Paul Hendrickson is, as per usual, leaping out of his chair. Within seconds, he is pacing around, manipulating his hands with impassioned gestures, shifting the tones in his practiced larynx from whisper to low-boom, hitting the students with what can only be called the Gospel of Journalism. If Hendrickson wasn’t going to don the frock and save some souls—a life-path he ditched weeks before taking his initial vows—it seems clear that he had to teach.

In today’s class, Penn’s most popular teacher of Creative Non-Fiction, whose frisky, unforgettable white hair is losing the inevitable war with his central scalp, has returned to the prime real estate in the focal chair of his Kelly Writers House classroom. In front of him and all of his students is a copy of Walker Evans’ and James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and a section of a written documentary by a College senior named Adam Small. The first is a tome—Hendrickson calls it his “biblical talisman”—about the two men’s famous expedition into the lives of Deep South sharecroppers, full of Agee’s sensitive, often self-indulgent, always-lyrical writing and Evans’ sublime photographs. The second, which is about to be read aloud by its author, is a piece on a methadone clinic, and today’s section regards a particular classroom experience with blasé girls in a course on addiction at Penn. The book looks thick and imposing. Adam Small looks nervous.

Small’s writing is solid, but has lots of holes and is nowhere near as palpable as it could be, and the class knows it. At Hendrickson’s instruction “not to forgive a single word,” the well-meaning tiger sharks close in. None of it is painfully harsh, but none effusive, either. Hendrickson readily agrees with one of the most acute critiques. Sometimes Adam smiles and offers self-deprecating laughs; at others, he stares at the table, cups his chin in his hand and covers his mouth. Hendrickson senses Adam’s declining mood, shifts into fervid mode and goes on about the rage he could hear in the writer’s voice. One member of the class couldn’t hear the rage, and much of the rest of the class thinks the rage is misplaced.

At some point soon after the class has moved past Adam, a female student says something about being in the right place at the right time, and it strikes one of Hendrickson’s large repertoire of chords. His head moves forward slightly, his body leaning. The student comes to the end of her thinking, and he flies out of his chair and starts pacing again.

“A thousand times in my motley journalistic career, I saw it happen,” he says, adjusting his pitch so you have to know what it is. He follows up, his voice a mix of restrained awe and quiet intensity: “I put myself where the story was, and all of a sudden, it begins.”

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©2006 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 03/01/06

The Passion of Paul
By Dan Kaplan

Photography by Candace diCarlo

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