Monday, January 25, 2010

'The Wayward Professor' by Joel J. Gold

I found the typescript for this book review in a long-neglected file box. It was written in 1989 or 1990 but has not been previously published.

“Hail the Wayward Professor!”
A Book Review by Richard Sincere

The Wayward Professor by Joel J. Gold; illustrations by Vivian S. Hixson. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas. Publication date: April 1, 1989. 191 pages; $14.95, cloth.

A delightful new book from a most unlikely publisher — the University Press of Kansas — promises to be a good bet for the beach-reading set this summer.

Readers of the Chronicle of Higher Education (there are more of us than you might imagine!) are already familiar with the humorous essays of Joel J. Gold, a fiftysomething professor of English literature at the University of Kansas. Gold, who specializes in eighteenth century works by rakes and rogues, has delivered a rakish and roguish look at academic life and politics, foreign travel, and even the CIA and the IRS.

Gold approaches what might in other circumstances be mundane, even boring, subjects with wry panache — late papers, faculty dinner parties, dealing with insurance adjustors.

Take, for instance, his story about “smuggling” cut-rate liquor from Missouri to Kansas (which was a “dry” state). Gold begins the essay thus: “I would like to tell you about one of my earliest adventures in Kansas when I boldly outwitted the law, smuggled contraband liquor across the state line, and raced down the Kansas Turnpike with the aplomb of Burt Reynolds in Smokey and the Bandit. I would like to tell you that story. Unfortunately, what actually happened will sound more like Don Knotts in The Panicky Professor.”

Not a few of the stories hinge on liquor, its uses and abuses. As an eighteenth- century scholar, Gold had discovered an anecdote about Benjamin Franklin, who claimed to have brought back to life several flies that had been preserved in a bottle of madeira. His curiosity got the better of him, so Gold the humanities professor sought out (some rather wary) biology professors to help him try a little experiment to verify Franklin’s strange claim. The results? Inconclusive.

Then there was the “Naked Lunch" party sponsored by some graduate students to honor visiting author William Burroughs. Under the gaze of guests under the influence of a potent punch (four parts gin to one part creme de menthe) that “carried an overwhelming taste of mothballs,” a living centerpiece lay among the canapes. Periodically, this non-speaking young man would rise, enter the men’s room, and emerge wearing one less piece of clothing than before. By the end of the afternoon, he was fully unclothed. It took more than a few moments for the guests, sensorily deprived by “Essence of Mothballs,” to see the connection: naked centerpiece = Naked Lunch (Burroughs’ most famous novel)!

Gold’s tales of travel abroad are equally compelling and quite amusing. Anyone who has had an extended stay in Europe for business or academic reasons will be able to identify with the plights of Professor Gold and his family. There was the time, driving through Italy, that the family car broke down. As it happened, Mrs. Gold was driving at the time, leading Professor Gold to repeat wearily and haplessly to the nearly uncomprehending Italian mechanic, “Mi sposi condotti.” (Roughly, “Blame my wife — she was driving!”)

This was only after the professor, rather confused, drove five times around Venice looking for the proper bridge to cross into the City of Canals, never realizing that all cars must be parked in Mestre for the passengers to embark, by boat, to Venice itself. By the third or fourth pass, smiling Italians were waving and applauding the little Gold vehicle.

Gold has not had much luck with cars. When he purchased a very nice automobile in Europe, he decided to keep it after his trip was over. He sent it across the Atlantic by ship while he returned by plane. After some time had passed, he began to worry about the car’s safe arrival. His worry was due — the car had been crushed by a load of steel girders that fell loose during the crossing. Try explaining that one to your insurance company!

Other stories relate the different methods of bureaucracy at the British Library and similar French institutions. True glimpses of humanity also are found. At a small provincial museum in England, Gold went searching for some letters by the eighteenth-century politician and satirist John Wilkes (one of the rogues in which he specializes). To his dismay, after the long train journey, he discovered that the entire box of letters consisted of photocopies of originals that were kept at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He had seen them all, But then, at the bottom of the pile, he found one that was not a photocopy. It was an original! Not only that, it was an original that no one else knew about. It was not listed in any existing index of Wilkes memorabilia. Fleetingly, Professor Gold considered purloining the letter and making himself a rich man. (Such a find could surely bring a small fortune at Sotheby’s.) His honesty got the better of him. He wrote down the letter’s contents and handed it to the librarian, explaining its value and walking away guiltless rather than famous.

It is impossible to convey the true flavor of a book of essays like this. Believe me when I say that you will laugh out loud from the moment you pick up the book. Complementing the jocularity of the text are the amusingly Thurberesque illustrations by Vivian Hixson, whose drawings often accompany Professor Gold’s work in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

In this age of criticism and distress over the state of the academy, it is a real pleasure to come across an academic who can rise above the fray through wit instead of venom, with wisdom instead of sophistry. With his tongue firmly in cheek, The Wayward Professor shows that Joel J. Gold is a credit to his profession. If his students leave college with just a jot of his humor, that should be enough to get them through life on an even keel.

Richard Sincere is a Washington-based free-lance writer and editor.

No comments: