Memorial Minute for Elizabeth Bruss

Professor Elizabeth Bruss died suddenly on May 8, 1981. Liz came to Amherst in 1972 as an assistant professor of English. She had received her bachelor’s degree at the University of Michigan in 1967, earning her master’s and doctoral degree there in 1968 and 1972. At Amherst, she taught English literature, men’s and women’s lives, literary theory, and linguistics; she taught as well in the Kenan colloquium and in the ILS course on Race and Sex. She was granted tenure and promoted to associate professor in 1978; from 1979 until her death she served as chair person of her department.

She served on numerous College committees, including the Fellowship Committee, the Committee of Six, and the Select Committee on the Curriculum. She participated actively in the Five—College Committees on Linguistics and on Women’s Studies, and at the time of her death was setting up a Five—College study group on literary theory. She served on the editorial boards of “The Massachusetts Review,” “Poetics,” and “Enclitic.” She had held a grant from the Ford Foundation, was a fellow at the National Science Foundation, Summer Institute of Linguistics and at the Aspen—Cornell Colloquium on Choice and Decision, and she had deferred a fellowship at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. In 1979, the Johns Hopkins University Press published her first book, Autobiographical Acts: The Changing Situation of a Literary Genre. During 1978—79, she held a Guggenheim Fellowship, working on a second book, Beautiful Theories, an analysis of five major contemporary literary theorists, which was accepted this spring by the Johns Hopkins Press.

These, one might say, are the facts of Liz’s professional life. But Liz herself was always most deeply suspicious when presented with the purported facts. Her academic laurels must be seen not as the essence but as the concrete evidence of a vital presence who, with her integrity, her intellectual, political, and personal commitments, her brilliance, and her generosity, has affected us more, and more lastingly,than her roles as teacher, colleague, or author could ever suggest.

She did so by challenging us to see the world differently. Liz once admiringly referred to Jane Austen as a subversive. Liz, too, was a very special kind of subversive, one who, rather than turning the world upside down, helped us to see where “right side up,” wasn’t. Where others ordinarily see the way things are, Liz saw the way things are constructed, as systems of meaning, as relations of power, privilege, or partiality cloaked in the language of universals, as temporary and historically bounded arrange ments masquerading as eternal and inevitable. In her teaching, in her writing, in her interactions with colleagues and friends, she beckoned to others to think with her in this way, to cooperate in penetrating to the deeper meanings below the surface. She challenged us to an effort of deconstruction as the necessary first step towards constructive endeavors.

This quality in Liz was apparent in the formal settings in which she operated: teaching linguistics, working on the proposal for the ILS curriculum, planning the study group on literary theory, writing her books. Yet it was so much a part of her view of the world that it could be detected in everything she did: in her work helping to organize the Copeland Colloquium on race, sex, and class in American culture; in the advice and expertise she provided others for their courses and their writing; in her participation in planning and performing in the first (and thus far the only) guerrilla theater to have been presented to a meeting of this faculty; in the twinkle in her eye as, in conversation with her, one lapsed into yet another unwarranted assumption.

It was part of Liz’s magic that this fine critical awareness was inextricably tied to deep and strongly felt commitments. She was perhaps too keenly aware of how they are constructed to feel an allegiance to any institution, but her allegiance to the people within this institution and to the goal of making the most of its possibilities, and theirs, made her give unstintingly of her time and energies.

She was committed to the cooperative pursuit of understanding; although she excelled in all the tasks she undertook alone, she seemed to feel most fully engaged when she could interact with others. Many on this faculty have benefited from her insights and criticisms. When working with others, she shared their enthusiasm for their own ideas while conveying the sense that their sharing with her was essential to her own intellectual life. She lent excitement and insight to the courses she taught with others, and gave sympathetic and helpful hearings to probably more unformed ideas than any of the rest of us would tolerate.

She was committed to creating a society in which men and women, in which people of all races could participate fully and equally, and in which boundaries of class and privilege would no longer stand in the way of the full development of anyone. In the academic setting, these commitments led her to work towards making this a college for both women and men, a task that she saw beginning and not ending with the admission of women students. Thus she participated actively in designing courses examining men’s and women’s roles in society and in literature; served on the Five—College Committee on Women’s Studies, and spoke out publicly and privately on issues concerning sexual equality. As both a student of cultural assumptions and an individual committed to racial equality, she spoke out on issues affecting minority students in the College, helped to design the ILS course on race and sex, and protested College policy on investment in South Africa.

Her encouragement to others engaged in like endeavors was unfailing. Both her intellectual convictions and her generosity of spirit led her to see this striving for equality as a striving for inclusiveness, not just of individuals but of the cultural and group contexts which gave substance, and meaning to their lives. She drew on her personal experience as well as on her wider knowledge in reminding her colleagues and students of the economic inequalities which hampered human development. And here, close to home, her actions revealed that she never forgot that the College included not only faculty and students but staff as well.

There was much more to Liz. Even her faults stemmed from her virtues; she could never say no to any request, and if she did not suffer fools gladly, they rarely knew it. She was, as all who encountered her soon realized, possessed of both a brilliant mind and a warm heart. She did nothing by halves. She spoke extemporaneously not in sentences but in paragraphs. Her wit and her seriousness could emerge simultaneously, sometimes disconcertingly but always effectively. She disdained puffery while preserving her sympathy for the puffer. She always prized a certain zaniness in herself and in others. She was more modest than she had any right to be, but it was all genuine——while few things delighted her more than being able to brag of the achievements of others. She was a model perhaps most in her steadfast refusal to be or be made into a model of anything but integrity, of being true to oneself and one’s principles.

Respectfully submitted,

C. Armour Craig
Kathleen J. Hartford
Robert C. Townsend