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The Prime of Louise Cowan

She inspires respect bordering on idolatry. She may be the only intellectual in town who has groupies. What’s her secret?
By Jo Brans |

Whenever I hear Louise Cowan talk I want to be Louise Cowan. I first felt that way in October of 1971. I’d been teaching in Dallas for a little over a year when I noticed a small item in the morning paper: Dr. Louise Cowan of the University of Dallas would give a series of lectures to the Dallas Woman’s Club on “The Role of Woman in Society.”

1 knew Louise Cowan as the author of a book on the poetic circle containing John Crowe Ransom, brother of Ellene Ransom, my adored college English professor in Mississippi. Out of an obscure loyalty that afflicts Southerners, I decided to go.

On the chilly afternoon of October 20, clad in my Sears trench coat, I turned up at the address in the phone book. I remember the trench coat because of all the furs. No one had told me about the Dallas Woman’s Club. 1 looked at the furs and the furs looked at me. After a moment of mutual awkwardness we all filed in to hear Louise Cowan.

Standing before us on the podium, she was poised and commanding. She held her womanly figure erect, a queenly grace in her gestures. Her brown hair laced with gray curled softly back from her face, which was expressive and alive in spite of the dark glasses she wore. Her toffee-colored knit suit was elegant but unobtrusive; it permitted furs and trench coat to coexist. Her rich Southern voice talked eloquently and melodiously about the wedding of polarities in our human existence. Only the dark glasses were discordant; they struck a false Hollywood note that bothered me. “Why doesn’t she take those things off?” I whispered impatiently to a motherly mink.

“Oh, my dear,” said the mink, “don’t you know? She’s almost blind.” Chastised, 1 settled myself to listen, and the glasses became part of the aura.

For aura she had. Her theme was unity: the importance of feminine power in the masculine world. People need to be both masculine and feminine in their lives and in their psyches, she told us, and she exhorted us in three lectures (for of course I went back) with literary examples from Cordelia and Antigone to the Wife of Bath, to recognize and to apply our powers as women. I scribbled furiously: Men create civilization, women preserve culture. The furs looked proud. A woman never belongs to a man but to truth. The furs and I breathed it in. We were shaken and thrilled, fascinated with Louise Cowan and through her, with ourselves.

I tried to analyze the quality of that fascination. No naive schoolgirl, a 37-year-old woman of some sense and experience, I could only mutter to myself, “She’s a lady, a real lady.” It was the best I could do.

In 1971 the word lady hadn’t fallen as far from grace as it has now, but it was anachronistic even then. It suggested a medieval ideal of courtliness, a certain nobility, a grandeur even, that I’d thought the democratic Sixties had demolished. They hadn’t; Louise Cowan was and is a lady.

Not everyone calls her that. I’ve also heard her called a number of less flattering things – a semi-charlatan, a self-created cult figure, a literary reactionary, a shrewd financial opportunist, even, as a bad joke, the Charles Manson of Catholic intellectuals. To her students, she is the perfect teacher, an earth mother, Dostoyevsky’s holy fool, a standard-bearer of energy and conviction. Louise Cowan is not a woman to whom people are indifferent. According to Dennis Slattery, a former student now teaching with her on the UD faculty, “She is tremendously powerful. I have never had another relationship like the one 1 have with her, and 1 don’t know if 1 could take another one. If I hadn’t been a Catholic when I met her, I probably would have become one.”

Sue Sheldon, an undergraduate at UD in 1960-65 who now teaches at SMU, . remembers Cowan’s use of the words “commitment” and “caring.” “The words were exciting and brave, in the same way Kennedy’s Inaugural Address was in 1961: ’Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.’ The ideal of noblesse oblige, of service.” She shakes her head at the memory. “After 18 years I can still feel the excitement and emotion of that freshman class in the epic. Her life, the way she lived, became the essence of the heroic tradition, and she set the patterns for us. She gave me a way of thinking, a way of being. How do you ever say thank you to someone who’s done that for you?”

