The Professor

& Other Writings
Harper Collins, 2010
Order from the publisher, Harper Collins, or go to Terry Castle’s Page on Amazon.com.

(Reviewers’ comments)

“A Great Memoir! At Last”!–The New Republic

“[An] addictive mix of humor, confession, and intellectual energy”—New York Magazine

“These essays are written by a brilliant mind at play. There is a sparkling intensity and wit in the tone, tempered by wisdom, but loosened by honesty and humor. Terry Castle is a great noticer, a superb and fearless observer of both herself and the world. The essays in The Professor are likely to become classics of their kind.” — Colm Toibin, author of ‘The Master’ and ‘Brooklyn’

“A Jedi knight of literary exploration and lesbian scholarship, Terry Castle lays aside her light-saber in The Professor and Other Writings and grabs hold of the comedy-club microphone: the result is a greatest-hits package of show-stopping monologues and offhand-genius riffs… This is the book we Terry Castle fans have been waiting for, and those new to her work are in for a revelation – a brain-goosing, entertaining blast.” — James Wolcott, Vanity Fair

“[E]very page hums with a kind of cathartic glee — a testimony to Castle’s ability to transform even the grimmest scenarios into savage comic prose. One-liners abound (“If one had to be female, after all, one might as well be Janis Joplin,” she writes of her attempts to blend in with ’70s hippie-chic).  And a serious knowledge of feminist theory mingles with digressions on the “hottitude” of Daniel Craig. “The Professor and Other Writings” documents a brilliant mind discovering a deeper, more intimate mode of expression.”— Salon.com

“Cultural scholar and essayist Castle (The Literature of Lesbianism) puts her keen analytical powers and droll wit to fine use in her latest collection of autobiographical essays. Written between 2002 and 2009, Castle’s seven pieces are wildly diverse in subject matter, including a rumination on controversial jazz virtuoso Art Pepper and an obituary of late leftist icon Susan Sontag. Castle’s voice shines as she repeatedly peels back layers of assumptions to reveal thought-provoking, often funny and sometimes moving observations: an essay about Castle’s obsessive interest in WWI becomes a thoughtful meditation on feminine courage, both horrifying and amusing (often in a single paragraph); a seemingly-banal piece about home interior magazines becomes an astute examination of the personal struggle for security in the post-9/11 world. Obscure references and a predictably academic approach never let readers forget they’re dealing with a professional scholar, but Castle’s fierce wit and self-deprecating style keep her text from becoming stilted, proving that “entertaining” and “high-minded” needn’t be mutually exclusive.”—Publisher’s Weekly

“Irresistible [....] The exuberance and the wit of Castle’s style enacts her embrace of vitality—her pleasure in language (her splendid vocabulary will have you Googling) and in the cultural artifacts, high, middle, and low, that she lives with, analyzes, delights in. Sentence by intensely responsive sentence, at once careering and precise, she brings her world alive in all its color and absurdity.”–Ross Posnock, The New Republic

“Terry Castle’s tale of her love affair as a student with an older professor is touching and wicked: she is a brilliant stylist and everything she writes is riveting.” —Edmund White, author of ‘City Boy,’ ‘My Lives,’ and ‘A Boy’s Own Story’

“Here, assuredly, is, for many, the first big literary debut of 2010, and it’s from an oft-published writer who is 56 years old. For those of us who have had to give up—for one reason or another—regular familiarity with the contents of the Atlantic Monthly and the London Review of Books, this terrific collection of pieces from the lesbian scholar who teaches at Stanford is a blast of hilarity, candor, trenchancy and literary grace for which we were almost entirely unprepared.

“It begins right under the author’s dust flap picture where she is blurbed thus: ‘Terry Castle was once described by Susan Sontag as the most expressive, most enlightening literary critic at large today.’ In exchange for a morsel of literary praise that instantly inflated a hundredfold merely by virtue of the source, we get inside the book a hilarious and brilliant demolition of Sontag’s relationship with Castle in a 16-page memoir called ‘Desperately Seeking Susan.’ It’s self-deprecatory, wickedly candid, smart to the point of recklessness and, one guesses, only minimal in its unfairness (perhaps, one wonders, Sontag’s final bits of carelessness in their relationship were occasioned more by her fatal illness and its treatment than her personality flaws).

“We have, by that point in this terrific book, already read Castle’s exploration of the disproportionately large number of female World War I scholars around and—bless her—her encomium to the great West Coast bebop alto saxophonist Art Pepper, including her opinion that Pepper’s autobiography seemed—when she read it—’the greatest book I’ve ever read. It knocked my former top pick, Clarissa, right out of first place.’

