by William H. Benson
April 1, 2009
William Manchester, the biographer and historian, was born on April 1, 1922. A Marine, he was wounded at Okinawa during World War II before returning to college where he studied journalism and English. He then became a foreign correspondent for the Baltimore Sun, and then began writing a series of oversized tomes on larger-than-life people: John F. Kennedy, Douglas MacArthur, and Winston Churchill.
He had planned to write a three-volume biography of Churchill, but into his third volume, in 2001, at the age of 79, he suffered two strokes that left him paralyzed in his left leg and unable to write. “I can’t put things together,” he said. “I can’t make the connections. Language for me came as easily as breathing for fifty years, and I can’t do it anymore. The feeling is indescribable.”
Manchester knew all about the devastation that strokes can produce. Early in his career at the Baltimore Sun, he had served as personal secretary to H. L. Mencken, the Sun’s witty and caustic reporter. A cigar and pipe smoker for decades, Mencken suffered three strokes: the last on November 23, 1948 at the age of sixty-eight left him unable to read or write. It was the young William Manchester who read to Mencken. “Much of Conrad, and ‘Huckleberry Finn’—twice,” Manchester reported.
Mencken then died on January 29, 1956 at the age of seventy-five, after seven years of a kind of living death, and often, Mencken would refer to November 23, 1948 as “the day that I died.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson never suffered a stroke, but late in his life, he lost bits and pieces of his memory and his connection with words, due to aphasia, a form of dementia. When he could not think of a word, for example, “chair,” he would describe it as “the thing with four legs which we sit on,” until someone provided the missing word.
Roger Rosenblatt, a columnist at Time magazine, wrote in 2001, “Of all the fears a writer experiences, the loss of the ability to make connections is the scariest. . . . It’s just that writers depend on the ability to make connections of out thin air, or no air.”
Rosenblatt said, “Here’s the weird thing about connections: the impulse to make them is so strong, so fundamentally human, that we connect with those who cannot make the connections for themselves.”
Who can truly make sense of this loss of connections?
A scientist would conclude that the brain cells—neurons—had been destroyed. Or digging deeper they would say that the synaptic vesicles at the presynaptic axon terminal were jammed, or that the receptors at the postsynaptic spine—the dendrites—were clogged, or that synapse—the jump from one neuron cell to another—was being otherwise prevented.
Or perhaps there was a problem with the myelin that covers the axon terminals. The most recent research indicates that talent—designing buildings; playing a top-ranking game of chess, golf, or tennis; or writing sentences, paragraphs, columns, or books—lies in the degree of thickness of those series of myelin wrappings upon each neuron cell.
“Synaptic transmission in myelinated axons is a lot faster than in unmyelinated, because it just jumps from node to node,” wrote the neuroscientist Jeanette Norden. In other words the thicker the myelin, the more talented the individual. Practice thickens it.
Science writing—all quite accurate—leaves one cold, in that it leaves out the emotional context of what a stroke causes—a loss of a human’s core. Lodged somewhere and somehow within the tangles of dendrites, axon terminals, and myelin coverings, within the gray and white matter, within the folds and convolutions of brain matter are those human characteristics called emotions: fear, envy, greed, love, ambition, anger, and hate. To lose them, plus intelligence and connections, even if only gradually, is terrifying.
In reference to Manchester, Roger Rosenblatt wrote, “He has lost the words, and the process of losing them, little by little, must have been terrible.”