In graduate school, I took a course on 18th Century literature whose reading list included dry, tedious fustian like Waverly and Daniel Deronda. But the professor was renowned and students spoke about him with reverence, and so I, 23 and already academically humiliated by multiple rejections in the collegiate and graduate admissions processes, decided I had little to lose by way of curiosity and enrolled in the course. The professor was serious, and unforgiving. In our first convening, we went around the room introducing ourselves (“Jen, born in D.C., attended UVA, interested in high modernism”) and one of my classmates, a bit of an odd bird, introduced herself as “Mary, born in Ireland. I like jumping in puddles.”* A strange silence pooled in the room. I squirmed in my seat, anxious to paper over the awkwardness, but he offered nothing to her. Not a gentle laugh, or a cleared throat, or a “next, please.” Only a coldness, eventually thawed by a neighbor chiming in to introduce himself.
The professor was a textualist, and I would learn a lot from his ruthless redirection of any conversation steered by an alternative critical lens. When classmates proposed feminist readings, or new historical readings, he would spurn their insights and press their faces against the words on the page: but what about the choice of chapter break? And the narrative repetition in the exchange of gifts here? I found him easy to decode as a student in that I knew exactly what to give him on a page but I began to think carefully about how many ways there were to skin a cat. And how close-minded he seemed to all but one.
Because I knew how to play to his expectations, I became his pet student. He had me read one of my papers to the entire class, nodding his head metronomically in pleased agreement. I could not reconcile the twin sensations of embarrassment and pride as I haltingly read my own words. I knew my classmates must have been eye-rolling behind my back, but I wallowed in the recognition. And I began to think critically about myself as a people-pleaser, and a rule-follower, and whether those were necessarily good things.
My classmates complained about him in the student lounge. “Everyone’s getting Ds,” Mark said, and I busied myself with the printer, knowing I was averaging an A-. And I thought, again with focus, about the tradeoffs between pragmatism and purism.
Mainly, though, I thought about how to perform a strenuous close reading. I learned to look for patterns, how to think about texts with near-mathematic precision, and I discovered, however reluctantly, that I enjoyed Daniel Deronda, and the section titled “Maiden’s Choosing,” and the novel’s grappling with fate versus free agency. And I wondered whether things had changed so much for women since the 18th century anyway?
The following year, I caught wind that the professor was unwell. He’d always seemed frail to me, but you never know with us English types: could be illness; could be too-long-in-the-stacks. Still, after strategizing with my mentor, a brilliant female professor who permitted me to write a final paper on country music and constructions of the masculine identity (!), I worked up the courage to ask whether he would write a letter of recommendation in support of my applications to doctorate programs.
He responded quickly in the negative. I was crushed, and confused.
I went back to my mentor: “I don’t understand,” I confessed. “I was his pet student…?”
“That’s ridiculous,” she agreed. “He should write for you, and he will.” She commandingly pecked out an email to him and sent me home.
He refused again, and, after my mentor pushed him once more, a third time.
I was mortified. I worried my mentor would view me in a different light — would suddenly see me as the irritating imposter I probably was — and I quietly backed down and never spoke about it again, instead seeking out a letter from another professor with whom I had only a loose connection that seemed more likely to “play the game.”
In my darkest moments of self-doubt, the midnight hours when the ugliest versions of my catastrophic thinking stood at the foot of my bed in my little garden apartment on R Street, I would ask myself why that professor wouldn’t write that damned letter. How much time could it really have cost him? Did he think so little of me that he couldn’t associate himself with my name? Was his whole “read the paper aloud” routine a lampooning charade? I thought, too, of my mentor muttering: “If he doesn’t have time to write letters for his students, he’s in the wrong position.” But her words would tide me over for only the briefest reprieve, and I would instead think: “I’m a fraud, and he knows it.”
Maybe a year later, after I had graduated and decided not to pursue a Ph.D., I learned that he had passed away.
I had known nothing of the solitary and stony offices of his illness,
Of the grief he must have been facing,
Of how impossibly short his time must have felt,
Of how ridiculous it would have been to spend even a minute of his last year on earth writing a pro forma letter for a pro forma student.
Not everything happens to you, personally.
By some grotesque and twisting irony, I was instead at that time enveloped in the disbelieving ante-stages of my own grief. Around the time I heard of his death, I was lying up and down about my friend Elizabeth’s future. She was very sick, and had grown unrecognizably gaunt, and still I would not discuss any possible eventualities in her company or outside of it. What good would it do to speak in endings? She knew anyway — didn’t she? The ethics blurred, then dripped.
Today, I see this, and crisply: I wish I had visited her more. Held her hand. Told her all the things I now forget.
A few years earlier, the day Elizabeth went in, the beginning of the end, she’d had difficulty breathing. My friend T. had called me in a panic: “something malignant pressing on her lungs; she’s in the hospital; her parents are there, too.” T. had held it together until this detail: when Elizabeth’s parents had arrived at the hospital and seen the floor number — I think it was seven, or maybe nine — they had known their daughter was in the cancer ward, and they of great faith had collapsed and cried out. T. and I wept muffled tears across the phone line for a long time, shaky breaths rattling with static and fear, terrified for Elizabeth but also at the glimpse of such open grief.
Still, I could not imagine a world free of agency, or the vigor of Elizabeth’s youth:
life would not happen to me and death would not happen to her,
And yet the texts — the Daniel Deronda, or my professor’s reading of it — did not lie:
our eventualities laid out like stars, crystalline and eternal, designing the path forward.
When Elizabeth died, I thought many broken things, but one of them was that we were not after all so unlike the maidens in Deronda, making choices, yes, but in snow globes, stirred stupidly by forces beyond our ken.
So is it any wonder,
if still I cannot think clearly about Daniel Deronda, about the professor’s refused letter and obscured illness, about Elizabeth’s death,
and instead I have written dozens of chapters of a book I will never finish called Maiden’s Choosing
where I can only draw in alternatingly obtuse and oblique ways
the oafish outlines
of what we can and cannot control?
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