A Manly Response to Illness

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A Manly Response to Disease

Unaffected by more recent gender paradigms, the standard of a strong-and-silent masculinity to which these men conform depends upon their upbringing. They are of generations of boys brought up not to cry or rant: to button up, soldier on and not indulge in messy emotions. The novelist Anthony Trollope put it best: “Men but seldom tell the truth of what is in them, even to their dearest friends; they are ashamed of having feelings, or rather of showing that they are troubled by any intensity of feeling.” Though it has long roots, this model of masculinity continues to shape the identities even of people engaged in the expressive work of creative literature.

In “One Hundred Autobiographies,” Mr. Lehman informs us that he is telling and not telling his cancer story. After he discovered blood in his urine, he produced 100 vignettes to recount his life. The brief sketches were composed while he underwent several cystoscopies, a succession of transurethral resections of bladder tumors (TURBTs), eight weeks of an immunotherapy regimen, four months of chemotherapy for metastatic disease and a five-hour surgery, “in which they remove your bladder, some lymph nodes, and choice other parts of you and reorganize your insides,” along with a slew of side effects: a “heart stop,” neuropathy, infection, weight loss, digestive complaints. “And mostly I kept my cool. Mostly.”

Throughout the book, Mr. Lehman refrains from relaying specifics about the nature and consequences of these medical events. He also emphasizes his own reserve by incorporating the accounts of his wife, Stacey, to supply background information; by admitting that he lies about his condition to well-wishers; and by referring to his publication as a “fake memoir.” Why?

Mr. Lehman explains in the book that he does not want to “make cancer the sun around which the rest of the planets revolve”: “I don’t want to talk about it, think about it, do anything about it except show up on time for every last appointment and try not to complain.”

While the downside of this approach means we don’t learn much about bladder cancer, the upside means we learn a good deal about Mr. Lehman: about his immigrant parents, who met in New York City after fleeing the Nazis; his observant upbringing in the Inwood section of Manhattan; his education at Columbia University; his famous mentors and friends — Lionel Trilling, John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, Edward Said — as well as his favorite travels, songs, jokes, movies, authors and sports teams. It is intriguing to get acquainted with an artist-critic who has shaped the contemporary poetry scene since 1988 as the founder and series editor of the annual anthology The Best American Poetry.

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