyte got it wrong and wanted to pigeon-hole a man whose manifesto was freedom.

Whitman’s poetry isn’t gay. It’s pan-sexual, free to ever cross borders and return back — completely free of being defined by the preference of the moment. This sort of freedom is almost entirely unknown today in a world where people want to loudly define themselves by all sorts of preferences, and do not seek or admire the freedom that comes with refusing to be defined by one definition and embracing a multitude of possibilities. That is what Whitman continually did: he included everything in his self-definition; he “contained multitudes.”

As for the pictures with the article . . . really? How tone-deaf can you be?

I completely agree with Samuel. I don’t care whatsoever whether Whitman was gay or not. I think he probably was gay. But there is no conclusive proof. And, anyway, as I just said, I don’t care.

 

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   September 16, 2020

Henry Miller

 

 

 

‘Henry Miller’

 

 

A downloadable Word document of this essay is attached above.

 

 

 

In my late high school years, I read Henry Miller’s Tropic of Capricorn in a recently published Grove Press paperback with a bright red cover, which I found in my father’s bedroom — the obscenity ban had just been lifted by the courts. I had never heard of Miller.

I got interested in the book and eventually took it to my bedroom across the hall. I kept it for weeks. My father eventually noticed this and commented on it, but he did not insist on my returning the book.book.  (This showed a certain appreciation of my intelligence and/or curiosity as well as, perhaps, literary tastes; and what might be viewed as a degree of practical wisdom on my father’s part.)

The reason I kept the book is that I liked Miller. At first, I noticed the sexy parts – there were lots of them. I was a teenager curious about and inexperienced in sex. The “good parts” were explicit, more so than other naughty books that I had hitherto peeked at. Besides being erotic, they were well written, amusing, and fun.

Soon — very quickly — I got caught up in the whole book and in Miller’s narrative style and I was no longer interested in the sexy parts alone. And, I found that I enjoyed the sex scenes not only for their explicit erotic content, but also for the humor and the good, zesty writing.

Tropic of Capricorn is part of a trilogy that also includes Tropic of Cancer and Black Spring. I have never read Black Spring, which features surrealistic writing. I have read goodly portions of Tropic of Cancer but must admit that I have never read it in its entirety — I dipped into the book without reading it sequentially from beginning to end. Cancer is better known than Capricorn, but I prefer the former book and think it is underrated. In my opinion, it is by far Miller’s best book. I would deem it a classic of American literature. Few, it seems, would concur.

Tropic of Capricorn is an autobiographical novel, taking the reader from the point where Miller is in New York working for a telegraph company modeled on Western Union (where Miller actually worked) to the end of the book, where Miller gives up his conventional workaday life with a wife who bores him (and makes him feel like a captive) and leaves for Paris.

The book has an irresistible narrative flow and momentum. It seems to be written off the cuff — is written pell-mell as if someone were speaking in that fashion — yet it is constructed with a prefect authorial “ear”; pitched at just the right level and tone (or narrative voice); fashioned so that one episode follows another with undeniable cogency. It’s like a piece of music that is irresistible to the mind and ear.

I kept reading Miller. I spent a great deal of time reading him in my senior year in college — neglecting my studies — and then continued to read him avidly for another year or so. I basically devoured him.

While in college, I read the first two books of Miller’s trilogy The Rosy Crucifixion — Sexus and Plexus — and enjoyed them greatly. Some critics thought these were disappointing books, poorly written and a big comedown from the Tropics. One of these critics was Miller’s (and Anaïs Nin’s) friend Lawrence Durrell. But I liked them, to put it mildly. There were plenty of rollicking sex scenes and lots of colorful characters drawn from Miller’s own life. I think Miller helped (note that I say helped) to liberate me sexually and give me a healthier appreciation of sexuality. It was eroticism (one would have said then, pornography) plus damned good writing.

I went on to read other works of Miller, including much of his nonfiction, which did not have sexual content, and got a real feeling for his range and scope – as well as appreciation for his intellect (to an extent). I say “to an extent” because my admiration for Miller is not primarily admiration for his essays or theories. He was, however, a man with a keen intellect and a man of wide reading and knowledge. He was basically self educated, having only briefly attended college. His interests included music and art as well as literature. He was an amateur pianist and painted thousands of watercolors that are now in major collections.

