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American Letters

The Man Behind the Window

Allan Seager was a student at Oxford when he contracted tuberculosis. What happened next made him one of America’s greatest writers—declared the heir to Anderson and Hemingway—ever to be forgotten. Yet one of Seager’s short stories endures in ways that none of Hemingway’s can match.

Credit: Kelsey Dake

From the bed in his Oxford suite, Allan Seager thought about the effort it would take to retrieve his cigarettes from a table across the room, and as much as he would’ve liked a smoke, decided that the four steps from bed to table and back were simply not worth it.

The porter, Haines, entered and frowned at the uneaten breakfast and listless young man shivering under a pile of bedclothes. If his charge had not roused by nine, the rules of Oriel College empowered Haines to summon a doctor, which he quickly did. Even so, both were thinking it was a touch of the flu, at worst. The gray-misted English days laid everyone low from time to time.

After an initial examination, the red-faced doctor concurred with the initial flu diagnosis and prescribed a weekend of bed rest, but as he packed his bag to leave, the doctor heard Seager cough. Dismissing flu, he produced slides for the appropriate sputum samples and retired to his lab. He was back in an hour, asking Seager, “Where do you want to go, Switzerland, or the States?”

That was 1932, and at the time, Allan Seager was an accomplished young scholar, an American from the University of Michigan who had entered Oriel College on a Rhodes Scholarship and quickly impressed his tutor so much that he thought it likely Seager would be his first pupil in many years to earn a First in his examinations.

A chest X-ray in the doctor’s office confirmed that Seager had tuberculosis and that he would have to leave Oxford for an extended stay in a sanitarium, where either he would get well or he would die, each being about as likely as the other.

By 1935, though, Seager was still alive, and E.J. O’Brien, the original Best American Short Stories editor, had declared that the “apostolic succession of the American short story” ran from Sherwood Anderson, to Ernest Hemingway, to Allan Seager.

Seager’s peers also expressed admiration; Robert Penn Warren, Carl Sandburg, and Sherwood Anderson himself all testified to Seager’s talent and skill. Poet and novelist James Dickey said he owed his career to reading Amos Berry, Seager’s third, and by many accounts, best novel, once remarking, “I doubt if I’d’ve tried to be a poet if it weren’t for Charles Berry [Amos’s son and the novel’s narrator]. There was no call for poetry in my background... But he wanted to try, and he kept on with it. So I did, too.”

Today, while Anderson and Hemingway are in the permanent canon, even at the time of his death in 1968 Seager was not widely known. Toward the end, he’d declare his own superiority to William Faulkner, whom he considered a minor, regional writer, while lamenting his own obscurity and recognizing his likely disappearance. He abandoned a last novel to complete a biography (The Glass House) of fellow Michigander and friend Theodore Roethke. Seager figured that his name might live on as long as Roethke was remembered.

Like all writers, he wanted to be listened to because he thought he had something important to say. The abandoned novel was to be about the dangers of humans living as slaves to automation as seen in Ford’s assembly line and the advancing computer age. In his notes, he remarked on an incident told to him by a female friend who worked for a survey research firm in Ann Arbor, Mich.

“Whenever she goes into the room with the computer, it sulks and spits back cards and (because of this) they have asked her to keep out. I think this is grotesque.”

In those same notes, he declared his intentions for the novel in all caps:

WHY DO I COME BEFORE YOU NOW WITH THIS SHEAF OF PAGES TO TRY TO ENGAGE YOUR ATTENTION? IF YOU PLOW THROUGH THESE PAGES, WHAT WILL HAVE HAPPENED TO YOU BY THE TIME YOU FINISH THEM? (I WOULD LIKE TO TEAR YOU APART, O WELL-EDUCATED MIDDLE CLASS READER. TEAR YOU APART AND LEAVE YOU IN PIECES AND NO SUGGESTION FROM THE KING’S MEN ON HOW TO GET BACK TOGETHER. PURELY DESCTRUCTIVE CRITICISIM.) [sic]

I remember Allan Seager because he was my great uncle—my paternal grandmother, Jane, was his younger sister. But “remember” is the wrong word, as Allan died two years before I was born, and well before that a falling out between the siblings over their father’s post-stroke care drove them permanently apart.

