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this dust of words

Thirty years after he last saw her, English professor John Felstiner went looking for a brilliant former student, Elizabeth Wiltsee. What he found left him shaken and searching for answers.

Greg Spalenka

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By John Felstiner

"Clicking of a typewriter: all else silent, dark."

To open up an undergraduate honors thesis and find this nervy fragment at the top of page one, and this later on: “Man: island. Island washed in the sea’s delving”—to find this from a 21-year-old lets you know you’re hearing an utterly uncommon voice and sensibility. But I’d known that already, for more than three years. Liz Wiltsee took an experimental freshman English course with me in January 1967, and after that we became friends. Her keenness of word and spirit, her skepticism, her luminous smile—you had to be grateful for such a student, even among a wonderful class at the climax of the 1960s.

I would see Liz at parties, at dinner in the old Grove House, and in her junior spring, 1969, she took a small seminar with me on Yeats, Eliot and Neruda—I wish I still had records of that class! Then the next year she must have told me she was going into teaching, for I’ve found a recommendation letter from February 1970. “Sharp intelligence, humor, honesty, singular passionate devotion to the humane causes and ends of literature, open-eyed independence, and a tenacity and accuracy in research of all sorts” were what I saw in Liz, but also: “This independence even carried her too far, I suspect, in her decision to make her own sense of things. Last spring her paper for the seminar was excellent but idiosyncratic to a degree that I was doubtful of its real import.”

Never mind. Liz wrote her senior thesis on Samuel Beckett, who’d won the Nobel Prize that fall—on his astounding trilogy of novels, Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable. Maybe I wasn’t her chief adviser; otherwise I’d likely have said so in my recommendation. Maybe it was the English department’s indispensable teacher and novelist Dale Harris, soon to be obtusely dropped by Stanford, who died of AIDS in 1996. Anyway, I know I read that Beckett essay, because my written evaluation of it survived along with the recommendation. And by rare chance, Stanford’s Archives still hold what may be the only extant copy.

this dust of words, Liz quietly called her essay, all 64 unnumbered, unchaptered pages in which Beckett’s fluent, terse, elusive passages cited on every page carry no quotation marks and thus almost blend into her own writing. Since the Beckett paragraphs, except for their source novel’s name and page number after the last word, look like all the essay’s other paragraphs, it’s momentarily hard to tell whether an “I” is speaking for Molloy or Malone or Wiltsee. And at times her sentences, tracing Beckett’s existential ventures, take very closely after his: “Man: island. Island washed in the sea’s delving, torn by waves that break in the heart, despite protective walls of rock. Sands drawn to the waves as the turd to the flush. Man is there, awash in the sea, as best he can be somewhere.”

No doubt I came to this thesis primed for Beckett. At college in 1957, I’d gone with a roommate to the Boston premiere of Waiting for Godot, played by four black actors. Its tragi-hilarious palaver so swayed us that we’d stage private Godot readings at the drop of a hat. And my 1958 copies of Molloy and Malone Dies have the patina of a well-worn psalter or breviary you might keep by you for devotions. “Unfathomable mind, now beacon, now sea”: I was caught in the coils of a man who could coin such sayings. Or this: “All I know is what the words know.” Hired at Stanford in 1965 by Tom Moser and Albert Guerard to take up a course on British humorists, I jumped right in by teaching Beckett instead—how in one breath he does homage and damage to Keats’s sublime “A thing of beauty is a joy forever”:

He said to me, said Gaber, Gaber, he said—. Louder! I cried. He said to me, said Gaber, Gaber, he said, life is a thing of beauty, Gaber, and a joy for ever. He brought his face nearer mine. A joy for ever, he said, a thing of beauty, Moran, and a joy for ever. He smiled.

But if such subversive rhythms could expose our classic truths this way, I wondered what was left for Liz Wiltsee to do.

I need not have worried. Her thesis began with two epigraphs. One, in Beckett’s French, says his work deals only in “fundamental sounds,” so “If people want to give themselves headaches over the overtones, they’re free to, but they’ll have to get their own aspirin.” The other epigraph quotes a half-line from Proverbs, “In the multitude of words there shall not want sin” (and Liz does not add the rest: “but he that refraineth his lips is wise”). Page after page, novel after novel, tracking Beckett’s transparent yet luminous, staggered yet cadenced speech as it makes “forms becoming and crumbling into the fragments of a new becoming,” Liz walks the same tightrope he does between sin and wisdom, wordfulness and silence. “More and more the words look towards silence, peace, as home,” she says. “But words that have broken silence have to find a way back, adding something more to something to make nothing. How? Is’t possible?”