Miller once wrote (I forget where) that he used to go to bed every night listening to Beethoven’s Egmont Overture. Reading this, I felt kinship with him, since the Egmont Overture has never failed to inspire me.

Miller dropped out of City College after a semester. One reason, he said, perhaps flippantly, was that he couldn’t bring himself to read Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. Again, I felt kinship with Miller. In my junior year in college, I took an English course which included The Faerie Queene; I had great difficulty getting through it.

In the second semester of my senior year in college, I took an independent study course, Readings in Henry Miller, with Professor Sacvan Berkovitch, a brilliant up and coming American Studies professor who had a distinguished career.

I have a collection of books by and about Miller (some of them rare) and some by and about his literary circle.

I do, however, find it hard now to get back into him.

I recently tried to read Crazy Cock, one of Miller’s early trial novels, but gave up after a few pages, which I reread several times in the vain hope that I could get into the book. It is a failure, which I’m certain that Miller himself in his later years would have conceded. He hadn’t found his narrative voice yet. A critic once remarked somewhere that Miller had to write in the first person. (Crazy Cock and other early, then unpublished novels by Miller were written in the third person.) I agree.

I recently reread portions of Miller’s Plexus. I was surprised at how well the book stood up after all those years (meaning the forty-five plus years since I read it), and how well written it is, in my opinion. The characters are well drawn, the narrative flows, the language is just right. Miller very skillfully mixes narrative with exposition; anecdotal material with riffs of a quasi-philosophical nature. The characters are drawn from Miller’s days in New York; you can tell that they were real people – with their idiosyncrasies exaggerated.

One gets the impression – it seems that this was the actual truth – of Miller pounding away at his typewriter, writing at a furious pace. I believe (this is an aside) that it is probable that Miller nowadays would be diagnosed as bipolar.

I have read some of Miller’s letters. One gets the same impression. He can go on for ten or twenty pages. It can get tedious. It can also be spellbinding.

My favorite Miller letter is a long one he wrote on March 9, 1930 to Emil Schnellock, a commercial artist who was a lifelong friend of his, beginning when they both were students at P.S. 85 in Brooklyn. In the letter, Miller describes his first Sunday in Paris: “Perhaps the most wonderful Sunday of my life!”

Miller was born in the Yorkville section of Manhattan and was raised in Manhattan and Brooklyn (his father was a tailor); he worked in Manhattan as a young man. The anecdotes and characters he relates and portrays from his New York City years – mainly the 1920’s — are colorful and engrossing. He was a raconteur’s raconteur. His books reflect what it seems was a time when New York was peopled by colorful characters, rich and poor, of various ethnicities. Miller’s prejudices are plain for all to see. Yet, you get the feeling that he was not a mean or vindictive person. I feel somewhat the same way about Miller’s attitude towards women, for which he has been attacked harshly by feminist critics such as Kate Millet. He denigrates women; he also worships them.

My former psychiatrist, Ralph Colp Jr., once said about Miller that he was a “born writer” — it was, in my psychiatrist’s opinion (which I think is dead on), indisputable fact. The way he put it was that — whatever one might say pro or con about Miller (whom my psychiatrist in fact admired as a writer), whatever critics or guardians of public morals might say against him — one thing had to be conceded: he could WRITE.

I have seen two films based on Miller’s works: Tropic of Cancer (1970) and Quiet Days in Clichy (1970), both set in Paris; and a third, Henry and June (1990), also set in Paris, about Henry Miller, June Miller (Miller’s second wife, his Beatrice), and Miller’s lover and fellow writer Anaïs Nin, in which the lead actor, Fred Ward, does a very good job of portraying Miller. (Quiet Days in Clichy — a short, whimsical work — was one of my favorite Miller books.) I thought the film Tropic of Cancer was just so so, and was a letdown. Quiet Days in Clichy, I recall, was well done. The film was a sincere attempt to catch the essence of Miller.

Henry Miller died at his home in Pacific Palisades, California on June 7, 1980 at the age of 88. I read his obituary in The New York Times. I felt a genuine sense of loss and was saddened that we wouldn’t have him around to amuse and goad us any more. He was a free spirit who referred to himself in Tropic of Cancer as “the happiest man alive.” Reading him made me feel liberated, better about myself, and happy. It seems that this has been the case with many of his other readers.

