The path that put Paul Hendrickson’s life on a trajectory that would later intersect and influence the trajectories of Penn students began shortly after he turned 21. At the time, if you told him that in 34 years, he’d be teaching privileged kids to write, he would have thought you insane.
The name then was Brother Garrett, not Paul. This was not because he’d experienced brain trauma and lost his identitythough in some ways you could say that maybe he had. It was because he, a former central-Illinois altar boy and the progeny of a Catholic pilot and more intensely Catholic housewife, was studying at Missionary Servants of the Most Holy Trinity, where adolescent males went to grow into priests.
It was also where the seminary’s spiritual director had the young priests-to-be combat their sinful tendencies in a way that only a deeply repressed homosexual priest could. During the resurgent molestation scandals a couple years back, Hendrickson wrote about it like this in The New York Times: “I’d go in, sit in a green chair beside his desk, unzipper my pants, take up a crucifix, begin to think deliciously about impure things and then, at the point of full erection, begin to recite all of the reasons that I wished to conquer my baser self and longings. ‘Father, I’m ready now,’ I’d say. Having taken myself at his prompting to a ledge of mortal sin, I was now literally and furiously talking myself down, with the power of the crucified Jesus in my left hand. My director was always there, guiding me, urging me, praying with me.”
Hendrickson notes that he never saw lust in the priest’s eyes, but he put an end to the sessions when he was 20, and, within a year, six weeks before his vows, decided to take off. “Of course, some of it had to do with being 21 and wanting to get laid,” he allows, “but that way of life wasn’t working anymore. The Sixties had done [it]. That same revolution that was happening in the streets was happening behind the seminary walls. The dream just started to wither.”
When he bolted, the internal compass that all writers share began issuing directions. It told him to study literature, read what the masters had to say, and go from there. It pointed him to St. Louis University and Penn State and left him with a B.A. in English and an M.A. in American Lit.
Then it was time to do what he came for. Fiction? Nah: As he puts it, “I’m not a novelist because I can’t make up the plot.” He entered journalism, and had what any observer would call a meteoric rise.
Within four or five years of getting down and doing actual, hard reporting for newspapers of middling significance, he had caught The Washington Post’s eye. The Post figured he’d be a good fit for the “Style” sectionas in lifestyle, not clothing and perfume. For “Style,” Hendrickson wrote features on subjects ranging from Ernest Hemingway’s mentally mangled offspring to a guy from the sticks who blew a hole in his neighbor over the neighbor’s pack of pain-in-the-ass dogs.
And so began a 23-year career as the newsroom’s “delicate flower” (the Post’s legendary editor, Ben Bradlee, called him that), writing heartfelt stories about sympathetic characters with mediocre life-chances, taking occasional time away to write books. Those times were frightening, because, as Hendrickson puts it, they’re “fraught with peril and you’re not making your paycheck.” In the first of those perilous periods, he wrote Seminary: A Search, an autobiography of his adolescence. It hit the scene in 1983 to some highly positive reviews and a sensationalized excerpt in Playboy, and made it to paperback, but not much further than that.
Next was Looking for the Light: The Hidden Art and Life of Marion Post Wolcott, a beautiful and sad book about one of the most talented photographers America’s ever had but neglected to notice. She, like Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange, photographed the desperate South during the Depression, but abandoned her art for a life of wifehood.
Looking for the Light, which came out in 1992 and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, was sandwiched between his efforts on a biography of Robert McNamara and five lives touched by his missteps and lies. The first time he tried to get it all down, in the mid-’80s, the hammer couldn’t find its way to the nail. It took him a decade and a large vat of boiling stress to hit it right. The Living and The Dead: Robert McNamara and Five Lives of a Lost War came out in 1996 to terrific acclaim. The New York Times called it “a work that approaches a Shakespearean tragedy”; The Philadelphia Inquirer used the word masterpiece and said that Hendrickson “has a gift with language that most writers can only dream about.” Although a reviewer on Amazon.com said it sometimes “approached bathos,” most gave it unabashed praise. It became a New York Times Notable Book, Salon.com’s non-fiction Book of the Year, and a finalist for the National Book Awardbut lost, to James Carroll’s An American Requiem.
That November, the pre-winter D.C. air mixed with that gut-hollowing feeling that follows lining up a decade’s work to take one of book-writing’s biggest prizes and being shot down. He was out for a walk, having some thoughts.
One was that, after 22 years at the Post, he’d reached a point whereto borrow a line from a former colleague“‘the form [became] as narrow as the width of a column:’ you have to write brick and mortar, declarative, expository information” and hold back the Hendrickson flair. Then there was the Voice of Middle Age, telling him he had to find a good place to put on that little bit of paunch and maybe go bald. His bank-account concurred: “My kids are coming up through college and I want to get a discount at school.”
With the middle-age angst and the bank account calling the shots, Hendrickson fired off an over-long and emotional letter, stapled on the Inquirer’s glowing review of his work, and posted it to Penn. Dr. Wendy Steiner, the Richard L. Fisher Professor of English and then-department chair, found the letter “extremely detailed and compelling and full of excitement at the idea of teaching.” That was in 1997, and by spring the following year Hendrickson was taking a weekly Amtrak from D.C. to teach his “test-me-out” writing class. After two years of abundant student praise, Penn made him full-time.
With the confidence of a secure appointment and an ever-burgeoning creative-writing program eager for new things, Hendrickson decided to create his own course. What if, he thought, every week of the semester, for any number of hours, students picked a subject, went after it, and then went back and back and back some more, documenting the life of a person or place, grimy nooks and all? And what if, while they were at it, they had to sit down and produce a 30-page story, work-shopping bits and pieces of it with their classmates as the semester went by? The code would be English 155: Writing in the Documentary Tradition, known to those who’ve been through it as “the doc class.” Both the doc class and its creator began a trajectory towards legendary status among those who fancied writing fact-based prose.
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©2006 The Pennsylvania Gazette
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FEATURE: The Passion of Paul