Thursday, November 29, 2007

Elizabeth Forter 1922 - 2007

I was just thinking the other day about how few women professors there were back when I attended college in the 1970's, despite the emphasis on the "liberal" part of our "liberal arts" education and the fact that the school had recently merged with Milwaukee-Downer Women's College. Men had an inordinate influence on my thinking and were those whose opinions mattered most to me. None that I recall discriminated against female students or failed to be supportive, but in hindsight it would have been helpful to have had more women around to have known as teachers and scholars and simply as mature human beings.

Then today I opened up an email announcing the death of Elizabeth Forter, a professor in the English department, the department of my major. I'm embarrassed to say that I had forgotten about her. I can now recall having taken at least two courses from her -- the third of the intermediate level courses on English literature covering the 19th and 20th c. and an upper level course on the English Novel, which went from Sterne and Fielding through Virginia Woolf. It was in that course that I first read Jane Austen - a delightful discovery, which I appreciated all the more for having made it so late.

Yet, as much as I enjoyed the courses I had with "Miss Forter" (although they invariably had Ph.D's, the custom at the school was to address professors as "Miss" or "Mr." because they considered "Dr." pretentious), I scarcely knew her at all. Turns out that she was an Episcopalian (not that it would have mattered to me back then -- although All Saints is located across the street from campus, I never darkened the doors of any church in college, except maybe the Methodist for an Easter Sunday service or two).

What I can recall was her wit, intelligence, and what the article aptly described as "good cheer." Elizabeth was not cheerful in the sense of being "cheery." But there was something about her, a calm sense of satisfaction and well-being that radiated from her, not out of a sense of optimism but rather a marvelous sense of humor and curiosity about the human condition and a delight and appreciation of those who wrote well about it, such as Austen. I believe her "specialty" was Trollope, whom she managed to continue to enjoy despite years of study, perhaps because Elizabeth knew, above all, how to truly read rather than merely dissect. I guess one might say that Elizabeth was someone who was characteristically in "good humor" -- a rare and wonderful gift to even those who only knew her at a distance.

I'm sad to hear of her death and regret I never got to know her better. At the time I was taking her courses, I was at the height of sturm and drang as only I, in full post-adolescence, could muster. I was more interested in listening to the men, wrestling with the likes of Foucault and Derrida or mucking in the swamps of Faulkner's Mississippi or swimming in the whiteness of Melville's whale than attending to a woman who was quietly but firmly sure of herself, her worth, and the respect of her colleagues, who was as interested in the big picture, the comedy and tragedy of human folly as the form and structure of the novel. Those young women and men who had the good sense to have worked closely with her and gotten to know her personally must have gained a great deal.

May she rest in peace and her friends and family find comfort.

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