Tributes for Amy Kaplan
Amy Kaplan, 66, died peacefully at home in Philadelphia on July 30, 2020, of glioblastoma.
Amy was born in New York City and raised in New Rochelle. She attended Brandeis as an undergraduate and got her PhD in English from Johns Hopkins University. She spent her early career at Yale and then at Mt. Holyoke College, living and co-raising her and Harvey Weiss’s daughter Rose in Amherst, MA, her home for 20 years. For the last fourteen years she has been the Edward Kane Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania. She served as department chair from 2013 to 2016.
Amy was a scholar of American literary and cultural studies, an extraordinary thinker and writer whose work on the culture of US imperialism transformed the field and will resonate for generations of scholars to come.
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I’m going to write some sentimental things about Amy Kaplan, who was always very skeptical about people (me, in particular) who wrote sentimental things, but, there you have it. Amy was a brilliant, unsparing, unindulgent reader. This is true of her writing, too, which is so direct and so impossibly clear and clarifying. The intro to the realism book reads like it just dropped out of the sky. She always took me seriously, even when I wasn’t taking myself particularly seriously. But the main thing Amy taught me is how to *do* this job, not *be* this job. She understood, better than anyone I’ve met, what it meant to do this kind of work *as* work—as important and sustaining as she believed it to be—and as only a portion of a much larger, richer life. I’ve made a number of choices, since leaving grad school, to prioritize family over professional advancement, and there is nobody who was more unequivocally supportive of me in those times, nobody who telegraphed less judgment. It’s hard to express how meaningful that is. I wanted to work with Amy because of the luminousness of the realism book, but, to be honest, it was as much because Judy Frank, her friend, was my undergrad mentor, and Judy told me I should. There are circuits outside scholarship and teaching and college. They mattered to Amy, and they matter to me.
—Phillip Maciak, Penn English Ph.D.
If smart and generous are the currencies of academia, Amy possessed untold wealth. She lives on as an extraordinary colleague and person.
—Rita Copeland, English & Classical Studies
Amy and I arrived at Penn about the same time in the early 2000s. We had offices across the hallway from each other in Fisher-Bennett Hall and immediately bonded. She was one of my closest colleagues and closest friends whose advice and conversations I treasured for many years, on many subjects—whether it was film, politics, food, or life in academia. Over the last two years, I saw her from time to time and witnessed the enormous strength and vibrant spirit she always had through those difficult times. I will miss her.
—Timothy Corrigan, English & Cinema Studies
Tim and I shared a love of spontaneity with Amy, and we have so many wonderful memories of spontaneous outings with Amy and Paul—on walks, to restaurants, to movies, and even an impromptu boat ride on the Schuylkill. Amy's combination of lighthearted humor and honest, thoughtful engagement made her an ideal companion, and we feel so fortunate to have had those wonderful times. At Penn, where Amy was Tim's treasured colleague in the English department, I was so honored to receive the Provost's teaching award for which she nominated me, and I will always appreciate the time and energy she selflessly gave towards making this happen. I know I am only one of many whom Amy supported in this, and so many other ways. We will miss her dearly, and send Paul and her family our deepest condolences.
—Marcia Ferguson, English & Theatre Arts
One of my all-time favorite English classes was Vietnam War in literature and film. Amy Kaplan taught this class, and I will never forget her wisdom and enthusiasm in teaching us. I still have most of the books that we read in the class on my shelf. She left a lasting impression on my experience in the English department and in all of college.
—Michel Liu, Penn alum
Amy was chair when I first arrived at Penn; I'd held her in awe as a scholar, and watching her run the department with such fierce commitment and such a level head only increased that feeling. "My motto is, 'there are no emergencies in the English Department,'" she once joked to me, explaining how she organized her days. That sense of perspective took immense work and steadiness, though she carried it lightly. As a senior colleague she was a model of how to do the job—pragmatic and unshowy in her support, always showing up in the truest sense. Her love for the students she worked with was palpable. I was lucky enough to serve on a dissertation committee as well as on the Graduate Executive Committee with her, and in both contexts it was clear that she thought constantly about what her students needed and were capable of. In meetings and in conversation she was frank and incisive, never unkind, a wholly no-bullsh*t person every hour of the day. It was energizing to be around her.
