Sontag & Teachers

Among the remembrances of the late Susan Sontag, this piece by William Drenttel was a favorite. [Update: “Susan Superstar,” a 5,200-word essay by Franklin Foer just published at New York Magazine’s site, is fabulous and comprehensive.] Drenttel designed many of Sontag’s book covers, including a small poptart-sized booklet called “Literature is Freedom,” published by Winterhouse Editions. I hadn’t heard of this, so I ordered it. For just $10, I’ve now got a slim and sharply designed copy of the author’s October 2003 acceptance speech for the Friedenspreis des Deutschen Buchhandels, the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade. Much of it is political, but, as the title suggests, the overall theme is literature and what it gives us.

In one of the more personal passages she remembers her early relationship with German art, stating that before Bach or Mozart or Schubert there was Mr. Starkie, one of her elementary-school teachers. Having observed Sontag’s “particular hunger for books,” the teacher loaned her his copies of “The Sorrows of Young Werther” and “Immensee.” She concludes this small section:

“…I shall never forget that my engagement with German culture, with German seriousness, all started with obscure, eccentric Mr. Starkie (I don’t think I ever knew his first name), who was my teacher when I was ten, and whom I never saw afterward.”

On the same day I read this little booklet, I picked up “Under the Arch: St. Louis Stories,” whose editor I’m interviewing for Playback. Before the Foreword, the editor writes:

“This book is dedicated to my high school teacher, Miss Esther Goff, who inspired her students at Normandy High School with a love of literature and a desire to reach beyond themselves.”

Well-deserved props, Mr. Starkie and Miss Goff. (My own go to Mr. Rich Weimann, in whose “Best Novels” high school course I was allowed to poke at books, argue with them, test them, not just hunt for their themes and locate the reasons why they were great, important, etc. etc.)

To return to Sontag: I was fortunate enough to hear her speak, in a small “conversation” with her “chum” William Gass, last fall at Washington University here in St. Louis. The two were seated in these low comfy chairs, but she sat way up on the edge of hers all night, so that more of the folding-chair-bound attendees could see what was happening. She spoke of her curiosity above all. Her activity, her taking things in – seeing Radiohead in concert, giving Eminem a shot – was how she said she defined her life. Yes, she wrote, she said. But she did things, too.