Henry Clay Lewis

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Annotated by:
Coulehan, Jack

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Collection (Short Stories)


This is a collection of humorous sketches first published in 1850. They purport to describe the youthful experience (and antics) of an elderly "swamp doctor" named Dr. Madison Tensas. In fact, they are the work of Henry Clay Lewis, a young Jewish-American doctor who, after graduating from the Louisville Medical Institute in 1846, set up practice in MADISON County, Louisiana, along the banks of the TENSAS River.

The Introduction of this edition, written by Edwin T. Arnold, locates Henry Clay Lewis and his work within the context of 19th Century "South and Southwest Humor," and briefly discusses each piece. One of his major points is that the swamp doctor's "odd leaves" contain a dark, almost Gothic strain, thoroughly mixed in with their humorous and prankish sensibility. (Perhaps "lack of sensibility" would be a better phrase to use to describe these sketches.)

The first brief sketch compares characteristics of the "city physician" with the "swamp doctor." After this, we follow the growth and development of "Dr. Tensas" from childhood through medical school and into his practice in the swamp country of Louisiana. Among the more notable sketches are "Getting Acquainted with the Medicine," in which the student's preceptor conceals his bottle of whiskey by labeling it "tincture of arsenic"; "The Curious Widow," in which the student prepares a gristly surprise for his snooping landlady; "Being Examined for My Degree," which demonstrates the comic vagaries of oral examinations; "My First Call in the Swamp," in which the newly minted doctor cures his first patient (more or less); and "How to Cure Fits," which presents a novel and efficient treatment for hysterical disorders.

If you want to find some genuine clinical wisdom in this book, look no further than "My First Call in the Swamp," where the author observes, "if you wish to ruin yourself in the estimation of your female patients, hint that the disease they are laboring under is connected with hysterics" (p. 146).

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