Save for Proust and Joyce, the master’s own masters, she refrains from any literary reference, terminology or secondary criticism. Nor does she volunteer anything so addled as I seem to have done in my old copy of Beckett’s trilogy: “Molloy is a prism inside out.” Instead she simply (!) slips into Beckett’s prose and cons to ruminate after him. Not silence but the trend toward silence; or in the Latin tag she cites early on, dum spiro spero: “as long as I breathe, I hope” (or more loosely, Where there’s breath, there’s hope; I speak, therefore I am). Finally, in her last paragraph, taking her leave of “this man for whom love and lucidity are on the same level,” Liz in her own Beckett-like diminuendo ends with “thanks to all the words that have helped us get this far, not very far, far enough.”

It’s clear this dust of words struck me sharply—clear not only from what my 1970 evaluation says but also from how it reads, far more freely than was customary, especially from an assistant professor back then. And my comments speak directly to “you,” rather than reporting on the quality of “her” analysis, as academic detachment dictates. Since Beckett’s novels (I said) already constitute “a radical critique of language,” of its frail yet necessary grasp on reality, then “what is his critic to do, and much less I with his critic?” But “there is throughout beautiful writing, uncannily full of minted thought. I’m astonished,” I told her. “I don’t know where you go from here, but you’ve learned some clear and endurable ways of speaking.”

Where she went from there—well, it makes a deep-reaching story, one her family and friends have now told me. Born on February 17, 1949, in Cincinnati, Liz lived in Manila for nine years (where her father was sent by Procter & Gamble), then Geneva, and graduated with the first National Merit Scholarship from Milton Academy, outside Boston. “Exceptionally fine effort and achievement,” her school reports would say, especially in Latin: “brilliant work,” “close to perfection in every regard.” At Stanford she lived first in Branner Hall, then in Grove House, a stimulating and countercultural commune started by history professor Mark Mancall. Most likely in 1967, during Stanford’s early upheaval over the Vietnam War, in an alternative curriculum called the Experimental College, Liz took a James Joyce seminar offered by Joel Kugelmass, ’67. One night—and this I do dimly recall—she and some friends took off and drove 22 hours down to Mexico and turned right back.

Highly gifted in mathematics and science as well as language, she was a salient spirit, often sweet, but often “very solitary, very lone,” her classmate Myron Filene tells me, “very alive though very introspective, too. When I think of Eliz I picture her wide grin—one of the happiest faces I have known.” She was “vehemently nonpolitical, though sympathetic to the radical cause,” another friend says. Myron calls her “radical in a deeper way.”

Part of her junior year found Liz off campus in Menlo Park, in a house called The Ark; during her senior year, she shared with some Stanford friends a Palo Alto house they named Toad Hall, on Bryant Street near the creek—it’s gone to condos now. There, among other things and to their landlord’s dismay, they brewed a strong beer. Some of them took the Modernisms course, featuring Beckett’s fiction, offered by Yosal Rogat, a brilliant law professor who died untimely in 1980. One evening, I’m told, Yosal came to dinner and met his match in that brilliant beer.

At Toad Hall, Liz stayed in a garage-tool shed with an electric heater. “She always had cold feet but always went barefoot,” says her friend John Longstreth, ’70, and would read Beckett aloud to housemates at length, or else sit in her red robe puffing on a pipe, watching and listening. “Sometimes hostile, sometimes frightened that nobody liked her . . . She could let you have it right between the eyes,” John adds, to my surprise.

One of the housemates, Bill Siska, enlisted his friends in a whimsical film noir for his 1970 master’s in communication, about some ’60s youth who get caught up in dope-selling with two Mafia types. The more voluble of the two (played by David Chase, MA ’71, who went on to create The Sopranos for HBO) fancies Liz and chucks her under the chin: “I like a chick with class!”—at which Liz smiles tolerantly. Later in the film he mistakenly shoots her in a shakedown. “She practiced the death scene for weeks,” Bill says.

I knew (or maybe remember) nothing of Toad Hall—but now I’ve seen this film, and there she is, just as she was, untouched by the three decades since, long blond hair and clear warm features, calmly puffing a pipe, humoring the sleazy landlord, radiantly picnicking high on Alpine Road and, in the credits, eating a chocolate and smiling. Had I noticed that deep poise in her, around the Quad?

Liz wrote a play about the Toad Hall scene and a novel—a skeptical roman à clef, according to her housemate Steven Watson, ’70. That year she was “not happy or unhappy,” says Sandra Peterson, ’70, who lived there as well, and recalls that often when they’d all go out to do things, Liz would stay back to read in her room.