Louise Cowan is far more modest for herself than her students are for her. “When 1 teach,” she says, “I want to be invisible. I want that text to speak. It’s not myself I’m teaching. I’m just the medium for getting students into the stories. We can learn to live from literature. The stories teach us more than any doctrine.”

Not until I see her teaching a class on the UD campus do I understand what she means by her invisibility. She is hardly invisible, but at times as she speaks and reads, images from the books take life, become almost visible and palpable through her. I have seen it happen.

On a warm afternoon in mid-March I come in from the spring sun to Room D of the Gorman Lecture Center at the University of Dallas. I have come a little early for the one o’clock class, but I notice the large clock on the wall reads 4:30. All the clocks 1 have seen on the UD campus are off by three or four hours. This class in the novel is for sophomores, the last semester in the two-year literature requirement for all students. I seat myself next to a longhaired girl who tells me she is Mickey. We are sitting at a large curving table, with podium and blackboard at one end, which encircles an open space covered by a round gold rug. All the places at the table are taken in a few minutes by chattering students. Two boys sit behind me on the floor; I realize uneasily I have displaced one of them. Obviously there are no absentees.

Dr. Cowan enters, stops to speak to a person here and there, moves to the gold rug. “I cheated you on the last exam,” she begins, “and I will add three points to your numerical scores, across the board.” A wave of approval rises from the group: obviously three points matter.

“Is she hard?” I whisper to Mickey.

“Well, she doesn’t give anything away,” Mickey says seriously. “But she’s fair.” She raises her hand. “Dr. Cowan – what about the points we argued? Do we get those too?”

Dr. Cowan chuckles. “No, not those, just the three I mentioned.” The class laughs. A good try, rightly foiled.

A paper is announced for the following week, and Dr. Cowan opens its subject for discussion: “The Romantic Dream ir Madame Bovary and Lord Jim. ” She begins, “Is dream a good word or a bad word? What would you say, Mr. Flannery?”

A tall thin boy with short reddish hair clears his throat nervously. “Good and bad, I’d say. Dreams give Emma and Jim both a lot of strength, maybe a perverted strength or strength for the wrong things, but. . . and they both have a lot of attraction for us because of their dreams. We admire them even while we think they’re wrong.”

“What is a dream? “Dr. Cowan asks.


“A false ideal.”

“Delusion – uh, illusion.”


“Hope,” a tiny girl with big blue eyes offers shyly. “It’s hope for Emma Bovary.”

“You don’t blame her then, for hoping so unrealistically that life is all beauty?”

A dark boy in a rugby shirt cuts in, “I think that’s beside the point. Why should we pass judgment on a fictional character?”

Flannery protests, “Flaubert makes it clear a judgment is necessary.”

“How? What are the concrete images that Flaubert uses to undercut Emma’s dream of life?” With a few deft words Louise Cowan leads them into the heart of the novel, and they are discussing its central question and searching for specific details and answers.

One is found. “The beggar,” suggests a ruddy blond boy in cut-offs. Dr. Cowan begins to read, and suddenly the beggar is before us in the room, as he is seen by a warm luxurious Emma, flushed and happy, riding in a carriage from her lover to her husband:

There was a wretched creature on the hillside, who would wander about with his stick right in the midst of the carriages. A mass of rags covered his shoulders, and an old staved-in beaver hat, shaped like a basin, hid his face; but when he look it off he revealed two gaping bloody orbits in the place of eyelids. The flesh hung in red strips; and from them flowed a liquid which congealed into green scales reaching down to his nose with its black nostrils, which kept sniffing convulsively. To speak to you he threw back his head with an idiotic-laugh; – then his blueish eyeballs, rolling round and round, would rub against the open wound near the temples.

He sang a little song as he followed the carriages:

Often the warmth of a summer day

Makes a young girl dream her heart away

And all the rest was about birds and sunshine and green leaves.

“Why does Flaubert put that beggar in?” Louise Cowan asks. “Why does that poor loathsome beggar spoil everything for Emma?” And she smiles and nods as one suggestion after another pours in.

“He represents sin,” a prim girl with wire-rimmed glasses asserts. “He is what sin does to the inside of us – Emma’s sin destroys her.”

On the blackboard Louise Cowan writes SIN.

“I think he is death,” Rugby Shirt argues. “Emma sees her own death coming in him.”

DEATH goes on the blackboard.

“He’s any kind of human failure,” another boy says. “He represents the reality of failure.”

Dr. Cowan writes FAILURE, then she turns back to the class. “Do you all see him through Emma’s eyes?” she asks gently. “Is he just a projection of what she thinks?” She stops for emphasis. “What is he in himself!”

They are silent for a moment, then tentatively: “A blind sick beggar.”

“Exactly,” Dr. Cowan says. “He is blind, and he suffers, and Emma demonizes him. She hates him because he is ugly, and she denies his suffering. Because of her dream of (he beauty of life, she distorts the reality he represents.”

Mr. Flannery gets the idea. His voice quavers with excitement. “Emma is not going to let herself suffer, to experience the pain a person has to go through really to have a full life. She blinds herself – she is blinder than the beggar. She has no compassion.”

The face behind the dark glasses smiles and nods, and extends a hand to commend the thought. “I think you’ve hit on something interesting,” she says. On the blackboard she writes COMPASSION.

We move on then to Conrad’s Lord Jim and are invited to explain a passage “always puzzling to me,” Dr. Cowan says, in which one’s dream is compared to the ocean, “the destructive element.” Stein, the German romantic, tells Marlowe in his awkward German syntax, “The way is to the destructive element submit yourself and with the exertions of your hands and feet in the water make the deep, deep sea keep you up.” The question arises: How can you “submit” to a dream and have it at the same time “keep you up”?

While the discussion rages, 1 look at the passage over Mickey’s shoulder. She has underscored it, and marked it, “Famous passage! Dream = ocean.” Now she writes carefully and neatly: “You must swim or work in your dream in order to survive. But to live = to dream.” Then I notice another passage Mickey doesn’t mark: “it is respectable to have no illusions – and safe – and profitable – and dull.”

For 20 years, Louise Cowan has submitted to the dream of making a great university of the University of Dallas. Indeed she can hardly be understood outside the context of that university. Though she has spoken to audiences from New York to Miami, though she has been a member of a dozen civic boards in Dallas, she has made her indelible mark as a teacher and designer of curriculum in the small Catholic university.

The school, which a UD publication in 1977 called a “peculiar little mesquite-covered oasis on a hill,” is located in Irving, about five miles west of Dallas. The pleasant wind-swept campus sits on a knoll which is, as UD students with their cultivated metaphorical minds like to say, the highest point in Dallas /Fort Worth. A modest assortment of new-looking buildings of tan brick and glass front on a central bricked quad. The largest edifice on campus, the Braniff Building, has only three stories; it houses the library and graduate school offices.

When the university opened in 1956, there were 66 students and three buildings; now there are approximately 2100 students and 22 buildings, including eight dormitories. Last fall, when private liberal arts colleges around the country suffered decreasing enrollment, the university had a 13 percent increase in its freshman class.

Registrar Sybil Novinski attributes this steady growth to the school’s clearly articulated point of view concerning a liberal arts education. “We tell those 18-year-olds, ’Come here if you want to work hard,’ and they come. We present liberal arts education as the process of coming to be the important person one is. You’d be surprised how attractive the idea of seeking excellence is to young people.”