One criticism I would make of Miller is that at a certain point in later life he stopped developing, as a writer. This point was made by Miller’s former Paris friend Alfred Perlès in a book by Perlès that seems to be forgotten: My Friend Henry Miller (New York, 1956). Perlès felt that, after Miller returned to the United States from France, he lost an important source of stimulus and became “stagnant.” I agree. I think that there was something about the challenge of living a hand to mouth existence while experiencing a tremendous surge of sexual and social liberation, cultural novelty, and intellectual stimulation in Paris during the 1930’s (as Perlès noted) that brought out the best in Miller and enabled him to achieve a literary breakthrough whereby he produced many of his best works.

Miller was given at times — not surprising in view of his prodigious output and method of composition — to making fatuous statements. He would get carried away by his enthusiasms. He titled an essay about his lover Anaïs Nin “Un Être Étoilique” (A Heavenly Being). This was overpraise for Nin.

Miller was regarded, besides being the writer who managed almost single-handedly to break down barriers against obscenity, as a forerunner of the Beat Generation. I never considered him to be a beatnik or proto-hippie.

Yet, once in the early 1970’s, I picked up a hitchhiker, a bearded hippie. It turned out he was an intellectual and we started talking about writers. I mentioned that Henry Miller was one of my favorite writers, thinking he would have never heard of Miller, much less read him. “Henry Miller is one of my all time favorites,” he said.

 

— Roger W. Smith

     June 2016

 

 

**********************************************************

 

 

‘Addendum:

 

The following exchange of emails with Thomas P. Riggio, Professor Emeritus at the University of Connecticut, occurred in November 2016, subsequent to my posting of the above essay.

 

Roger,

Your journey with Henry Miller is very interesting. During my teaching years, I used to be the only one in a large department who assigned books by Miller. I became an object of discussion among the bookstore managers. As a result, I remember members of my department, often very liberal and well educated types, dismissing his work as pornography.

I was a big fan of his work, and like you, think Capricorn is his masterpiece. I recall that my students had very polar reactions to his work — many (especially men) felt him as a liberating voice and others (mainly women) were turned off by him. It got to the point, beginning with the culture wars of the 1990’s, where I found it not worth the angst to teach him any longer.

By the way, apropos of your references to Spenser, I’ve always thought that the figure of Una in Capricorn and elsewhere — the idealized figure of virtue, truth etc. — was a reference to Una in The Faerie Queene … writers sometimes talk trash about some of their influences to throw readers/critics off their trail. Though, that said, I can’t imagine Spenser as among Miller’s favorite writers.

Black Spring has a lot of good writing in it, including the essay on childhood and relationship to his tailor father. The writing is very unlike the style of the two Tropics.

Glad to learn you are a fan. Yes, I can see that he would be harder to read as we age. He touches everything in us, and youthful hormones are not the least of them.

P.S. Do you know his comments on Dreiser in The Books in My Life? And, did you know his first unpublished book [Clipped Wings], written at the telegraph office, was inspired by Dreiser’s Twelve Men?

 

 

****************************************************

 

response by Roger W. Smith

 

Thanks a lot for your feedback. Some thoughts, in no particular order.

Regarding the hassles of teaching Miller, because he was pornographic, I also have a blog post about the so called “dirty books” I encountered as an adolescent (without really reading most of them). See Roger W. Smith, “‘dirty’ books” at

 

https://rogersgleanings.com/2016/07/02/dirty-books/

 

I had an outstanding high school English teacher … he was a realist and knew that it wasn’t worth fighting the authorities to teach books like The Catcher in the Rye and Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which there was the occasional obscenity or sex scene.

I’m glad you agree with me about Tropic of Capricorn. A friend of mine, Charles Pierre, a poet living in Manhattan, was a voracious reader who would put me to shame, he was so well and widely read, steeped in the classics, fully conversant with poetry and with challenging modern authors (e.g., Thomas Pynchon). Henry Miller was by no stretch of the imagination his favorite, but I was surprised when he told me one day that he was reading Black Spring. He commented on how impressed he was with the brilliant writing (read, style).

Of course, we know that Kate Millet had Miller in her sights and, in part, made her reputation attacking him. Regarding Miller’s misogyny, though it didn’t bother me, she had a point.

