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Spring 2006

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Remembering Sue

I entered Sue's Cather seminar as a master's student with a fond recollection of My Ántonia from an undergraduate course in twentieth-century fiction. It was the first time I had developed a crush on a literary character, and I recognize now that I was seeing only part of Ántonia-the girl whose body moved beneath her clothes, the dancer, the image of her working in the fields like one of Thomas Hardy's milkmaids. Sue tolerated such boyish delusions (I remember her describing my memories of Ántonia as "sweet"), but my experience with the novel in her seminar marks a major shift in my thinking. I began to see that not all novels conform to a reader's hopes, and that this novel, particularly, seemed to play upon those boyish hopes in order to challenge them. I came to Nebraska infatuated with Willa Cather and Ántonia, but by the end of my first semester Sue had taught me the difference between an intellectual crush and a more mature love of art.

Yet even while Sue taught me the discipline of scholarship, she encouraged a lively attitude toward work that was reminiscent of Cécile's remark in Shadows on the Rock that everything she does with her father is a "kind of play." I never felt that I had to give up my boyish notions of who Ántonia was; the dancer genuinely was my Ántonia during that first reading. The difference was that I began to recognize how much of Sue's work was sparked by play-by the kind of delight a child feels-and how this play was made more resonant by research. The life of the mind, in other words, needn't kill off the child in the imagination. Sue's course was as close as I've come to fully experiencing Horace's adage that literature ought to both delight and instruct.

Among the many moments that surface in my thoughts when I remember Sue, one stands out. I had just given my paper on My Ántonia at the WLA conference in Banff, and I went to the banquet that night in a wool suit and bow tie. To my surprise, the others appeared in sweaters and sandals and jeans. Not only was I out of my depth professionally, but I was horribly overdressed. From a corner of the room, where I had sought refuge, I saw Sue moving through a sea of people, nodding and laughing as a celebrity does en route to a movie premiere. I had not realized how major a figure Sue was in American and western American literature. At that moment, I was feeling anything but "major." Anne Kaufmann stopped by briefly to tell me that I looked "nice," which was kind of her and made me feel better until a stranger asked if I was a waiter. "Bad joke," he said, pointing to my bow tie, and moved on.

As I watched Sue walk from group to group, I saw that she was moving toward me, and before long we were chatting about my paper, how lovely it was (Sue's words) to be in Canada, what a generous group the WLA was... As she left, Sue kissed my cheek—perhaps the kindest thing she could have done for me. It was her way of saying that I should quit worrying about the suit, roll up my sleeves, and have some fun. And I did. Even now, whenever I start to take myself too seriously, I recall that bashful young man, his gracious mentor, and the notion that the best work is a kind of play.