BOOK REVIEW: The Violet Hour: Great Writers at the End

Katie Roiphe's new book probes the final days of some of history's greatest authors. However, physicians might find a few parts tough to swallow.

Katie Roiphe has again burst on the literary scene as if Shakespeare really had it right in Twelfth Night that “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” Roiphe’s father is a physician but more important to her career perhaps is that her mother Anne had “a two-decade history with the Times” as a writer. No doubt that helped when daughter Katie Roiphe became what anti-establishment publication The Baffler in 1994 called “the new celebrity feminist.” For the somewhat critical article click here.

Roiphe’s book, The Morning After: Sex, Fear and Feminism on Campus, published in 1993 was critical of the sexual politics of that time. She felt the number of cases of sexual attacks of campus was emphatically overstated. This, her first book, surely created a buzz on campus.

She now calls her sixth book The Violet Hour after part of a long, long 1992 poem by T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land that tells us that:

“At the violet hour, when the eyes and back

Turn upward from the desk, when the human engine waits

Like a taxi throbbing waiting...

At the violet hour, the evening hour that strives

Homeward, and brings the sailor home from sea”

So this is to be a book about her subjects not in the alpenglow that photographers cherish but in the twilight of their lives, a book about six great writers “at the end.” And the author, a Princeton graduate with a PhD in literature, hopes it will bring those great writers’ final days “to urgent, unsentimental life to help us look boldly in the face of death and be less afraid.”

The only problem for a physician book reviewer reading Roiphe’s meticulously researched book is she starts with Susan Sontag (the only female subject), described by Roiphe as the “consummate public intellectual.” Yes, Sontag was brave fighting three separate malignancies but she had a miserable death despite her extrovert theatricality — or perhaps because of it. Many readers would find Susan Sontag’s last days possibly magnificent. I think most doctors I know would see her as the patient from hell. Oh sure, 50 years ago the paternalistic physicians of the time would have found her a handful but now doctors welcome the concept that patients share responsibility and absolutely encourage the patient’s opinion but in reading the account of Sontag’s death a physician does not see any violet hour here.

Roiphe tells us she herself was desperately ill with pneumonia at age 12 and finally had part of a lung resected — probably because she had bronchiectasis. It made her think of death earlier than most of us. She has now become a “go-to” resource in the literary world on the subject of death and, in March 2016, The Week Magazine asked her to name her favorite works that focus on illness and dying. Such works are rarely addressed in literature. She jumped right in, listing Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan llyich, Virginia Woolf’s On Being Ill, Hitchens’ Mortality, Sontag’s Illness As Metaphor, Brodkey’s This Wild Darkness, and Updike’s Endpoint. This list, as well as information revealed in the Prologue of her book and the Acknowledgements at the end, reveals she really knows her subject and is a lot more familiar with it than most physicians who really would benefit more in their working day as would their patients if their doctors had an equivalent knowledge.

That said, I have some problems in accepting or, for want of a better word, enjoying this book. My issue is partly because the nature of a physician’s education essentially excludes a comfortable awareness of literature and fine arts. No longer do we have medieval medical students able to read Latin and Greek nor university medical professors all that familiar with subjects beyond their own. Medical students I read about are on a frantic pace to assimilate the necessary scientific knowledge for their future career. They don’t have time for lectures on the History of Medicine nor classes on How To Deal With The Problem Patient…and as Abraham Verghese, MD, physician, author, and educator found, they don’t even have adequate time to learn how to perform a proper physical examination (and such opinion got him the Chair of the Theory and Practice of Medicine at Stanford University Medical School).

So I’m not as familiar as some with the people Roiphe is writing about so lovingly: Susan Sontag, Sigmund Freud, John Updike, Dylan Thomas, and artist-author Maurice Sendak. She is working from medical records but chooses to be different, so she interviews a living writer, elderly James Salter. I was not all that familiar with Salter although I knew he had flown F-86 fighter planes in Korea, on more than 100 missions. He was a man’s man. Salter had confronted death before and, in fact, dies of a heart attack in a gym after his 90th birthday, but to me the surprising part of Roiphe’s interview with him was how much he was able to help her accept the death of her physician-father who had fallen with a fatal heart attack.

She welcomed the insight. It reminds me of the remark made by contemporary author Richard Puz: “Death leaves a heartache no one can heal, love leaves a memory no one can steal.”

Photograph by the author.

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the New Hampshire Academy of Family Physicians, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.