To me, then, he should mean little: the source of my father’s middle name, the writer of a few dusty books kept on the upper shelves of my parents’ house. But like his protagonist Charles Berry (and like James Dickey, apparently), I have little call for the life of the writer (lawyering seems to run in the family), yet I have kept with it for long enough to see the publication of a novel of my own on the near horizon, something I’m not sure I would’ve believed was possible without his example.

While Allan Seager’s name has faded, the first story he ever published is etched permanently into the American consciousness in a way even Hemingway can’t match. Chances are, you have heard or at least are familiar with this story. It concerns two seriously ill men sharing a hospital room, one man with a view out the window, and one man without. The man with the view spends his days regaling the other man with the various goings on, lovers walking arm in arm, children playing, and once even a parade. The man without the view grows slowly jealous of the man and his view and plots to get the bed by the window. If this story sounds at all familiar, you likely already know the ending.

 

By any measure, Allan Seager lived an uncommon life: two-time national champion swimmer at Michigan, Rhodes Scholar, and upon returning to the states, an assistant editor at Vanity Fair, where in addition to providing the magazine with a short story a month during his tenure, he chauffeured such 1930s luminaries as Joe Louis, Walt Disney, and Katherine Hepburn (whom he referred to as “bandy-legged”) to photo shoots. With characteristic confidence, he even once asked Loretta Young for a date, but was quickly shot down.

After leaving Vanity Fair in 1935, he joined the faculty at Michigan, where he remained until his death in 1968. In 1950, James Michener named Seager as one of the top creative writing teachers in the country. Seager’s first novel, Equinox (1943), was a best seller, and he wrote and published four more, along with two collections of stories, a Stendhal translation, and The Glass House (1968). In the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s, hardly a month would go by without one of his stories appearing in the mainstream outlets: Good Housekeeping, Cosmopolitan, Redbook, Sports Illustrated, Esquire, the Atlantic, the New Yorker, etc. Sometimes more than one would run in the same issue, necessitating the use of “H.W. Fordyce” as a pen name. Better than 80 of his stories were published in his lifetime.

The man without the view grows slowly jealous of the man and his view and plots to get the bed by the window. If this story sounds at all familiar, you likely already know the ending.

Stephen Connelly, the only scholar to do any extensive writing on Seager (and a former student of his), lays much of the blame for Seager’s ultimate obscurity on plain bad luck. When Equinox was published, the film rights quickly sold, and the novel was headed for a Literary Guild (think: Book of the Month Club) deal, but a wartime paper shortage stopped the sales at 40,000 copies. A farm Seager purchased for his father in Onsted, Mich., with money earned writing a radio serial (Scattergood Baines) was a constant financial drain made worse by his father’s stroke and the wartime drafting of the hired hand. In 1948, his first wife, Barbara, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, sucking Seager’s time as he cared for her and his two young daughters. His pursuit of the latest cures for Barbara cost heavy sums, paid for by the scads of slick, mainstream stories, which Seager viewed as well-paid hack work.

If that wasn’t enough, McDowell, Obolensky, the publisher of his final novel, Death of Anger, was heading toward bankruptcy when that book was released, and as Seager was proofing the manuscript for The Glass House, even as he lay dying in the hospital, Beatrice Roethke forced numerous cuts and withheld permission for use of her husband’s poems.

But after this lifetime of work, much of it accomplished and well received, we are primarily left with the story of the two men in the hospital. Seager’s version was called “The Street,” first published in the London Mercury in 1933 and republished in Vanity Fair in 1934. Today, though, the story, or something resembling it, is generally referred to as “The Window,” and you may have seen it in an email forward, or heard it in a church or synagogue, perhaps in a Sunday school class, paying half-attention while eating powdered doughnuts and sipping pale red punch.

The jealousy of the man without the view grows greater and greater, consuming his every waking thought, until he eventually sees his chance. One night, the man near the window begins to cough, then choke, and struggles to ring the bell to call the nurse. In his moment of truth, the man without the view lets his roommate expire, rather than calling for help.

When the dead man is taken away, the man without the view asks if perhaps he could get the bed by the window. The request granted, he prepares to savor his victory: “Slowly, painfully, he propped himself up on one elbow to take his first look at the world outside. Finally, he would have the joy of seeing it all himself. He strained to slowly turn to look out the window beside the bed.”

It faced a blank wall.

