The director discusses her latest collaboration with Ken Burns and Lynn Novick
"It’s not the way I had dreamed of ending my career,” Mary Gordon ’71 admits to me on the phone. The past year has been a tumultuous one. When Barnard closed its campus as COVID-19 tore through New York City in March, Gordon went out to Milwaukee to stay with her daughter and her grandsons. There, amid news of virus cases, worldwide protests, and an election unlike any in recent memory, she taught online courses, homeschooled the boys, and published a new novel, her ninth.
It was a particularly strange time to publish a book. Gordon should know: In addition to the novels, her roster includes several novellas, short story collections, and works of nonfiction. She’s received numerous awards for the lot, including a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1993 and the honor of State Author of New York in 2008.
Payback, which debuted in September, received good reviews but went without the usual fanfare of publicity tours. “If you weren’t either the election or the pandemic, nobody really wanted to hear about it,” Gordon says. “So I don’t really know. I’m just trying not to think about it.”
But it hasn’t been all doom and gloom for Gordon, Barnard’s McIntosh Professor of English and Writing until she retired in May 2020. “[Teaching virtually] actually was a very satisfying experience because it meant a lot to the students,” Gordon says of teaching online. “What I taught — literature and writing — I had always wanted it to be a source of refreshment, and in this quarantine situation it really was.”
(That said, as one of her former students, I feel confident in stating that Gordon’s teaching had made a substantial impact long before lockdown. Another Barnard alumna and professor, Mary Beth Keane ’99, wrote a tribute to Gordon’s mentorship in The New York Times in 2019.)
Gordon has certainly found her own refuge in the liberal arts over the past several months. In addition to homeschooling her grandkids, ages 8 and 10 — she taught them “what I could,” which meant Greek mythology and Italian, and supervised the co-writing of a novel called Tom Levine: Dog Detective — Gordon set her own personal syllabus.
“I’m reading all the George Eliot that I haven’t read, and I’m determined to learn Spanish,” Gordon says. “I’m reading Elena Ferrante in Italian. I actually finished War and Peace during the pandemic, which I hadn’t read since high school.”
In a way, retiring during a pandemic is a fitting bookend to Gordon’s time at Barnard. As a 1971 graduate, she first arrived on campus right before the historic protests of 1968, a year that has been compared with 2020 in The New York Times,
The Atlantic, and The Washington Post for its civil unrest, flu pandemic, and presidential election.
“It was just at the beginning of the women’s movement, and we thought we were going to change the world in about 10 minutes,” Gordon says of her time as a student. “Barnard was really at the epicenter of it. And I went from Catholic school to trying to occupy buildings in the Columbia protests of ’68, so it was a real political awakening.”
The transition from high school to Barnard was a paradigm shift for Gordon. Her school didn’t approve of its students attending Ivy League schools — perhaps in no small part, in Gordon’s telling, because the principal claimed to have met a Columbia professor who said that “within a week he could make a girl lose her faith, her virginity, and all her political convictions.” The administration actually refused to send her transcripts until Gordon called the Barnard admissions office and implored them to intervene.
“I was such a ferocious 17-year-old,” Gordon recalls. “It was like I was being pulled here by some force. And then when I got here, I was thrilled. I felt like I was intellectually on fire from the minute I got here.”
And so returning to Barnard as a professor in 1988 was a dream come true. “I’ve taught other places as a guest teacher, and there’s nothing like Barnard students,” Gordon says. “We are a very special breed of cat.”
It isn’t just the singularity of attending a women’s college in New York City, either. “I feel very strongly, and I hope this doesn’t go away, that one of the reasons why we produced a disproportionate number of writers is that we ground our writers in literature,” Gordon says of teaching Barnard writers. “For me, it’s always been very important that the students have read literature and have read older literature, and I think it gives a real depth and texture to Barnard student writing that a lot of other places don’t have.”
Still, she felt it was the right time for her to retire, joking, “I didn’t want to be like Carol Channing doing Hello, Dolly! on a walker.” And while she’ll miss the hope and sustenance she felt from her regular interactions with students, she feels secure in stepping aside for a younger generation of professors while she focuses on her own work. “In a way, teaching was always my day job, so it’s not like I’m going to have to take up ceramics or something to fill my days,” Gordon says. “I can write.”
To that end, Gordon is working on a nonfiction book entitled What Kind of Catholic Are You?, in which she compares public figures who all claim that their ideologies are informed by Catholicism and yet hold radically different values from one another. She is, of course, still working on a fiction project, “but I’m superstitious about talking about things until they’re done.”
One thing she can say for certain, though, is that wherever 2021 takes us, a Barnard education will keep paying dividends. “[Quarantine] is when your liberal arts education pays off, because you have the consolation of a life of the mind,” Gordon says. “What the future will be in terms of employment, I have absolutely no idea. But I think that one good thing about it is maybe it will break that mindset that college is vocational school and you train for a particular job, because nobody knows what the jobs will be. In an odd way, it’s a vindication of a liberal arts education, which is critical thinking, mental flexibility, larger imagination. [Those] are the things that are going to pay off.”