My wife, Mary, and I liked Liz and must have trusted her, too. In the fall of 1970, we moved onto campus with our daughter, Sarah, born in June 1969, a week after I read Liz’s “excellent but idiosyncratic” seminar paper. Liz occupied the semifurnished garage room of our Eichler and helped with child care; Bill Siska remembers dropping her there now and then. When I talked recently with her father, George Wiltsee, he mentioned that, yes, they’d known she “lived with a faculty member”—to me, now, a strange and poignant perspective. At one point, Liz showed Mary a story she’d published (in a student magazine?), asking if it seemed okay, as one of the story’s women (deplorably bourgeois) was drawn from her. Mary could not (and in our resolutely feminist egalitarian marriage did not care to) recognize herself in any of the women.

Although my recommendation, stiffly addressed to “Gentlemen” as I now find it, says “I’m delighted that she is going into teaching,” Liz did not go into teaching. After not attending graduation, she worked as an au pair in London, traveled to Spain with her boyfriend and stayed the better part of a year in Madrid, then went to Paris as an au pair. Returning to Palo Alto, she worked in the Stanford Press proofroom, frequented Chimera Books and wrote a fine (but unpublished) novel, Jane’s Story. In a 1974 photo, visiting Myron Filene in Portland, she’s looking up from berry-picking and smiling brightly.

In 1977, Liz moved to Seattle, staying first in Rainier Valley. A February 1980 letter to Myron brims with alertness and activity and expectation. “I’m demanding more of life as I get older,” she writes, “blunting the edge I had 10 years ago when all we demanded of life were ideals, what ought to be.” Living near Green Lake and working at the Seattle Public Library, she rattles on about a snowstorm: “It was so bright with all the snow, streets full of kids sledding and skiing down the steep hills, exotic snowmen being built. Fun, all that week.” Dinah, a single parent she’s living with, has “the inner strength that comes of putting your life back together almost from scratch,” and “recognized the Chopin pieces I’m trying to learn.” Renting a piano is “another fantasy come true,” along with “tavern-beerdrinking-pool” and “Greek, playwrighting. . . . Also I want to fall in love and have children, two, a girl and a boy . . . dream on, Elizabeth.”

By 1982 or so, Liz was back East, in Guilford, Conn., and looked for work at the Yale Library. Whatever jobs she took simply gave her the means and time to go on writing and reading. With her mother, Anne, suffering from cancer, Liz moved in with her parents in Wayland, Mass., and was “very comforting,” George says, during this difficult period. After Anne’s death, Liz lived in Newton and Lexington, working at a Harvard library. Always she gravitated to books. In 1986, Bob Yeager, ’70, a literature student who’d gone into teaching, met her in Cambridge looking “frail, thin, very edgy . . . she criticized me for staying in academe.” Not long after that, Liz contracted a case of measles but refused treatment. Running a 105-degree fever, she passed out in a coma.

In July 1988, at a Pennsylvania gathering of Stanford friends who were all turning 40, she seemed to one of them “so fragile, vulnerable, very drawn and thin—birdlike.” A snapshot from that weekend shows her looking disconsolate, sitting alone and staring at the ground. Around this time, Liz began to think her phone was being tapped; she spoke of hearing voices and felt vulnerable for her political writing.

In the fall of 1989, dissatisfied somehow, she packed up her goods and drove a rented truck back to California, hanging out with her brother Chris, ’72, in Santa Clara. Then in 1990, she began sharing a house near the beach north of Santa Cruz, while doing what the Stanford Press recalls as “excellent” proofreading—for her that meant editing, as well. All during the 1980s, Liz had been writing quite lively, politically aware plays, offering them to theater companies around the United States, keeping each rejection slip. She had also sent out articles and letters on the Philippines and studied Chinese—page after page of Mandarin word lists.

Finally, in 1994 or so, not managing very well, Liz moved to the town of Watsonville. There, in strawberry and apple country, she took a spare room in a nice little house and spent many hours in the public library.

Gradually Liz was beset by mental illness: an experience of voices and the feeling that “the world was spying on her,” as Myron Filene puts it. His cards and notes went unanswered and eventually unclaimed, coming back “Addressee Unknown.” Her landlady had to turn her out, and in 1996, this Stanford honors graduate “with great distinction” (her transcript reads), this woman gifted in science and literature, a prolific author who’d taught herself Chinese and ancient Greek, became a homeless person.