A Google search turns up many thousands of web pages that contain versions of the story. Sometimes the blank wall is made of brick, and other times, the window looks out onto an empty courtyard or an alley. Another common variation removes the immoral (non-)act of the roommate, and the man near the window simply dies quietly in his sleep. Often, there are standard religious messages tacked on as an addendum to the tale, aphorisms such as: “There is tremendous happiness in making others happy, despite our own situations.” “Shared grief is half the sorrow, but happiness, when shared, is doubled.” “If you want to feel rich, just count all of the things you have that money can’t buy.” Others sum up the story with a (usually unattributed) quote from Family Circus cartoonist Bill Keane, “Today is a gift, that’s why they call it the present!”

The wide dissemination of the present-day version is likely tied to its inclusion in the book, Laugh Again (1992) by Charles “Chuck” Swindoll, a Texas-based minister, leader of the Insight for Living ministries, and a prolific author of Christian self-help texts. Swindoll uses the story to draw a lesson on the difference between the man near the window who, despite his illness, chooses “joy,” in the form of these imaginative stories, versus the man away from the window who is instead consumed by envy and need. The moral is clear, and the twist ending archetypal enough to wedge the tale firmly in the memory banks upon hearing it.

The story is not Swindoll’s, though, nor does it belong to the man who Swindoll credits with authorship, G.W. Target. That the story originates with Seager is nearly certain, mostly because he lived it.

It began in 1932, in that Oxford room, when Seager answered that quick-thinking doctor’s question, “Switzerland, or the States?”

“I think I’d better go home,” he said.

 

If Seager had been born 100 or so years earlier, a writer of romantic poetry, and named John Keats, the doctor who came to see him in his Oxford suite would have prescribed a regimen of horseback riding, strict rations of food, and daily doses of antimony. And, of course, the “bleedings,” which medical hindsight tells us was only very occasionally, and accidentally, an effective medical treatment.

The limited knowledge of disease treatment in the 1800s led to Keats being basically tortured into his grave by his well-meaning physician’s penchant for opening veins. Ironically, the poet’s only moments of relief during his decline came when a different doctor decided that Keats was simply suffering from a bad case of sensitive temperament. The starvation diet was ended, moderate exercise prescribed, and Keats recovered long enough to revise some last poems before a relapse that is famously blamed on bad reviews. Near death, Keats (like Seager) felt that his place was not secure, declaring, “I am one whose name is writ in water.”

Sometimes the blank wall is made of brick, and other times, the window looks out onto an empty courtyard or an alley. Another common variation removes the immoral (non-)act of the roommate, and the man near the window simply dies quietly in his sleep.

Fortunately for Keats, subsequent generations rehabilitated his literary reputation. Fortunately for Seager, by 1932, treatment of tuberculosis had at least progressed via a somewhat strange route to a kind of “do less harm” approach. Rather than the bloodletting and starvation, Seager was given an artificial pneumothorax (an intentional deflation of one lung, which was thought to ease the infected area) and put on total bed rest at University Hospital in Ann Arbor. After several months there, Seager was eventually sent to the Trudeau Sanitorium in Saranac Lake, N.Y., the thick of the Adirondacks, for “the cure,” a period of forced inactivity marked by light, graduated exercise in the form of walks, careful attention to diet, and copious amounts of bed rest. 

Seager gives a very funny, Cuckoo’s Nest-like recounting of his time at Trudeau in his story “The Cure,” originally published in the Atlantic in 1964 and later collected in his volume A Frieze of Girls, a series of Sedaris-esque “fictional essays.” He tells of his Swiss roommate Karl, a “mechanical dentist” who kept “a few loose teeth scattered on the table in his dressing room” and suffered not only from TB, but also from hyperthyroidism, which meant he “paced up and down ceaselessly and meaninglessly all day like a big cat in the zoo.” As part of the cure, patients slept outside on screened porches in the extreme cold, which created an obvious problem that Seager solved with an early electric blanket, and something known as the “Adirondack Pack” (two pillows crisscrossed over the face, so only the thoroughly greased nose was exposed to the cold). Karl, being “close” with his money, approached the problem through different means:

He had so many wool blankets on his bed that he used a bookmark pinched from the library to tell where to insert himself. About eight o’clock at night he would start to prepare for bed. He would pull on the pants to a sweatsuit over a pair of flannel pajamas, tie the ankles, crumple the New York Times and Herald Tribune and stuff them down the legs until he looked like a tackling dummy; then he would tie the waist and stuff the top, put on a knitted cap, two pair of wool socks, a pair of gauntlets, and he would get into bed and rustle. This is enough to deter, if not prevent sleep entirely.

