University of Vermont

Vermont Quarterly

Virginia's Books

Virginia Clark and her books

To acquire the habit of reading is to construct for yourself a refuge from almost all the miseries of life.
—Somerset Maugham

by Tim Traver ’78
illustration by Lauren Simkin Berke

When loved ones pass away they leave things behind. In my mother-in-law Virginia Clark’s case it was books, more than 6,500 of them. What to do with them? We don’t generally think of books as keepsakes. Amazon has cheapened them; Kindle may soon make them obsolete. Used books, unless they’re rare first editions, don’t have much retail value. Her library wasn’t full of rare books—but it was crowded with interesting ones.

By the time my wife, Delia ’79, and I, together with her sister Susan ’83 and husband, Mark, began really analyzing the book collection, Virginia had been cremated, her ashes combined with her husband’s in Lake Champlain. It turned out there was a lot of her still in those books. They held a kind of after-image, a hidden shadow in 6,500 stories.  While each of us had a different relationship with Virginia’s books—admiring, borrowing, and in her children’s case vividly recollecting the spines of certain tomes since childhood—it now became interesting to consider their collective message. Perhaps it was strange that we hadn’t analyzed the patterns of her library more closely while she was alive. On the other hand, we had had her, and for the family that had always been a bit of a contentious thing.

Virginia Clark was an exceptional UVM student.  She earned her bachelor’s degree at UVM in 1961, graduating magna cum laude at the age of thirty-two. She went on to earn a master’s (UVM, 1963), and a doctorate (University of Connecticut, 1968). She came back to UVM and continued what would become a life-long career in the English Department, first as assistant professor in 1968 and, by 1976, one of the youngest full professors. Within four years she was chair of the department. Her academic pursuits were so unusual for a young mother at that time that the Burlington Free Press sent a reporter to photograph her sitting on the swing set in her academic regalia, her three children by her side. While the pendulum of her life swung between the college on the hill in Burlington and the family on the lake in Shelburne, it’s no secret what really made her tick. She was driven by intellectual curiosity and academic achievement.  She never fit the ideal of the stay-at-home 1950s mom: in some ways she never fit the role of any kind of “model” mom. Virginia was just Virginia.

Virginia’s office was filled with the books and journals we imagined an English professor whose discipline was language should have. There were hundreds of volumes with titles like Joseph M. Williams’, Origins of the English Language, and The ABCs of Language and Linguistics, by Ornstein and Gage. There was what seemed to be a complete collection of Noam Chomsky’s linguistics writing, including his Knowledge of Language, and with Halle, The Sound Pattern of English, and Language and Politics. Geneva Smitherman’s Talkin and Testifyin: The Language of Black America was up on the shelves. There were four Oxford English Dictionaries too, less books than cinder blocks.  Not knowing much about  linguistic studies I had asked my son Toben UVM ’12, a linguistics and anthropology major, what the books told him about her. Toben, a great reader himself along with his sisters Mollie and Kalmia ’04, said he thought it was her books that gave her company and brought the world into the house, especially important in her last years when she had difficulties getting outside. Alternately, I had wondered if it was the books that had kept the world out all these years.

Her office books, it seemed to us, reflected her professional persona well, but I wondered if hidden up on those office bookshelves were clues to the secret academic questions that really drove Virginia. In thirty-five years of life with her as mother-in-law, I’m not sure I ever knew about her academic passions.  Had I even asked?
I had never taken one of her classes. We were aware of the very successful textbooks she wrote with Al Rosa and Paul Eschholz, Language: Introductory Readings and Language Awareness, but the textbooks seemed more crafted to fit a need in the marketplace.  For me it was the slim volume of her unpublished master’s thesis, Criticism of Courtly Love in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, that gave the more telling clue to her passions. It pointed to an early interest in Middle English, which probably led to her doctorate in linguistics. But it also pointed to a medieval woman, Criseyde, a creation of Chaucer’s, and to a paradox. Was Criseyde a saintly ideal of courtly love, or was Chaucer’s creation weak, “a worthless tramp,” betrayer of Troilus for power and security? Knowing Virginia, I wondered if she might have been deeply struck by the paradox of Criseyde. These two narrow, but opposing ideas about the nature of womanhood dominated Western male thought for centuries. Maybe it spoke to a sense of her own modern paradox: Mother or professional woman? It was Criseyde, I think, who was Virginia’s secret friend, her companion—the reflection of her personal paradox. It was Criseyde who opened the door to Virginia’s lifelong interest in women in literature and the role of women in society.

From Criseyde to Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying to post-modern feminist deconstructionism, a primary narrative Virginia wanted to explore and illuminate through her personal library, and in the classroom, was the journey women had been on and how far they had come. It’s an ongoing story of struggle and liberation. It was her story.  Of the hundreds of women’s literature titles, kept neatly in their own bookcases, are more than a few that occupy our bookcase now.  Books like Malika Oufkir’s Stolen Lives: Twenty Years in a Desert Jail, and Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype, and Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity by Sarah Pomeroy we will read someday. They will remind us of her.

