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The Writing Life: Literary Salon with Mary Gordon '71

Watch the Literary Salon with Mary Gordon in its entirety:

Below is an expanded version of the article that appeared in the magazine.

It’s the Saturday morning of Reunion 2011, and the Held Lecture Hall is packed. More than 220 people reserved space for a chance to listen to and watch Professor Mary Gordon work the classroom, and now nearly every one of the large room’s 250 seats is filled. Gordon is sharing a story about the world of money—a world she readily admits to not knowing much about, but one that is important to helping an “alternate universe” like Barnard continue to thrive. She describes sitting next to a hedge fund manager at a recent dinner party in California. Making small talk, Gordon asked the finance professional what she thought was a relatively straightforward question: What is the value of money? If we are not on the gold standard, she elaborated, how is it possible to know what money is worth? “The value of money is whatever guys like me say it is,” replied the fund manager. “Then you and I have a lot in common,” said Gordon. “We both make stuff up. I call it fiction, you call it finance.”

What is not fiction is Mary Gordon’s gift for delighting an audience with her intelligent authority, her wise charm. As the Millicent C. McIntosh Professor in English and Writing, Gordon is a popular presence on campus for her engaging teaching style, her inspiring reading lists, and her pedigree as a successful working author. The official New York State Author, she has published 16 works, both fiction and nonfiction, beginning with the acclaimed and bestselling novel Final Payments in 1978. The combination of literary and professorial skills made her an ideal candidate to lead a different kind of event at this year’s Reunion: a literary salon. “We’ve had authors speak in the past, but we really wanted something a little more intellectually engaging,” says Erin Fredrick ’01, the director of Alumnae Affairs. “Part of the Barnard experience is reading and discussing writings. We thought this would give people a great opportunity to experience what it’s like to be back in the classroom.” Gordon celebrated her 40th reunion this year and her latest book, The Love of My Youth, published in April, made for great subject matter. “She’s an amazing writer, a fabulous professor, everyone loves her, she’s such a star” says Fredrick. “People were going to read her book anyway, so why not let them talk about it with her?”

The novel was a perfect fit with the weekend’s theme. It is about a reunion—the reunion of two former lovers, Adam and Miranda. Once a young and devoted couple—sharing everything from first kisses to first peace marches—the two are separated by a traumatic breakup that keeps them apart for 40 years. Both are pushing 60 when the book begins. Both happen to be in Rome at the same time, and are invited to dinner by a mutual college friend. While neither is exactly sure of what is left between them, each is curious about how the other has changed or remained the same. Adam, who is staying in Italy for a longer period, offers to show Miranda one beautiful thing per day during the three weeks she has left in Italy. On these short daily walks, the two attempt to understand each other’s older selves. Miranda’s closely held socio-political beliefs, once endearing, are now deemed by Adam as political correctness. Adam seems to lack conviction, even passion, in Miranda’s eyes. His practical decision to teach piano for a living instead of continuing to pursue greatness as a musician seems to prove that he had given up on the dreams of his youth.

Moving from present to the past and back again, the story of these two adults is interwoven with events that occurred in the mid ’60s and early ’70s—their meeting, love affair, and eventual breakup. Gordon says the protagonists are not anything like her, but they are members of the same generation, and she really delves into the cultural and social mores of a young woman in the early ’60s. The level of detail illuminates the revolutionary changes that occurred during those turbulent years. One passage from the book, for example, describes the dramatic transformation in women’s fashion. In the span of four years, from 1964 to 1968, women went from wearing uncomfortable skirts, stockings, and girdles to the freedom of wearing whatever felt good. By 1968, the fashions that women were obliged to wear just four years earlier would seem as antiquated as a whalebone corset. For Gordon, this was “one of the great liberations,” she says. “Suddenly I could be comfortable in my clothes. It was a miracle.”

The confluence of past and present is a daily occurrence for Gordon, who began teaching at Barnard in 1988, 17 years after graduating with a degree in poetry and going on to study writing at Syracuse University. Like Adam and Miranda, Gordon has in some ways changed since her youth and in others stayed very much the same. “I was much more courageous when I was younger, and kind of stupider,” she says. “I tried to do a lot of stuff that I thought could be done that now I know can’t.” What hasn’t changed? “The things I thought were important I still do.” A self-proclaimed “card-carrying feminist,” Gordon still holds the same strong beliefs about the women’s movement, and in many ways has been disappointed by its progress. “We thought we were going to change the world so men would be more like women,” she says. Instead, she believes that some women have taken the opposite road, trying to take on the qualities embodied by men. Or they have simply taken on too much, in a way men have not had to do.

At the event, Gordon was asked about everything from her opinion of Oprah (a feminist who is part of the world of money but via a uniquely female path), to how she balances everything (“I’m good at compartmentalizing. That counts with mothering and writing too.”), to her opinion of the recent disparaging comments about female authors made by the author V.S. Naipaul (“Like a 2-year-old having a tantrum, it’s best to ignore him.”). When a former student asks for advice on getting back into writing after having a baby, Gordon recommends starting small. “Don’t start with a  product goal but with a page goal,” said Gordon. “Say ‘I will only allow myself one half hour. I will only allow myself one page.’ You’ll feel rebellious against yourself.”

She also talked about the two power house Barnard professors who influenced her most: Janice Thaddeus and Elizabeth Hardwick (or “Jan” and “Lizzie,” as she came to know them). Gordon described Thaddeus, her first writing teacher, as careful, attentive to the details on the page, encouraging and supportive. The two became so close she gave Gordon a job babysitting her children. Hardwick, an exciting personality who was going through a very public divorce from the famous poet Robert Lowell at the time, was in many ways the opposite of Thaddeus. “She did not care about being fair. She would say things like ‘Only Mary wrote anything good this week, so we’ll only read her,’” Gordon said. Hardwick played favorites outside of the classroom as well, introducing her to the larger literary and cultural universe. While Gordon was thrilled at the chance to mingle with the likes of Sam Shepard and Rostropovich, she did not learn as much about writing from Hardwick. Like Hardwick, Gordon can offer her students a glimpse into the world of a working author, but her teaching is more influenced by what she learned from Thaddeus. “I think you have to be a little bit transparent and get yourself out of the way a little bit more than Hardwick did. It has to be more about the student than about you, and that requires a lot of attention. That’s what Jan gave to me that I try to replicate,” she said.

Being an inspiring teacher is important to Gordon because she is just as inspired by her students. When it comes to Barnard women, she assured her audience of fellow alumnae, the present is just as good as the past. In fact, today’s students make her hopeful about the future. “I think that Barnard students are the most wonderful students in the world. Period.”

- By Melissa Phipps

In October 2011, Professor Gordon was the featured speaker at The Barnard Club of Central New Jersey’s Annual Scholarship Luncheon.  She discussed her latest book, The Love of My Youth.