Doris Abramson, 82; was poet, U-Mass professor, performer

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / January 10, 2008

The simplest of syllables mattered to Doris E. Abramson. Each word of a play or a poem left her lips just as it should.

"People who didn't know her would say, 'Oh, you're English,' " said Dorothy Johnson, whom Dr. Abramson married a few years ago. "According to her stories, her mother said she talked like that at the age of 2."

In Amherst, where Dr. Abramson grew up and taught for many years at the University of Massachusetts, she became for many the voice of Emily Dickinson, reading the poet's work in performances and at a graveside ceremony each year. After retiring, she wrote poetry, musing in the introduction to one collection, "Perhaps we write memoirs or personal poems to be sure we are still here."

Dr. Abramson, who early in her career wrote a pioneering book on black American playwrights, died of cancer Monday in her New Salem home. She was 82.

"Negro Playwrights in the American Theater, 1925-1959," published in 1969, "was absolutely a groundbreaking effort, and it remains a very important piece," said Esther Terry, associate chancellor at UMass-Amherst and former chairwoman of the Afro-American studies department. "Through Doris's book, others came to understand what had been done by black American writers. Her work became a textbook, a guide."

Also a beacon for aspiring actors, Dr. Abramson counted among her students Richard Gere and Bill Pullman, who both went on to movie careers. Nearly four years ago, the American Museum of the Moving Image honored Gere at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York City. The actor invited his former teacher to the ceremony and asked her to stand while he paid tribute. "She made me feel I had something to offer," Gere said, according to an account on the New York Theater Wire website.

As a child, Dr. Abramson once accompanied her father to his work at the university, then called Massachusetts Agricultural College. The hallways she would walk as a student and a professor were then his workplace.

"And my father showed me his mops and brooms, the closet where they were kept, and the floors that were his to keep clean," she said during a convocation speech at the university in 1999.

That day became her most vivid memory of her father, who died in a car accident a few months later.

While growing up in Amherst, "I sensed I was gay quite early," she told the Globe in 1991. "I said to myself, 'It's a transitional period, and I'll get over it.' I almost married, but I realized the other side of me was more important. It's not the sexual aspect, but the day-to-day living with a man or a woman."

She graduated from the school in 1949, received a master's degree from Smith College in 1951, and earned a doctorate in theater history from Columbia University in 1967. Her book on black playwrights began as a doctoral dissertation.

"It was the first book dealing with that topic, period," said Jules Chametzky, professor emeritus at UMass-Amherst and former editor of the journal Massachusetts Review, for which Dr. Abramson was drama editor. "It opened up the territory. This was just before the surge in ethnic studies in academia and American life generally."

Dr. Abramson began teaching at the university in 1953 and retired in 1987. Along with her classes in theater history and oral interpretation of literature, she directed plays and frequently recited Dickinson's poems at public gatherings. In class, Dr. Abramson would say she and the poet had been contemporaries and do so in such a casual manner that some students didn't immediately realize she was joking.

"Here we are in Amherst, and she's talking about what we're going to be reading," said Kathy Holmes of Pelham, a former student and longtime friend. "She says, 'We're going to be reading Emily Dickinson, with whom I went to grade school.' Half of us were laughing, and the other half were writing it down."

Looming larger than her 5 feet, 2 inches, Dr. Abramson commanded a room.

"I mean this in the kindest possible way: Doris Abramson's greatest performance was herself, whether she was presiding at a dinner party for 16 people, reading the poetry of Emily Dickinson, or telling a story about a notable friend," Margo Culley, a professor emerita, wrote about her friend. "And one of the most memorable qualities about Doris was her voice: part the legacy of her study of elocution, part her sense of the theatrical, and wholly herself."

Said Chametzky: "She had these warm, beautiful gray eyes and a penetrating stare. There always were men and women who fell in love with her."

When she fell in love, though, it happened after a tumble she took while teaching a speech class at Smith College, where Johnson was a graduate student.

"She stepped out on a grated balcony, and these were the days when everybody had to wear skirts and high heels," Johnson said. "She got caught and fell probably eight or nine steps, and not only did she fall but she fell on a granite slab. I happened to have a car and drove her to the infirmary, and that was the end of that. I say she threw herself at me."

They were a couple for about 40 years and married in June 2004, after the marriage laws changed in Massachusetts.

"People would ask us how long we've been married, and we'd say, 'Three years, give or take 35,' " Johnson said.

When Dr. Abramson retired as a professor emerita, she began helping Johnson run the Common Reader bookstore near their house in New Salem, until they closed the shop in 2000.

Dr. Abramson also published two collections of poetry. In the brief poem "The Dead," she wrote: Do they hang around in heaven's hallways, waiting to be dreamed?

And for her collection "Time Will Tell," she confessed, "By now I know what a temptation it is to finger pages of one's own composition, to be reminded of accomplishments, to be reminded that one has existed."

Johnson and Dr. Abramson always owned pets and of late shared their house with three dogs and two cats. "This morning, before she died, she was a little restless," Johnson said by phone on Monday. "I was remembering an old saying and I told her, 'Heaven is the place where every dog you knew runs to greet you,' and she quieted."

In addition to Johnson, Dr. Abramson leaves her brother, Charles of Amherst.

A service will be announced.

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