Books had long been a refuge for Virginia. One small volume on her office shelves hinted at stories her children had heard about their grandmother. Agnes Chase’s First Book of Grasses was edited by Virginia’s mother, Phyllis W. Prescott. Phyllis had gone to work for the Smithsonian Institution’s Publications and Editorial Division after her husband abandoned the family when Virginia was four. Phyllis helped support herself and her young daughter by editing books like the grass book, archeological bulletins, anthropological treatises, including Matthew Stirling’s Handbook of South American Indians for the Bureau of American Ethnology.

It wasn’t an easy upbringing, mother and daughter living with Virginia’s aunt and uncle in Chevy Chase, Maryland, where they were treated, according to family lore, like second-class citizens. To be free of that house, where, according to her uncle, “children were to be seen but not heard,” Virginia was introduced by her mother to the local library, where she soon undertook a project to read every book on the shelves. Later, when Virginia might have gone to college with students her own age, her absent father refused any support. She got married instead.

If you loved and needed books as much as Virginia did, then did they become your preferred art form and friends? One living room wall was lined corner-to-corner, floor-to-ceiling with non-fiction—nearly two thousand titles in hardcover, a sea of color and words that entertained and enlightened, written by the century’s most able writers. Judging by their prime location in the living room, non-fiction work is what she needed the most. They gave her information, not to teach or advance her career, but to live. She loved John McPhee’s work, and the essays of Stephen Jay Gould, Loren Eisley, Richard Dawkins. She had an enormous interest in the power of the mind and kept up with the rapidly evolving field of neuroscience, with titles like Brave New Brain, The Growth of the Mind, The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force. Books like The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society by Frans De Waal, and The Accidental Mind: How Brain Evolution Has Given Us Love, Memory, Dreams, and God by David J. Linden perhaps confirmed that mind was all.
A confirmed atheist, Virginia populated the living room with a thin but distinct streak of science writing that framed religious thinking in terms of evolutionary science. She needed books from William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience, all the way to Chistopher Hitchens’ God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, and Peter Nadas’ Fire and Knowledge, to know that where she stood had a reasoned validity. Books confirmed to her that it was OK to be who she was. She loved books on weather, mirroring her own love of reading by the lake and watching water and clouds.

But there was a stormy streak to her book collecting, too, that provided a mirror to her life.  Although she had struggled with depression her entire adult life, and at least once was knocked down hard by it, she emerged later and seemed to find strength in a rational understanding of the illness. Terri Cheney’s The Dark Side of Innocence: Growing up Bipolar, Peter D. Kramer’s Listening to Prozac and Against Depression, Women of the Asylum by Jeffrey L. Geller and Maxine Harris, The Beast: A Reckoning with Depression by Tracy Thompson, Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness by William Styron were a few that suggested a strong need on her part for useful information on the dark nights of the mind.

My favorite room in Virginia’s library house was the basement sitting room. There were some 3,500 titles housed there—including a fair amount of classic literature, poetry and criticism, but mostly fiction. By the numbers alone, it was fiction that made up the majority of her entire library, and I imagine that it’s fiction writers she secretly admired the most. Why? Because I think she could feel through them and touch something she wanted very much but had difficulty reaching in her own soul. She’d led a life of the mind. A good, hard one at that, and had been justly rewarded for it. But there are always trade-offs, particularly for a smart, highly ambitious woman coming up in the 1950s and 1960s, including long months away from her three children and husband during graduate school, and far too much to juggle.  I believe it contributed to a feeling of isolation in the family.

Fiction comes out of feelings and the unknown.  So, she put fiction in the basement—it had to go somewhere. For the last four years of her life she had great difficulty getting into the basement. Battling infection, she’d spent a lot of time in and out of hospitals and rehab and was, by 2006, a double amputee. An electronic chair elevator could get her downstairs, but it was a tricky double maneuver. Those books, some with notes of thanks from authors she’d helped, and many with notes or letters she’d received or written tucked inside, sunk down into a kind of subconscious existence. On those shelves gathering dust were the likes of David Huddle and Alan Broughton, Grace Paley, Marge Piercy, Adrienne Rich, Annie Proulx, Noel Perrin, Jane Hamilton, Philip Larkin, John Updike, James Joyce, Günter Grass, Anaïs Nin, Naguib Mahfouz, Joyce Carol Oates, Plato, Neal Stephenson, Carol Shields, Tim O’Brien, Gore Vidal, Jane Smiley, V.S. Naipaul, Nabokov, Ruth Rendel, Elizabeth Bishop, Flannery O’Connor, Stephen King, Mary McCarthy, Anne Tyler, David Foster Wallace, William Styron… the list goes on and on and on. Her friends, all.

As Virginia aged, we spoke with her about her wishes regarding her books. While she left precise, well-documented instructions about financial matters and end-of-life care, ultimately she never came up with an answer about her library—so we had to come up with our own.

What did we do with Virginia’s books? Her children took many home. Grandchildren all took the grand book tour and selected their favorites. Some went to the new UVM Linguistics Department, which has created an award in her name. Some were sold. But most were donated to Burlington’s Fletcher Free Library, or were carried to small town and school libraries across Vermont. Basically, we gathered her up and gave her away. Her library has been scattered and amplified and so, we have little doubt, has she.  

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