For three years, Liz spent her days wandering, reading in the library, sleeping in the portico of a Catholic elementary school opposite St. Patrick’s Church, going inside only to wash her hair in the bathroom. She ate at Loaves and Fishes, the church’s hot lunch program, sitting apart and refusing other charity. Few people knew her name, and some thought she was a mute. But a beneficent citizen, Toni Breese, managed to befriend Liz, often giving her a jar of peanut butter for the weekend. Sister Teresa Ann Leahy, principal of the school, says Liz was in some ways “a great teacher about homelessness and pain.”

With Walter Washington, a language arts teacher at the school, Liz would chat over coffee and doughnuts on Sunday, and she told him about majoring in English at Stanford. Walter, a black man who’d had some travails of his own, thinks she opened up to him partly on that basis.

Watsonville native and Santa Cruz Sentinel columnist Steve Bankhead, who walks his dogs in the early morning in a local park, would sometimes see Liz at the Little League field, sitting alone, warming herself in the stands behind first base, and “smiling serenely at the empty diamond.” Depending on the weather, she might sleep in the shelter of the first-base dugout. At other times, Steve found her among stacks of books in the library. Vicki Allen, the librarian, recalls Liz often spending the better part of the day at her table, reading classics, fiction, translations, smiling and nodding. Did Steve ever speak to her? “No,” he answers quickly, and he dearly regrets that.

Though Liz’s family sent money and visited her, she didn’t want help—“Don’t you dare institutionalize me!” Once a thorough skeptic, by 1998 she was regularly attending morning Mass, sitting in a pew well at the back. Visiting in June 1999, her brother Chris found her looking much better and more equable.

On July 4th or 5th, 1999, Liz left Watsonville, telling Kathleen, another homeless woman, “I’m going home.” On the 6th, Sister Teresa, who was driving on Pacheco Pass Road east of Route 101, saw her walking with her few belongings. Probably on foot all the while, Liz made her way 45 miles to San Luis Reservoir in Merced County. In September, her family told police they hadn’t seen her all summer.

In mid-January 2000, a duck hunter near the reservoir found a sleeping bag, clothing, papers, among them Liz’s passport, and a snapshot of Walter Washington holding a black cat. On February 1 around midnight, a quarter-mile away, fishermen discovered some skeletal remains, which were sent to a Virginia lab. Thanks to a Watsonville deputy sheriff’s wife, Marsha Tanner, secretary at St. Patrick’s Church, the two finds were connected. Forensic analysis declared the cause of death “unknown.”

Elizabeth Wiltsee, the Smiling Lady, was remembered with an 8 a.m. Mass on March 18, 2000. In the Watsonville church, packed with schoolchildren, teachers, and townspeople, Liz’s familiar faded red-and-white sweatshirt was draped over her empty pew seat. Her father, George, and brothers, App and Chris, met those parishioners who’d known Liz and were shown her haunts. Her prime sanctuary, Watsonville’s public library, with the help of a savings account discovered after her death, will dedicate the Elizabeth Wiltsee Study Room.

So far, that's my sense of Liz’s story. But recovering it has grown into something more. The story’s Stanford phase, 1966-70, I might have summoned up sketchily anytime since then. But recently I’ve near-feverishly needed to complete the rest.

Over the years since 1970, when there was a recommendation to file under the w’s, I’d occasionally come on my pagelong, rapidly typed evaluation of Liz’s Beckett thesis and catch my breath in pleasure at the memory. Now and then, wondering what bright career she’d pursued, I’d resolve to get in touch but would then neglect to do so. Last December, my son, Alek, called from college wanting some leads for a Waiting for Godot essay. Looking through a study of Beckett, I chanced on the phrase “this dust of words,” got out those charmed thesis comments from my file, and called the Alumni Association, eager to learn Liz’s whereabouts. No luck, no listing. I spelled the name slowly again, and suddenly customer service rep Pauline Baukol said, “Oh, here’s something . . . but she’s shown as deceased.”

It knocked the breath out; something in me buckled. Such writing, such wit, plus such keen recollections from a generation ago, my first years at Stanford. Liz was only 50 when she perished, much younger than I am: this flouts the Order of Things. “No, no, no life?” Lear cries to Cordelia, “Thou’lt come no more.” Yet the memorial page in what would have been Liz’s 30th-reunion book holds 63 names—hers being the last and for me the most stunning. I couldn’t take in this death, couldn’t square it with the sunlit foothills outside my office window and the marvelous students in my life this year.

Of course any loss stirs pain and reflection. One week earlier, a memorial gathering for Albert Guerard had reminded me how deeply I still value the humane attentive spirit he brought to literature at Stanford, especially in the late ’60s. But Albert lived till 86, in the fullness of years.

