Thursday, May 20, 2010

Sally Benson Curing What Ails Us

Poet Ogden Nash has a poem called “The Adventures of Isabel,” in which Isabel, the pluckiest of little girls, encounters a doctor:

Isabel met a troublesome doctor,
He punched and he poked till he really shocked her.
The doctor's talk was of coughs and chills
And the doctor's satchel bulged with pills.
The doctor said unto Isabel,
Swallow this, it will make you well.
Isabel, Isabel, didn't worry,
Isabel didn't scream or scurry.
She took those pills from the pill concocter,
And Isabel calmly cured the doctor.

On the surface, this might be what Sally Benson’s “Between Madison and Park” is all about – a patient curing a doctor. But there are vagaries and subtleties throughout the short piece that Louis Untermeyer included in this anthology while tongue-in-cheek calling the author “witty and penetrating,” words many a reviewer has used to describe Sally Benson.

I’m just not sure what they are.

Maybe exploring her other works will help. Benson wrote the book on which the musical “Meet me in St. Louis” is based. The story focuses on the travails of a family facing an impending move from St. Louis to New York on the eve of 1904’s Louisiana Purchase Exposition World’s Fair. But, like Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, the story’s underlying tension is that of women trying to assert themselves and live their lives as they want to live them.

Oh, and two very popular songs, neither of which Sally Benson has anything to do with:

So let us examine a passage from “Between Madison and Park.” Here, our protagonist meets Dr. Mitchell, to whom she has been referred by a friend because she awoke that morning with a choking sensation that, oddly, didn’t seem to upset her husband all that much:

Well, Dr. Mitchell, first I want you to understand that I am not a woman who thinks she has something the batter with her when she hasn’t and keeps running to doctors all the time.”

He laughed pleasantly. “You don’t have to tell me that,” he said. “I can see that you’re not.”

“You’ll jut have to take my word for it that I’m not,” Mrs. Gibson said. “it’s just that – well, when I woke up this morning I felt funny. I felt as though I were choking. I mean I don’t feel sick at all. I just have this choking sensation.”

Dr. Mitchell closed his eyes.

Mrs. Gibson saw that there was a bust of Shakespeare in the center of the bookshelves that ran across the side of the room to the right of the Doctor’s desk. “Oh!’ she cried, “Isn’t that the funniest thing! You know, when I came in I was almost sure I’d seen you before, and I guess I was simply thinking of Shakespeare. I mean you would look almost exactly like Shakespeare if you wore a beard.”

He opened his eyes. “Not that’s very odd,” he said. “So many of my patients have told me the same thing. Personally, I don’t see the resemblance. But I suppose one never does see one’s own self.” He leaned forward and look at her steadily. “About this choking sensation which you have . . .”

Mrs. Gibson laughed nervously. “I suppose I imagine it, really.”

“But aren’t the things we imagine real to us?” Dr Mitchell asked softly.

“I daresay they are,” Mrs. Gibson said. “At least, I see what you mean. If I thought I were Napoleon, I would really think I was Napoleon.”

Then, after a few more diagnostic and personal questions. Mrs. Gibson goes on to give Dr. Mitchell hope that his dreamer namesake sixteen-year-old son who wants to be a writer will turn out just fine, though he only wants to study what he wants to study.

Maybe if you didn’t send him to school and let him go to work for a while,” Mrs. Gibson suggested.

Dr Mitchell breathed in deeply. “I hadn’t thought of that,” he said. “I’ll talk it over with Mrs. Mitchell.” He closed his eyes and nodded. “That might be the solution,” he said. He opened his eyes and smiled at Mrs. Gibson and she smiled back. “Now, that choking sensation,” he said. He took out a prescription blank from the drawer of his desk, wrote hurriedly on it, and handed it to her. The prescription was written in Latin, but at the bottom of the blank were two words in English. “For tension,” they read.

“Thank you,” Mrs. Gibson said. She arose to go and they shook hands. “I hope your boy will be all right. I’m sure he will. After all, you must realize he’s only sixteen.”

“I’d like to see you again in about a week,” Dr. Mitchell said. “And we’ll see if that choking sensation hasn’t cleared up. It may be a form of claustrophobia, or it may be that you are overtired and your nerves are playing tricks. Will you stop and make an appointment with Miss Devers, my nurse?”

“Yes, I will,” Mrs. Gibson said. “Good-bye.”

So, I can hear Untermeyer chuckling. Just who cured who?

No comments:

Post a Comment