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Liz Christman, Enemy of the Passive Voice, Who Rocked Some Jaunty Hats

5 years ago
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My writing teacher and friend Elizabeth Christman, who wore a spiffy new suit and hat on the first day of every semester and was one of the finest humans ever, died last week at age 96 and I am completely bereft.

Miss Christman, professor emeritus of American studies at the University of Notre Dame, was a literary agent in New York who read "The Catcher in the Rye" when it was still in manuscript form, and once took Agatha Christie shopping for a bathing suit. But that was before she went back to school at the unheard of age of 52, to pursue a doctorate and a dream -- to teach young idealists how to change the world with their words.

Writer of notes and wearer of pearls, she kept a framed photo of Henry James in her kitchen and a rosary on her night stand. She taught Trollope well into her 80s, and while sensible in the extreme, also had the most contagious sense of occasion.

Although I will not succeed in communicating her awesome Liz-ness to those who did not know her, I can at least tell you what she told me: The passive voice is the enemy. There will be time enough. Reading is the most enduring of all life's pleasures. Deciding what you want is the difficult part; the rest is just hard work. No extraneous words. "Middlemarch" is the best book written in English. Writers write; you can't just tell them you won a contest! I think we should have a glass of wine, don't you? Soon you will be happy to be referred to as girls.

The only person I ever knew her to actively dislike was a college beau of mine -- also her student -- whom she dismissed as "too silly for you.'' In her later years, when her short-term memory had gone, she repeatedly confessed that -- now it can be told! -- she was, in fact, a Democrat. Whenever I phoned, she'd cry, "How did you ever find me here?'' in assisted living -- and then would laugh when I'd answer, "Well I am a reporter, am I not?"

The eldest of seven, Liz grew up in St. Louis, and after graduating from Webster College -- now Webster University -- in 1935, moved into a garret in her parents' house to pursue a career as a writer. In her unpublished memoir, "Twenty Septembers," she remembers, "I fixed up a studio for myself in the attic of our home, and to it I would retreat and turn out stories and verse which I hoped would get me started commercially. My father didn't press me to get a job, though he had six other children coming up behind me to educate. He was willing to let me try this out."

She made some sales, netting $25 for a short story published in The Catholic World and $1.50 a line for some humorous poems that ran in The Saturday Evening Post. But "I didn't think of any career . . . as a total lifetime undertaking,'' she said in her memoir. "I expected to marry, and in the days of my youth few women ever continued their careers after marriage. Writing, in fact, fitted in better with my scenario of a future as wife and mother than any other job. It was the kind of work one could do in intervals between wiping cute little noses and preparing succulent meals."

That never happened, despite two marriage proposals that I know of. And, during her New York years, "there was a man I loved long and deeply but could not marry." As a younger woman, she was "left at the altar," as she always put it, and to get over it joined the Navy as a WAVE and was posted to Washington during World War II. In New York after the war, she worked her way up from the typing pool to become a sub-agent for Harold Ober -- Mr. Ober to her. Never one to hesitate on her way to making a point, she recalled a prominent writer's complaint that he'd come down with a raging case of writer's block after running a work in progress past "that horrid Miss Christman."

She received her doctorate from NYU and at last became an associate professor in her 60s, fortunately for me and every other AmStud major at Notre Dame, where she made a habit of inviting entire classes over for lasagna -- and on at least one occasion, a rib-bruising marathon of the word game "fictionary." Though I'm still not sure that writing can be taught, I never learned more from a teacher.

She was a late bloomer as a writer as well, publishing four novels, including the gloriously semi-trashy "A Nice Italian Girl,'' which was made into a TV movie, and another about a woman who discovers that her husband is gay. Her greatest work, though, was the unlikely life she built for herself, brick by brick, with equal parts rigor and joy. As a Christian and as a writer, she was of the "don't tell them, show them" school; in class, she spoke of Flannery O'Connor's Catholicism rather than of her own, and I only knew she went to Mass every day because she arrived for lunch appointments straight from Sacred Heart.

Immediately after graduation, I received one of her patented notes inviting me to begin calling her Liz, and from then on we exchanged letters, calls, and visits as friends -- though believe me, never equals. She was so much on my mind last week, yet I didn't call her because -- ninny! -- I dreaded telling her that J.D. Salinger had died.

Her sister, Mary Ellen Hyde Mooney, told me on the phone that she had been fine until just last Monday, when she announced that she was tired, went to bed, and then slipped away over the next several days, while Mary and her daughter said the rosary with her.

In her memoir, Liz ended her own story this way:

Besides teaching students, I've taught myself. The best way to learn a thing, they say, is to teach it. By the constant concentration on what makes good writing, close examination of both good and bad examples, tireless reiteration to my students of such principles as "prefer the concrete to the abstract," I've improved my own writing. Even if my students haven't written many novels, I have written five. And it was teaching that got me started.

The Notre Dame campus is beautiful in September. All summer long the chirping sprinklers have kept the lawns thick and green. How charmingly these lawns are populated with sunburned young men and women in shorts, hurrying or dawdling to their classes. September in campus life is the new year, and it feels full of resolution and promise. Each September I relished this beginning more keenly, realizing that there couldn't be many more for me. Having found my true calling late in life, I have nothing but gratitude for the universities that took a chance on me and the colleagues who welcomed me into their fortunate circles. Leaving these circles, I take with me the memory of charmed years. . . . Those golden September campuses can't fade or fray."

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