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Thursday
Mar082012

Remembering Patricia Cockram

In June, English professor Patricia Cockram died of cancer at the age of 67. I first met Professor Cockram while writing my English honors paper on James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. She pushed me to go well beyond the original scope of my outline. She wanted me to familiarize myself with the seemingly insurmountable Ulysses. She then told me to purchase Richard Ellmann's huge biography of the author and added several critical essays and articles to the list. As the pile of materials grew I thought, "She's gotta be kidding."

She wasn't. 

Cockram expected as much from her students as she did of herself, which is to say a lot. Very few people have two careers, let alone two very successful ones. 

Before coming to Lehman, Professor Cockram excelled as an executive in the fashion industry, where her ease speaking French and Italian no doubt accelerated her rise within that cutthroat industry. She worked with the Seventh Avenue stalwarts Perry Ellis and Liz Claiborne as well as at Saks Fifth Avenue, Macy's and Barneys New York. 

Then something clicked; she wanted a change. 

She told Professor Earl Fendelman that in the mid nineties she decided to go to CUNY Graduate Center and get her PhD in English literature because she just didn't find the highflying world of fashion meaningful. 

"She was living an exciting life," said Fendelman. "Here was this person who was giving up a lot of money to do this--and she did it with incredible grace." 

At The Graduate Center she took her first class, Victorian Poetry, with Lehman Professor Gerhard Joseph. 

"She had a pretty high powered job," recalled Joseph. "In her early forties she totally dropped it. She was very serious about literature and poetry."

Her field of expertise was High Modernism and her focus on Ezra Pound took her to France to research a book about the poet and his French publishers. She had already published work in Paideuma, a journal devoted to Pound scholarship. 

Joseph said that colleagues in the English department respected her expertise in Modernism. 

"She was well beyond the rest of us, especially with Pound," he said.

Despite a cancer diagnosis and treatment in 2008, she continued on with her research the following year in Paris, a city she considered her second home. It was there that she became ill and returned to New York.

The trip abroad was exactly the sort of immersion experience that she recommended for her students. Hers was not the work-stands-apart-from-the-artist scholarship of New Criticism, though Fendelman said that her method defied labeling.

"It's an old fashioned kind of scholarship," he allowed, noting her travel abroad to research primary sources. "But she didn't mind being out of style. A person with her kind of character wouldn't be concerned with that." 

"She looked for an emotional connection to a work," said Freeman Blalock, who wrote his English honors paper on T.S. Eliot under her supervision. "With all the talk about how you can't have a relationship with the author, I don't think she really believed that. In the case of Pound, I don't think she discounted that he went crazy, but with him what she valued was his art. She took into herself the extreme turbulence of that work and appreciated that." 

Louis Menand, now at Harvard University, was her thesis advisor at the Graduate Center in 1999. 

"She was a translator and in addition to the scholarship, that was one of the great assets," he said. "Her dissertation was about the Italian Cantos, which were very propagandistic." 

Menand noted that while the Cantos were not attractive in their fascism, Professor Cockram's familiarity with language helped establish their regional dialect, which related to Mussolini. 

"It was an original piece of work," he said. 

Professor Cockram's use of digital technology also intrigued Menand. She submitted her dissertation on CD-ROM and incorporated hypertext at a time when the technology was relatively new. 

"I had never seen that before," he said. "She was amazing." 

In the Lehman community, she'll be best remembered for her work with students. 

"Her teaching style was characterized by drawing people out and supporting whatever contributions you have," recalled Blalock. "I was instinctually reticent, but it helped me. She made an incredible difference in my life. You always want to do more when you think someone cares about you."

An online memorial book expresses similar tributes. 

"She was the only professor who didn't make me feel self conscious about never writing a research paper at my age," reads one anonymous post. "She stood with me after every class and taught me step-by-step how to write one properly. She never had any doubts that I could do it."

"Always ready to talk long and hard about ideas, she also touched my heart with her close reading of my writing," wrote Victoria Sterling. "Using her own example of career reinvention, and in a tone unnervingly matter-of-fact, she encouraged the pursuit of literary studies at the highest level, something I could hardly envision."

Amidst the testimonials a fuller picture emerges of a woman who loved good food, great wine, poetry and art. 

"She was so just so different from most academics," said Fendelman. "She had had so many experiences. She had been married briefly to an Italian man. She worked in fashion. She brewed her own beer!"

When asked if there might be a comparable literary character, Fendelman paused and responded that she was like a character from Henry James, perhaps Isabel in Portrait of a Lady--the Jamesian prototype of the curious, intelligent American woman abroad.

 

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