Friday, June 28, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 66: Theodore Dreiser, The Country Doctor (#159)

Theodore Dreiser, "The Country Doctor" (1918) from Theodore Dreiser: Sister Carrie, Jennie Gerhardt, Twelve Men:

In typical Dreiserian fashion, "The Country Doctor" is one long sketch of a semi-fictitious character; as the LoA note remarks, the doctor here is a combination of two rural doctors, only one of whom Dreiser actually knew. I say that this is typical Dreiser because, for a fiction writer, Dreiser sure did like to stick to the facts. (Which is one reason why Dreiser gets a certain amount of love in historical circles. We might want to say that this interest in the truth comes from his time as a journalist, but journalists back then weren't always interested in the truth. High school tends to focus on the idea of Hearst and "Yellow Journalism," but really the idea of "journalistic ethics" barely exists in any time before 1920.)

The anecdotes that make up "The Country Doctor" are pretty standard "good doctor to poor region" stories: he didn't always collect on his debts, he had a nagging wife about that; he went anywhere at any time of day to help a sick person; he used any trick he could to help people, including folk remedies or getting them mad, if that's what it took; he was somber but humorous; etc. There are some anecdotes that are atypical for this sort of character, such as that he loved spring and birds, going so far as to keep some pet crows who kept stealing from him and his family.

But after 20 pages of anecdotes, all we really have is a distant sketch about a particular person. It's almost more interesting to try to read into it and see what's missing. For instance, we hear how the doctor never collects debts and could be off to a big city where he would be rich and famous--and then we're also told that he's got a black manservant around the house. If nothing else, that's a reminder that a certain class of labor was cheap enough for even a poor country doctor.

As for structure, Dreiser starts with two longish personal anecdotes--how the doctor prescribed a folk remedy for his dad, which little Dreiser had to gather; and how he woke the doctor in the middle of the night to come look in on his sister, which resulted in a scary walk back for little Dreiser--and only after establishing his personal connection to the doctor does he branch out and start giving anecdotes from other people.

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