“Still to come is the book’s greatest piece, a witty and moving 190-page memoir of her college affair with a female professor (“My Sapphic salad days [the 1970s] and dire, yet life-shaping acquaintance with The Professor” she calls it). There is a voice here that is wildly entertaining, totally compelling and not really quite like any other you’re likely to have read. “— ‘Editor’s Choice,’ Buffalo News

“Incurably curious, an obsessive autodidact, equipped with an allusion for any occasion and intrepidly self-aware, Terry Castle trains her fully engaged attention on jazz musician Art Pepper, World War I battlefields, Susan Sontag, shelter magazines, graduate school, Georgia O’Keeffe and assorted other matters in “The Professor and Other Writings.” Along the way, like some ideal traveling companion, she informs and amuses, speculates and startles, inserts details about her own beguiling identity, and doubles back to enrich and enfold them in an ever-deepening story line.

“The central subject of that narrative, prismatically deployed across seven essays, is Castle herself. In this questing, deeply funny and joltingly wonderful book by a Stanford literary scholar, the life of the author’s abundant mind and heart are explored in an altogether scintillating way. Readers whose notice may not have been snared by such previous Castle works as “The Literature of Lesbianism: A Historical Anthology From Ariosto to Stonewall” are in for a major find.

“In trying to account for a great book’s greatness, a reviewer is tempted to quote from the text, to point and gape and share the view. The temptation cannot be resisted in this case. Here, at risk of short-circuiting the flow and darting momentum of the whole, is a tiny sample of Castle’s glowing, febrile prose:

“Thinking about her (Minimalist painter Agnes Martin) has a soothing effect, like imagining myself reincarnated as a smooth and shiny pebble, glinting in sunlight at the bottom of a cold, clear mountain stream.”

“Among other things, Sontag was a great comic character; Dickens or Flaubert or James would have had a field day with her. The carefully cultivated moral seriousness – strenuousness might be a better word – coexisted with a fantastical, Mrs. Jellyby-like absurdity.”

“After noting that “master-satirists like Pope and Johnson and Austen didn’t simply ridicule pretension and folly in others, even if that was what people hostile to such burlesque sometimes said,” Castle concludes that “the very greatest satire, I came to think – the kind that lives forever – ultimately grew out of a debunking attitude toward the self.”

“That last observation comes near the end of the title piece, a recollection of Castle’s grad-school affair with the eponymous “Professor” that makes up more than half the book. The older woman emerges, in this wrenching, bleakly comic rite of passage, as a seductive, manipulative, even malevolent figure, a kind of nightmare mentor bent on destroying her eager and naive young protegee. But Castle, who always pushes past conventional thought and feeling, isn’t about to settle for an act of literary revenge – though she freely admits her appetite for it.

“In the final movement of this emotionally intricate memoir, Castle gradually foregrounds the inner light of her initiation tale. The story, as writer and reader discover together, is nothing less than the author’s own moral education – a real-life Jane Austen novel re-keyed to the manners and mores of 1970s radical lesbianism, a Midwestern university’s seriocomic English faculty and the tranquil reflections of a middle-aged, contentedly coupled Stanford academic.

“Masterly as it is, this main event by no means trumps what precedes it. The book opens with an unsettling story about Castle’s search for the grave of her English great-uncle, who died in World War I. Like any first-rate writer, Castle invariably finds a great deal more than what she went looking for. Her meandering European car trip to old trench sites leads her, in a skein of associations, to “Night of the Living Dead,” A.E. Housman, Canadian writer Stephen O’Shea and on to Sept. 11. Recognizing a “vertiginous dread” that could “soar and frolic within me, like an evil biplane on the loose,” Castle finally confronts “the powerful taboo” – “to confess in public that you are afraid of death.” It’s a fearless act of self-scrutiny.

“Wherever she goes – to her forlorn childhood home in San Diego; to Sicily, where she’s plagued by digestive woes; to Santa Fe, on a sweetly conciliatory road trip with her mother – Castle is at once penetratingly keen and unfailingly good company. If she’s half as entertaining in person as she is in print, her Stanford classes ought to have long waiting lists.