The language she uses has a Cowan ring, I notice, and on the campus generally Louise Cowan is certainly not invisible. Sitting on a bench on the quad waiting for my interview with her, I ask students random questions about her. Two girls in jeans who are discussing a coming philosophy exam – “He always just asks, ’Write about God in a nutshell’ ” – interrupt each other in their eagerness to fill me in. Other bystanders add observations. Campus lore is amazing. The Louise Cowan myths: She fell hopelessly in love when she was in graduate school with a young male student who died of leukemia after he made her promise to become a Catholic; before that she was an atheist. She wears dark glasses because she had plastic surgery to enhance her beauty and it left her blind. She wears dark glasses because she is totally blind; she only pretends to read. Really she knows all the books she teaches by heart. She had surgery because of her blindness which paralyzed certain facial muscles so that she will never grow old. And so on.

I am warned that half her women graduate students dress like her “in Guccis and Puccis” and that they all talk like her, and that all the men are in love with her. Wherever 1 mention her name on campus I win friends and influence people. The nice woman in the public relations office tells me the Cowans are “great-souled people,” a Louise Cowan phrase if there ever was one. “Have you met Dr. Louise yet?” the librarian asks. “Oh, you’re going to love her.” She is without doubt the beacon.

Born Louise Shillingburg in Fort Worth in 1916, she became Louise Cowan in 1939 when she married Donald Cowan, also of Fort Worth. Louise, who says of herself that she has “tried to live a life informed by the great poets, by the wisdom that comes from literature,” describes it as a marriage based on poetry. The two met in the Presbyterian Church choir. He was 23; she was 20. Forty-three years later, as she and I are sitting in her small office next to his on the top floor of the Braniff Building, she recollects fondly, “He passed me a note saying, ’Do you like poetry?’ And I wrote him back saying, for I was a bit of a snob, you know, ’Yes, I do, good poetry.’ By that, I meant Sara Teasdale. He taught me to read T. S. Eliot.”

Donald had come out of high school in the Depression and hadn’t been able to go to college. Louise had a degree in music from TCU, a fine singing voice, a scholarship to study music at Skidmore, and a decreasing enthusiasm for the life of a musician. “There was so much I didn’t know. I knew music, but I wasn’t educated. I was in quest for something that would tell me about the meaning of life.”

Over the next few years, as Donald studied radar in the Air Force, then after the war worked as a problem-solver for an engineering firm, and gradually came to the decision to be a physicist, she searched for her own path. “Literature seemed the least of my talents, but I finally chose it because it was what I loved.” The two came back to school at TCU. While Donald got a B. A. in physics, Louise completed her undergraduate English major and a master’s degree in English. She was 31, Donald 33, when they finished and went to Vanderbilt for advanced study.

Vanderbilt was a curious place for an independent woman intellectual from a Texas cowtown. Two decades earlier, the school had been the lively home of a group of 16 Southern poets, including Allen Tate and John Crowe Ransom, all more or less at odds with the modern world. Between 1922 and 1925 they published 19 issues of a remarkable poetry journal, The Fugitive. That earlier glory had passed, and Vanderbilt was when the Cowans arrived a bastion of literary conservatism. Louise declares she remembers a graduate student arrogantly declaring, “I have come to refute all that T. S. Eliot stands for.”

The school had always been a stronghold of male intellectual chauvinism. As Vanderbilt’s first female teaching fellow, she was subjected to fairly constant disapproval of her mere presence. “Dear old Walter Clyde Curry,” she sighs. “He gave me good grades, but he told me, ’You know you shouldn’t be here at all. You’re taking a seat a man could occupy. Teaching is a man’s profession.’ I had been very outspoken at first, but I toned myself down, learned to say ’perhaps’ and ’it seems to me.’ “

That she earned trust and respect is attested by the fact that Donald Davidson, the “lone fanatic” who remained of the Fugitive group, asked her to become the group’s official historian, an effort which resulted in her dissertation and only full book, The Fugitive Group: A Literary History. Going through the boxes of personal letters and documents of the Fugitives that Davidson turned over to her, she became immersed in the relation of Southern poetry to Southern culture. “I came to realize that what the South had,” she says, “flawed by slavery and other problems as it was, were inherited codes of behavior carried over from the culture of the Middle Ages. I had always disliked forms, and my nature is still to break through forms. But I began to believe that society needed to recapture those permanent values the writers of the South portrayed.”

