Is There a Doctor in the House, cont.

Here he’s been able to do the kind of work
he likes. He’s taught everything from freshman composition and English Lit survey to a senior honors seminar on King Arthur. He started a writing center and has become the resident expert on computer-assisted classrooms. He’s taught the freshman experience course and helped the college experiment with on-line and “blended” courses (part classroom, part distance learning). In May, he became dean of graduate and professional programs.

Despite its location, an hour from New York, Hackettstown feels rural and the right size for its college. Grigsby’s wife, Carolyn Coulson-Grigsby, another medievalist, teaches theater and literature at Centenary. (They met when she was a graduate student at the University of Connecticut. She organized a conference at which he presented a paper.) Everyone on campus knows their daughter, Eliza Marie, coming up on 3, who uses the great seal inlaid in the floor of the main administration building as her own personal tap dance stage. His best friend and soccer teammate from Moravian, Pete Morgan ’91, teaches art in the area’s Mount Olive School District.

Grigsby is a bit rueful to discover that more than half his life—18 of his 34 years—has been spent in school. (He’s never held another kind of job since he was 16, when he was a lifeguard at a New York state beach, except for a brief time as aquatics director for the Red Cross of the Lehigh Valley when he was in college.) There’s a certain irony to his ending up as a specialist in the history of medicine. “I didn’t want to be a doctor because I didn’t want to go to school that long,” he says. “And what happened? I went even longer.”

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“. . . many a time I have been half in love with easeful Death, Called him soft names in many a muséd rhyme, To take into the air my quiet breath; Now more than ever seems it rich to die. . .”

When John Keats (1795-1821) wrote his “Ode to a Nightingale” he had just witnessed his brother’s death from the nineteenth century’s greatest plague—tuberculosis—and was shortly to become a victim of it himself.

As Bryon Grigsby points out, people often react to epidemics by looking for scapegoats and treating the victims brutally. But they may also sublimate their fears in ways less harmful (at least to others).

The romantics of Keats’s time, not surprisingly, romanticized death. Later in the nineteenth century, the Victorians sentimentalized it, painting innumerable pictures of innocent girls dying of consumption, completely glossing over, as Susan Sontag notes in Illness as Metaphor, the ugly details of the disease. (Mimi in Puccini’s La Boheme expires beautifully, with plenty of breath for her final aria.) The market for melancholy memorabilia flourished. (A Staffordshire pottery company in the late nineteenth century even produced a “funeral teapot,” glazed in black with gold trim and tastefully decorated with forget-me-nots.)

In the face of the Black Death of the fourteenth century, people sometimes reacted by treating it playfully. Boccaccio’s Decameron depicts a group of friends waiting out the plague by telling bawdy tales. And just as medieval people took the edge off their fear of witchcraft and damnation by portraying the Devil as a buffoon in the mystery plays, they made Death into a clown in a characteristic art form of the time. In series after series of woodcuts depicting the “Dance of Death,” a relentlessly cheerful-looking figure of Death invites bishop and warrior, physician and nobleman, priest and merchant, maiden and grandmother, to join his grotesque capers.