I recently read two really good memoirs, Terry Castle’s The Professor and Patti Smith’s Just Kids. They would seem to have little in common. On the one hand, the eminent professor of 18th-century British literature and lesbian writing at Stanford; on the other, the “godmother of punk” reflecting on her salad days in the late 60s and 70s. (That’s her with Robert Mapplethorpe on West 23rd street in the early 70s.) But in fact they do share a few qualities– both are portraits of the artist as a young bookworm; both came from lower middle class families (Smith’s a bit scrappier/ more working-class than Castle’s) and latched on to literature/art as a vocation. Both books are about passionate love attachments: Smith’s with Mapplethorpe, who was her lover/comrade for the crucial early years in NYC; Castle’s with her unnamed professor at grad school, the affair with whom scarred her for years.
Just Kids feels as if it may have been partly inspired by Dylan’s Chronicles Part 1. It’s not as great as that, but then Chronicles was a somewhat astonishing book; Smith’s is more conventional, but is really lovely in a lot of ways, and it’s a lot of fun to follow her through her time with Mapplethorpe in the Chelsea Hotel, hanging out with Harry Smith, trying to break into the inner circle at Max’s Kansas City, living for art and poetry, making collages out of stuff they find on the street, dead broke, so broke they’d go to a museum with enough money for one admission, and then one of them would look at the art and come out to tell the other one about it. Smith was a working-class South Jersey kid with no cultural or other capital, enraptured by Arthur Rimbaud and Diego Rivera. That song “Piss Factory” is completely real — at age 16 she worked in a factory inspecting handlebars for tricycles. She felt her only practical option was to become a schoolteacher, but she dropped out of junior college, moved to the city and met Mapplethorpe. Everyone assumed she was on drugs but she didn’t even drink, lived almost completely for art. I went back and listened to probably my favorite song of hers, “Free Money;” her account here of her years scraping by with barely enough to eat made it resonate in new ways for me (I’m sure it’s about him):
Every night before I go to sleep
Find a ticket, win a lottery,
Scoop the pearls up from the sea
Cash them in and buy you all the things you need.
Every night before I rest my head
See those dollar bills go swirling ’round my bed.
I know they’re stolen, but I don’t feel bad.
I take that money, buy you things you never had.
Kind of like Dylan’s Chronicles, this comes to an end just about when she’s about to really make it. Just Kids obviously has the more world-historical story to tell, but to tell the truth, I probably liked The Professor better; I’m a sucker for academic novels and the long memoir part of it resembles that genre, but really raw, witty & hilarious, and also very moving sometimes. She’s a fabulous stylist and truly funny. (If you want a fuller review here’s a rave from TNR.) I’d always remembered her essay about Susan Sontag in the LRB; this is in the book too, and in this context it seems like the lighter, less consequential twin of the more traumatic memoir about the grad school affair, both about Castle looking for intellectual and erotic attention & validation from a glamorous older lesbian woman.
I guess all memoirs are tales of survival, to some degree, saying to the world, “well, I made it this far.” A favorite line from The Professor: “Here indeed was a mystery worth plumbing: I was fat; I was mean; but I was alive.”