“The Cure” tells a tale of spirited individuals making sport of defying their possible death sentences, even celebrating the period between Christmas and New Year’s as a “licensed saturnalia”: trees decorated with cigarette foil, haphazard mixing of the men’s and women’s compounds featuring universal temporary amnesia regarding one’s marriage, and, to lubricate the proceedings, the indiscriminate enjoyment of bootleg liquor, which in one case, was unfortunately laced with pyridine, causing widespread but thankfully temporary paralysis among the patients.

The reality of life at a tuberculosis sanitarium was considerably less pleasant. The minimum stay was generally a year, with stints up to three years being fairly common, and with their regimented structure and close supervision of patients, the sanitariums, despite their bucolic surroundings, most closely resembled insane asylums with a dash of the leper colony. Their remote locations, Spartan accommodations, and the unknown nature of the disease’s transmission kept visitors at a minimum, and while walking up to two miles a day was permitted for those who could manage it, the persistent, low-grade fever that accompanies TB hindered sustained concentration and made reading or writing difficult. If a patient was going to read, it was suggested by doctors that he best keep it light, along the lines of romance, lest the brain become overtaxed. Many of the patients with advanced disease were even subjected to thoracoplasty (rib removal), today the alleged province of supermodels but at the time used to restrict the function of a diseased lung and aid in healing. At Trudeau, going in for “the rib” was the last step before leaving the Adirondacks in a pine box.

For Seager, this atmosphere was a strain. A national champion swimmer as an undergrad at Michigan, Seager had set an English-soil record in the 50- and 100-meter freestyle while at Oxford, even as the TB microbes were likely beginning their invasion. He’d read and studied literature seemingly forever as well. During college, he did this mostly in secret while maintaining the façade of champion swimmer and fraternity scene raconteur. At Oxford, where he could study openly, his devotion to his studies only increased. At Trudeau, thanks to “the cure,” these releases were closed off to him.

It is clear that the ameliorative effects of time allowed for the light tone of “The Cure,” because remarks Seager made during his stay at Trudeau are markedly different, as expressed in a letter to Helen Trumble, an old girlfriend.

Dear Helen,

I would have written more but I was dejected. This place is a madhouse. High caloric food, confinement and the incessant idleness reduce the poor dopes to gibbering. It doesn’t take long. I am being abraded gradually into the worst state of nerves I’ve ever had. There is a neurotic tension always in the air—when anyone leaves the place for good, they are clapped out of the dining room after their last meal. That is the signal for a half dozen women to sob, and after all interviews with the staff, they break down if the report is not favorable. There are hectic outbursts of drunkenness, and as compensation for the strain, more silliness than I ever saw. It’s this that gets under my skin. I don’t worry about my lungs but more about the lethargy caused by systemic changes accompanying the disease. I’ve started a dozen things and let them drop. It always seems better to lie back and sleep. 

As difficult as the time was, in those moments of creeping madness, Allan Seager, the writer, began to take form.

 

The list of literary figures who suffered from tuberculosis is long and distinguished, in addition to Keats: Albert Camus, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson (who lived to the ripe old age of 79 despite contracting it as a youth), George Orwell, Laurence Sterne, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë, Franz Kafka, H.G. Wells, W. Somerset Maugham, and Walker Percy (who survived his bout and gave up a medical practice for writing). Most of these either were killed or had their lives significantly shortened by the disease.

And of course, there is the great master, Anton Chekhov. In the hospital, knowing death was close, he famously drank a final glass of champagne before setting his head back on the pillow and dying. Chekhov’s experience illustrates the romantic side of the disease, the gradual diminishment of life that, in theory, allows one enough time to savor existence, yet also, due to the disease’s lethality, ensures an ultimate and tragic death. We find it central in La Bohème, when Mimi expires in the final scene just after she and Rudolf have recalled their happiest times. Verdi used it to the same effect in La Traviata, concluding the opera with the beautiful and tragic consumptive, Violetta, dying at her lover’s feet.

