“Why in thunder should anyone want to write a biography of R. S.?” a friend asks the author of As I Remember Him: “[W]hen he died, the world had no unusual reasons to mourn him.” “R. S.,” as Zinsser never acknowledges in this book, is Zinsser himself. The initials stood for “Romantic Soul,” which is how he sometimes referred to himself.
As I Remember Him is one of the more unusual experiments in autobiography. The book is written in two voices: one of the unnamed author, the other of R. S. himself. The author sets R. S.’ material in context or comments–not always positively–upon it.
In the introduction, the author mentions The Education of Henry Adams as one of his inspirations, and there are a number of parallels between the two books. Both take a rather detached approach to the personal aspects of their stories: Adams writing of himself in the third person, Zinsser refusing to identify himself and framing his own words with those of the fictional “author.” Both are as much intellectual histories as accounts of life events–more so, one could argue. Both men omit mention of what others might consider some of the more dramatic and interesting moments in their lives. And both set the subject as a figure from a particular age and cultural dealing with a time of change and transition to a far different world. In Zinsser’s case,
I approached my task with modesty, therefore, hoping that I might acceptably convey in this study the portrait of a representative of that generation, now rapidly disappearing–like the T-model Ford–whose lives bridged the transition from horses to gasoline to electric bulbs, from Emerson and Longfellow to T. S. Eliot and Joyce, from stock companies to the movies and the radio, etc.–in short, from Victoria to Mrs. Windsor.
Zinsser was hardly more representative of his generation than Adams was of his. Born into a wealthy German-American family, he was privately tutored until college age and taken off on tours of the Continent by an elderly uncle. His life moved back and forth from a Manhattan brownstone mansion to a country house. All his life he loved to ride and participate in the Groton Hunts.
When the Spanish-American War broke out, he and several of his well-to-do friends ran off and enlisted in the Army. He served for two years but never saw combat. Of the time, Zinsser recalls little beyond a humorous story involving Teddy Roosevelt and a startled horse.
Zinsser tried studying painting after that, and then literature, and only somewhat accidentally became interested in–no, fascinated and then possessed by–science and medicine. He graduated with an M. D. from Columbia in 1903 and went to work as a practicing physician. He had to make do with the cast-offs of other Manhattan doctors, starting out with the poorest patients, turning out in the middle of the night for deliveries his better-off colleague could avoid. He soon discovered, though, that the laboratory rather than private practice was his forte, and in 1907, he joined the faculty at Columbia.
Zinsser quickly became one of the leading American researchers in the relatively new field of bacteriology, and his work let him to be selected by the Red Cross to travel to Serbia in 1915 to help deal with an epidemic of typhus there. Of his experiences in Serbia we are told anecdotes about a crazy night in a dilapidated country inn, an Eastern Orthodox bishop, and a charming Austro-Serbian character abruptly arrested and shot as a spy.
More telling, though is what he doesn’t tell the reader. This is about as much as we learn on his work in the field hospitals:
The work was trying on the nerves, since often, while I was doing an autopsy on a case still warm (it was desirable to perform these operations before secondary post-mortem invasion of bacteria had occurred), I could hear the families of other recent dead keening over the bodies on the farther side of a thin partition….
Less than two years later, he was recruited to serve as head of laboratories for the U. S. Army Expeditionary Force in France. His work on camp and hospital sanitation and disease prevention earned him the Distinguished Service Medal. And again one can debate whether his reticence is admirable or aggravating or both:
Of his military service, nineteen months were spend in France. Into these nineteen months were crowded the most stirring events of his life and his most intense emotions–elation, terror, compassion, admiration, disgust, and pride. But he utterly refused to discuss any of his experiences.
To offset such narrative ellipses, Zinsser offers little histories of typhus, syphilis, and other diseases he researched and deal with. These are not unwelcome–Zinsser’s classic text on epidemics, Rats, Lice and History–has never gone out of print since its first publication in 1935. But they’re second best as substitutes for first-hand observations–and comments such as “Into these nineteen months were crowded the most stirring events of his life” are third-rate writing.
Field research was clearly Zinsser’s great passion as a scientist. He traveled to Europe, China, Japan, and Africa to study diseases and bacteria in the midst of their most virulent outbreaks. In Mexico City he alternated between work in filthy alleys and sick wards and nights trying to control the poet Hart Crane’s benders. His work was ground-breaking but supportive: he was able to isolate a germ of typhus from which an effective vaccine was eventually derived, but others developed this into an affordable and usable treatment.
In 1938, he was diagnosed with leukemia, which was then incurable. He began writing this book in response. Although the disease must certainly have been painful and his death long in coming, Zinsser saw this in a positive light:
As his disease caught up with him, R. S. felt increasingly grateful for the fact that death was coming to him with due warning, and gradually…. [H]e was thankful that he had time to compose his spirit, and to spend a last year in affectionate and actually merry association with those dear to him.
Zinsser brings the reader back to the book’s premise at the very end:
… I knew that at the time of his death he was as thoroughly bewildered as any thoughtful individual of our time is bound to be.
All of which goes to prove that, as I pointed out in the first chapter, R. S. was really a quite ordinary person about whom it was hardly worth while to write a book.
Zinsser finished the book and was able to see it published before his death. The Book of the Month Club picked it as a featured title and it became a surprise best-seller–which is why it’s easy to find a copy for just a buck or two today. But it was never reprinted or reissued after this first release and quickly became forgotten. Although I was initially enthusiastic about the book, as the pages worn on, Zinsser’s choice to focus more on context and history and less on his own experiences and emotions grew increasingly frustrating. I think Clifton Fadiman’s review in the Saturday Review summed it up well: “…[N]o classic, but full of good things.”
Throughout his adult life, Zinsser was something of an amateur poet. A few of his poems were published in Saturday Review, The Atlantic and others, but his last sonnet has become something of a standard text for those suffering from terminal illnesses:
Now is death merciful. He calls me hence
Gently, with friendly soothing of my fears
Of ugly age and feeble impotence
And cruel disintegration of slow years.
Nor does he leap upon me unaware
Like some wild beast that hungers for its prey,
But gives me kindly warning to prepare:
Before I go, to kiss your tears away.
How sweet the summer! And the autumn shone
Late warmth within our hearts as in the sky,
Ripening rich harvests that our love has sown.
How good that ere the winter comes, I die!
Then, ageless, in your heart I’ll come to rest
Serene and proud, as when you loved me best.
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