A son Bainard was born in 1949, while both the Cowans were working on their doctoral examinations. Louise and Don finished their degrees and in 1953 came back to Fort Worth, where she began teaching at TCU at the munificent salary of $3200. With her parents, the Cowans bought a big old house in Fort Worth. They wanted, as Louise says, “grandmothers” for Bainard so that she could go on with her work, and the five of them took up residence together. Donald joined Louise at TCU as a physics professor, and Bainard started to school.

The Cowans were at TCU for six years, during which two decisive events occurred in Louise’s life. She became a Catholic and she went blind. Students, faculty, and administration were sympathetic and concerned about the blindness. Her Catholicism made problems, however, problems not official but real.

TCU is under the aegis of the Disciples of Christ and according to Texas writer John Graves, who “overlapped” with her there and supplanted her in the creative writing program, “Louise was just wrong at TCU. Her star students were good West Texas Campbellites, and when she converted to Catholicism there were reverberations throughout the Campbellite world.”

What Louise says is that in January of 1955, “I completed my intellectual quest in the Catholic Church.”

“Intellectual?” I ask, responding automatically to my own memories as the pro-testant daughter of Protestants to the attractions of Catholicism: I’d loved the candles, incense, and sonorous incomprehensible Latin, the mysteries of confession, penance, celibacy. But the catechism turned me off: prescribed answers to canned questions.

“Intellectual,” she says firmly. “I was raised a Methodist, but I’d been an agnostic for 10 or 15 years. Finally I decided on the basis of the theology that I was really a good Catholic.” The process of conversion began with a student at Vanderbilt dying of cancer, to whom she read Kierkegaard, who “put some kind of blessing on me when he died. He told me, ’You’re a good teacher and you must go on’ – I think he meant to be better. And I began to think of the seriousness of teaching.”

Six-year-old Bainard was another influence. “I thought he should at least know about God, but he was just a natural born skeptic. He thought I was making the whole thing up. I sent him to Sunday school to learn about Jesus, but he came home with songs about little grey ponies. I knew the Catholic Church would teach him.”

But the greatest influence, oddly enough, was the Russian novel. Interested through Southern literature in cultures in transition, in writing enriched with a double vision of what was being lost and what was being salvaged, she had turned naturally to the great Russian novels of the 19th century during the Westernizing of old Russia. “Dostoyevsky converted me,” she says simply. “The Russians believe that it is this world that is to be transformed at the end of time. Heaven will not be another place off in the skies, but this earth, redeemed and transformed. It is that strange metamorphosis, the yeast working in the dough, that the poet sees most keenly. Hence every genuine poem is an instance of that redeemed world, in which the chaos of life is given form.” Her vision brought literature and theology together, and through it Louise took what she calls lightly “that disgraceful step” into the Catholic Church.

“Catholicism restored a crowded worldto me,” she says, “gave me a world full ofangels and devils. I could see the Greekgods as more than psychic projections, asgenuine manifestations of divinity whoappeared when they were needed. I couldtrust the poets.” I look at her. There shesits, chic, composed, humorous, articulate, intelligent, 20th century. Has shejoined company with that wild-hairedcrowd of literal interpreters? Is she tellingme she thinks the Greek gods appeared inthe flesh?

“I don’t know how they appeared,” she says, amused at my “in the flesh.” “’But I don’t think Homer was a liar.” It is I who veer away, embarrassed. This woman is a believer, and I feel reluctant to explore that belief, reluctant to find her the holy fool 1 think she might be.

