Originally published in the Summer 2015 issue of the University Bookman.
Camille Paglia burst onto the scene with Sexual Personae like Marlene Dietrich appearing at the top of the staircase. Who was this woman with the gloriously severe haircut who could put a 700-page book of literary criticism onto the bestseller lists? The essays she produced to follow it up cemented her position as a public intellectual—in their fashion. After the stimulating but insubstantial books she has written since (Break Blow Burn, Glittering Images), the juicy essay collections seem in retrospect only to bolster the impression of a brilliant mind expending itself on work beneath its talents, without ever quite making one doubt that there was—is—something there very much worth admiring.
But while this tragic fall was unfolding, another female literature professor was making a name for herself as an academic and then, more and more, as a cultural critic—also a lesbian, also a self-declared aesthete, also impatient with political correctness, also pilloried for having very publicly lifted an impious hand to the crown of Susan Sontag. This was Terry Castle, author of The Apparitional Lesbian, Noel Coward & Radclyffe Hall: Kindred Spirits, and the essay collection Boss Ladies, Watch Out!
Like Paglia, Castle’s entrée into the literary tradition of sexual inversion was a teenage fascination with Oscar Wilde—she dreamed of being “male, dandified, and in some sort of filial relationship to various 1890s Decadents.” Unlike Paglia, her grown-up persona is less flamboyant, more Jamesian. Indeed, the two ladies juxtaposed remind me a little of Wilde and Henry James circa Guy Domville: Wilde the crowd-pleaser reigns supreme over the London stage, for now; James, no less of a genius, finds himself tragically short-changed by a lack of subtlety in the public taste. Then goes home and writes “The Turn of the Screw.”
In Castle’s case, the masterpiece she produced while her rival was glittering away was The Professor and Other Writings (2010). What is it that makes The Professor the best American essay collection since Consider the Lobster? The prose for a start, of course. The notorious Susan Sontag obituary alluded to earlier (which the LRB has kindly posted online in its entirety) is packed with Castle’s distinctive combination of unforced allusion and self-mocking bounce. Basking in Sontag’s conversation during their friendship’s honeymoon phase, Castle “was rapt, like a hysterical spinster on her first visit to Bayreuth. Schwärmerei time for T-Ball.” The mocking is not always self-directed: “The famous Sontag ‘look’ always put me in mind of the stage direction in Blithe Spirit: ‘Enter Madame Arcati, wearing barbaric jewelry.’”
But a Castle essay is never just an excursion through scenic prose. It is a journey with a destination, though usually one concealed until the volta. When I first started to read the opening essay in the collection, I thought that its declared topic of “women obsessed with the First World War” would make a fine theme for an essay. Two-thirds of the way through, I realized that it had made a fine theme—for an essay about September 11. “My Heroin Christmas,” which judging by contemporary reviews of The Professor is the fan favorite on the set list, begins as a profile of dissolute West Coast jazz man Art Pepper. At the close of the essay, where Meghan Daum or Laura Kipnis or whoever would have stashed the requisite but-of-courses about Pepper’s being a sexist pig, a violent criminal, and an all-round moral nightmare, Castle actually stakes something on her reservations by threading in the story of the moral nightmare with whom she had the most to do, her step-brother.
Then there is the title piece, a bitter story sweetly, sometimes saltily told. As an evocation of what it was like to be a lesbian in the 1970s, I know only one book to match it (more on that at the end). On one hand, there was the glorious sisterhood-is-powerful togetherness of it all, the hug seminars at the Womyn’s Center to the soaring strains of Cris Williamson. On the other hand, there was the pattern of predation that seemed to characterize an awful lot of young women’s induction into the fold. “For better or worse, the Affair with the Teacher still stands as the archetypal rite of passage into the Sapphic world”—unlike the straight world, where First Love typically involves two equally clueless kids. “If the teacher is a benign, unscrewed-up sort of person (a big If, I know) she can offer a sense of lineage and belonging.” Castle got on the wrong side of that If.
What distinguishes “The Professor” from most of what is billed as confessional writing nowadays is that it genuinely deserves the name, in the sense that it does not seem like something the author would just blurt out on passing acquaintance. The assumption that a so-called confessional author is so very, very brave for speaking publicly about her (usually her) struggle has become an iron rule of the genre. Whenever I come across an author who adopts that tone, or worse comes right out and says that something is really hard for her to write about, I feel a waspish temptation to ask whether the author can point to a single instance when she was presented with an opportunity to write about her struggle and declined it.
