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A Life: Blanche Gelfant, 1922-2013; ‘She Was Very Much About You Do Your Work and Everything Else Follows’

  • Blanche Gelfant sits in an office at Dartmouth in the late 1970s. Gelfant was the first woman at Dartmouth to be appointed to full professorship with tenure. (Courtesy photograph)

    Blanche Gelfant sits in an office at Dartmouth in the late 1970s. Gelfant was the first woman at Dartmouth to be appointed to full professorship with tenure. (Courtesy photograph)

  • Blanche Gelfant in a 1985 photograph. (Courtesy photograph)

    Blanche Gelfant in a 1985 photograph. (Courtesy photograph)

  • Blanche Gelfant sits in an office at Dartmouth in the late 1970s. Gelfant was the first woman at Dartmouth to be appointed to full professorship with tenure. (Courtesy photograph)
  • Blanche Gelfant in a 1985 photograph. (Courtesy photograph)

Hanover — When Blanche Gelfant was a junior in high school, she was told she had too many credits and had to graduate a year early. She returned to her Brooklyn home in tears because she loved school and loved learning.

“If you don’t want to graduate, then don’t graduate,” her mother said.

Gelfant took her mother’s advice and returned for a senior year. And Gelfant, who died on Aug. 2 at 90 after a fall in her Hanover home, continued her thirst for knowledge throughout her life.

Gelfant went on to earn her bachelor’s degree from Brooklyn College and her master’s degree and doctorate from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. When she arrived at Dartmouth College as a senior professor in 1972, she was already 50 years old and well known as an American literature scholar. And she was the first woman at Dartmouth to be appointed to full professorship with tenure.

But arriving at Dartmouth as a single woman was difficult, especially in the first year that the college was accepting women students and professors. She told stories of walking into large classrooms where male students stood up and booed her, said her daughter, Nina Gelfant.

“The truth is that it was difficult,” Nina Gelfant said. “It was a very political place when she went there, to Dartmouth. She put her head down and did her work. That’s what she figured would be required of her and that’s what she did.”

When she first arrived at Dartmouth, Gelfant taught a freshman seminar class with three other male professors. She was hired as a senior professor, but her son, Alan Gelfant, said she was treated like a teaching assistant or an adjunct professor, not an equal.

She thought about leaving, Alan Gelfant said, but instead she went to the head of the department and said she would stay for three years, continue to teach seminar classes, but if they weren’t successful, she would step away. But she wanted to teach the seminar classes alone, with no help.

The classes were a great success, her son said, but it was an immense amount of work. She was grading 140 blue books full of students’ work four times a term.

“That’s the way she was,” Alan Gelfant said. “She’d rather do it all herself, take full responsibility and not rely on (anyone), particularly if it came to a situation that she would somehow be disrespected.”

At the same time, she was proud to be at Dartmouth. In 1972, she could have gone to Vassar, New York University, the University of Maine, George Washington University or Rutgers, her son said.

As a senior woman professor, she was also asked to represent the other women faculty members by serving on numerous committees, said Peter Saccio, a retired Dartmouth English professor.

“She worked hard at it, but it was a burden to be a spokesperson for her whole gender,” Saccio said. “For her, she was the first woman on this or that committee over and over again. It’s not a happy position to be in.”

But Jim Wright, former president of Dartmouth College, said he personally asked Gelfant to be on a committee in the late 1970s that would look at the curriculum and the operation of the academic calendar. He said he chose Gelfant not only because she was a senior woman professor at Dartmouth, but also because he knew she would do her homework and always come prepared.

“She was on top of her material,” Wright said. “Blanche Gelfant would not get up in front of a room to make a presentation unless she was confident that she could make a solid presentation.”

She was also a fiercely hard worker, whether she was working on her own books and essays or grading her students’ papers.

When she wrote, she would takes weeks or months to write something because every word, every comma mattered, Nina Gelfant said.

“My mother was a believer that you made it if you worked so hard that your eyes were cross-eyed,” Nina Gelfant said. “She’d wake up in the middle of the night because one word didn’t fit and she would change it until it was perfect.”

Alan Gelfant said the best thing his mother taught him about writing was to make it simple. No metaphors or adjectives — be direct. She could take a 30-word sentence and chisel it down to nine concise words.

That perfectionism was evident in other aspects of her life.

