Elizabeth Gutman seemed extraordinarily powerful, both in intellect and in her clear resonant voice as she lectured on The Golden Bowl in a crowded, overheated third floor lecture hall. In those days, we could smoke in class, and the Marlboro and Gauloises clouds drifted to the high ceiling as we watched her and simultaneously scribbled into spiral notebooks. Physically, Mrs. Gutman appeared quite fragile. She wore no makeup. She dressed for winter in two or three layers of well-worn cardigans and a long wool coat, and her long blond hair was untamed and frizzy, forming a halo mass around her small face. Her eyes were a deep blue. She was the first college professor who came to know me by name.
I had transferred here from a small Catholic women’s college, where I’d been a commuter, living at home in my family’s Dorchester three-decker. Coming to this elite place, I expected a more serious, all-consuming intellectual life, something that was all too absent from my first school. I hoped to meet professors who would challenge an inspire me, not merely march me and my classmates through midterms, papers and finals. But I had no idea how hard it would be to find housing on campus . I lived for several weeks in a dingy single room occupancy hotel on the corner of Amsterdam and 121st, occupied by more than a few very old women. A scattering of us, all transfer students, shared the dismal five bedroom suites with their dark, ancient kitchens and bathrooms.
It took what seemed like forever to find friends. There seemed no quick way to make connections with my teachers, either in or out of class. On the corner of 116th and Broadway, every afternoon and evening, a young black guy, tall and skinny, stood with his hand out asking for spare change. I got into the habit of crossing the street block earlier than I might have, just to avoid him. Almost every day, I saw a woman who appeared to be speaking in tongues, yelling into the receiver or a broken pay phone in front of the Campus Deli. The subway roared by the campus. It was widely believed in my family that I had gotten above my raising, that the local Catholic girls’ college back in Boston was perfectly fine for me and my girl cousins. When I set out for New York I expected to find a welcoming community of sisters and teachers who showed us how to live the intellectual life. Instead, I was surrounded by those who’d had experiences I could only vaguely imagine. A girl in my orientation group with long straight red hair and ginger colored eyes lit a cigarette, exhaled slowly, and said, “ I was playing chess with an architect friend of mine last weekend.” The housing director was impervious to my frequent visits and polite requests for a room in the dorms. Had one opened up yet? There was never even a hint of a smile from her. Eventually she stopped responding except with a shake of her head when I appeared in the doorway of her office twice a week.
“Take Gutman,” said my official orientation guide, a breezy, self-confident sophomore who was enthusiastically giving me registration advice.. “Gutman’s amazing. She even makes Proust comprehensible. “ A buzz spread among the transfer students. “I hear Gutman’s really good.”
“What does she teach?” I asked. I had no intention of majoring in English. I had been baptized in the water of politics when I volunteered the previous summer for a senatorial candidate. He had won handily. I knew I wanted to study political science, and anything standing in the way of that was a small hurdle I was ready to negotiate.
“Who cares?” said another transfer, from one of those rich girls’ junior colleges near Washington. “If people say she’s good, take her. I’ve had it with bad teachers, man.”
What I didn’t realize until I got to the first meeting of a class by the name of Modern Novel was that Gutman’s classes were always full and then some. But she never turned anyone away. Guys from the men’s college across the way routinely showed up to take her courses for credit, instead of enrolling just to meet girls. Gutman didn’t care how many students she had; she just kept adding small discussion sections on top of her lectures.
I’d never heard anyone lecture about novels before. I found Gutman’s classes inspiring, stimulating, sometimes thrilling. Each seventy-five minute class sped along as she spoke. I was enveloped in her outpouring of facts, literary theories, and intriguing connections between writers and texts. It was in one of those small discussion groups, as we worked our way through Proust (n French, for those who could read it), Mann (for those who could) , James, Joyce and Faulkner that I was first able to speak out in a class there, to find a way out of my reserve and my feeling that I wasn’t smart enough to contribute to the discussion. Early in the term I handed in a paper, leaving it in Gutman’s mailbox with a note attached, saying how grateful I was that she’d created the smaller sections, where I felt comfortable enough to raise my hand and speak. She returned the paper with many comments and probing questions, as always, but this time, she added an encouraging note. She said my ideas were “worth bringing to our class.” I wasn’t sure what that meant.