While there’s no reason to believe that tuberculosis struck the literary-inclined with any greater frequency than the general populace, there is evidence that struggle with the disease and the enforced quietude attendant with it helped to foster a keen eye, a mind better able to focus on the meanings of small gestures, and creates, in the words of medical historian Thomas Dormandy, an “acutely heightened awareness.” Dormandy saw it in the writings of Keats. Seager, after being released from Trudeau and returning to Oxford to finish his studies, recognized it in himself. Seager wrote again to Helen Trumble while in Paris during a break in his studies:

And so I have come again to Paris. It has proved something or other to me that I could come. (It’s like that now. I spend a lot of time trying to figure out just what sickness has done to me. It may be my old man in me but I think it’s mostly good. Everything looks good to me now, just the surfaces, and pray God always will.) The first few times I was here I looked at everything like hell because I was afraid I mightn’t ever see them again. Now that I’ve come this time, I know I can always come back, but since I lay up there in that bed, just a plain chair and table look different. There’s more tension, significance, and when you look long enough, repose. And at last, baby, I’ve started to write.

On his return to Oxford in the spring of 1933 Seager took his exams, earning a Second, the TB robbing him of his First. He applied for a third year of study, which was granted, but summer stretched in front of him with no money for travel, and the need for a fresh artificial pneumothorax every two weeks. So, he rented a cheap room above a pub, The Crown, in East Hanney, Berkshire, and spurred by spare time and his brush with death, he indeed began to write.

Seager provides an account of that summer in “The Last Return,” also collected in A Frieze of Girls. He brought no books other than a volume of de Maupassant’s stories in the original French. He slept quite a bit, and played pub games–darts, shove ha’penny, and dominoes, each game for a half-pint of beer. He practiced shove ha’penny until he made sure to win as often as he lost so the price of the games would not drain his limited funds.

He also struggled to find a voice as a writer:

For some time I had considered myself marked for a writing career but I had done nothing. I finished the Maupassant and it occurred to me to try to write a story as good as one of his. I had the story, based on an incident I had seen in the hospital, but I didn’t know how to begin. Contemplating the writer’s condition beforehand, how he did it seemed quite simple. Now that I was at the brink, it was not…. It seemed to me the right sentence was floating somewhere but to get it was like catching a rabbit with a hat, a quick move and it scuttled away. At last of course I got one and maybe two hundred more to follow it. I rewrote the story so often I knew it by heart and would have been glad to recite it had anyone asked me to.

As recounted in “The Last Return,” by the end of the summer he had an eight-page story that came from 126 pages of drafts. (This may be something of a personal fish tale, with the number of pages necessary to produce the final draft stretching over time. Writing to Trumble closer to the actual creation of the story, he recounted having drafted 60 pages to garner six.) The finished story was called “The Street” and was published in the London Mercury in 1933. He was tired of the story when he finished it, and not entirely pleased with his effort, but he was excited for his new life. Writing to Trumble again, he said, “I did not know what writing was. Not that I do now but I know more than I did. I have not done anything yet. It will take study and work but Christ it is swell to be at it at last.” 

That first story sent him on his way, gaining the attention of E.J. O’Brien, who put the next story Seager finished, “This Town and Salamanca,” into the 1935 edition of Best American Short Stories, and even dedicated the volume to Seager, his latest discovery.

 

“The Street”—unlike “The Window,” the somewhat simplistic tale it has morphed into and that we commonly recall—is subtle, scary, dryly funny in parts, and always finely observed. It is clear that the heightened sensitivity brought about by Seager’s treatment for tuberculosis informs his earliest foray into creation. He was ready to write and had something to write about. Seager’s worldview was informed by the book of Job: “Yet man is born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward” (5:7). His “purely destructive” criticism was meant as a wake-up call to recognize man’s inherently base nature. “The Street” is his exploration of the darkness within himself. Seager’s original shares plot with its present incarnation, but is very different in important and instructive ways. Rather than the easily grasped moral of the contemporary version, “The Street” tells the more complex tale of an unnamed protagonist and his struggle with the confinement of disease, a struggle that ultimately leads him to madness.