The Una-Spenser-Miller reference of yours is intriguing.

I didn’t know at the time when I was becoming a Miller fan that Miller was a Dreiser fan. As a matter of fact, I was almost completely unaware of Dreiser, aside from the fact that there was a paperback of Sister Carrie on my older brother’s bookshelf; it was on his syllabus in college.

I was recently looking for Miller writings about Dreiser. It turns out there is very little.

Many of Miller’s works are hard to come by, very hard, if one can even identify and find them. I found that some scholar or other published a comprehensive two volume Miller bibliography not long ago: Henry Miller: A Bibliography of Secondary Sources (1979) and Henry Miller: A Bibliography of Primary Sources (1993-94). It may have been a limited print run. Very few libraries seem to have the book, and, if they do, they usually do not have both volumes.

I am a bibliophile and book collector, but I am not an antiquarian and I don’t collect books for profit. I found that both volumes of the Miller biblio were available for sale on the Internet. I purchased them. They were in mint condition. They are fascinating to browse.

I have read that early works by Miller — trial works, as it were — either came close to getting completely lost or, in some cases, can not be found. For example, I think the ms. of “Clipped Wings” has been lost.

I read that some early writings of Miller such as Crazy Cock were unearthed from the possessions of Miller’s second wife June, who may have possibly become reclusive in old age. I believe she survived Miller.

I did put one post about Miller and Dreiser on my Dreiser blog. See

 

https://dreiseronlinecom.wordpress.com/2016/07/03/henry-miller-and-dreiser/

 

I am ashamed to admit it! I was actually a fan of Anaïs Nin for a while. I bought some books by and about her and Miller at the Gotham Book Mart in Manhattan. A little while later, after my short lived enthusiasm for Nin had waned, Dr. Colp made a remark to me, which I feel is true, “she’s unreadable.” One word that seems to apply to her diaries is solipsistic.

I never really read Lawrence Durrell.

I am vaguely aware of Miller’s comments about Dreiser in The Books in My Life. Thanks for reminding me about them.

Miller was never the type of writer to appeal to academics — there seem to be very few scholarly papers or monographs about him. It is interesting to hear that you actually taught him.

Nowadays, it seems quite possible if not probable that curriculum watchdogs would not approve of his works as passing ideological muster.

I did know about the influence on Miller of Dreiser’s Twelve Men. See the post of my Dreiser site at

 

https://dreiseronlinecom.wordpress.com/2016/07/03/henry-miller-and-dreiser/

Roger W. Smith, ‘tribute to Ralph Colp, Jr., MD”

 

Tribute to Dr. Colp

 

email from Ruth Colp-Haber

October 18, 2008

Dear Mr. Smith,

Thank you so much for your email.  I have read it now five times. I gave it to my husband and we were all moved to tears.  It was incredibly brilliant and moving.  Such keen insight which captured so much of Ralph’s essence, he would have loved this.

I was wondering if it would be all right with you for us to hand this out at the funeral?  It is a truly wonderful work.

 

*****************************************************

 

In October 2008, I wrote a memorial tribute to Dr. Ralph Colp, Jr., with whom I had a longtime doctor-patient relationship.

Dr. Colp’s oldest daughter arranged to have the tribute distributed at his memorial service at the New York Society for Ethical Culture. I attended the service.

What follows is my tribute from then – originally in the form of an email — which I have edited and amplified slightly.

 

***********************************************************

 

Dear Ms. Colp,

I feel encouraged by your warm response to my email to discuss my relationship with your father, whom I miss greatly, and my thoughts about him.

I started therapy with Dr. Colp, as I always addressed him, in the mid-1970’s when he was on the staff of Columbia University Health Services. I was employed as an administrative assistant in the dean’s office at Columbia then.

We had almost instant rapport and after a few sessions at Columbia, Dr. Colp said he thought he could help me and suggested that I see him privately. The doctor-patient relationship continued, more or less uninterrupted, for over 30 years.

The relationship ended abruptly a few months ago when I got a call from your mother informing me that Dr. Colp would be unavailable to see me at the usual Monday morning time (6:20 a.m.; Dr. Colp was an early riser).