—Emily Steinlight, English
When the Department's offices were on Market Street during the years when Fisher-Bennett was being restored, I had a very small office next door to Amy's large one. She and I became friendly. We'd chat in the hall. She was very kind. We liked discussing nonfiction books and current events and the interconnection of the two. I remember the pride with which she talked about her family. She seemed uncommonly interested in other people. I was such a junior colleague and never once felt that way around her. She was a decent person, and I cherish having known her.
—Paul Hendrickson, English
Amy hired me to Penn—I was straight out of grad school, and she mentored me through every professional hurdle. She shared so much with me along the way: her own feelings about writing, about the profession, about the troubled world. That razor-sharp sensibility always cut to what mattered! How lucky I was to have been Amy's colleague—and how devastating it is for all of us to lose her.
—Jo Park, English
Soon after I’d joined the department, Amy and I bonded over our shared interest in war literature, and over the fact that we’d both come to Penn from small liberal arts colleges. She had a gift for making little commonalities the root of a friendship that then branched far from where it began. My family and I ended up moving across the street from her and Paul, so for twelve years I was fortunate to be Amy’s neighbor as well as her colleague. In our shared departmental work over the years, I came to admire her ability to grasp, quickly and unerringly, the heart of a situation. As a scholar–teacher–activist she had few peers. What’s most vivid to me right now, though, is her deep enjoyment of enjoyment. She was as ready to savor as she was quick to understand.
—Paul Saint-Amour, English
One of my most vivid memories of her is from 2007, when our then-provost tried unilaterally to block my tenure. She herself had just learned this from our chair, and, walking out of his office, she met me with a look (no words at all) that was 20% compassion and 80% controlled rage (not just on my behalf, but also because of the unprecedented violation of university policy on promotions). She fiercely helped lead the charge to restore ethical practices, and in the process helped save my job and my career. I think there must be hundreds of people with similar stories about her sternly principled and uncompromising efforts (so often successful) to push the world in the direction of justice and fair play.
—Max Cavitch, English
As chair of the English department, Amy was a wonderful mentor to me when I first joined Penn. She encouraged me to teach ambitious courses. I am a great admirer of her critiques of cultural imperialism. Conversations with her were so easy—she had such wit and empathy. There was a remarkable clarity to her writings and the same candor came across in conversations about academics and life. She will be missed.
—Rahul Mukherjee, English & Cinema Studies
When I took Amy's Intro to American Literature course in the spring of 2003, I was a timid Penn sophomore. The class was larger than most English courses, and as a first-generation college student from a rural place, I was still gaining confidence—I didn't talk much, but I sure did listen. The war in Iraq began. 9/11 was recent. Amy related our readings to these events and she made her concerns for the country clear. Yet, she never forced her opinions on us. Instead, she encouraged students to weigh in themselves and taught us how historical texts can illuminate the present. I was grappling with my own politics and the fact that they differed from my family's. I had friends serving in both wars. Her class no doubt helped me sort through all of this, with literature as a guide. The fact that she was willing to be personal was huge, and has served as a model for me in my own teaching in the years since.
—Jamie-Lee Josselyn, English & Creative Writing, Penn alum
It was such a privilege to know Amy as a mentor and a role model and a friend. Her intellect was so powerful and so sharp, but she wielded it humbly, in the service of the truth, following wherever it led her, and her thinking was always grounded in a deep foundation of kindness and compassion. Amy taught me so much—about writing and reading, of course, but also about being brave and speaking the truth in plain terms, and about not wasting time. Not wasting time on someone else’s idea of what’s important instead of your own, or on trying to do something perfectly when doing something well is hard enough, or on trying to be someone you’re not, or on talking around something you ought to just come out and say. The illness that sickened her so terribly for two years and that cut her life short has robbed us all of years we might have spent with her, learning more from her. But maybe the most profound lesson she taught me was that our time is precious because our lives are precious and we owe it to ourselves to do what we can to make both of those things our own. I will hold tight to that lesson for the rest of my life. Thank you, Amy.
—Thomas Dichter, Penn English Ph.D.