As with the contemporary version, the man near the window spends his days describing various goings on, and eventually these tales irritate and frustrate the other man, causing him to covet the bed with the view. In “The Window,” this envy is strong enough for him to ultimately decide not to call the nurse for assistance as the man near the window chokes on the fluid in his lungs.

In “The Street,” though, the protagonist, while expressing these same feelings of resentment toward his roommate (named Whitaker), manages at first to quiet them:

At first he was astonished at his own baseness. He had always regarded himself as a decent fellow. He had not known that confinement and disease can taint decency. “This is silly. I really ought not to notice it at all. I am thirty years old. People, men, do not…” the naiveté of the process disgusted him but he went through it like a rosary every day for a while and sometimes he was polite to Whitaker afterward. As the days went by, each like the last, he hated Whitaker simply, and did not think about the baseness.           

Eventually, though, as time passes through the summer, the disease begins to wear on the man:

At sundown his fever rose and as the room grew dim, his head ached and the daytime clarity of his mind vanished. When he looked at the pale oblong of the window, it seemed to him a gateway and beyond it were all the joys and brightness he had been forced to forsake. If he could only stand at the gate and look out, but no, there was Whitaker like a demon guarding the way. It was the gateway to life, and in the darkness Whitaker’s gaunt face began to assume the shape and hollows of a skull. He was Death, of course. The reverend sonorities of the church arose in his mind, confusing him. Phrases about Death and Life, solemn and distorted, he remembered from hymns and prayer books. If he could vanquish Death, he would be granted everlasting life.

Only when the illness has allowed him to de-humanize Whitaker, and turn him into the personification of death, does he allow himself to consider the ultimate drastic inaction.

Suddenly one night he saw his course clearly: he would not press the button. When he heard Whitaker begin to twitch and pant, he would not press the button. The nurse would not come and Whitaker would die. Through the steaming days of late summer when the street outside was full of people that he could not see; while Whitaker lay describing with brutal detail these men and women who were well and strong, who could even go on holidays, he stared at the bare gray wall, smiling over his secret. The nurse would find Whitaker when she made her rounds. The doctors would come shaking their heads and clucking. They would wheel him out on a stretcher with a sheet over him. Then he would have the bed by the window. He could look out upon the world again and this would make him well. No, the next time—or the time after—he would not press the button.

Secure in this new plan and falling further from reality due to the persistence and progression of the disease, he starts being polite to Whitaker, and the transition in his mind from Whitaker = Man to Whitaker = Death becomes complete.

There was no more sullen silence before Whitaker’s unending chronicle; he made talk, even put questions with a false vivacity. This was difficult, for when he looked toward the other bed, he felt a horrible disgust. The frantic nights of fever had imprinted the image of Death on Whitaker, and though the sun was in the room, he saw the fleshless sockets and the bone. He always thought of Whitaker as “He” now, and in dealing with such an adversary one must be courteous so that He may not suspect anything. By this time he never doubted he was right. He was even righteous.

In his mind, he begins to equate the bed near the window with a tower from which he could look over the world and make it bloom, but Death bars the way:

Firm on that parapet, he would have the power, somehow, to make this bleak season blossom as the rose. That was it, “blossom as the rose.” He would make it warm and pleasant, not cold like the night outside and never so hot as his head felt now, but warm and green with bright flowers, and the people would be happy always. But he must have the tower so he could watch and see that nothing went wrong. Death barred the way and over Him he must gain the victory.

Finally, one night, the time comes:

Dim against the window like a shadow, he could see Him writhe and struggle for air. It sounded like a dog that had run too far. This was the time. Now He would die. He smiled calmly into the darkness and waited for Him to stop heaving and panting and shaking the bed and die. It was very severe this time, and at the end Whitaker broke into long dry sobs. Presently the sobbing stopped and the room was still except for the spatter of the rain on the glass. He looked over cautiously. At last. He was dead. In the morning when the street shone in the sun, he would go to the tower and keep watch over the city.

With Death defeated, the man requests the bed near the window, but (unlike the current version where he looks out onto a “blank wall”) the protagonist of “The Street” encounters this:

Soberly, without haste, he arranged the pillows, making ready to look out as one who had come into a kingdom. But when he looked, it was not into a sunlit street. There were no trees. Below him was a rear courtyard of the hospital, a blank place, and all day long it was empty.