And unlike the sudden loss of someone you’ve been in touch with, what made this loss of Liz Wiltsee most hard to absorb was how silently, how invisibly it had occurred, under cover of three decades incommunicado. In an old New Yorker piece called “Sadness of Parting,” reposing in a barber chair with his eyes closed to the stroking of scissors, E.B. White hears from far away a customer leaving.

“Goodbye,” he said to the barbers. “Goodbye,” echoed the barbers. And without ever returning to consciousness, or opening our eyes, or thinking, we joined in. “Goodbye,” we said, before we could catch ourself. Then, all at once, the sadness of the occasion struck us, the awful dolor of bidding farewell to someone we had never seen.

With Liz, I had seen her but never said goodbye.

What was there to do, lacking even her absence? Foraging memory, placing lengthy phone calls to her family and college friends, over and over going back to my evaluation and recommendation, luckily finding the senior thesis and rereading Beckett, fruitlessly querying colleagues, obtaining and viewing the 1970 film, locating news clippings from her last months, seeing the photos and writings her family assembled, visiting Liz’s Watsonville one year after the memorial Mass: all this became the way of living with a strange loss, the means of writing “to find a way back,” as Liz said of Beckett’s quest, to make her absence present—so much so, that my teaching and students in 2001 began at times to seem a shade unreal, as against the bygone intensities I was inhabiting.

Naturally this writing also meant musing about teaching and students. It’s a curiously split existence: you’re working at once for yourself and others, but with greatly varying degrees of awareness and control. In the moment, there’s almost no telling what good or ill you’re doing students—and later’s another matter. As a teacher and person you would seem to be growing, yourself, while students come and go, reliving your growth again and again. Yet students also come and come; like the lovers on Keats’s Grecian urn, they’re uncannily forever young while you unremittingly age. Beckett would say it’s a mug’s game, and it can seem thankless, like making children’s meals day-in, day-out.

Two years ago, a man from the Class of 1970, who knew Liz well at Stanford, heartliftingly inscribed for Mary and me a book he’d just published: “I loved you then and I love you now.” What a blessing to have prized a student long ago and still keep his friendship a generation later.

In fetching back so zealously to Liz’s college years, I couldn’t help wondering about our connection back then. Thus it was with a kind of pathetic gratitude, toward the end of a phone conversation, that I heard a friend of hers say, “You know, she liked you a lot.”

Whatever Liz herself may have felt, I can barely believe the freehanded manner in my 1970 evaluation of her thesis, particularly its unwonted admission at the end: “I can confess now that I was sorry at the beginning of the year, or was it last spring, that you were doing Beckett. I figured that rather than another semiparodic raid on the void with words, cathartic to you, why not instead carve out or construct some objectively pertinent, socially recognizable area of literary evaluation? But I was wrong, wasn’t I?” I wonder what intonation—wry? tender? cheering?—Liz heard in that last question.

I was wrong, wasn’t I? Cathartic, maybe, but objectively pertinent, socially recognizable? Those would have been misguided aims to impose, as I seem to have recognized. Yet now I wince at a comment in my February 1970 recommendation. “This independence even carried her too far, I suspect, in her decision to make her own sense of things.” Surely I meant this as a strength, as praise?

Looking into Liz’s thesis once more, with a hindsight we would so gladly relinquish, it’s possible to hear something further behind the words, both Beckett’s and hers. Take the sentence of Molloy’s from which she drew her title: “I’m all these words, all these strangers, this dust of words, with no ground for their settling, no sky for their dispersing.” Granted, Beckett even at his most buoyant must always be courting nothingness, chipping away at silence. For certain spirits that does the trick.

Here now is a rare moment, near the end of her thesis, when Liz speaks of herself. She has cited John Donne, for whom no man was an island because each was a piece of the main. “Never send to know for whom the bell tolls: it tolls for thee.” But she has also written “Man: island” and insisted on “Island washed in the sea’s delving.” Then she asks, “And my blithe questions, who and what and where and why—sent to know, where nothing is to be known. See, they return. It tolls for me.”

“I’m going home,” Liz said before setting out on Pacheco Pass Road. “Before she left Watsonville,” her obituary reads, “those who knew her said she had become far more calm, collected and peaceful, and seemed to have developed some inner purpose.” That may hold some comfort. To my mind, the very last phrases of The Unnamable, the third volume in Beckett’s trilogy, sound fitting: “It will be the silence, where I am, I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” Or the end of Liz’s own essay, where in a rhythm kindred to Beckett’s she gives thanks to “all the words that have helped us get this far, not very far, far enough.”


John Felstiner has taught in Stanford’s English Department since 1965. His books include Translating Neruda: The Way to Macchu Picchu; Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew; Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan; and a Norton anthology, Jewish American Literature.

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