Louise Cowan is not now blind, though some of her admirers think she is, but for a period of three months or so in 1955 she was totally blind, and her vision has not been completely restored. She now has, literally, double vision: Her eyes work separately but not together, and she has to choose each day which eye to use and then wear a black patch inside her glasses over the other lens. “I can read whatever I want to, blurrily but as rapidly as ever. The brain reads, not the eyes. The dark glasses are purely cosmetic,” she says, raising them briefly and giving me a quick glimpse of dead white skin and scar tissue.

She explains the months of blindness in medical terms. “I developed a hyper-thyroidism, I suppose because 1 had worked too hard and slept too little, and I took radioactive iodine to correct it. What it did instead was to destroy my thyroid gland. My eyes began protruding. The world turned a dark amber, then I went blind.”

She and Donald went to specialists in several large cities who recommended various procedures: sewing the eyelids together, boring holes in her head to let out the swelling. Finally a Japanese surgeon in St. Louis cut the tissues in her cheekbones, lifted her face back, and knocked the bones out to allow her eyes to drop back into her head.

I am hanging weakly on my chair. “How frightening,” I whisper.

“No, it wasn’t frightening. Painful, but not frightening. I was borne up by a velvety kind of reality, and I had such a sense of being loved that when I was well I actually felt bereft.”

“Loved? You mean by other people?” I ask.

“No,” she says, in the most matter-of-fact way. “By God.” We fall silent.

In her blindness, she says, she found consolation in the poetry she knew “by heart,” a phrase which came to mean much to her: “The heart is the strong center of our being, far more than the limpid and translucent intellect.” She went on later to commit great stretches of Shakespeare, Donne, Dostoyevsky, and Faulkner to memory. As her sight is uncertain in bad light, she must in teaching and lecturing be prepared not to be able to read a text, which she compensates for in various ways, perhaps chiefly by her remarkable story-telling ability.

She and Donald came to UD in 1959, she as chairman of the English department, he as chairman of the physics department. In 1962 Donald became president of the university, a post he held until his official retirement from administrative duties in 1977.

Louise’s first decisive act as chairman was to scotch the usual freshman composition class and substitute the epic tradition. Eighteen-year-olds fresh from Lubbock High or Woodrow Wilson were reading, uncut, the Iliad and the Odyssey, Beowulf, the Aeneid, the Song of Roland, and Paradise Lost. Sue Sheldon describes her experiences as a freshman in 1960: “We were wading through six feet of mud to get between the three buildings on campus, and here was Louise Cowan saying to us, ’If you want a community you have to build it, spiritually and physically.’ We read T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and we said to ourselves, ’My god, this is a wasteland,’ by which we meant not only all that mud but Dallas itself, America, the whole complacent world coming out of the Fifties. Building a community meant setting the values for society, and Louise taught us we could do it. She told us over and over that we had to care, to care passionately. And we cared.”

Out of that passion of concern a core of students in Sue’s freshman English class founded Kerygma (“the herald of the kingdom of love”), the campus literary magazine. “We spent almost as many hours some weeks at the Cowan house as we did on campus. She had a huge white round marble table, and 15, 20, 30 of us would gather around it every Friday night and talk. We ate, breathed, slept, and drank philosophy and literature. Whenever I think of Louise Cowan, I always see her surrounded by students.

“Once several of us cut her literature class to study for an art history exam. We felt so guilty we went to Ashton’s bakery afterward and had them bake a cake for her reading, ’Shantih shantih shantih’ – peace peace peace, Eliot’s last lines in The Waste Land. We had such a sense of commitment. We knew she would forgive us for cutting -she always forgave us everything – but there was definitely something to forgive. I don’t know if my own students know such things need to be forgiven.”

According to Sue, the one thing Louise didn’t do well was to prepare her for life off campus. “When I got to graduate school at Tulane, I thought I had moved into the heart of the wasteland,” she says. “I had lost the community. I remember saying to a professor there, ’But these people don’t care – they have a 9 to 5 mentality.’ And he smiled at me and said, ’Give them time.’ I was way ahead of myself in commitment.”