By remaining entirely in the close third-person point of view of the man without the window, the story does not give the reader an opportunity to see the scene objectively and draw a distinction between the two men, as Rev. Swindoll’s lesson does. The act is not one of jealousy or covetousness. Instead, “The Street” tells us that illness and confronting death can turn a regular man to madness and insanity. “The Street” offers no perspective on moral behavior or choice. That any person would be defeated under the same circumstances seems likely, even inevitable.

Seager’s despair during his own illness went deeper than he liked to admit. At his lowest points, he wished for a dose of potassium cyanide to end it. But he didn’t give into this temptation, and he felt ashamed about it afterward. Neither did he succumb to the madness that overcomes the protagonist of “The Street,” and it is in that decision that we see the split between life and artistry.  

 

Today, one would expect a raft of lawsuits chasing plagiarists around the globe, as versions of “The Street” popped up hither and yon, but during his life, Seager had moved on from the story, and even, at times, seemed to express a disgruntled pleasure in the staying power of a story he never thought that much of.

None of the currently circulating versions, save a debunking of the “reality” of the tale at the urban legends website Snopes, identifies Seager as the original author. Seager himself declared that he’d seen plagiarized versions twice in magazines and three times on television. While in a doctor’s waiting room in Brazil (he was there seeking treatment for his wife’s multiple sclerosis), he saw the story in a magazine, done in Portuguese. He’d once even seen it attributed to Chekhov, which no doubt pleased him greatly. In class, when asked for an example of an oral tale that might make a good short story, one of his students told his own story back to him.

A thin volume from 1945, 101 Plots Used and Abused, contains a basic summary of “The Street” listed as the (strangely) 125th and last of the frequently abused plots. James Young, an editor at Collier’s and the compiler of the volume, credits the story to Seager and notes a recent spate of versions, at least six appearing in magazines around the time of his book’s publication. One from October 1943 even appeared in his own magazine. Young notes the superiority of Seager’s original and attributes the run of copies to the outbreak of World War II (most of the versions during this era involved soldiers in the hospital after being wounded). Interestingly, the version that Young cites removes the immoral act of the man without the window failing to summon help, and instead has the man near the window slipping away quietly in his sleep. It seems likely that the patriotic tenor of the times may not have allowed one to show a soldier acting so selfishly after sacrificing himself in battle.

“The Street” offers no perspective on moral behavior or choice. That any person would be defeated under the same circumstances seems likely, even inevitable.

The vast majority of the story’s bowdlerized versions, particularly those found today, are actually not attributed to anyone. When an author is named (as one was in Rev. Swindoll’s book), credit is most often given to G.W. Target.

Thanks to the good memory of British writer and journalist Quentin Crewe, we are able to trace this part of the tale’s journey. Writing in the London Sunday Mirror on Sept. 11, 1966, Crewe tells of hearing a story on BBC radio the previous Wednesday. The story involved two men in a hospital room, one with a view, and one without. The man without the view slowly grows jealous of the other man, and… well, we all know the end, as did Crewe. He was certain that he’d heard it before. “I remembered hearing it done as a radio play during the war. Was it one of those universal stories which crop up in all forms?”

Crewe called the writer of the episode, George Target, and asked after the origin of the story. Target conceded that it may be one of those universal stories, but said he had thought it up and had based it on an episode of Doctor Kildare, “about a man who could only be kept alive by being told how beautiful the world outside was.”

Unsatisfied, Crewe called the BBC and found the play he initially remembered. It was broadcast on July 20, 1944, and again in altered form in 1960, the same tale both times. Crewe was told that the play was adapted from a story by J.B.A. Seager (Seager used the initials of his full name, John Braithwaite Allan Seager, to seem more “British” in publications there), and that the adapter had died.

Undeterred, Crewe found a “Professor Allan Seager of Michigan University in the United States” and called him on the phone. Seager confirmed that he was the story’s original author and remarked, “I would gladly sell the rights to it for a hundred dollars, as it makes me so mad every time someone pinches it.” Crewe asked him where the story came from.

“It happened to me,” he said. “I was in a TB hospital. I was the guy without the window. The only difference was that I always pressed the button.”

biopic

TMN contributing writer John Warner’s first novel, The Funny Man was recently published by Soho Press. He teaches at the College of Charleston and is co-color commentator for The Morning News Tournament of Books. More by John Warner