Paul Hendrickson began his book about the Vietnam War with a young man attempting to toss former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara from the deck of a Martha's Vineyard ferry. "The Living and the Dead: Robert McNamara and Five Lives of a Lost War" is a search for redemption for these two men wrestling on a boat, as well as for Hendrickson. He says that all his books are searches of a kind, for a particular past or redemption for sins.
Each spring for the past two years, Hendrickson has made weekly trips from Washington, D.C. - where he lives with his family and writes for The Washington Post - up to Penn to offer students a bit of what he calls "my passion."
The seminary drop-out contemplates the struggle between good and evil, whether it be in relation to the Vietnam War or racism.
Photo by Candace diCarlo
Last month, Hendrickson was awarded a fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation to work on a book about sheriff's families and racism in Mississippi. At the Kelly Writers House, shortly after he had collected his students' final papers, Hendrickson talked about how he came to write about the issues that tear America apart.
Q. You studied for the priesthood before going to school, right?
A. I studied seven years for the Catholic priesthood, from 1958 to '65. I entered that life at age 14 and I departed at 21. I did not become a priest. The world had changed. The '60s had happened. America had cracked itself open from the inside and even behind seminary walls there was an awful lot of consternation and tension and even revolt. So I ended up leaving seminary, and I knew I wanted to be a writer.
Even in seminary I had thought of myself as the writer-hyphen-priest. If I ever became a priest I somehow was going to continue a writing career. As it happened I left the seminary before becoming ordained and went immediately to St. Louis University, which is a Jesuit school, finished a degree in English, in American literature and then went to graduate school in American literature at Penn State, got my Master's degree and went out into the world.
The seminary experience was powerful and rich and haunting. It gave me so much of what I am today as a writer, and it also gave me some tremendous baggage that's not so good.
I am now working on my fourth book. It is a book about the Deep South, it's about Mississippi. It's telling the story of race through a white lens - I'm bringing this up because this book is looping me back to where I was, in a sense, at age 21 in 1965 at Holy Trinity, Alabama. I was in the Deep South and I never got over that rich, exotic experience. After writing three books I'm returning and in a way it takes me right back to the beginning.
Q. How did a Washington Post Style section writer end up writing about the most politically divisive subject of his decade?
A. It's simpler than you think. In 1983 there was a very famous television movie of that era about nuclear holocaust. You may remember, it was called "The Day After." In the studio panel after that television movie were a constellation of American heavyweights - Henry Kissinger, Elie Wiesel, Carl Sagan, Reagan's Secretary of State George Shulz, and Robert S. McNamara. I saw him in that studio audience and I was galvanized. I said, 'My God, it's Mr. Vietnam.' And I'll tell you that out of all those people in that room that night, he was the one speaking about the nuclear holocaust that seemed to be speaking the most humanely, the most compassionately. That, you could say, was the 'good' McNamara.
The next day I went to my editor at The Washington Post and I said, "Did you see that last night? Did you see McNamara? I wonder if I can get him to talk to me." And my editor said, "Well, it's very complicated because he's on the board of The Washington Post and he happens to be a close friend, an intimate friend of Katherine Graham [publisher of The Washington Post]." The editor of the Style section was a Penn alumnus, Mary Hadar, and she said, "Let me ask Ben," Ben being Ben Bradlee.
Bradlee said, "Hey, if you can get it, go for it. Why not? He never talks about that."
I wrote McNamara a letter and six weeks later he called me on the phone. Now it's early 1984. And McNamara said, "Okay, I'm not interested in this, and this Style stuff forget it. But listen, if you want to come over next Thursday and you can talk to me for 15 minutes and I'll see what you're about."
I came over the next Thursday - I had boned like a madman - and I must have passed the audition, which is clearly what it was. Because at the end of that 15 minutes which had become an hour, he said, "I'll see you again."
Over the next four months I proceeded to have a series of conversations with him that led to three long pieces in The Washington Post. That later got the publishers very interested in the possibility of a book. Suddenly offers were being dangled in front of my nose because Bradlee was right. McNamara did not talk to me about Vietnam; he talked so achingly around Vietnam - it was like Banquo's ghost hovering around the locked door of his office. In our subsequent meetings it began to bleed in.
Q. How did your teaching arrangement at Penn come about in the first place?
A. I like telling this story, because it's like, This is America! I simply wrote cold. "Living and the Dead" was a finalist for the National Book Award in early '97. I wrote four or five class institutions - I knew about this school, I'm married to a Philadelphian, I've walked around the campus. I said, hmmm, if I could get a gig there I could take the train up, an hour and 45 minutes on the Metroliner and a five-minute walk from the train station.
I wrote Wendy Steiner a letter. I said who I was, what I'd done, where I'd been. I said I was aching to get back in an academic setting on a part-time basis. I do not have a doctorate but what I have is several decades of hands-on writing experience and three books and I'm wondering if you'd be willing to entertain this notion. Abut two weeks later, Elisa New [undergraduate English chair], called me on the phone and said, We'd like to pursue this.
Q. What course have you been teaching?
A. English 145, advanced non-fiction creative writing. We read classic pieces of non-fiction, like John Hersey's "Hiroshima," some stuff from James Agee, a lot of things that have moral resonance, by the way. But early on I get them writing. We start with the personal essay and then they move on with some type of reportage. They have to get out and pitch their ideas to me. That's where I come in and say this is practical, this is realistic.
These two years that I've been a visiting lecturer here at Penn, and I'm coming back to do more - I'm thrilled to be at a school like this. The students here are so bright. While it's not a journalism course, it calls upon skills and techniques of reporting that they learn on the fly. To be able to do this at an Ivy League university, I feel like I've won the lottery or something.
Originally published on May 13, 1999