I did not know that Dr. Colp was ill, which seems incredible to me now; he had never told me. I have gleaned some information about his illness by email correspondence with one Darwin scholar whom I contacted and from your mother in a follow up call.

I can hardly think of an illness or death that has affected me so profoundly, with the exception of the death of my mother just prior to my beginning therapy with Dr. Colp.

One of the first things that struck me about Dr. Colp when I met him around 33 years ago was his gaze, which was both gently inquisitive and, at the same time, penetrating. He was intensely curious about people. You sensed that he felt it was a special privilege to have the opportunity to have people tell him about themselves. I also sensed in him another quality which immediately made me like and trust him: a self-deprecating or humble nature, which few doctors seem to exhibit.

Dr. Colp became a surrogate father to me. He was the good father and role model I never had. He was one of the most sincerely empathetic persons you can imagine, yet he never lost his professional bearing or acted inappropriately. How he could have been so effective and professional as a medical specialist and yet at the same time not lose the human touch is something I marveled at. He never seemed jaded or to be going through the motions.

Dr. Colp was one of the warmest, most insightful, most intelligent people I have ever met. He also was a hero to me in his professional capacity.

I have not mentioned my esteem for Dr. Colp the intellectual. He told me that intellectual stimulation, the life of the mind, was for him “like breathing.” He was one of the most well read and intelligent people I ever knew.

His comments during our sessions showed me his depth as a thinker and person. Where did he get the knowledge he had? He knew so much that I either hazily or imperfectly knew or learned entirely from him: that the letters of John Keats were among the greatest in English literature, for example; that not even Flaubert could match Tolstoy as a novelist; that Pitirim Sorokin, the sociologist and historical philosopher, whom I admired, was a “quixotic figure”; that the novelist Theodore Dreiser was a clumsy stylist. He told me that the writings of John Dewey were invariably dull and boring. These and many other things I heard from his lips when some current literary or intellectual enthusiasm was broached by me.

I say this while recollecting that he once told that were huge gaps in his knowledge. When he was not knowledgeable about something — such as the work of Djuna Barnes, an avant-garde writer of the 1920’s and 30’s I was telling him about — he would readily confess his ignorance. But he often had bits of knowledge to offer that came from wide reading and culture, such as when he provided me with an obscure and extremely useful (for academic work I was doing) reference to the writings of James T. Farrell, the novelist, whom Dr. Colp had treated as a patient during his pre-psychiatry career as a surgeon.

I similarly benefited from his occasional recommendations of books and of films he had seen, but he did not make such recommendations lightly. He only made them when he thought it was something that I in particular would appreciate or benefit from, e.g., a film or a book. (I recall a book on Stalin, for example, and a film set in Paris that he thought I would like because I had traveled or was about to travel there.)

He had an encyclopedic knowledge of history, which he said was his “first love.”

As Dr. Colp stated in an interview, he had “two identities: one as a psychoanalytically oriented psychotherapist and another as a Darwin scholar.” This was indeed true. He was totally devoted to his work and his scholarship. Yet, in another interview, I read a comment of his that, like his hero and role model, Charles Darwin, he alternated moments of intense work and concentration with periods of relaxation and enjoyment.

I only observed him in the former state.

Dr. Colp was once affectionately described by my then boss, a dean at Columbia (who did not know I was Dr. Colp’s patient), as “looking something like a stork.” He was tall for his generation. He had a distinctive, somewhat high pitched, reassuring voice that I grew to love. He spoke — probably as a result of his training in psychiatry — about as carefully and deliberately as anyone I have ever known, with the result that he hardly ever said anything I could or would find fault with. I listened very carefully to him and treasured what he had to say.

He was in many respects a grave and serious person whose devotion to work and duty was outstanding. Yet he had an amiability about him and a capacity for humor, too. One of the first recollections I have of him is his laughing because the pen handed to him by a secretary to write in an appointment book with would not work. He always seemed to be bedeviled by the vagaries of ballpoint pens. He once described himself as being a Victorian in many respects — this was certainly true of his never having adopted innovations of the computer age; persisting in the use of his beloved manual typewriter; being averse to faxing; and calling Xeroxes “Xerex” copies.

