Great Women Scholars: Maxine Greene, Louise Rosenblatt, Yetta Goodman, and Margaret Meek Spencer. Part three of a four part series, Louise Rosenblatt.
Great Women Scholars: Louise Rosenblatt
After Maxine Greene it was Louise Rosenblatt who spoke.
“It really has to be a mutual admiration society that we’re in tonight,” Louise began, smiling at Maxine, “because we’ve all been in this so long together and we’ve certainly, in one way or another, been working towards the same goals and that’s the important thing to keep in mind.”
“Through these ninety-seven years, and of course that’s an awfully long time,” Louise said, as we clapped and she waited, “one of the things I’ve always been fighting is stereotypes, and one of the stereotypes is the idea that when you’re ninety you’re done for, but I’m not in my dotage yet.”
There was laughter and we clapped again, glad of her strength and stronger for it. Louise waited until the room was quiet.
“Anyway, sitting here has made me think about history,” she continued. “I went to college in nineteen twenty-one and women got the vote in nineteen twenty.” She paused as if changing course and then leaving her speech behind she said, “There have been so many interesting reminisces this evening I’m tempted to do that myself.”
“One of my first memories of reading is of visiting with my mother a woman who had a nineteen year old son. And I was climbing around in a closet looking at some of the books he had. I found a big book with stories and I started reading it. I had just learned to read and I came across a story that was something about a woman coming down the stairs. And it said, ‘the careful disorder of her hair’. And I thought, ‘Careful disorder? Careful is not disorder. Disorder is not careful.’ That was all and I fell asleep.”
“And I started to ponder,” Louise looked at us as if each of us was the only one in the room. “And I realized that when you put two words together they do something to one another, and that the meaning is not in those words, but in what you make of those words. If you put ‘careful’ and ‘disorder’ together you’re saying that she carefully made her hair look as though it were disordered.”
“Nowadays that’s what everybody does,” she quipped. “In those days that was still something to remark upon.” She waited for us to stop laughing. “So anyway, that’s one of my first memories. I could talk for a whole half an hour on the basis of that.”
“And, of course, we’re always talking nowadays about composing, that we compose our lives,” Louise said. “When we compose our lives, we are always selecting out the details and linking them. Just as we always do whenever we are going to write a story. You start with a point of view, and so you start, now let’s see, I’m a woman, I’m a widow, I’m a member of the democratic party, I’m an educator, and I try to be a philosopher at times, and so I have to choose what to say. And that’s one of my troubles talking about my life. I could talk about the fact that I’m a woman and what the problems were. I could talk about the fact that I’m a Jew and what the problems were.”
“But of course life is very complicated,” Louise said. “The very professor who fought to get me appointed to Barnard,” she looked around the room. “I’ve never told this story before,” she paused. “I was Jewish, and my professor said no parent would want their child taught English by a person named Rosenblatt. So I went on for a doctorate without knowing whether I was going to have a job. Anyway, let’s not be intolerant of the intolerant.”
Louise talked about her father and mother, and her childhood. “I can recall a time when my father, again Jewish, working-class, but he came over from Russia as a child in the late nineteenth century when he was young enough to acquire English. I was born in 1904 and English has always been my language. My father, like so many who had come from Russia, was very much concerned about socio-economic and political affairs. He was very much concerned about the plight of poor people. So I grew up in an atmosphere with a tremendous amount of concern about what was happening in the world, and what was happening particularly to people, to ordinary people. We didn’t have many books, but there were books and I realize now books were important to me.”
“In those days the idea was that survival of the fittest was being used to justify a most horrible kind of competition,” Louise said. “And workers’ unions were building up and there were real battles in factories and what I can remember in nineteen twenties was hearing about these things happening. And my father had a goal. It was called mutual aid. I just read a review recently. Somebody finally has rediscovered it.”
“Mutual aid, my father’s whole point was that the struggle for survival was not the only thing that happened in evolution,” Louise said. “There was mutual aid. There was cooperation. There was care and fidelity among animals as well as among humans.”
