My Chicago Law Moment: Edna Epstein, ’73, Remembers Grant Gilmore’s Class Unfolding ‘As If He Were Teaching Poetry’

Two things struck Edna Epstein, ’73, as she sat in Professor Grant Gilmore’s Contracts class more than 45 years ago. The first was that her classmates were an unusually curious bunch, like her. They didn’t get so caught up in the anxieties of answer-seeking that they failed to appreciate the law’s subtle turns, or the way that its complexities could unspool gently before them.

“There was a sense that the law was more than just a series of rules,” she said.

The second thing was that this openness and patience enabled them all to appreciate Gilmore’s style in a way that more hurried students might not. (Gilmore’s style was well known: A fellow scholar, in applauding a two-volume work of Gilmore’s, once described his “lucidity and grace,” saying that his written work stood “as a reproach to those who think style is somehow separate from substance. The mind at work in these pages is fastidious, ironic, aristocratic.”)

This manner was  apparent in the classroom, too.

“The class really unfolded almost as if he were teaching poetry,” Epstein said.

It is possible she recognized something familiar in Gilmore’s style; after all, she and her Contracts professor shared a similar academic past. Gilmore had earned a PhD in romance languages from Yale in 1936, and Epstein had earned a PhD in romance languages and literature from Harvard in 1967. They had even  written a thesis on the same French poet Stéphane Mallarmé, she said.

Whatever the reason, though, there was a chemistry to the entire group—a shared appreciation for the intellectual dimension that Gilmore presented and a genuine interest in exploring the nuances of contracts law. At the end of the two-semester course, the entire class had risen to their feet, thanking Gilmore with a standing ovation.

“There are personalities to classes, and there was something about that particular class that I had the good fortune to be in that made it a very intellectually playful one,” she said. “[We] were willing to suspend [our], Oh, what's going to happen? and What's the rule? until [we could] tease it out of the situations.”