As I write this, it’s Blursday in the United States. (Thanks to playwright Kate Hamill for sharing the name for this new day of the week—a bon mot of her brother’s—on social media.) As I do on most Blursdays, I started my day by checking my very boring email, followed by taking in a healthy dose of paralyzing coronavirus news.
Admittedly, it’s actually an unhealthy dose, but I’m trying to use that word more sparingly these days out of gratitude for my current state of physical health and for others who are more in harm’s way. I’m truly grateful. Every day brings another piece of news of someone who is not healthy, whose father is not, whose uncle is not, whose sister-in-law who is a nurse is not.
As a scholar of Jane Austen and a professor of English and Women’s Studies, I’ve read with laughing recognition the comments from housebound, internet-connected people who say they’ve never understood the confined lives of Austen’s heroines better than they do now. I’ve been reading Austen’s fiction for forty years, and I was once on a regimen of pregnancy-complication-ordered bed rest right out of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper;” yet I, too, feel this way about Austen now.
So far, my pandemic grief has been mostly existential, with deaths at enough of a remove that I’m reminded, with guilt, of that shocking line from Jane Austen’s letters: “How horrible it is to have so many people killed!—And what a blessing that one cares for none of them!” It’s a line that few of us are likely to be able to find funny these days, although surely Austen, a wartime author, was also just trying to find ways to laugh and get through the narrowest, darkest days?
Are we still allowed to laugh, even darkly, during a pandemic? Honestly, I have no idea. What I do have total clarity on is that if my biggest daily problem is that I’m reading too much coronavirus news, to the point of panic—and that my email is full of boringness, that my teen sons think it’s funny to taunt me by licking their fingers whenever I remind them to wash their hands—then I’ll take my problems.
This morning, I taught my younger son, who is zooming through Shakespeare’s The Tempest for his 9th grade English class, what the phrase “tempest in a teapot” means. I only realized afterward that I’d given him a new way to characterize how he sees my current domestic responses.
The real tempest is happening above our Phoenix home, in the helicopter that’s medevacking someone—perhaps from nearby Navajo Nation, now so devastatingly hard hit—to a hospital. The tempest is two blocks away from us, at the long-term care facility I see glimpses of on my daily walks. Yesterday, there was an emergency vehicle parked outside of it with telling red flashing lights but no siren. Our small household has an occupant at high risk. I want those vehicles to stay away from our home, now and forever.
Because working from home is a privilege only a third of us have at the moment in this country, I’m trying not to misuse it. I’m attempting to do what I do best and to do what I can. But the fact is that the skills I’ve built up over several decades of work as a literature professor are not so much needed at present. So what I’m trying to remember is that right now, my job beyond my job is to stay healthy, to participate remotely in charitable, political, and civic culture, and to figure out what in the world “resilience” looks like in daily life. My German American grandmother used to say, in the sedentary years before she died, “Ach! You sure get dumb in these four walls.”
One of the things I’ve set out to do to stave off the stupidity is to sort through a tower of cheap plastic boxes full of academic papers that I’ve been dragging around with me, from state to state, and job to job (at six different universities, no less) over the past three decades. Swedish death cleaning inspires my work more than sparking joy. These files date back to an era in my life that my sons like to refer to as “the 1900s.” Unlikely as it sounds, I was inspired to this sorting of my papers by Anderson Cooper and his mother, Gloria Vanderbilt.
I met Gloria Vanderbilt once, at a very posh wedding 20 years ago—exactly at that time in life when I first started dragging these files around the country in long-distance moves. I come from a family whose women cleaned the houses of people like the Vanderbilts, yet my parents always got by. Like my friends, I had advertised Vanderbilt’s name on my ass, on designer jeans teenage girls aspired to own. At that wedding, I wore a light blue sheath dress. Other guests had crisp, white linen suits. The valets wore black tie. There was an awkward dancing episode with Billy Collins. All of it may deserve its own essay.
But what I think about from that day most often, and with shame, is my short conversation with Gloria Vanderbilt, who rightly schooled me on how to make small talk with strangers at a wedding. At one point, I found myself standing next to her. She turned to look at me, and I blurted out that I admired her beautiful dress, a gorgeous royal blue number. She replied with decided hauteur, “Yes, the bride does look beautiful,” and turned away.
