Born in New York in 1940, she was a bright light at the University of Chicago for 34 years, also teaching at St. John’s College in Annapolis and in various programs of the Hudson Institute in Washington. Notwithstanding these elite affiliations, she was democratic in her means and aims, a defender of the liberal arts as a heritage that belongs to and benefits everyone, with a sneakily elemental way of bringing them to life.
When I met Amy—then “Mrs. Kass”—I was a freshman who had crept into her class on King Lear where I did not belong, hoping she would sign my registration slip. She sternly admonished me that this was a class meant for experienced students who would all be held to the same high standard, as I turned myself inside out promising to make every effort to meet it. She peered down her nose at me, her face impassive but her eyes dancing. “I believe you,” she said.
What followed was a transformative experience. Her standards were indeed high, enforced by a finely calibrated nonsense detector, but raised by an even more finely calibrated radar for a promising line of thought. “Another sentence, please,” was her frequent rejoinder: You haven’t made your case yet, but I sense you have one in you. All the same, you needed both humility and pluck to make it. Naming no names, I knew one cowering student who always made a point of sitting next to her so as to avoid her penetrating stare from across the room. That stare could plow the earth out from under you if ever directed that way with disgust. But it never was—at most, with disbelief, and a pointer back to solid ground. Indeed, although she might be said to “never suffer fools,” she was always suffering fools, driven by a bottomless ambition that we could think and be so much better than we knew. Her eyes lit up with a kind of knowing surprise every time that faith was rewarded, as if she expected no less but still marveled at what was said.
As for the course’s content? That one tragedy, just the one, mined for all the treasure it holds. Is there even enough to go on, you may ask, twice a week for months in a single Shakespeare play? Oh yes.
Read it all.