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  September 11, 2000

Benjamin Spock Gave Birth
To Bloom's Distinguished Career

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass, "it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less." "The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things." "The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master - that's all."

If he had not been an imaginary character, Lynn Z. Bloom would probably consider Humpty Dumpty a close literary colleague.

That's because the professor of English has been immersed and in love with words her entire life.

When Bloom arrived on the Storrs campus in 1988 to fill an endowed professorship, the Aetna Chair in Writing, she arrived at the head of the class as the author of nearly two dozen books, including a biography of an American icon, the late Benjamin Spock.

"If you write about Dr. Spock instead of a dead author, you'll be throwing away your career," recalls Bloom of her department chair's advice back in 1965 at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland where she was a half-time assistant professor of English. Spock taught in the University's pediatrics and psychiatry programs.

As things turned out, the department chair was wrong and the situation reversed itself. The baby doctor literally gave birth to Bloom's career.

"I learned from Dr. Spock how to write clearly and in the human voice," says Bloom. "He took the dissertation jargon out of my vocabulary." In Spock's case, she says, if he didn't write clearly, it could mean life or death. And that's how Bloom has approached her writing and teaching career.

In a way, serendipity led Bloom to Spock and her journey onward to three related worlds: an exciting literary world where she has meshed writing and teaching; an academic world where she broke through a glass ceiling in an era when only five percent of Ph.D.s were women; and, a world of personal achievement and public recognition that culminated earlier this year when she was named one of six UConn faculty members recognized for enormous accomplishments as a Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor.

"Dr. Spock lived about a mile from us in Cleveland Heights," says Bloom, recalling her fledgling teaching career in the 1960s. "In line at the supermarket or browsing in the local library, I was forever hearing gossip about him and his family."

So one day Bloom picked up the phone and called Spock, whose book, Baby and Child Care, she carried under her arm along with an infant son. "I told him I had finished my doctoral dissertation on literary biographers at the University of Michigan - the kinds of connections biographers make between authors' lives and their writing - and now I wanted to write a biography to test out what I'd learned," Bloom recalls.

Spock said he was thinking about writing his own autobiography, Bloom says, but after a long pause on the telephone confided he was so busy, he'd probably never get around to it. He invited Bloom to come to his office so the two could talk about the book's prospects.

She left with his approval to write the book and a pledge to fully cooperate. Five years later in 1972 the book, Doctor Spock: Biography of a Conservative Radical, was published.

Under Bloom's pen, more than a dozen books and nearly 100 articles and book chapters have reached publication, most on literary and academic topics such as The Essay Canon; American Autobiography: A Bibliography 1945-1980; Comparison Studies as a Creative Art: Teaching, Writing, Scholarship, Administration. Some articles on the writing process and on writing anxiety were co-authored with husband Martin Bloom, a professor of social work at UConn whom, along with the late Dr. Spock, she considers both hero and mentor. She says he has gone out of his way to enhance her personal and professional life.

Bloom believes her life as an English professor and writer was inevitable from childhood. She says both parents contributed equally to that goal.

"My mother fed us a wholesome diet of library books, with slender spines and thick paper and elegant illustrations fresh from the library every week," she says.

"My father's nightly stories were dessert, high-calorie adventures of a boy and a girl whose misjudgments kept them on the knife edge of disaster until, just before lights out, the Churl-Churis, a band of gruff, sententious little men, came to the rescue."

Bloom adds that being able to delight readers with words is the most exciting life she could imagine.

As Aetna Chair of Writing, she is passing along in workshops and seminars the prospects of such an exciting life to hundreds of hopeful student writers and as many elementary and high school teachers in Connecticut who - more than 250 to date - have taken her expertise back into their own classrooms.

"The Aetna Chair gives me a chance to invent things, to be creative," she says. "It's rare and it's a privilege."

Bloom's national recognition as an English professor, lecturer and writer often take her out of Connecticut and to some non-traditiona l settings.

This summer, for example, she conducted a tailored writing workshop at the University of Maryland for some 30 faculty members at the university's agricultural school.

Her assignment: how to teach writing in a range of fields related to agriculture - from business to biology to fashion marketing.

Says Bloom: "It's called writing across the curriculum and the point is to have students write appropriately according to the conventions and expectations of their fields."

For Bloom that translates into a field of dreams.

Claudia G. Chamberlain