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Literature and Medicine 20.1 (2001) 3-5
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Elizabeth Sewell--poet, novelist, dean, professor, visionary--died in a hospice near her home in Greensboro, North Carolina, on 12 January 2001. As one of the founding Contributing Editors of Literature and Medicine, she donated to our effort her brave power to see connections among opposites, to see straight to the inner nature of things.
Elizabeth was born in India in 1919 of English parents, educated in modern languages at Cambridge University, performed war service in the Ministry of Education in London, and then moved to America to escape the rigidity of the English university. She taught on the faculties of Vassar, Fordham, Princeton, Bennett, California State, Tougaloo, the University of California at Irvine, and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, among other universities. Her publications include studies of the nonsense verse of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear, critical studies of the works of Paul Valéry and T. S. Eliot, and studies of the connections between poetry and natural history.
Her scholarship from the beginning was of her own making. As she tells it, she realized as a senior doctoral student at Cambridge--writing a thesis on late nineteenth-century French poetry--that she didn't know how to think. Having mastered the conventional scholarly activities that passed at the time as thinking, she saw through to the emptiness of formal scholarship. With the guidance of such mentors as Bacon, Vico, and Coleridge (with whom she held extensive conversations all her adult life), she started from scratch to explore the congruences of what can be known through poetry, science, and mathematics. The results were extraordinarily generative and probing examinations at the boundaries of the sciences and the arts, examinations that refused to bow to conventional thinking segregating matters of meaning from matters of fact.
If the best universities of England failed to teach students how to think, how was thinking to be taught? Elizabeth wanted to "rethink education from top to bottom," and proceeded to do so in the only way she could trust--through experience. She gathered together a group of [End Page 3] colleagues from Pakistan, Israel, the American South, California, and New York to found a new college. Calling it Bensalem after the utopian island in Bacon's New Atlantis, Elizabeth inspired her six faculty members and her first class of thirty students with her fire, her originality, her boundlessness, and her courage. I was one of those thirty students in 1967 embarking with Elizabeth on an experiment in thinking and an experiment in life.
She did not know where she was leading us, and we knew it. We knew that our dean was, with us, in the dark of predawn. Bensalem had no courses, no exams, no grades, no papers. There was one academic requirement: all faculty and students had to study Urdu, chosen because none of us knew a word of it, and so we would be equal in our ignorance.
In the midst of the counterculture, Elizabeth herself was rather quite formal--short and stooped in stature, clipped gray hair, strong profiled, nothing casual in her diction or her bearing. She ran house meetings Quaker style with more authority sitting cross-legged on the floor than any future dean of mine could summon from the head of a massive boardroom. My first tutorial with Elizabeth was a study of the nature of time. I would meet her in her monastic apartment (we all lived in a nondescript apartment house adjacent to the Fordham campus)--bare floors, Asian calligraphy on the walls, dark carved unusual furniture, civil rights mementos from the South, handmade fabrics and rugs, tea in delicate cups. She read Vico to me in Italian. I didn't understand a word, and understood it all.
Elizabeth gave us the license and the courage to choose what to do. She was the soul and the compass of the experiment. We students were young and dumb, and yet we grasped the meaningfulness of having been chosen by her to join in the experiment. We struggled to...