Dr. Colp was careful to keep his personal and family life private from me, but he once said something more or less spontaneously about his younger daughter which I will repeat for what it is worth. He said with evident feeling that “she cares about everything,” proceeding thereupon to list what some of these things were (people, animals, social causes, for example). I think this remark applies equally to Dr. Colp. I have read his two books and many of his articles about Darwin, which bristle with appreciation for the man and curiosity about the minutest details of his life.

Charles Darwin was, obviously, a role model for Dr. Colp, and it is easy to see why, because Dr. Colp embodied so many of the same virtues. (You can see the same sort of understanding and compassion, balanced with a welcome lack of tendentiousness, in articles about Sacco and Vanzetti that Dr. Colp wrote for The Nation in 1958.)

Dr. Colp was an idealist in many respects, in his devotion to his work and to truth, for example, yet he was somewhat of a practical man, a scientist — no, physician is the right term — too. I saw this in the sound, clear-headed judgments he made. He would not, for example, fall for glib self-assessments by me of my own potential and prospects when such self-assessments had no solid foundation.

Yet, he could be warm and supportive.  I was once telling him about my older son Henry’s writing skills, which he seemed to be born with, and how his elementary school teachers effusively praised his writing. “Well, he’s your son,” Dr. Colp said.

Dr. Colp would occasionally tell me things about his childhood, such as about his dog Waggy (named after Mayor Wagner), who died when Dr. Colp was a teenager; he said he was devastated by the dog’s death. About dining at the Oyster Bar with his father, who always stressed the importance of leaving a tip of something like 50 cents. (Noblesse oblige is how Dr. Colp termed it with his characteristic gentle irony.)

Seeing the Disney film Dumbo in the 1940’s with his father. Attending with his younger daughter a marathon reading of James Joyce’s Ulysses at Symphony Space in Manhattan, where, according to Dr. Colp, an Irish narrator reading from a chapter in Ulysses “brought the house down.” The relish with which Dr. Colp told the story reflected both his zest for the event and — I am certain also — the pleasure of attending it with his daughter.

Ralph Colp, Jr. was a Victorian, Darwinian figure, with a broad range of interests and sympathies. He was a representative of the old prewar or perhaps immediate postwar New York described by writers like Joseph Mitchell which is now long gone, and he represents a generation and a type of doctor and psychiatrist whom I do not think will be seen again.

He was a wonderful person.

I feel his loss so keenly — the loss of Dr. Colp as a person, that is. He had already accomplished, both by example and by his medical skills, most of what he could for me as a therapist.

 

***********************************************************

 

A few more facts about Ralph Colp, Jr.

He was born on October 12, 1924 in, and grew up in, New York City. He was the son of a prominent surgeon.

He received his MD from Columbia in 1948 and was an active surgeon for five years before becoming a Diplomate, American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology (Psychiatry) in 1965. He became an accomplished intellectual, psychiatrist, psychohistorian, and psychotherapist.

He spent ten years in psychoanalysis with Max Schur, who was Freud’s last physician.

He served as attending psychiatrist at Columbia University Health Services until 1993, was a senior associate in the Program of Human Sexuality and Sex Therapy at the New York University Medical Center, and was a member of the Psychohistory Forum.

He was the author of two books: To Be an Invalid: The Illness of Charles Darwin (1977) and Darwin’s Illness (2008).

He published over 100 articles and book reviews on Darwin, William Halsted, medical history, Russian revolutionaries, and many other subjects.

 

— Roger W. Smith

  February 2016

 

*****************************************************

 

Attached below are several articles by and about Dr. Colp.

 

Paul H. Elowitz, ‘Ralph Colp and Charles Darwin’ – Clio’s Psyche, Sept 2002

 

Richard Milner, ‘Darwin’s Shrink’ – Natural History, Nov 2005

 

tributes to Ralph Colp, Jr. – Clio’s Psyche, Dec 2008

 

James Moore, ‘Eloge; Ralph Colp’ – Isis, Sept 2010

 

Ralph Colp Jr, ‘Remembering Max Schur’ – American J Psychiatry

 

‘Sacco’s Struggle for Sanity’ – The Nation 8-16-1958

 

‘Bitter Christmas’ – The Nation 12-27-1958 FINAL

 

*****************************************************

 

See also:

 

“A Jew without a burial site”

by Judith Colp Rubin

The Times of Israel

August 30, 2018

https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/a-jew-without-a-burial-site/