Montesi Letter November 10, 2006

In the first days of this past November two great southern men of letters passed away. One was William Styron, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist who wrote Sophie’s Choice, among other fine novels. The other was poet and professor of English at St. Louis University, Dr. Albert J. Montesi, author of half a dozen books about St. Louis, as well as a history of his own Italian immigrant family, The Montesi of Memphis, published shortly before his death. He passed away on Thursday morning, November 2, 2006, in his home on Lafayette Square, a section of the city where he had lived most of his adult life.

In the history of modern American prose William Styron is a towering figure, justly famous for writing some of the great literature of our time. In the history of St. Louis University, Al Montesi is famous for having lived literature on the campus of the college.

Professor Montesi breathed literature with every breath. It was his whole life and the knowledge and enthusiasm he had for the written word he passed on to his students for over three decades until his retirement from the English Department in 1991.

Al Montesi was perhaps not the greatest poet to come out of St. Louis. He was perhaps not even the greatest English professor to teach at the University, yet more than one student finishing four years as an English major said to him, “You taught me everything that I know, but I don’t know what you taught me.”

Al Montesi at St. Louis University was a phenomenon. And he was, as all of us who knew him well realized, a piece of work.

He could stand in front of a classroom, one leg thrust out, gesturing dramatically like a Roman senator, squinting, snarling, pacing back and forth and stopping only to scribble an odd word on the blackboard, a vague reference to his lecture, as he jumped from one thought about James Joyce to another on Kerouac, then tossed in a quote from Shakespeare, and finally drew all his literary references back to the room and connected them to the lives of the students sitting stunned before him, as he might accuse one or the other of having sinned like Hemingway, or having carried on like Gertrude Stein, and only then, at last, would he catch a startled look on a young, Catholic, undergraduate face, laugh and briefly hug the sitting student as he tossed off, “You’ve been out on the street, haven’t you, Coyne!”

It was a performance worthy of Beckett.

We soon learned to set aside our pens and notebooks and not even try to follow his lecture with notes. The fun, the excitement, the knowledge imparted came in the electrifying ride of his lecture, or better said, his daily one-act free association romp through literature and life and the personal history of Al Montesi.

Students who were not English major - in fact, students who weren’t even students at the college — came to catch his act. Other professors came to crowd the back of the room, to stand in both awe and shock as he single-handedly brought life to this staid conservative college, to this narrow-minded Midwest of the late fifties, to this quadrangle of the University filled in those years with pacing Jesuits saying their daily offices on the pathways like black birds visiting from another century.

Al Montesi came to St. Louis in 1957 to teach creative writing in the fledgling and now defunct Writer’s Institute, and lived through the decline of the English major into something called “communications,” and through all that time, well into his 80s, he did not mellow or give up the promise and hope of literature. In his final days, he was still raging against the war and Republicans and bad prose, still quoting dead poets and great writers, and even in his very last days, like one of his favorite poets, Dylan Thomas, he refused to go gentle into that good night, and raged, raged, against the dying of the light.

With William Styron, we can go to a book shelf and take down a work of literature and be transformed by his language into a grander time. We cannot do that with Al Montesi, but for those of us who knew him in his — and our — prime, we can remember his fierce personality, his equally fierce loyalty to all of us, his love of the Jesuits, and the wonderful times we had at his home on Benton Place, and we can remember that what he really taught us years ago when we were young undergraduates was not to be found in books, not even in the great books he loved so much, but in ourselves and in the way he taught us to live our lives.

John Coyne (A & S ’59)

Last edited by Godsil.   Page last modified on November 10, 2006

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