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Elizabeth L. Eisenstein, '45-4 Remarks at the Memorial Service

October 1, 2001

When I attended Vassar in the 1940s, the history department was celebrated for its remarkable group of productive women scholars. The tradition began with Lucy Maynard Salmon one of American's first professional woman historians and author of 16 publications. The first was dated 1893; the most recent - a posthumous collection of essays: History and the Texture of Modern Life - just appeared in 2001. Miss Salmon's immediate successors: Eloise Ellery and Louise Fargo Brown did not match this spectacular record; but both did publish long lasting studies. During my college years there was Violet Barbour (to distinguish her from art history's tall and stately Leila Barber, we called her "little Miss Barbour.") But there was nothing little about Violet Barbour's Capitalism in 17th Century Amsterdam. First published in 1950, it went through 2 pb editions later on and is still regarded as a classic. In my day also,there was J.B. Ross with her medieval real life thriller: The Murder of Charles the Good and the countless editions of her collaborative Medieval Reader and Renaissance Reader. And of course, there was also Miss Clark's dear friend Mildred Campbell with her pioneering study in English social history: The English Yeoman. When my daughter was a undergraduate at Harvard, taking a course in Tudor Stuart England, The English Yeoman was on her reading list. By then it was decades old; even now it has not been surpassed.

Evalyn Clark's legacy differed from that of the others. It was by means - not of a book - but of her presence in the classoom that she left a deep and lasting imprint on generations of students. This unique legacy may be related to the unusual trajectory taken by her career. After graduating from Vassar with honors in classics, she received her doctorate in ancient history from Johns Hopkins and then taught classical studies at the women's college of New Jersey. From her training as a classicist, she would retain throughout her life, a strong belief in the virtues of the Socratic method. It seems appropriate that that she would make her mark - as had Socrates himself - not as an author but as a teacher. a teacher who received nation wide recognition when she was singled out by the American Historical Association for its distinguished teaching award. (She had been nominated by Nancy Nichols Barker'46. Nancy had a distinguished career herself, becoming a history professor at U of Texas in Austin before her premature death. One line from Nancy's letter of nomination: "I marvel now as I struggle to motivate my own students at how much work Miss Clark managed to get out of all of us ".

Her fondness for the Socratic method may be traced to Evalyn Clarks'training as a classicist but this training did not account for the sense of urgency that electrified her classes and that made her students attentive to her every word. That characteristic was related to the remarkable mid career switch that she made in the 1930s - after summers abroad and reading foreign newspapers - alerted her to the gathering storm. The decision to turn from ancient history to contemporary Europe cannot have been easy - it required two years of retooling as a postdoctoral student at Columbia and Harvard - but it helps to explain why the new courses she gave after coming to Vassar - on the French Revolution and contenporary Europe - were so exciting. The same sense of imminent crisis that had caused her to change fields became palpable in her classes. To understand what was at stake in the clash of rival powers and ideologies was of the utmost importance to her and she conveyed her intense concern in all her dealings with her staudents.

She was a living refutation of Yeats' often cited passage that "the best lack all conviction wile the worst are full of passionate intensity." The idea that "the best lack all conviction" would not occur to anyone who saw Evalyn Clark in action. When I took her contemporary history course in the 1940s she never concealed her loathing for both the fascist and communist regimes of the day. Nor did she shy away from sharply criticizing those writers who argued that one or the other of these regimes represented the wave of the future. She was also intent on refuting the notion popular among many students in the 60s as in the 40s that resort to the barricades was preferable to using the ballot box. Even after her retirement she retained her strong convictions. Those of us who visited her from time to time over the ensuing decades, found her even in her old age to be as keenly concerned with the course of current events as ever before.

As for passionate intensity, the very phrase evokes memories of her presence in the classroom asking those probing questions that forced us to think longer and harder than ever before about whatever was the topic of the day. It has been said that being condemned to death concentrates the mind powerfully. The same effect was obtained by anxiously waiting to see whether Miss Clark was going to single you out to answer her questions on the day's assignment. Whatever answer you gave was sure to provoke another question and they would continue one after another until the depths of one's ignorance beecame clear. Being sleepy or inattentive or failing to complete an assigment was frowned on and Miss Clark had a formidable frown. But the cardinal sin was mindlessly to repeat someone else's views or to put forth a half baked idea. The difference between being opinionated and arriving at an informed opinion was made crystal clear.

She was especially pleased that so many of her students were able to use what they'd learned from their undergraduate courses in their later lives, whether or not they pursued further study of history, or else went on to careers as homemakers and volunteeers or became professional journalists, diplomats, lawyers and the like. (One of my classmates managed to combine majoring in history with pre-med studies and became a distinguished doctor much to Miss Clark's delight) Indeed she gloried in the sheer variety of occupations that engaged her former students and made this the basis for a commomorative conference on the Uses of History held here at Vassar in December, 1993. This conference, designed to honor Miss Clark on the occasion of her 90th birthday, testifieed to the lasting impression made by a great teacher on successive generations of students.

But there was a subtext that requires mention on this particular occasion. The gathering in '93 also testified to the fondness Evalyn Clark inspired as a private person. William James categories "tough minded and tender hearted" come to mind. In the classroom Miss Clark was known to be tough minded; outside she was known to have a tender heart. She served as confidant and counsellor to numerous students. She was a warm and generous friend to most of us gathered here. As I travelled to Poughkeepsie it occurred to me that this is the first time that a trip to Vassar will not include a walk over to 162 College Avenue for a brief visit. I miss that vibrant presence and will do so for the rest of my life.