Terry Castle addressed the Willamette community about the intellectual and social value of students seeking "freedom" in their college years.Terry Castle addressed the Willamette community about the intellectual and social value of students seeking "freedom" in their college years.

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Willamette community learns from leading literary critic and writer

A storm of talent, honesty, acute wisdom, humor and groundbreaking leadership swept through Willamette University this week in the form of one of the leading women of the contemporary academic world: Stanford University Professor Terry Castle.

Castle — once described by the late Susan Sontag as “the most expressive, most enlightening literary critic at large today” — paid a visit to Willamette to share her expertise and insight on several levels. She delivered a lecture, lunched with undergraduates in the Women's and Gender Studies department, and visited two classes, Contemporary Art and Creative Nonfiction, for question and answer sessions.

Castle specializes in the history of the novel, especially the works of Defoe, Richardson and Fielding, and in the study of 18th-century popular culture. She is also a pioneer in the field of “outsider art,” and lesbian and gay writing.

Her visit was sponsored by Phi Beta Kappa honor society, perhaps the most prestigious academic honor society in the nation. Willamette’s chapter is one of four in Oregon, and one of 280 nationally — about 10% of the country’s colleges.

“Castle represents the ideals of the liberal arts,” says Dave Rigsby, assistant dean of Campus Life and president of the Willamette chapter. “She discusses important topics, and is a leader in two major fields of study that appeal to Willamette students. She was the perfect scholar to visit Willamette.”

Castle’s lecture, entitled “The Necessary Orphan,” discussed the phenomenon of “helicopter” and “snow-plow” parents in the lives of college students. Castle said she was inspired by a publication in Harvard University’s alumni magazine that highlighted the fast-paced, action-packed lives of undergraduates.

According to Castle, these hectic schedules are often catalyzed by the push from parents for a scheduled, “well-rounded,” lifestyle in order to ensure the success of their child. She said that such a way of life can sometimes rob students of the opportunity to “stumble on things they love and that put a fire in their belly,” and that having an orphan-like separation is necessary for cultivating a worthy character.

“We must engage in a symbolic self-orphaning,” she says. “Intractable loneliness or estrangement may be all it takes to free ourselves from this parent matrix.”

Castle also visited Professor Scott Nadelson’s Creative Nonfiction class to engage in discussion with his students about her essay, “My Heroin Christmas,” a reflection on her infatuation with jazz alto-saxophonist Art Pepper, his music and his autobiography, “Straight Life.”

“What excited me about having Terry Castle visit my class — and, more broadly, to have her visiting the university — is that she bridges the worlds of so-called ‘academic’ and ‘creative’ writing so generously,” Nadelson says. “She is a serious scholar whose work is funny, moving, accessible to a broad audience without sacrificing rigor, and connected to people’s everyday concerns.”

Along with addressing those “everyday concerns” of Nadelson’s students, Castle participated in a question and answer session. The students picked Castle’s brain regarding writing nonfiction, reading other works subjectively and the nature of her personal essays.

The questions related on many levels to the class itself and the work therein, but also to a broader understanding of the liberal arts and the challenges of scholarly endeavors. Castle finished the class to clamorous applause and opened minds — leaving the students with a wide array of wisdom on which to ruminate.