That trajectory got a boost when the Big Time Literary Awards finally caught up with a book that he wrote while teaching here. Sons of Mississippi, which Hendrickson decided to write after seeing a photograph of five white civil-rights-era sheriffs eagerly preparing for brutal mischief with a truncheon, investigated how the racism of the families in that picture mutated over a generation. Even though The New York Times said that its “argument fails, leaving [it] to claw at the surface of something that it never quite penetrates,” the work won many contrary opinions and ultimately the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Landing a big prize has led to all kinds of attention and paychecks to do things like fly-fish on a magazine’s tab and put down 10,000 words. Hendrickson was invited to pen the opening to Bound for Glory: America in Color 1939-1943, a book of color photographs taken by photographers working for the Farm Security Administration, as Marion Post Wolcott had. He is also teaching a new class, Photographs and Stories, which follows the dig-into-a-photograph formula he used to write Sons. (Some filmmakers are working on a documentary about that book’s characters.) He is also at work on a new book about Hemingway—“a lifelong obsession”—and his son, Matt, is a senior at Penn.

Hendrickson has become the centerpiece of Penn’s formal acknowledgement of nonfiction as a vital genre. Dr. Al Filreis, the Kelly Professor of English who serves as faculty director of the Kelly Writers House and director of the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing, calls him “a perfect teacher of documentary-writing workshops,” and last spring, Hendrickson netted the Provost’s Award for excellent teaching, given to only two teachers a year. In a way, the compass has drawn a circle: After 23 years, he’s found a pulpit where, as his friend, poet and creative-writing program director Greg Djanikian C’70, puts it, “he can beautifully sermonize about the effects of language.” Of course, there’s more to it than a desire to leap out of a chair and fire off some passionately articulated words.

It’s my turn to take confession. Paul and I are sitting at a table outside Bucks County Coffee at 40th and Locust streets, and for the first time, I ask him if he gets off on the adulation. “I’ll own up to that,” he says. “Some of it really is the admiration, that kind of feedback and ego and narcissism: the narcotic of the guru, of the mentor.”

He’s wearing big-frame brown sunglasses, and when he says this—when he says anything during this interview—he never looks directly at me, sometimes aiming his words at the space in between us, right above the table, sometimes to his left, sometimes at the air around my head. Frequently, when we get on to personal matters, he changes the subject. When I ask a question he thinks is well-thought out, for example, he’ll say so—then digress to the subject of the most talented writers he’s seen since he’s been at Penn, compliment me on being among them, and start asking questions about me and my life-plans.

I’m ready for this. I’d read a previous profile of him in which the interviewer had found herself complimented, then turned around, revealing details about her personal life and going too far before realizing what he was doing to her. I keep the interview on track.

If he appears uncomfortable on the other side of the tape recorder, he is also incredibly honest. Knowing that administrators and alumni will read his words, he admits that he would have to quit if teaching ever road-blocked his writing; says big-ego things about his gift for “seeing a scene and capturing it in all of its fleshy detail”; and acknowledges that his “ego makes the engine go.” But he knows he can say these things, partly because his big ego can’t hide his raw sensitivity, and partly because he knows I love him and understand that he reformulates part of that guru-narcotic into a drug that lets him teach like hell.

Looking for someone who will say something purely negative about him has been a loser’s game; most who have anything bad to say usually qualify it with “let me just say he’s wonderful”; those few who don’t think he’s wonderful tend to fend off curious reporters; and those who think he’s overwhelming, tries too hard to be everyone’s friend, or imposes a certain style of writing won’t say so out loud.

But these negative voices represent a Yankee-fan-from-Boston minority. Inside the classroom he’s a teaching banshee, and he exhausts himself outside the classroom as well. Each week for the doc class, he’ll whip up a chatty little e-mail, 1,200 words long. It’ll start off celebrating the quality of the week’s session, then, say, wander from Jane Fonda to Saul Bellow, cite an obituary from the day’s Times, quote Hemingway, and, in the end, set the agenda for the next week. Then, if there’s any student e-mail—and since he’s teaching both the doc class and the regular Advanced Non-Fiction, there always is—he’ll turn it around in 24 hours.

The issues within these run the gamut. Some simply want help on a piece: a suggestion here, a pat on the shoulder there. Many others want the answers to life. To them, to us, Paul is a gentle and loving side character in the ongoing tale of our confusing existence, the one who always listens and dishes back paternal yet sensitive advice. We tell him about the pains of our romance lives, recurring nonsense with our families; some even share that they are mentally ill.

The self-revealing crowd blends with the students who wonder if they could and should get paid to write. To us, Paul is the Mentor. We want Paul to say that our stuff’s up to snuff and—later—try to help us get jobs. Assuming the student is worthy, he’ll do both on a reflex. Safe odds have it that very few, if any, professors at Penn know so much about the details of their students’ lives.

This kind of relationship can have a down side. As one student who considers herself quite close to him but insisted on anonymity put it: “He gets so close to his students that he has the ability to hurt them … he can write you a heartfelt letter and say he’s disappointed in you and you die inside.” But far more often, Paul’s method produces terrific results. That same student said: “He lets you have these dreams and is there as a support. Having that much faith in your ability to go out into the world and really write something is something I would only have the courage to do because of [Paul].”

I can say the same thing. When I met Paul, I was scared; scared of the world, obsessed with its apocalyptic destruction and the seemingly impending death of my ex-girlfriend. Events mostly outside my control had laced cement shoes onto my confidence, but throughout, Paul was there, writing e-mails, putting his arm around my shoulder, letting me know that if I put the work in, I had what it took to see a big light at the other side and kick some ass along the way. At first, I thought “f*** the light!” but with every e-mail, every glowing comment on a rough or final draft, every time he found a way to make me feel like I was the man, the concept of kicking ass along the way seemed less fanciful. I even believed it. Through a recommendation from him, I got my first two real-world, respectable-paycheck writing jobs, and even now, when I need the kind words of my mentor-slash-friend, all I have to do is compose an e-mail, and he’s ready to invite me to his office hours or take my call.

“On my best days as a writer and a teacher,” he wrote me in a recent e-mail, “I feel I’m doing something the tiniest bit priestly—with a small p.”

Can I get an Amen?

 

Dan Kaplan, winner of the 2003 Nora Magid Prize for promising nonfiction writers, was supposed to graduate from the College that year. He’s still working on it, but should be done any time now.

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

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FEATURE: The Passion of Paul
By Dan Kaplan

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