Another ex-Cowanite, Pat Dunne, remembers, “She didn’t want all the Louise Cowan clones she got – we talked about it openly at her house. But she accepted imitation. She said literary history was a history of literary schools, that schools got somewhere.” Pat, who has himself taught, describes her as a perfect teacher: carefully and promptly graded papers, high demands, authority combined with a way of gracefully changing her mind about a point in response to a student. “She wants to grow with a class. She isn’t there to show off. After every class you’d leave and think, ’Now what if I’d missed that one!’ “

Now a hospital administrator in Waco, Pat says the chief “dictum” she impressed on him was that “Whatever you take up, if you do it with conviction, all the answers to all the questions are in it. You don’t have to worry about missing out. And she has a way of putting such things so that you believe them.” He grins wryly. “It’s called mesmerism.”

Two programs at UD most closely connected with Louise Cowan are the Institute for Philosophic Studies, an interdisciplinary graduate program, and the Dallas Woman’s Study Group, a Tuesday luncheon gathering of 200 women named Cullum or Ling or Carpenter or Marcus who are, as Louise says, “movers in Dallas society.” I’ve talked to any number of people from both groups and have heard nearly universal praise for her. Marilyn Stewart of SMU and Mary Lou Hoyle of the Dallas Theater Center, both with Ph.D.’s from the Institute, comment especially on her desire to develop students independent of her and believe that they can please her best by becoming most themselves. Dennis Slat-tery agrees. “At one point,” he says, “I needed to get away from her to be sure I hadn’t suffered a seduction of the imagination, and she knew somehow that I needed this distance. I don’t know how she knew, but she made it possible for me to spend two years on the Rome campus.”

With the women in the Tuesday group, most of whom have money, she has been careful not to profit: The class costs $75 for the semester and all money is handled by a board of the women themselves. “They are our good will ambassadors,” Louise says, “and we make it a point never to ask them for money.” That doesn’t mean, of course, that she refuses contributions.

The Study Group is not a degree program, but Betty Carpenter, who went on to get an M.A. in literature, says some members take the classes very seriously. She taped Louise’s lectures and played them in the car driving from Dallas to the Irving campus and back. “I’d just roll up the windows and listen to that marvelous voice. It was a lot better than the radio.”

Even in this group, however, there are dissenters. At a dinner meeting several weeks ago, I fell into a Louise Cowan conversation with a lovely white-haired woman at my table whom I’ll call Anna. Anna, a widow, impressed me with her dignified candor.

“I was in the Study Group for six years,” she said, “and at first I thought it was just wonderful. Then I quit.”

“Were you too involved with other things to keep it up?”

“No, it wasn’t that,” Anna said. “In fact, I missed the meetings when I quit. But I got bored with Louise’s point of view. Everything we read and talked about she could find religion in, whether it was Faulkner or Sophocles or whoever. Everything! And I just got tired of it.”

She shrugged comically. “She even found religion in Shakespeare, and I just know Shakespeare is not all that religious. In fact, he’s a roue, if you ask me. Don’t you think so?”

I confessed I saw her point. “Was the group expensive?” 1 asked her.

“No, not really. That is, the classes weren’t. But Louise let us know she didn’t take any of our class money for herself – it all went to the school. So she wasn’t getting paid for teaching us. Well, we were always getting up separate funds for presents for her. We gave her an emerald and diamond pin, an electric typewriter, and several trips – and I mean real trips. Trips to Europe for her and her husband.”

“But those contributions were voluntary, weren’t they?” I asked.

“Oh, yes, you just gave what you wanted to or could, but some of the women really made big gifts. They could afford it. That didn’t bother me, at least not as much as all the religion.”

I asked if I could quote her. “Oh, certainly,” Anna said. “Quote everything I’ve said if you like.” She put a hand on my arm. “But don’t use my name, whatever you do. Louise is on the side of religion, so you see where that puts me.