“And growing up this was a very important thing,” again she looked around the room, “to be concerned about and to think, to bring into meaning, ideas such as mutual aid. So that was the kind of atmosphere I grew up in. I grew up with the whole idea that no matter what your gender or your race, or your creed, or your religion, or whatever it might be, everybody was entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. So when I got to college and I found these ideas were, shall we say, systematic, philosophical, intellectual, they weren’t new ideas to me.”
“College gave me a theoretical basis you might say, for attitudes that I already had to assimilate. Getting into Barnard, by the way,” Louise paused, “of course they had a quota of Jews, but I was fortunate, I lived in New Jersey, so at least I didn’t have that stigma of being both from New York and being Jewish. I sometimes think that must be how I got in there.”
“But anyway, there I was, and I had to choose a major. I remember going home and explaining to my father that I was going to major in English because I had a love of literature. I wanted to devote myself to literature and I told him that I had dreamed that day of Keats and his image of beauty. Truth was beauty.” Louise continued as if telling her father again. “I said Shelly points out that the poets are the legislators of mankind, that doesn’t mean that they pass laws or that they preach. Shelly said the poet develops our imagination and enables us to put ourselves into the place of others. I said, that’s what is needed in a democracy. We have to have the imagination to see the human consequences of what we do. We have to have the imagination to see the effect on our roles and our actions, so that was a the reason for majoring in literature.”
“Margaret Mead was at Barnard,” Louise continued. “She was a junior when I was a freshman. In my sophomore year she was a senior and she asked me to be her roommate, and that was the year that Margaret Mead took anthropology. So of course I shared her excitement about it, and of course, the next year, I took the subject.”
“When I graduated I did major in literature. I specialized in English, that’s what I loved, and that’s what I was going to do, but then, well maybe, I would go into anthropology for my graduate work. The only trouble was I was an only child, and Margaret was by that time running off to Samoa, and my family’s concern about their child going off to Samoa was such that I just didn’t have the heart to try to do anything like that.”
Again she paused, and continued, as if taking us into her decision making process. “On the other hand, I still wanted the experience of another culture. So what would I do? Go to Oxford? One of my professors was saving a place for me there. She had five. There were always these quotas you see, but I said, “No. I’m going to go to France.”
Louise talked about studying for a doctorate in Paris, and of life there in the late nineteen twenties, of the artists and of her dissertation, Art for Art’s Sake (L’idée de l’art pour l’art), which was on the philosophy of art, and then her return to Barnard to teach. She talked of graduate work in anthropology and linguistics with Franz Boaz and John Dewey and the progressive education movement. “So it was a very exciting place and it was in the thirties and I had already done my dissertation when I studied Anthropology, so I had both a literary and a social science training.”
“It was at this time that I sat back and thought about what was happening in my classes at Barnard,” Louise said. “I had developed this discussion approach, and so after we read Romeo and Juliet, my students would be talking about, really about generational problems, as well as this romantic love story, the tragedy, the old business of generational differences. It’s really the violence of a generation, a whole violent way of life. But you see the point, I felt that I was doing something in my classes, when people got an idea, insight, I was really glad, because it would come out of an emotionally involved discussion. So I sat down, well I went out of the country with a secretary, and I dictated most of Literature as Exploration, that’s why it doesn’t have any footnotes or anything.”
Louise talked of the response to Literature as Exploration, which she said has had many lives and it is still considered an important book today. Then she talked about the Second World War and what happened when it ended. “After the war there was this whole over-intellectualized emphasis on science. We had to catch up to the Russians and that’s why I am worried now that this new war situation –,” Louise’s voice faded and the room was quiet.
“Anyway,” Louise said, “I’m not interested in knowledge anymore. I want to know how to use it.”
It was getting late and Margaret Meek Spencer, who had crossed the Atlantic to be at the scholars forum, had yet to speak. Reluctantly Louise left the podium as we stood clapping and perhaps knowing this was to be the last time we heard her speak.