Friday, August 4, 1995

An Unsentimental Education, edited by Molly McQuade

A review of An Unsentimental Education: Writers and Chicago, edited by Molly McQuade
Published August 4th, 1995, in The Minnesota Daily’s Nightly Magazine

Edited by Molly McQuade
University of Chicago, $18.95

Edited by former University of Chicago student Molly McQuade, An Unsentimental Education is a collection of reminiscences by her alma mater’s greatest teachers and students. McQuade interviewed twenty-one U of C luminaries from the past and present, and what results is a fascinating portrait of one of our country’s most fertile intellectual centers.

First, both artistically and alphabetically, is Saul Bellow, who studied sociology at Chicago in the 1930s, returning years later to join its Committee on Social Thought with Hannah Arendt, among others. Bellow’s recollection is more nostalgic than revelatory, but the picture of the Nobel Prize winner staying in “gorgeously sleazy” rooms for three dollars a week is priceless.

Kurt Vonnegut describes himself as “a very fringe character” at the U of C, admitting that the school didn’t think much of him. His master’s thesis was rejected twice, so he found himself in 1947, after seven years of school (he had left Cornell as an undergraduate to go to war), with no degree whatsoever. Since he had no qualifications, he was unable to find a teaching job and was forced to try writing. Go figure.

Probably the most interesting entry is by the amazing Susan Sontag, who graduated from the U of C at eighteen. As a student, she married one of her professors, had a child right after graduation, and then attended graduate school at Harvard.

Like The Autobiography of Malcolm X, these interviews were edited and turned into a narrative, but unfortunately only a few of these writers have Malcolm’s gift for oratory, and most pieces end up reading like unfocused essays. Wisely, Saul Bellow and Robert Coover insisted on presenting their interviews in their original form. This lack of focus isn’t really much of a problem, though, because the book is more personal than formal, and its looseness makes its intellectuality much more accessible.

—David Wiley

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