In Praise of Memory

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Park (at Keats’ grave in Rome) died July 3, 2010.

My beloved colleague Clara Claiborne Park lived in Williamstown since 1951 with her husband David. They raised four children, and Clara began teaching at the fledgling Berkshire Community College. In 1967 she published The Siege: A Family’s Journey into the World of an Autistic Child. One of the most poignant, compelling memoirs in English, The Siege changed the discourse about autism. In 1999 a sequel was named best feature essay by the American Society of Magazine Editors and became another book, Exiting Nirvana.

In 1976 Clara received an honorary degree from Williams. Privately thanking President Chandler, she noted that if she was so all-fired wonderful, what she really needed was a job at Williams. She eventually became the College’s first senior lecturer. I’d see her heading for class rapt in thought or ardently reciting passages. She had reams of poetry by heart. Delivering a faculty lecture “In Praise of Memory,” she chanted lines learned as a child. Her lecture became a revival meeting as voices responded, chanting as one. She had rare powers.

She was also a real stickler for getting it right, from the names of the Greek Muses to correct grammar. When her teenage daughter described something as “very unique,” Clara was aghast: “Katie, how could you grow up in this household and say such a thing!” It wasn’t a rhetorical question. Clara’s elegant language inspired students and readers; Freeman Dyson and Yuri Manin quote her.

The Park home was a center of community and conversation. Sunday suppers might include a Nobel laureate or Bertrand Russell’s daughter or Howard Nemerov as well as former students and new colleagues. There was more good talk and magnanimous hospitality with the Parks on Block Island. As David says, “There was never the question of what we would talk about next.” Some “very unique” word might evoke Milton’s Eden, Homer’s Troy or Joyce’s Dublin. “With thee conversing I forget all time.”

A sublime spirit, Clara was actively solicitous and compassionate. Marcia Johnston Wood ’79 recalls that when her brother died suddenly, Clara wrote “with an understanding of all the force of the emotional devastation.” Clara titled one book You Are Not Alone. She wrote countless op-ed pieces and letters to the editor. Her book of literary criticism, Rejoining the Common Reader, reflects on teaching at BCC, where a perplexed student asked: “Mrs. Park, we’ve read what Homer says about the afterlife, and what Plato says, and now we’re reading what Dante says, and they’re all different. Mrs. Park, which of them is true?”

Characteristically, Clara used this “simple” question to interrogate herself. How, she asked, would we teach literature if we were in fact convinced that what we were doing could make a person different? No wonder Mrs. Park touched and moved so many. She maintained that literature provides tools for living. She was surely the last English professor, save one, to describe Shakespearean characters as noble or wicked. Before Google, Clara called me with an inquiry: Did Derrida have children? How could he have, she wondered; she disbelieved in the exhilaration of nihilism. She cherished the Greek arête, the “possession of the beautiful” that resonates in Dante’s tribute to his mentor: “You taught me how man makes himself eternal … and while I live, the gratitude I owe will speak.”

Clara’s great theme is love—what we love, why and how. The Siege ends with these words: “But we cannot sift experience and take only the part that does not hurt us. Let me say simply and straight out that simple knowledge the whole world knows. I breathe like everyone else my century’s thin, faithless air, and I do not want to be sentimental. But the blackest sentimentality of all is that … which will not recognize the good it has been given to understand because it is too simple. So, then: this experience we did not choose, which we would have given anything to avoid, has made us different, has made us better. Through it we have learned the lesson that no one studies willingly, the hard, slow lesson of Sophocles and Shakespeare—that one grows by suffering. … If today I were given the choice, to accept the experience, with everything it entails, or to refuse the bitter largesse, I would have to stretch out my hands—because out of it has come, for all of us, an unimagined life. And I will not change the last word of the story. It is still love.”

Robert H. Bell is the Frederick Latimer Wells Professor of English.