Remembering Beverly Lyon Clark
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|Beverly Lyon Clark and past presidents of the |
Louisa May Alcott Society, Anne Phillips and
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Remembering Beverly Lyon Clark
The first time I met Beverly Lyon Clark was at an American Literature Association conference in Boston. When she introduced herself, my mind flashed back to all the times I had seen her name on books and articles. That was how I first “knew” her—as a name. Her name carried weight among literary scholars; she was someone to respect, someone to admire, someone to learn from. Before I had even met her, I was in awe of her abilities. But Bev was more than a brilliant scholar and teacher. While she was a serious person, she displayed, at times, a dry humor and a quick wit. Hearing her present a paper was always a joy as she captivated the audience with her voice and emotion. She immediately captured the room’s rapt attention. I recall one such presentation on Little Women at the Children’s Literature Association meeting in Columbia, SC. Bev had just completed her research on The Afterlife of Little Women, and as she was discussing the merchandise that the 1933 film version created to promote the film, she took off the silk scarf tied around her neck, one such example of the “merch” she had obtained from Ebay, and she swung it around her head like a lariat, creating a much more effective visual than a photograph or slide. The overflowing crowd burst into applause. That was Bev. She was also a giving person, one who willingly assisted other scholars and generously shared her research—and a wonderful teacher, scholar, and friend. She will be greatly missed by those who knew her.
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I look at the photo on the LMAS web site, and what I want to say is what people often say, but seldom mean: "she looks just the same." Bev does look just the same. (I don't, alas.) Bev and I were in graduate school together at Brown, and were emblems of the time with our long, straight, center-parted hair. Short, slight, and bespectacled, we were sometimes mistaken for one another, even in our small program. We also shared other interests, though, such as the burgeoning field of feminist literary criticism and theory. Students during the Louise Lamphere class action suit, we worked with Claire Rosenfield, and were keenly aware of feminism as a question of bodies as well as ideas, politics as well as principles. At a time when there were even fewer feminist courses than female faculty, we both belonged to a reading group that pondered work authors such as Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, Elaine Showalter, and Monique Wittig. Since graduation, our contacts were few, but always warm. Bev was always generous, whether offering much-appreciated resources for private issues, or extending an offer to contribute to her co-edited volume, Little Women and the Feminist Imagination: Criticism, Controversy, Personal Essays. That generosity, along with her level-headedness and intellectual curiosity characterized everything Bev did. Little Women expanded not only to The Afterlife of "Little Women," but also to the wide-ranging explorations of Regendering the School Story: Sassy Sissies and Tattling Tomboys and Kiddie Lit: The Cultural Construction of Children's Literature in America, along with multiple co-edited volumes that contributed to children's literature, gender studies and, always, Alcott studies. She will be sorely missed.
Michelle A. Massé
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I first got to know Bev Clark 1992 when we held the Children’s Literature Association Conference in Hartford, Connecticut. Bev was thrilled to learn that my husband and I made the drive from Illinois to Hartford via Concord, specifically so that we could stop to see Orchard House—the first of many visits for me. At that conference, Bev and I also enjoyed a good chat about our feminist work in children’s literature, and she kindly proposed a special session on feminism in children’s literature at the 1993 MLA, where I got to give my first MLA paper, thanks to her.
Many of you will recognize traits that we all respected in Bev. She was kind, generous, patient, and compassionate, not least because she remembered well what it was like to be a newly minted Ph.D. and working in a new job. She was visionary, especially in her ability to frame new projects that were original and intellectually fascinating. She was organized and the type of leader who knew how to pull people together to work toward a common goal, even when she sometimes had to carry some of us over the finish line. She never gave up on her friends, her colleagues, or her family because her faith in the humanity of others led her to persevere for the betterment of everyone. Most of all, however, I remember Bev’s passion, including her spirited delivery of a scholarly paper and her strong advocacy for diversity, inclusiveness, and equality. I will miss her verve. I think we all will.
When a character in Alcott’s Jack and Jill dies far too young, the narrator describes him this way: “Good and happy—the two things we all long for and so few of us truly are.” I believe that the same can be said of our dear friend Beverly, too.
