The dreadful ordeal
- Hi, Fellow-Appreciators,
Welcome, new Member!
Mentioning Polk's surgery in your review of Seigenthaler's book you
asked two questions:
How would this trauma have affected Polk mentally and emotionally?
What, if any, effect would it have had on his leadership decisions?
This first question gave me much thinking and it took me some time to
put my thoughts in order. Sorry for being so long again.
In my opinion the answer to this question depends on the answer to
another question: What were the predominat features of Polk's
character before he fell ill with stones? Unfortunately we hardly
know anything. So we cannot be sure whether or how, and how much, the
experience of painful disease and horrible treatment changed him. I
think that if anything traumatized or damaged Polk it was not so much
the first-class treatment, but the embarrassing, painful,
protracting, aggravating disease with its horrible prognosis.
dwells on the special virtues of Polk's surgeon. He was not only
practically and theoretically competent but also able to fortify and
reassure his patients by hearing them out with compassion and giving
them as much information as possible. So he did much more than many
surgeons of today to spare his patients unnecessary anguish and
stress. As a Congressman, Polk thanked McDowell "for his cure as well
as for his care and concern", describing his former self as a "meagre
boy, with pallid cheeks, oppressed and worn down with disease."
Though I could not find this letter, it should exist. Not only the
web but also the National American Biography mention it. I assume
that McDowell's care enabled Polk to face his ordeal with a clear eye
and to endure it with a fortitude to be proud of.
Polk stayed several weeks at McDowell's to recover. So the Doctor
could also help him to cope with the natural anxieties of
reconvalescents and with the bewilderment about his somehow absurd
situation in general. After the worst pain was over, the danger of
fatal complications still threatened. It took some weeks full of
suspense to be sure if and how he could survive. The patient had much
time to muse and feel rotten. His basic human rights had been grossly
violated, albeit with the intention to safeguard just those rights.
His ego had been grossly offended by feelings of being powerless and
and utterly dependent on the good will of other people and of their
judgements, decisions and skills, although the outcome proved that
those people were trustworthy and competent, and his confidence in
them had not been misplaced. Anyway, his parents had found him worthy
of making expenses for him and he could feel appreciated. He found
himself far from them, though. All this had to be overcome.
However, the operation was a success in many ways. The meagre boy had
vanquished the most dreadful fears of life, and most probably in good
style. Besides disgrace, there was not much left to scare him and he
could begin to develop an astonishing self-confidence. There was
still the problem of joyful gratitude prone to turn into a burdening
feeling of being indebted. He would have to work on that.
A matter-of-fact person has a very good chance to grasp the sense of
such a dreadful cure, find solace in the facts, let bygones be
bygones and make a glorious comeback to life. Jim Polk made a
glorious comeback and when he became known to the world he was a
rather matter-of-fact person, with good cognitive abilities and a
fabulous memory but without much creativity or imagination - rigid,
formal, temperate, quiet, tough, resolute, unselfish but egocentric,
leaving mixed feelings in some beholders or no feeling at all in
others, appealing only to serious people like himself.
Had an acquired habit of suppressing pain, fear, grief, and emotional
turmoil turned a boy with all the colourful dreams and ardent
feelings of youth into a person that somehow resembled Mr. Spock?
Then he was impaired by his illness and its cure. Had a strict
education suppressed his dreams and feelings already before he fell
ill? Then he was impaired by his upbringing but could stand the
crisis well. Or had he been impaired since birth by certain
Recently I read an article about different forms of autism in a revue
at the dentist's and I regret that I did not think of asking for a
copy. What I learned made me consider if Polk wasn't born with some
mild form of autism. I was dumbfounded how easily some of Polk's
characteristics suddenly explained. I dare not give a reasoning yet,
because I could have got something wrong and must search for better
information. I just wanted to share an idea that thrills me.
We do not know if the doctor told his patient about the risk of
infertility. Polk may have been inconcious of it until something
dawned on him when he had oberved his marital duties faithfully for
several years without a result. Many other versions of the story are
possible. Having no children may have aroused his ambition to do
something great by which further generations would remember him and
it may even have become an obsession - or it may have caused him
hardly any trouble.
I wouldn't put it past James Knox that he was glad that there were no
little intruders with whom he had to share the love of his wife
Sarah. Seigenthaler quotes her on Page 26 with a remark about acting
the beau. I do not know why he refers to anaphrodisia. I think that
Sarah aimed at something else. To me "acting the beau" means no more
than to dress carefully and to behave with marked courtesy. It amused
me to imagine Polk as a specimen of a common domestic nuisance: A guy
in comfortable, viz. abominable garments, uttering an affirmative
grunt instead of saying "Yes, my sweetheart!"
As for the second question, there are of course more answers but
that's what came to my mind:
First of all, Polk's self-confidence that had been greatly fortified
by going bravely through a hell of pain gave him a firmness that
often effected a success and he developed a predilection for bold
gestures, like taking a strong stand or staring the bull in the eye.
This predilection influenced many of his decisions. But one may bet
that he calculated his risks very carefully.
Polk's methods often show a certain resemblance to those of Dr.
McDowell. Diligence, attention to details, careful planning and
determined action were characteristics of both men. This may be a
mere coincidence but Polk may have learned lessons from the man who
had saved his life, though one cannot know if by experience or by
Years later, when Polk was to solve the problems with Mexico he chose
a solution which was as radical, forceful and painful as major
surgery. Most probably he believed that it would be not more
dangerous than his operation. We can neither prove nor deny that he
was right. Without owing his life to the ordeal of a radical measure
he might have decided for some other strategy. Acting upon his
decision he worked hard to get things done quickly and properly.
Unfortunately Polk had no great chance to prepare his country
sufficiently by explaining what he was going to do and why, so as
McDowell would have done. He was uncapable of explaining in short and
for explanations in his own circuitous way he just had no time. Sadly
I see no way how he could have done much better.
Nevertheless I voted for "great" in your second poll.
Thanks for the reader's patience and kind regards