I’ve wondered ever since whether Jane Austen would have been on Gloria’s side of this or mine. Shit. Because of this small, embarrassing moment, I’ve followed news of Gloria more carefully than I otherwise might have. Four years ago, I watched her son Anderson Cooper’s biopic-style documentary about her, Nothing Left Unsaid (2016). The film shows Cooper helping Vanderbilt go through her old papers, artwork, letters, and photos—her privileged, painful memories—in some fabulously, impossibly shabby-chic attic.
Since seeing Nothing Left Unsaid, I’ve walked by the few cheap plastic boxes of my own papers and thought of Gloria Vanderbilt and the 1900s. I’ve often said to myself that culling those files was just the thing to work on, in an Austen-inspired, less-is-more sort of way. I vowed to favorably arrange them. But then I never started. The task was too daunting; it wasn’t pressing. Yet I felt repeatedly judged by Gloria Vanderbilt and those old, dust-gathering papers.
Finally, last Blursday, accepting my newly evolving, confined relationship to our home (not to mention to space and time), I began to organize my papers. I’m slowly going through those files, so as not to leave them as a future problem for someone else to sort or dump.
I read, I scanned, I recycled. It was cathartic to tend to stocktaking and cleaner living.
The old papers that moved me most were from the beginning of my career, back in graduate school at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, which awarded me a PhD in 1993, and is now a coronavirus hot spot.
I was stunned to rediscover the negative, dismissive comments that graduate school professors had made on my earliest work as a critic. Some comments were constructively critical and even encouraging, but some seemed determined to prepare me for future failure. It’s a wonder that, after receiving these comments, I had the courage to write another word, much less to finish the PhD.
In a seminar on Classical Literary Backgrounds in 1989, I received an A- for my thoughts on Livy’s Early History of Rome and Ovid’s Metamorphoses, for which the professor had this summative sentence: “The writing is clear and correct for the most part; it could be more personal.”
In an African-American Women Writers seminar in 1991, I received the almost-unheard-of-in-graduate-school grade of B- for a paper on Toni Morrison, which was deemed “vague” with writing that was “undergraduate” and on which the professor commented, “I think you are desperately confused about what you mean to take as a critical approach.”
But my favorite among these rusted-paperclipped, yellowing sheets may be the comments from the illustrious Pulitzer Prize winning poet whose Modernism course I took in 1990. He required three papers. He gave my first, on James Joyce, a B+ (“There are places where your meaning is not clear, perhaps because you do not express your thought clearly. See p. 2. Otherwise, sensibly written—though rather pedestrian”).
For my second attempt, on W. B. Yeats, he’d awarded me a more generous A-. But in the course of my argument on “Among School Children,” I’d used the word “antinomy” about a paradoxical situation. The professor wrote in the margin, “Antimony? Look up this word in your dictionary.”
By the third paper, still judged as A- in quality, he was slightly more generous, declaring that my work had gotten “much better” although there was “a sense of strain and fearfulness about the writing.”
Really? You don’t say.
Reading these old papers has surprised me as a happy, life-measuring milestone, even at a sad, anxious time. I now see that it’s possible to look back on heart-rending times in life with wistfulness and laughter, rather than righteous anger, embarrassment, or pain.
Although I might not have a lot to give now that qualifies as essential work, I can offer this much, having just taken stock of this pile of carefully saved life detritus: If you are a teacher grading papers this week, be mindful of the power of your words. If you’re a graduate student, rightly worried about the future, know that whatever anyone else has to say now about your talents or prospects, you are exceptionally and fortunately well equipped to create a life beyond what is sensible and rather pedestrian.
We are all desperately confused about our critical approaches today.
May we soon enough find ourselves sitting next to each other at the theatre, watching Kate Hamill’s adaptation of Austen’s Emma at its rescheduled debut, with our families in good health, and under a government that supports the arts, education, health care, and a free press.
Until then. Tomorrow is another Blursday.
Devoney Looser, Foundation Professor of English at Arizona State University, is author or editor of nine books, including The Making of Jane Austen and The Daily Jane Austen: A Year in Quotes. Her essays have appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, Salon, and The TLS. As a Guggenheim Fellow and NEH Public Scholar, Looser is completing the biography Sister Novelists for Bloomsbury. She’s also played roller derby as “Stone Cold Jane Austen.”