Bibliotherapy: a cure for bigotry?

Sue Wootton

Samuel McChord Crothers
Samuel McChord Crothers (1857-1927)

Bibliotherapy is the treatment of ills and ailments by reading. The term was coined in a satiric article called “A Literary Clinic” published in 1916 in The Atlantic Monthly. Written by the American essayist and Unitarian minister Samuel McChord Crothers, it described an imaginary ‘bibliopathic institute’ run by one Dr Bagster, a gentleman to whom “nothing human was foreign”. Among other conditions, Dr Bagster is committed to treating bigotry in all its forms.

The sign on the door of Dr Bagster’s clinic reads:

Bibliopathic Institute. Book Treatment by Competent Specialists. Dr. Bagster meets patients by appointment. Free Clinic 2-4 P.M. Outpatients looked after in their homes by members of the Social Service Department. Young People’s Lend-a-Thought Club every Sunday evening at 7.30. Tired Business Men in classes. Tired Business Men’s tired wives given individual treatment. Tired mothers who are reading for health may leave their children in the Day Nursery.”

Lord Byron
Lord Byron (1788-1824): “Mad, bad and dangerous to know”.

Dr Bagster prescribes books to restore harmony and balance in his patients’ lives: soothing emollients for the agitated soul, stimulating tinctures for those with dropsy, counter-irritants (for which Bernard Shaw, he says, is good) and anti-inflammatories. For Dr Bagster, “The true function of a literary critic is not to pass judgement on the book, but to diagnose the condition of the person who has read it. What was his state of mind before reading and after reading? Was he better or worse for his experience?”

According to Bagster, stimulating books “don’t so much furnish us with thoughts as set us to thinking. They awaken faculties which we had allowed to be dormant … the book is a spiritual event.” Byron, for example, can be “very heady”. Bagster reports that: “Young men went wild over [reading Byron]. It stimulated them to all sorts of unusual actions. It modified their collars and their way of wearing the hair.”

For bigotry, Bagster applies his theory of “literary antitoxins”. “Each age,” he explains, suffers from “its peculiar malady … a general obsession which affects all classes. For a time everybody thinks and feels in a certain way – and everybody is wrong. The general obsession may be witchcraft or religious persecution, or war, or the notion that we can get something for nothing. Whatever the notion is, everybody has it.”

bigotry definitionThankfully, says Dr Bagster, every community has a few resistant individuals, whose “unusually strong minds” can resist the “epidemic” and in doing so “produce more antitoxin than they need”. These individuals often become writers, and Bagster prescribes their books to treat ”the various forms of bigotry.” The shelves of Dr Bagster’s clinic are lined with such remedies, filed under “Catholic Bigotry, Protestant Bigotry, Conservative Bigotry and the like”. He describes his system of treatment:

When I first began to treat cases of this kind I tried to introduce the patient to some excellent person of the opposing party or sect, thinking thus to counteract the unfavorable impression that had been formed. But I soon found that this treatment was based on a mistake and only aggravated the symptoms. A bigot is defined as one who is illiberally attached to an opinion, system, or organization. His trouble is, not that he is attached to an opinion, but only that he is illiberally attached. My aim, therefore, is to make him liberally attached. To that end I try to make him acquainted with the actual thoughts of the best men of his own party and to show him that his inherited opinions are much more reasonable than he had supposed. After I have got my patient to recognize the best in his own party, I then introduce him to the same kind of person in another party.”

Unfortunately, success is limited, because, as Bagster explains, people only seek relief if they are suffering, and generally speaking the bigot is perfectly happy being a bigot.

Ain’t that the truth. But I’m still with Dr Bagster: the antitoxin effect of literature seeds sturdy resistance to black and white thinking. As with any inoculation programme, the herd effect is important. Give your loved ones books this Christmas.

 Sue Wootton is co-editor of Corpus.

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