Having planned for his condition of blindness and near total paralysis, Dean Clute forged forward without missing a beat. Other patients who were mobile and had attained some measure of literacy were enlisted to read aloud to him. There were plenty of folks to choose from, since the hospital was filled with a wide range of society’s unfortunates—the poor, the sick, and the physically disabled.
City Hospital patients were sometimes referred to by the decidedly un-PC term, “wrecks,” and some who were placed there entertained little hope of ever leaving. There was no avoiding it—Welfare Island was a notoriously dreary place to be.
Yet this paralyzed, completely blind young man had a transformative effect on the hospital. Poor readers were recruited and became good readers; nearby listeners joined the book discussions on a range of subjects; and as stories circulated through the hospital corridors, others were intrigued by this unique discussion group. The daily gathering around Dean’s bed grew, spilling out onto the hospital yard in times of good weather.
The contents of book after book had been poured into his being, and Clute’s brain, like a vessel waiting to be filled, was overflowing with knowledge. He had made himself into a scholar, and by natural progression arrived at the obvious conclusion—he must also become a writer. And so he began to dictate to his friends who recorded his words and submitted them for publication.
Among those to view his work was legendary writer and editor H. L. (Henry) Mencken, who had recently launched a new literary vehicle, The American Mercury (a magazine that ran from 1924–1981). Among other things, Mencken was an expert in the use of language, a subject he had written on extensively. He pronounced Dean’s satirical, witty writing as “good stuff.”
[In an odd bit of circumstance, Mencken was also known as a voracious reader, and 20 years later, he would suffer a stroke, leaving him similarly disabled—unimpeded mentally, but unable to read or write, and barely able to speak.]
In August 1929, Mencken published Dean’s story, “Salvation on the Brink,” in The American Mercury, and that opened the door. Others soon came calling, and the poor, blind, paralyzed young man from the North Country gained a measure of celebrity. In the next year, Dean followed with a half-dozen more articles, along with plans for a book of his own.
The remarkable story of Clute’s decade-long personal struggles reached the media and gained momentum, earning him the status of a minor cause célèbre. Prominent journalist Earl Sparling visited Dean in June 1930 and filed a story that included the following excerpts:
The man who made Welfare Island go literary lies in his wheelchair in the yard of City Hospital. Around him, soaking up the sunshine, are a dozen wrecks in gray hospital pajamas. One of them, Art by name, is reading—or trying to. The book he is reading, or trying to, is Isaac Goldberg’s The Fine Art of Living. Art never got through the eighth grade in school. He runs a heavy finger along the lines as he reads, and every second line or so comes upon a word he can’t even manage to mispronounce.
“Spell it, Art,” suggests the blind man in the wheelchair. “It’s another jaw-breaker,” growls Art, stretching his pajama-clad legs. “I’d just as soon try to say it as to spell it.” But he spells it out, haltingly, and the blind man tells him and the audience the pronunciation and the meaning. And the education of Dean Clute, the literatus of Welfare Island—and incidentally of his comrades in pajamas—continues.
Dean Clute is stone blind, and so crippled he can scarcely wiggle a finger. He has been flat on his back from arthritis for fifteen years. He has been in City Hospital for six of those fifteen. Using others in City Hospital as eyes, he has gotten through most of the philosophers, most of the lasting literature of the world, and has managed meanwhile to keep track of current book lists, with interesting results.
Today, as you wander through the wards of City Hospital, you can hear wrecks who arrived there from the Bowery discussing such things as the indebtedness of Schopenhauer to Hoffman, the modernism of Dickens’ critique of America, and the sad case of Dr. John Dewey.
It has gotten so that the nurses, interns, and the doctors are beginning to develop cultural inferiority complexes. What is a poor doctor to answer when, while thumping some patient’s backbone, he is asked, “Do you go in for Humanism, Doc?”
As Dean described it, “We start in at 8 o’clock and we stay out here in the sunshine, reading and talking until night. I’ve learned how to be happy. … I hope to have a book shop in Manhattan one day. Then I can devote myself seriously to writing. I want to write my autobiography. They say a man shouldn’t do that until he is forty. But I can’t wait. I may never get that far.”
It was truly remarkable—such inspiration arising from one of the most depressing parts of the city, and from a man who had every right and reason to throw in the towel, to give up on life altogether. But Dean Clute had given up only on his body and instead focused on his mind, developing a completely new identity. Never known as a great student, he had achieved the rarest of transformations—from a happy-go-lucky, standout athlete to a deep-thinking intellectual.
And the man had dreams. Writing articles and working on a book would have been enough, but operating his own bookstore? Impossible, sure … just like everything else he had accomplished so far.
The dream, in fact, was already on its way to reality. Working as a team, Clute and his cohorts in pajamas wrote and mailed several hundred letters to his friends and acquaintances, describing “a unique book service which presumes to deliver any book published in America to any address in the United States within six days.”
Available titles included many that the new reading group had favored, including the works of Aldous Huxley, H. L. Mencken, and Bertrand Russell. In the first two weeks they received 24 orders, which were handled by his four friends, three of whom were fellow patients.
Photo: City Hospital on Welfare Island, NY (ca. 1925).
Lawrence Gooley has authored nine books and many articles on the North Country’s past. He and his partner, Jill McKee, founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004. He took over in 2010 and began expanding the company’s publishing services. For information on book publishing, visit Bloated Toe Publishing.