In semi-retirement, pursuing a new challenge: a Ph.D. in literature

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Following the admonitions of Dylan Thomas’ 1947 poetic villanelle, at age 81 I entered the University of Washington Graduate School in English literature, 60 years after graduating (barely) from Princeton in 1958 with a degree in biology. What initiated such an action for a somewhat superannuated professor of radiology and medicine at the same institution’s Medical Center, particularly in an area of intellectual effort perhaps dissimilar from my previous, but still ongoing (although now ½ time), career in medicine?

A number of possible explanations come to mind:

1. In spite of a productive and intense 50 year research career in academic medicine, with semi-retirement I became aware of an increasing need to offer penance for a youthful and immature, frequently misguided, pursuit of academic values, particularly doing my Princeton years in the 1950s. I had initially begun junior year at Princeton as an English major, but quickly switched to biology as a more receptive major upon receiving a failing grade on a paper on Wordsworth’s “The Prelude.” However, in spite of a subsequent successful scientific career, I retained a nascent attraction for the humanities and literature, and as an opportunity presented itself a few years ago to obtain an undergraduate degree in English literature at the U. of W., I took it, with some trepidation. This was followed by acceptance into graduate school (upon achieving an improved undergraduate GPA, including a more mature assessment of Wordsworth — with advanced age does come some limited insight into what’s important).

2. With semi-retirement I discovered that activities frequently associated with an increased time availability, such as golf and tennis, fly fishing, travel, etc., became less than exciting (i.e. rather routine and job-like) when available 24/7; such previous pastimes, while still enjoyable, had less allure lacking a return to a career occupation at the end of vacation. There was also a perception of a definite need for continued intellectual stimulation, perhaps in a different academic arena, now that a 50-year track record of scientific clinical research and practice was diminishing.

3. I was informed by my occasionally bemused and frequently skeptical wife Anna (of 53 years) that being only ½ time in my day job did not translate into my coming home for lunch — providing such was not in her job description. Obviously a change of focus for one’s activities requires input from other, more important personages.

I therefore, at age 81, embarked upon a new adventure, that of obtaining a Ph.D. in English literature. Now, nearly one year into this quasi-quixotic, but nevertheless redemptive and rewarding, quest, what are my thoughts and impressions of the experiences to date?

First was the exposure to considerably younger (and undoubtedly brighter) graduate school colleagues, with somewhat different goals, and literary backgrounds and literary orientations. The majority had essentially been weaned on the obvious political-social-cultural upheavals in academic literary critique of the later 20th century, while I, in spite of previously only an informal exposure to literary criticism, maintained a steadfast allegiance to the traditional liberal humanism of an earlier 20th century (M. Foucault and J. Derrida meet C. Brooks and L. Trilling). I found that while my colleagues tolerated (and more likely humored) my resulting literary observations, I was hardly viewed as a fount of knowledge, a wise old archetypal Homeric Nestor, or as a Platonic Socrates of worthy utterances (although I was not encouraged to partake of hemlock in our lively seminar discussions, at least not overtly). However, in spite of the differences in our literary persuasions, I became most aware of their inherent intellectual brilliance, and of how much I could learn from them.

Second, my fellow students were obviously, and appropriately, focused on eventually obtaining an academic literary career (i.e., a job, preferably a tenured position at an established university). I, however, was already a still employed tenured professor in the medical school, and was in graduate school for the enjoyment, intellectual stimulation, and satisfaction, rather than for a new career. I was therefore not in competition for employment; nevertheless, some suspicion of my intentions remained.

Lastly, from a scholastic standpoint, I initially encountered in graduate school a distinct dissimilarity in the intellectual approaches to medicine and literature: the scientific method I utilized in my clinical research (posed hypothesis, data collection, derived conclusions, and generation of new hypotheses) employed a mode of analysis and reasoning, both deductive and inductive, which led to defining the probabilities of validating actual truths, and meanings, of observations. The discipline of literature however utilized a variety of options for assessment of truth and meaning, leaving to the reader the choice of which of the options to be most appropriate. I quickly discovered that the analytical, empirical approach could also be utilized in exploring the framework and structure, and critical interpretations and implications, of a frequently ambiguous literature. Such bodes well for the eventual writing of my Ph.D. dissertation, that of exploring consonances and dissonances in terms of the creative genesis, textual structure, and intellectual motivation and acuity in those literary figures who were also physicians, such as Chekhov and William Carlos Williams, among others.

Overall, then, the experience has been most satisfying. Therefore (to paraphrase the poet), although not necessarily raging, burning, or raving, one need not proceed gently into that good night.

Charles H. Chesnut III ’58, right, with his wife, Anna, and his English literature mentor, Miceal Vaughan
Courtesy Charles Chesnut
Charles H. Chesnut III ’58 and his wife Anna (and their children and grandchildren) have lived in Seattle, Wash., for nearly 60 years, having migrated there from the South in the 1960s for medical training at the University of Washington. He continues as professor of radiology and medicine at the University of Washington and enjoys catching up on his reading assignments at their farm in Central Washington.  

This is part of a series of personal essays at PAW Online. If you would like to contribute, contact us at