After receiving a masters in English from the University of Toronto in 1968, Kathryn Bloom decided to a take a few years off before pursuing her PhD. A few years turned into four decades and a successful career in public relations, not in the academy. “Life intervened,” Bloom says now.
Yet, Bloom never gave up her scholarly aspirations. More than 40 years later, she obtained a second masters, this time in Jewish Liberal Studies from Hebrew College in Newton. And now, she’s just a dissertation away from earning her PhD in English from Northeastern.
The topic of her dissertation, the writings of two successful American Jewish female novelists, reveals much about Bloom’s interests and her life story. Bloom is writing about Fannie Hurst and Edna Ferber, middlebrow writers who enjoyed great success in the early and middle 20th century but whose popularity faded in the second half of the century.
“What drew me to them was they are American Jewish women who were childless and they made own way in life,” Bloom says. “They were self-supporting career women their whole lives.”
So was Bloom. After graduating from Douglass College, the women’s college of Rutgers University, with a degree in English, she went to Toronto for her masters. She loved the city, enough to continue to rent a small apartment there five decades later to be close her old graduate school friends. She enjoyed the program despite its emphasis on the western canon that tended to overlook women and people of color.
But there were few jobs for newly minted English PhDs in 1968. Plus, “if ever I got a job, I would never earn more than $3,000 a year,” she says.
So Bloom fulfilled another dream, not unknown to New Jersey suburbanites – to work in Manhattan. She took several secretarial jobs, including one in the national office of United Jewish Appeal (UJA) just as the 1973 Yom Kippur war began. She was soon promoted to a staff writer at the UJA and was director of special projects when she left five years later.
Her next job was at the pharmaceutical company Bristol-Myers. She traveled the world and met Nobel laureates. Her most meaningful work, however, was negotiating with activists as the AIDS epidemic exploded in the 1980s. Under great pressure from groups such as ACT UP, Bristol-Myers, along with other pharmaceutical companies, worked to get an anti-AIDS drug to market. Bristol-Myers eventually received a license to market one of the first HIV medications, Videx. “ACT UP changed medicine,” Bloom recalls. “They were very positive, very much for patients. I had great respect for them.”
In the middle of 1991, Bloom took a new job with a company she “had never heard of, in Boston, a city I never thought I’d live in.” The company was Biogen Inc., a Cambridge-based pharmaceutical company founded 13 years earlier by several prominent biologists, including two who were later awarded Nobel Prizes.
When Bloom joined, Biogen was growing into a billion-dollar company with a roster of important drugs. Bloom started as director of communications. “I traveled all over, met fascinating people, who were principled and creative.” She ended her career there as senior director of public affairs, which included establishing and then running Biogen’s corporate foundation.
After 19 years she decided to retire from Biogen and revive her academic interests. “Now I’ll do a PhD, now I’ll do what I really wanted to do,” she says of her post-retirement thinking.
She started with the masters at Hebrew College. Bloom explains that she had been “brought up in a positive Jewish cultural home, but not a religious home,” and she wanted to learn more about Judaism. She wrote her thesis on a 1959 Philip Roth story, “Eli the Fanatic.” A version of her masters’ thesis was published in the October 2015 edition of Philip Roth Studies as “The Secret Hasid: Reading Roth’s ‘Eli, the Fanatic’ as a Kabbalistic Text.”
Hebrew College didn’t have an appropriate PhD program so Bloom began scouting around Boston. (By this time, the ex-New Yorker had become more than acclimated to Boston.)
“I had very little interaction with Northeastern, even though I lived down the block” from the school, Bloom says. One day, “walking by, I looked at the campus, and thought, why not?”
She started as a special student in Fall 2011, which enabled her to take four courses. She was then admitted as a regular student into the PhD program in English.
Writing her dissertation on Hurst and Ferber seemed a natural fit. Bloom appreciated the parallels between their lives, as Jewish career women who became Manhattanites, and her own.
Hurst and Ferber were born in the same year (1885) and died in the same year (1968). They both grew up in assimilated Jewish families in the Midwest, Hurst in St. Louis and Ferber in Illinois, Iowa, and Wisconsin. They both moved to Manhattan as their careers took off, becoming best-selling authors and public figures devoted to liberal causes. “They knew each other, though there was no warmth or rapport between them,” Bloom says.
Along with their life stories, Bloom says she also was drawn to their social realist literature. Bloom says both women are appropriately characterized as middlebrow writers, though they are somewhat underappreciated. Her interest in them stems from their popularity and their descriptions of a particular social milieu.
Hurst’s greatest success came in the post-World War I era with the publication of best sellers such as Lummox (1923), Back Street (1931), and Imitation of Life (1933). Bloom is particularly fond of Back Street, which she says has been unfairly “treated like a melodramatic potboiler but if Balzac had written it would have been considered good.” Hurst also took on directly themes of Jewish families struggling with assimilation and other issues in the years before World War II.
Ferber was less concerned with Jewish themes in her novels, though she did address them in her two autobiographies, A Peculiar Treasure (1939) and A Kind of Magic (1963). Her 1924 novel, So Big (1924), won the Pulitzer Prize. Ferber may be best known, however, for the plays she wrote with George S. Kaufman (Stage Door, The Royal Family and Dinner at Eight) and the stage and screen adaptations of her novels Showboat, Cimarron, and Giant. Her career had somewhat greater longevity than did Hurst’s, stretching into the 1950s.
Through a close textual reading of both authors, Bloom hopes in her dissertation to draw out the social context in which they were writing. Jewish Studies Program Director and English professor Lori Lefkovitz is chairing her dissertation committee. Bloom intends to complete the dissertation by the end of this year, which would be just in time for her 50th high school reunion.
Bloom probably won’t have the academic career she once envisioned but she is teaching classes at Brandeis University’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, including ones on World War I, Canadian, and Jewish Literature. She loves it.
Read the rest of the Spring 2017 Haverim Newsletter here.