Criticism & Features

Year 2010: 30 Books

David Haglund on Terry Castle’s “The Professor and Other Writings”

By David Haglund

Each day leading up to the March 10 announcement of the 2010 NBCC award winners, Critical Mass highlights one of the thirty-one finalists (to read other entries in the series, click here). Today, NBCC board member David Haglund discusses criticism finalist Terry Castle's The Professor and Other Writings (Harper).

In March 2005, the London Review of Books published an essay titled “Desperately Seeking Susan,” by Terry Castle. I was unfamiliar with Castle—having missed, for instance, her epic, 14,000-word piece about the jazz saxophonist Art Pepper (“My Heroin Christmas,” it was called), published in the same venue eighteen months before—but was still hungry for reminiscences of Susan Sontag (who had died in December 2004), and turned quickly to Castle’s piece. When, in the second sentence, Castle referred to Sontag as “the bedazzling, now-dead she-eminence,” I knew I would read to the end. What other surprises might there be?

Plenty, it turned out. And while some of the surprises lay in what Castle said—like her story of Sontag demonstrating what’s it like to dodge sniper fire, “dashing in a feverish crouch from one boutique doorway to the next, white tennis shoes a blur, all the way down the street to Restoration Hardware and the Baskin-Robbins store”—most of them lay in how she said it. Describing a dinner party filled with boldface names, for instance, Castle says she “sat at one end of the table like a piece of anti-matter,” and felt “reduced to a pair of disembodied hands—like the ones that come out of the walls and give people drinks in Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast.”

“Desperately Seeking Susan” is joined by six other essays in The Professor and Other Writings, including “My Heroin Christmas” (not only about Art Pepper and his autobiography but about Castle’s sometimes terrifying experiences with her own family) and the title essay, a mini-memoir over 100 pages long that includes by miles and miles the most fascinating scholarship-interview story I have ever heard. Each essay contains verbal inventions (“the bolts-in-the-neck Frankenstein-loneliness of teenagerhood,” “the land of Norsemen and snowshoes”) to rival those above, along with insights about World War I fanatics, sexual charisma, academic politics, and much else. While all the essays are personal in nature, these “rollicking, digressive, autobiographical sprints,” as fellow NBCC board member Carlin Romano wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “end up headed toward critical consciousness.” Sam Anderson (past winner of the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing), argued in New York Magazine that Castle—along with another NBCC Finalist in Criticism, Elif Batuman—has mastered “the personal-academic essay,” a form combining “the charm, humor, digressions, and confessions of personal writing with the intelligence, curiosity, and analytical boldness of lit crit.” (Dave Hickey, no slouch himself as a prose stylist and a critical mind, had equally adoring things to say in the August 2010 issues of Harper’s.)

I agree. No matter how you classify it, Terry Castle’s The Professor and Other Writings is a delightful, funny, self-deprecating read, and one of the best books I read in the past year.

Click here to access Terry Castle's website, with additional links to her essays, reviews, and books.

*The Professor and Other Writings is being published in paperback as The Professor: A Sentimental Education.