For example, she bought a set of china more than 50 years ago while living in Brussels. Throughout her life, she washed and dried those dishes by hand and would lay them out carefully so that they didn’t click against each other. When Gelfant died in August, not a dish was chipped.

Her daughter was told by Gelfant’s colleagues that they never saw her wear the same thing twice. She felt it was important that she dressed like a professor and would wake up four hours before her morning classes started to ensure that she was prepared.

When she graded papers, she didn’t just write, but explained to students why they did well. She took pride at the end of a weekend when she could carry a bag full of 75 graded papers back to campus. She was also intense and expected high quality work from those around her.

And her students respected her for her dedication. For example, one of her students became a screenwriter and wrote an episode of Law and Order, and the writer named an offstage character after Gelfant. In the episode, a young lawyer is not very confident and is fumbling his case. He finally pulls himself together and makes a winning point. The lawyer followed his statement by saying, “I know that’s right because Blanche Gelfant taught me that in Brooklyn Law School.” The judge then looked at him kindly and said, “Blanche taught you well.”

“It’s a fictional representation that speaks of her prestige,” Saccio said.

Her colleagues also admired her for the passion she brought to her lectures. Jim Heffernan, a retired English professor, team taught a class with Gelfant when she first arrived at Dartmouth, and said her lectures were informed and set a standard for professional rigor in the course.

Heffernan particularly remembers a presidential lecture Gelfant gave at the Hopkins Center in the mid-1990s. He doesn’t remember the topic of the lecture, but Gelfant’s manner stuck with him.

“She was rejuvenated in the act of that lecture,” Heffernan said. “She was not overdramatic when she lectured. She just gave that lecture with such relish and joy, just reveling in the power of literature.”

Gelfant was also a private person, so much so that her children declined to talk about their mother’s personal life.

Gelfant didn’t talk about her private life to her colleagues, and even told The Dartmouth, the student paper, that she was not interested in talking about it when a reporter interviewed her after she won the Jay B. Hubbell Award for lifetime achievement and contribution to American literary studies in 1995.

“I like to work ... to write,” she told The Dartmouth.

Gelfant grew up in Brooklyn, the youngest of five children whose parents were immigrants from eastern Europe. One of her brothers was a doctor, another a lawyer, another an engineer. Gelfant was known for her literary criticism.

Gelfant had a wide range of interests, which led to a wide range of topics that she touched on in her writing. Her book The American City Novel was published in 1954, and she wrote numerous essays about Willa Cather, the American author who wrote about frontier life. Gelfant also wrote about other women writers and Canadian literature, John Dos Passos, and the Vietnam War, among other topics listed on her 12-page curriculum vitae.

“She was very much about you do your work and everything else follows,” Alan Gelfant said. “Do the work that you love, what you find interesting and don’t worry about anything else and whatever comes from that comes.”

When one of her children once asked why she wrote about war, Gelfant said, “Well, war is important. I know it’s horrible, but it’s interesting.”

Gelfant was interested in what war did to people and how society changed in dramatic ways following wars, Nina Gelfant said. She was fascinated by how the role of women changed and women who fought in the Civil War, but had to hide their gender.

“She had a ferocious interest in things,” Nina Gelfant said.

Her writing about Willa Cather was groundbreaking. David Stouck, who lives in West Vancouver, British Columbia and wrote a book about Willa Cather, met Gelfant at a centennial for the author in 1973 in Nebraska.

When Gelfant wrote about Cather’s My Antonia, she deconstructed the novel, Stouck said, and was looking for things, like sexual violence, that don’t appear on the pages, but are clearly there.

“Blanche was drawing the reader’s attention to the ugly side of the carpet, the part you don’t see,” said Stouck. “She was pointing out things that the reader would have picked up on but wouldn’t have questioned. Reading Willa Cather was never the same after that.”

Gelfant always wanted to encounter new ideas, and take on new projects. Near the end of her life, she was reading about the Civil War and preparing to write about it. In a tribute to Gelfant, Stouck recalled the last email he received from her before she died.

“Alan has brought me the new book of Willa Cather’s letters, which I have started to read,” Gelfant wrote to Stouck. “The introduction pays extraordinary tribute to Cather as a novelist. Reading that tribute makes me want to read all of Cather’s novels once again, but as I mentioned before, I’m re-fighting the Civil War.”

Sarah Brubeck can be reached at sbrubeck@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.