On at least two occasions Castle very nearly wrote about her experience with the Professor but elected not to, which suggests that the experience did not instantly appeal to her as splashy memoir fodder. One was her introduction to a 2006 reissue of Francoise Mallet-Joris’s The Illusionist (1951), which according to Mallet-Joris was inspired by a schoolfriend’s experience of being seduced by a sadistic older woman. Castle writes that she too had such a friend, “one manhandled by a closeted college professor.” She assigns to her friend the story of the psychotherapist who told her, “And now you will do the same to someone else.” The last line of the introduction is: “My friend made it her subsequent business to disprove the oracle, but even now, almost thirty years later, the struggle to do so still rules her complicated life.” The other occasion was the autobiographical chapter in The Apparitional Lesbian, where Castle runs through a brief anecdote about a recognizable “much older” lover before closing: “But that’s a winter, not a summer story.”
I hasten to clarify that Castle is not in her winter years just yet. Plenty of time for more masterpieces—which brings me to my point: When is the next Castle book coming out already? She has probably produced enough long essays since her last one to fill out a collection: her NYRB piece on Sylvia Plath; her LRB tour d’horizon of interwar lesbian high life; her fascinatingly ambivalent memoir of getting married; her essay on outsider art. Her Phi Beta Kappa lecture on “self-orphaning” is surprisingly fresh on the topic of millennial overachievers on elite college campuses (“a sort of lean, glossy, turbo-charged super-hamster—look in the cage where the treadmill should be and all you see is a beautiful blur”).
And then there is the essay of hers I most long to see anthologized: “The Lesbian Larkin,” a reading of the schoolgirl stories the poet produced as a very young man under the pseudonym “Brunette Coleman.” To take Larkin’s schoolgirl novellas seriously is remarkable in itself. The TLS and LRB reviews of their reissue said it was a disgrace the stuff was being published at all, and even the editor of that reissue, Larkin biographer James Booth, seemed at a loss to explain what use it served. “Larkin is such a strange and unusual writer,” he shrugs, “that unless you come to the work from a literary angle, you miss its significance.”
Of all the conceivable “literary angles” one might take—and I note for Mr. Booth’s benefit that they are practically infinite and by no means all flattering—Castle managed to find a fruitful and un-gimmicky one. Her thesis is that, just as Henry James worked out some issues with his doomed-to-be-alone-ness via his lesbian main character in The Bostonians, so Larkin worked out some issues with his doomed-to-be-alone-ness via Brunette Coleman. “In the literature of the amor impossibilis—the brutal and bittersweet narratives of lesbian desire—Larkin found, I believe, a doom-laden prediction of what was to become the central and most painful theme of his imaginative and emotional life: no girls for you.”
No doubt this will surprise those readers who have heard that the Brunette Coleman juvenilia is pornographic, but as Castle writes:
One can’t help noticing how curiously un-erotic the ‘Brunette’ stories are—how often they seem merely diffident and strange. For a would-be pornographer, even a very softcore one, the young Larkin seems painfully lacking in seigneurial aplomb. Titillating situations fizzle; characters one might expect to deliver some smutty business—the jaded Hilary for example—turn out to be surprisingly maladroit. In Willow Gables the single schoolmate Hilary succeeds in bedding (the racing-form addict Margaret Tattenham) is hers only through blackmail and the lovemaking is never described. The overall mood is one of tristesse.
In Coleman, Larkin “created someone whose loneliness, obliquely observed, mirrored his own . . . and in the waywardness of her desire f[ou]nd a way into his own.” (This echoes a line in Castle’s chapter on The Bostonians in The Apparitional Lesbian: “In investing her [Olive Chancellor] with tragic power, James was, I think, expressing a certain understanding of—and compassion for—her anxious and lonely way of desiring.”) Those still skeptical may read the essay, published in Daedalus and reprinted here—and perhaps also consider the frequent and identifying way Larkin writes in his letters about Katherine Mansfield.
I am not sure how Castle would feel about the comparison with Paglia. As far as I know, she never cites Paglia in any of her work, which would not necessarily mean anything except that there are a few instances where she might have been expected to. If you can’t mention Paglia in a footnote that begins “On Madonna’s role as lesbian (as well as heterosexual) icon, see…,” when can you? But on reflection, it may be that the essayist with whom Castle can best be compared is Florence King, the great Southern misanthrope who never let love of humanity get in the way of her wry fondness for individual humans. Spinsterish, hilarious, erudite— King is about fifteen years older and had one British parent instead of two, but otherwise the two go together like…well, like kings and castles. Not to mention that When Sisterhood Was in Flower is the only book I know as tender and as ribbing toward Seventies feminism as The Professor. What they have in common, and what sets them apart from most of the feminist writing that has come out of that era, is that they never let love of Womanhood get in the way of their love for actual women—in all their ridiculousness no less than their splendor.