“Among her many gifts is an uncanny sense of an ending. In “My Heroin Christmas,” Castle threads together a vigorous tribute to saxophonist Pepper’s 1979 autobiography, “Straight Life,” with a decidedly more diffident view of her mother’s second husband and Castle’s variously troubled stepsiblings. A case of writer’s block, involving an essay on the 18th century French court figure Madame de Pompadour, is part of the mix, an anomalous fact that seems weirdly integral when you’re careening along through the piece.

“In its lurching but inevitable-seeming way, this “Heroin Christmas” concludes with a ludicrous piece of grandstanding by one of her relatives. How Castle sees this sorry little stunt and what she reveals about herself, in a casually devastating final line, must be read to be believed. And believe it, unforgettably, you will.–Steven Winn, San Francisco Chronicle

“In the title essay of Castle’s latest collection, she unloads about unloading. ‘The Professor’ concerns a ‘near-ruinous’ affair with a female professor while she was in grad school. And Castle realizes why she’s doing it: ‘Writing, I’m convinced, is nothing but revenge—a way of twirling one’s mustache, donning buckler and sword and feather hat, shaking one’s gauntleted fist at the gods.’ But really, what Castle is writing about, or for, isn’t revenge. In her first book of personal essays, she is persistently trying to answer the question at the root of any sense of self: Why the hell does she do the things she does?

“What’s most fascinating about Castle’s approach to memoir is the way she strikes at truths about herself while erecting giant facades of self-deprecation—a way of exposing and guarding herself at the same time. While discussing the rueful reign of The Professor in her life, she chooses the most absurd and hilarious metaphor: ‘The Professor was…so long the resident she-Minotaur in my private psychic labyrinth.’ In an essay on her need to visit the grave of her uncle who died in World War I, she writes: ‘Bridget took a photograph of me by the grave—glum and fat and respectful—and that was that.’

“A literary critic known best for her work on lesbian literature, Castle is a master stylist—hilarious, insightful and digressive in the best way. The end of 2009 saw quite a stir over the lack of women writers on year-end best-of lists. So a note to fellow editors: File this one away for December.” –Jonathan Messinger, Time Out Chicago

“Castle’s new collection of autobiographical essays succeeds in entertaining, enlightening, and provoking its readers. One needs no familiarity with Sicily or with Art Pepper to enjoy Castle’s pieces on these subjects; on the contrary, those with little to no knowledge of Art Pepper will be inspired to seek out recordings and books to get to know the man and his work. Shorter essays on subjects such as Susan Sontag, interior design magazines, and travels with one’s mother form the lead-in to the book-length essay ‘The Professor,’ a piece about Castle’s relationship, while a graduate student, with a professor. Although the relationship lasted only a few months, its effects were far-reaching. Castle is well known for her award-winning anthology The Literature of Lesbianism, as well as her essays in the London Review of Books and the New Republic. This new collection’s savage wit and honesty should only bolster her popularity and garner her a whole slew of new readers. VERDICT:  A worthy read for anyone who enjoys a good think. With essay titles like ‘My Heroin Christmas’ and ‘Desperately Seeking Susan,’ it will attract even those who usually steer away from ‘literary’ essays.“—Library Journal

“Critic and cultural commentator Castle delivers a vibrant series of essays on art, travel and the personal relationships in her life.

“Each of the pieces contains elements of autobiography, but it would be inaccurate to call the author a mere memoirist, as she deftly uses her personal experience to illuminate an array of other subjects. In “Courage, Mon Amie,” she analyzes her longtime fascination with the ‘filthy minutiae’ of World War I while relating the time she moved to England with her mother for three years. In ‘My Heroin Christmas,’ she delves into what she calls the greatest book she ever read, the autobiography of jazz legend Art Pepper, while also reflecting on her stepbrother’s suicide. A too-brief essay on her acquaintance with Susan Sontag deftly portrays the famed writer as laughably narcissistic and difficult, but Castle’s insight into her own awkwardness and hero-worship are just as intriguing. The long, ambitious title essay, which takes up more than half the book, is the funny, heartbreaking story of Castle’s secret three-month affair with a much-older female professor when she was a naive college student in the ’70s. The author captures the obsession and self-consciousness of young love and paints a remarkably detailed portrait of the professor, who seems to have been, on many levels, a deeply unpleasant person. The best parts of the essay, however, deal with lesbian culture in the 70s. Castle subtly shows how even in that relatively liberated era, most lesbians concealed who they were to their friends and acquaintances; even the professor was deeply closeted. Some of the details are simply hilarious, e.g., the overwrought lyrics of a lesbian folk singer, which have to be read to be believed.  A sharply written, deeply personal collection.” —Kirkus Reviews