Passages from the Diary of a Late Physician
Genre: Collection (Short Stories)
- Kennedy, Meegan
- Date of entry: Jul-05-2001
Warren here supposedly presents the papers of a late friend, detailing the interesting cases he had encountered as a physician. In fact, the "cases" are sensational short stories, presented as a novel due to the framing chapter introducing the narrator's "Early Struggles" to make a living as a physician. Other stories investigate typically Gothic themes like ghosts, duels, graverobbing, elopements, and broken hearts, with other scandalous problems like gambling, dissipation, murder, domestic abuse, and suicide. Medical topics include mental illness, epilepsy, hysterical paralysis ("catalepsy"), cancer, toothache, consumption, syphilis, heart disease, alcoholism, disease of the spine, gout, amaurosis (blindness), puerperal hemorrhage, measles, and stroke ("apoplexy").
Warren's fiction, tremendously popular, roused vehement debate in the medical community. Some physicians, taken in by his pose as editor, railed against his printing of patients' full names, which betrayed the (recent) code of patient confidentiality. Others were outraged that he would appropriate the professional genre of the medical case history as a vehicle for his luridly fantastical stories, and the pose of the "medical man" for the voice of the curious, fascinated narrator. Critics in literary circles derided his lowbrow literary taste. Edgar Allan Poe even cited Warren in "How to Write a Blackwood's Article," an attack on the "bizarreries" published by the magazine.
As a result, these short stories can anchor fruitful discussions of the disciplinary boundaries between medicine and literature, the distinction between truth and fiction, the codes of professional behavior, and the establishment of literary taste. In addition, Warren's decision to sensationalize every disorder in his narrator's experience provides a fascinating opportunity to discuss the cultural history of certain diseases as sentimental (consumption, puerperal hemorrhage) or shocking (alcoholism, insanity).