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“Art for Heart’s Sake” by Reuben Lucius Essay

“Art for Heart’s Sake” is a short story written by Reuben Lucius “Rube” Goldberg, an American cartoonist, sculptor, author, engineer, and inventor, who lived between 1883 and 1970. He is best known as a cartoonist and a founding member of America’s National Cartoonists Society.

Collins P. Ellsworth is a wealthy 76-year-old businessman who is being treated for a form of compulsive buying disorder, otherwise known as oniomania: His uncontrollable buying habits—he can hardly suppress the urge to purchase businesses and property such as grocery stores and railroads—have precipitated a host of mental and physical problems. Dr. Caswell, his doctor, convinces him to try art therapy sessions with Frank Swain, a young art student. As the treatment progresses, Ellsworth turns his interest to painting and to the operations of art galleries. He then paints an amateurish picture, which he exhibits at the Lathrop Gallery. A letter soon arrives, revealing that the First Prize of the Lathrop Show has been awarded to none other than Ellsworth; it turns out that the old businessman has recently purchased the Lathrop Gallery.

Written in a combination of third-person narrative and direct speech, the story brings Ellsworth and his experiment with art therapy into focus, reaching its climax when the old man, almost improbably, decides to exhibit his third-rate painting at the Lathrop Gallery (“He was going to exhibit it . . . !”). The story may be divided into five sections, each of which recounts a different stage of Ellsworth’s progress: from his background as a compulsive property buyer, to Dr. Caswell’s treatment suggestion, to the art therapy sessions with Frank Swain, to the Lathrop exhibition, and finally, to the startling revelation of Ellsworth’s purchase of the gallery. [Possible section titles: Enter a Cranky Property Addict, Cajoled into Rehab, Art is Medicine, Practice Doesn’t Always Make Perfect, A Relapse.]

The story is told in a humorous and, to an extent, ironic tone. We would be hard-pressed to deny the situational humor of a snappy and petulant, albeit very wealthy, 76-year-old in a hospital-like establishment. The epithets “a
loud, raucous splash on the wall” and “a god-awful smudge,” along with the metaphor “gob of salad dressing,” are teasingly said in reference to Ellsworth’s weak painting skills. His personified dislike of the pineapple juice prescribed by Dr. Caswell (“. . . old pineapple juice comes back.”) is likewise worth a smile. By using zeugma (“All his purchases of recent years had to be liquidated at a great sacrifice both to his health and his pocketbook.”), Goldberg forges a link of irony between Ellsworth’s health and his money: the more money the old man spends on compulsive property purchases, the more his condition deteriorates. The ultimate irony, however, is that a treatment designed to alleviate Ellsworth’s oniomania serves only to aggravate it.

The character of Collins P. Ellsworth is portrayed, mostly indirectly, as crabby, materialistic, and petulant. From the very first lines, we can hear him retorting with the informal nope and brandishing dated colloquial pejoratives (e.g., bosh, rot, poppycock). The simile “like a child playing with his picture book” brings out Ellsworth’s childishness, while his impatience is highlighted by his frequent use of the interjection umph. Vain and impatient, he “snaps” and “grunts with satisfaction” at his feeble attempts at painting. His belief that money—as opposed to talent—can buy one anything may not be the best philosophy to live by, for it is money and his uncontrollable urges to spend it that have undermined Ellsworth’s health. Dr. Caswell is driven by professionalism (“. . . with his usual professional calm . . .”), logic (“He had done some constructive thinking . . . .”), and compassion, always acting with Ellsworth’s best interests at heart. The fact that he recommends Frank Swain as tutor to the often intolerable Ellsworth, thereby helping Swain pay his tuition, also speaks positively of Dr. Caswell. Frank Swain is similarly patient and attentive, which is evident, for example, when he brings the grumpy old man watercolors and oils, or when he politely (“Not bad, sir.”) comments on Ellsworth’s risible picture, although there is no certain way of establishing whether the remark was or was not used somewhat sarcastically. The character of Koppel, the male nurse, does nothing but fetch pineapple juice and therefore plays only a subsidiary role in the story—perhaps that of helping fuel Ellsworth’s grumpiness and of functioning as a sort of human prop in the final
“surprise” scene of the story.

As noted above, apart from largely neural vocabulary, the story features a number of dated informal words (as above, e.g., bosh, rot, poppycock), phrases (by gum), and colloquialisms (kinda), which all serve the purpose of portraying Ellsworth as an old, grumpy, and childish man. Vocabulary pertaining to painting—such as water-colors, oils, picture book, gallery, exhibit, and numerous others—helps establish the setting and reinforces the image of Ellsworth as a grown-up baby “[fooling] around with chalk and crayons.”

At the syntactic level, brisk, simple sentences account for the majority of the sentences found in the story. If not too simple, the syntax, on the whole, is rather uncomplicated, with a significant number of elliptical (“Not bad.” “Fine.”) and exclamatory (“Nope!” “Bosh!” “Umph!”) sentences. Such sentences, in conjunction with the straightforward syntax, strengthen the impression of Ellsworth’s awkwardness. Through repetition (“See, see . . .”) and aposiopesis (“But, but—well, now . . . .”), Goldberg imitates the way many people would react in moments of overwhelming surprise.

This story is interesting in that it portrays a complex man—old, rich, petulant like a child, and in a precarious state of mental and physical health. As we watch his ostensible passion for art develop, we may find ourselves inspired by his progress and, not infrequently, even amused by his caustic remarks. But when we learn about his regression at the end of the story, we are bound for disappointment—we begin to view Ellsworth as a childish and materialistic person not worthy of our sympathy. Is he such a man? That is precisely why this story is so interesting: While humorous and ironic on the surface, it poses the deep question of whether Ellsworth is really in control of himself when he decides to purchase the Lathrop Gallery, or whether he is a victim of a mentall illness none of us would ever wish on our worst enemies. Should we be amused at his regression, or should we pity him?

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