“Honey,” she told me as we parted, “just make your little piece saccharine sweet, and it’ll be fine. People just adore Louise Cowan.”

Louise’s relationship with her husband of 40 years inspires unmixed respect. A sophomore, Julia Dugan, traces her desire to come to UD to a photograph she saw in the Morning News of the Cowans walking together across the campus. “They’re just so cute, d’you see?” Julia bubbles. “I love that lady! I mean, that lady taught me to read.”

Bainard, a former Fulbright scholar now married and with a family, teaches comparative literature at LSU. Louise describes her attitude toward him as the child of a working mother: “I decided that it was not right for me to feel guilty, that it was the quality of time I gave him that mattered, not the quantity. My mother kept him and she was beautiful with him. He has become one of my best friends, but it is an unusual relationship.”

However, in our last conversation she tells me with joy of an occasion when she was able, as she says, “not to be just myself but to be a real mother to him when he needed me.” In 1977 Bainard’s two-year-old daughter Lucy fell from her high chair and struck her head, causing serious injuries to her brain. For four days she lay in the hospital at Baton Rouge, poised between life and death. At last the doctors came to the family and told them that Lucy’s brain was dead, and that they must merely wait for her heart to stop beating.

Louise says, “I turned to Bainard and Chris, and I said, ’You go home and rest and I’ll stay here and look after Lucy till you get back.’ And they did, and I talked to Lucy. Because she was still there, you know. Then Bainard and Chris came back, and I looked at them so worn and tired, and I said, ’Now sit down quietly and tell Lucy all the things you want to say to her because you’ll never see her again in this world.’ I wasn’t speaking as myself, you see, but as something beyond myself, as a mother.

“So they did what I said, and after Lucy was gone Bainard came over to me and kissed me, a different kiss from any he’d ever given me.”

“Different?” I ask her. “How was it different?”

She has a way of deprecating the merely sentimental. Her voice is cool, light, even faintly humorous. “Well,” she says, “I thought it was less guarded.”

Something beyond myself, as a mother. Henry Adams comes to my mind:

The force of the Virgin was still felt at Lourdes, and seemed to be as potent as X-rays; but in America neither Venus or Virgin ever had value as force – at most as sentiment…. The Woman had once been supreme…. She was goddess because of her force; she was the animated dynamo; she was reproduction – the greatest and most mysterious of all energies….

All this was to American thought as though it had never existed. The true American knew something of the facts, but nothing of the feelings; he read the letter, but he never felt the law …. An American Virgin would never dare command; an American Venus would never dare exist.

I have thought of myself as a spiritual rebel, a quintessential American. Now I’m not so sure. Maybe I too am being educated.

And yet. I remember a story Sue Sheldon told me of an event in 1962. “One guy in the Kerygma group was always very antagonistic to Louise’s ideas about caring and commitment, and he and she and the rest of us would argue for hours. One Friday night after a party, he had a car wreck and ended up in Parkland with a concussion. We all just assumed we’d sit with him till he came out of the coma he was in.

“I’ll never forget it. The boy in the next bed had had a tracheotomy, with tubes all running out, and here was our friend with his face terribly banged up and his head swollen to twice its normal size. I went out in the hall to faint, but this eco professor from Hungary said, ’American woman got no gots,’ so I pulled myself together and went back in.

Louise and Don came in. Louise sat down by his bed and began talking to him; she was crying, I remember. He’d been raving, but we couldn’t understand him. Then all at once with her there he began making sense. He was saying over and over, ’I care. I care. Tell the Cowans I care.’

“The funny thing is that it didn’t seem a bit strange at the time. We all felt he was afraid he was going to die without having made that kind of commitment.”

I find myself thinking that it seemsstrange to me, that it even seems a littlesinister. I don’t have that kind of influence over my students and 1 don’t wantit. I’ve made my peace with plurality andambivalence, I can enjoy the sun in adisordered world. But then I’m notLouise Cowan.

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