I accepted a review copy of Terry Castle’s book The Professor and Other Writings from the publisher because it was advertised as a book of essays about feminism and literature and art. Well it is, but it isn’t. I was expecting essays you might read in the NYRB or The New Yorker or something. Half the book is made up of essays, personal memoir-type essays, and the second half of the book is made up of the short memoir “The Professor.” Because I was expecting one thing and got another it took a bit for me to adjust but once I did I quite enjoyed the book.
Castle has an acerbic, self-deprecating humor that reaches throughout the whole book. Sometimes it gets a bit grating and I found myself wishing she be serious for a second or two, but for the most part I found her a very funny person even in the midst of describing situations that weren’t funny at all. But even with the near constant stream of humor she still manages to say interesting and thought-provoking things.
She is fascinated by World War I and one of the essays is a trip she took to find the grave of a great uncle who was killed in the war. Amidst the descriptions of bad roads, tourist traps and other disappointments, the essay turns into a sort of meditation on courage in which she reflects on and envies the sort of physical courage that men are often called on to display.
In several essays she writes about her severely dysfunctional upbringing. Her mother’s divorce and the poverty that followed, her step-father, a military man, who was never welcoming to her because she is a lesbian, and her mother who, despite being a conservative individual with plenty of problems still finds a way to accept her daughter. Castle wants to be nothing like her mother but she also realizes in one essay that she is more like her than she cares to admit and that even her now elderly mother (who gave up trying to become an artist for a family instead) can surprise her with ideas and opinions that Castle would never have given her credit for.
Then there is the essay on Susan Sontag. Castle was friends with Sontag for a while and has some hilarious stories to tell that sometimes reveal a rather goofy side to Sontag. But Sontag was also, intentionally or not, cruel.
“The Professor” part of the book is Castle’s memoir about an affair she had while in grad school with a linguistics professor. The professor never gets a name, presumably because she is still alive and because she was and still is deeply closeted. The relationship began thrillingly enough for Castle but quickly turned into a psychologically abusive one. Castle never calls the relationship abusive and when she had the chance, many years later, to join in a class action sexual harassment suit against the professor she chose not to, believing that as mean as the Professor was to her she, Castle, also had to take some responsibility for her own choices. I can’t say that I agree with her thoughts on it, but I also don’t know everything that happened even if the memoir is very detailed.
One of the things I really enjoyed about the essays is how Castle, a professor at Stanford, is so steeped in literature that she will describe people and situations by relating them to books and characters.
Besides being a professor, Castle is also an artist. Her preferred medium is collage and the cover of the book is actually one of her pieces. Her website has more examples of her art. Salon has an interview as does The Nation. New York Magazine has a review of the book. I wasn’t oh my gosh wowed by the book, but it was definitely good reading.