I saw her at the college’s Wednesday afternoon teas, too, with her two blond children, the girl with thick braids, the boy all explosive energy, and I delighted in her greeting me—by name—with a wide smile and sparkling eyes. I have forgotten by now, all these years later, what I wrote my papers for her on, but I recall studying for the exam and relishing all I had learned about the roots of the modern novel, psychoanalytic theory, the New Criticism. Gutman had opened my mind up to all this. There was so much more to learn. I had no interest any more in political science or history. I would major in English. I would ask Gutman to be my advisor. She would teach me everything she knew. I would model my intellectual life after hers.
After finals my sophomore year, I went home for the summer and waited tables at a plush restaurant on the south shore. I stayed out late with my old high school friends, drinking beer at the park and going down to the Cape if someone had extra room at their family cottage. I’d made some new friends at school, mostly a tight little group of seniors who lived on my floor and had welcomed me into their camaraderie. One of them stayed on in New York for the summer, sharing an apartment on Riverside with grad students. One day a letter from her arrived, with a clipping from the university paper, summer edition.
Gutman was dead.
Lee had heard a story, one she didn’t really believe, she wrote in her letter to me. Gutman had been preparing for a family vacation. She packed two enormous leather suitcases, and when she picked both of them up at the same time, she suffered a massive heart attack and died instantly. There were few details in the obituary, only a photo of her, that untidy curly hair, and an intense, direct look in her eyes. I am so sorry, Lee wrote. She knew how much I admired Gutman and was counting on her. I wondered who would push me, steer me, encourage me now. And I could not figure out why the circumstances of Gutman’s death were a secret.
The summer passed in a blur of tables tended to, wine poured, tasted and drunk, empty plates cleared, busy nights, dead-slow nights. On one particularly quiet evening the young assistant manager closed up early and let the help stay on to have a party. In the enormous kitchen, we drank beer and one of the younger waitresses brought out her guitar and sang folk songs. A busser, a black kid from Roxbury, sang a Smokey Robinson song none of us had even heard yet, it was so new, and we had been so busy working that we had little time for the radio. The boy, no more than fourteen, rendered the tune smoothly, lyrically.
White and black teenagers and adults stood around the kitchen swaying, feeling soulful. It was easy at moments like this not to think about Gutman. I stopped myself from wondering what had really gone on in her apartment that day. I could put it behind me.
And for a long time, I succeeded. I returned to New York in the fall, found a new advisor, a brusque middle-aged spinster who wore tweed suits and sensible shoes and didn’t care what courses I took so long as I satisfied all my major requirements. Several summers later—by that time I had married and, finding myself very unhappy, I was already separated and well on my way to a divorce—I went up north to a writers’ conference. By now I fancied myself a poet. One of the writers there had known Gutman. I had come to work on my poetry, but to tell the truth, I didn’t get much done. Instead, I found every opportunity to talk to the poet alone, to ask him about Gutman. I learned in minute increments, over several days talking with the grizzled fellow, that the circumstances of Gutman’s life were very sad—no, tragic, like the stuff of the novels we studied in her course that winter. I dared not ask how she’d done it, whether her husband had found her, who had raised their children. I didn’t even know how to phrase the questions. I just sank back into my Adirondack chair, looking down at the grass. I felt such surprise; my face flushed hot. What had there been that I had not seen? What insights had I been unable to produce when the evidence had been right there before me?
Whatever sadness and pain there had been in Gutman’s life, I had been oblivious, dense. She should have become a gifted teacher who lived on to teach until old age came to her. The best I can say, which isn’t very much at all from where I stand now, is that she’d made her mark on me. It all seems so distant now, those afternoons in Vermont, as I tried to tease facts from a man I hardly knew, about a woman I felt I had known so well. I took what I could from her, but it could never be enough for me.
Lynne Viti teaches in the Writing Program at Wellesley College. Her work has appeared in Star 82 Review, Poetry Pacific, UK Yoga Magazine, Connections Magazine, WILLA, Moondance, Sojourner, Meat for Tea: The Valley Review, Barefoot Review, The Wire: Urban Decay and American Television, and at Boston City Hall.