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Adventures in Wheatonland with Bev Clark. In her essay “Kiddie Lit in Academe” published in Profession, Bev Clark suggests that she intended to write “the kind of essay where it is as fruitful to read between the lines as to read the lines themselves.” I hope to do the same. When she was on sabbatical and then awarded an NEH Fellowship to study children’s literature, I was able to serve for two years as her temporary replacement at Wheaton College. Both of us had written a chapter on Lewis Carroll in our dissertations; hers on Carroll, Nabokov, and Pynchon, and mine on Victorian fairy tales, and we bonded over our mutual interest in Carroll. I remain grateful to Bev for giving me my first full-time academic position.
Shortly before the fall semester, I defended my dissertation, packed my car and drove to Norton, Massachusetts, the home of Wheaton College. To my Midwestern eyes, Wheaton was like entering the academic dream of the small New England liberal arts college with stately older buildings, stone walls, an impressive chapel, and even a picturesque pond. Bev would regularly come to campus. We discussed teaching and children’s books in her Meneely Hall office. She was the first person to recommend that I attend the Children’s Literature Association annual conference, another gift to my academic career.
Stepping into Bev’s shoes was a challenge since she was a popular teacher. One semester I had 120 students in a children’s literature course on a campus when the average course size was 15 students. On a beautiful October day during my second year at Wheaton, I married Jodie Slothower in the campus’s Cole Memorial Chapel and Bev attended the ceremony.
Bev became a mentor and friend to me and so many others working in children’s literature. At the conclusion of Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White wrote, “It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.” I think of Bev Clark in the same way. I am humbled and in her debt for the many things that she made possible for me. Knowing Bev Clark transformed my life, and I am grateful for her friendship.
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As is so often the case in academic studies, I knew Bev Clark’s work – and drew from it in my own research – long before I actually met her. Then she was one of the readers who recommended publication of my Alcott monograph to the University of Tennessee Press editors, who sent me her comments on the manuscript to aid my revisions. I was humbled by her praise of what she perceived as the strengths of my argument and greatly assisted by her smart and precise advice on how to make it better. (I still have that sheet of comments.)
A few months later, standing in the breakfast line at the Nashville children’s lit conference, I turned to the plainly-dressed woman behind me to mumble a random pre-coffee “good morning” and chanced upon her name tag: it was Beverly Lyon Clark herself! My “good morning” degenerated into fan-girl blathering which I can only hope conveyed both my thanks for her thumbs-up and my high regard for her scholarship. She flashed a quiet smile, and simply said, “Well, it deserves to be published”; and then, “I’m here alone; may I join you for breakfast?” And that has always been Bev to me: brilliant, humble, generous. It was a treat whenever she would join Alcott dinners at ALA or ChLA, displaying those same remarkable qualities. I thought there would be many more of those occasions; I remain overwhelmingly grateful for the ones we did have, as well as for the stellar scholarship that will keep her brilliance and large-mindedness with us always.
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In the days following Bev's departure, I found refuge in her words. It was there that I had met her, twelve years ago, as I read Kiddie Lit for the first time.
It was summer, 2009: I was about to enter Simmons' graduate program in Children's Literature. I remember feeling electrified as I sat on the floor reading the book in my parents' house, mere weeks before I was to get married and move to Boston. Kiddie Lit was like nothing I'd ever read before. It begins, "When I was in graduate school in the 1970s I wouldn't have been caught dead reading children's literature." I gobbled up the rest in two nights.
Two years later, I was writing a master's thesis on Little Women at Simmons when Cathie Mercier, the program director, offered to ask her friend, the celebrated American authoress, Beverly Lyon Clark, to sign on as my thesis advisor. "Oh, no, no," I protested. "You need to keep your friendship intact." But Cathie persisted, and Bev not only said yes but also brought champagne to my defense, nudged me to apply to paper calls, and took me to lunch at every single conference where we were both in attendance. I was often too nervous to eat, but we'd talk. Bev often talked about her family. Occasionally, if I asked her, she'd share what she was working on—but of course she'd always steer the conversation back to me. Suffice it to say, Bev was a generous conversationalist. But I remember the day we realized we both loved Broadway musicals . . . that was a good lunch, both of us fangirling over the old and revived Rogers and Hammerstein classics.
It is difficult for me to come to terms with Bev's death. This glorious person whose words moved mountains in our field was, to put it simply, my dear friend.
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|Beverly Lyon Clark|
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