The Things I Carry

In today’s e-world, sometimes we forget about the tangible, physical thingness of things. This blog entry is dedicated to things that I hold, literally, to remember how I got to this place.

Like most people with an office of one’s own, I have mementos all over the place: a piece of artwork from my mother, a wooden flower from my father and stepmother, bookends from my favorite aunt, drawings done by my child.

I also carry reminders of two very special professors from my undergraduate years at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania.

I met Dr. Robert Burlin when I enrolled in Modern British Drama. A once-a-week nightly seminar, it was a very small class, perhaps 12 students, and I’ll never forget the first remark he made in my general direction. He checked everyone off the roster, and after he got to me, he snorted delicately and said it sounded like a bad name out of a Jane Austen novel. I studied Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound, Pinter’s Betrayal, Churchill’s Cloud Nine, Vinegar Tom, and The Skriker — plus several other dramas, since reading loads at Bryn Mawr never were light. I wrote about semiotics, silence, and folklore. Oh, and I signed up for several more Bob Burlin classes over the years, especially in his “real” specialty, medieval literature.

When I took 18th- and 19th-century literature, I met Dr. Katrin Burlin, with a different scarf wrapped around her neck every day and a monograph on Jane Austen under her belt. I read Pamela and Evelina and Vanity Fair, and later, in courses on women’s literature, The Woman Warrior, The House on Mango Street, The Lover, and Ana Castillo’s The Mixquiahuala Letters. She was my undergraduate thesis advisor for my project on folklore in female Bildungsromane, and my senior year, I had the privilege of being her teaching assistant for first-year writing, where I got to lead the unit on Jane Eyre.

The Burlins lived in a house just on the edge of campus, so visiting was easy and always so much fun, with books bursting from every tabletop. Between the two professors, as I studied medieval drama and courtship novels, I gained the confidence to pursue my own academic life. Listening to them banter about (and lovingly jeer at) their very different literary passions, I learned how to appreciate connections, however slight, across centuries and genres. I wanted to be just like both of them when I grew up.

When my final semester rolled around in the spring of 1997, it was also Bob Burlin’s last term, for he was moving into the exalted status of Professor Emeritus. I helped clean out his office, and he kept offering me books that I “would need for graduate school, oh, yes.” Katrin scolded him that he could not, just could NOT, hand over first editions of Faulkner, no matter how nice I was. What I did receive, and treasure to this day, are two facsimile prints of medieval manuscripts that hang on my office wall.

 

From Katrin, I received wisdom, a keen eye for detail, a critical stance regarding my own writing, and true friendship (when she learned about my senior-year boyfriend, she solemnly told me that she hoped I was an old-fashioned enough girl to stay out of trouble). I also was gifted her copy of The Mixquiahuala Letters, shown below in the condition in which I received it. Katrin’s books always featured these post-it festoonings, crammed to every edge, along with carefully laid sheets of tissue, “for the especially affecting parts,” she always would say with a laugh. I have not removed a single marker.

Some years later, I was proud and pleased to write to Bob — in a pen-and-paper letter sent via post, no less — to tell him that the undergraduate thesis that Katrin helped me pound into submission had become my M.A. thesis, and then part of Chapter 3 of my dissertation, which in turn was published as my first book in 2006. Her name is featured prominently in the dedication. I wish she could have seen it, but Dr. Katrin Burlin died from a brain aneurysm on May 3, 1998, Bryn Mawr’s annual May Day celebration.

I keep the Burlins close. I have taught Jane Eyre and The House on Mango Street, using the same copies I clutched in Katrin’s seminars. I keep finding myself drawn back to writing about The Skriker, scouring the same slim volume I purchased back in 1994. Last summer, for a graduate course on narrative disruptions, I had the distinct pleasure of teaching both Harold Pinter’s play Betrayal, introduced to me by Bob Burlin, and The Mixquiahuala Letters, from Katrin…both of my undergraduate inspirations in one class.

I carry them with me always: on my walls, on my bookshelves, on my syllabi, in my heart.

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