This is a remembrance of an old friend and self-styled competitor who was, despite his youth, one of the finest writers I’ve ever known or ever will know.
One of the dirty little secrets of writing, known by writers and editors and publishers and most teachers of writing, is that writing talent shows itself very early in a man or woman’s life. Sometimes, despite the fact that young people lack the maturity and life experience to write much of real interest to adult readers (thus the absence of “prodigies” in writing fiction, prodigies that exist in art and music and athletics), a writer can identify another real writer when that younger writer is still a child. It’s true that I’ve never read anything by the writer whom I discuss in this piece written beyond his twenty-third year of life, but by the time he was in his early twenties, this writer – this Duane Hockenberry – had shown that he had a fine, strong, and exceedingly rare writing ability. Of that I have no doubt.
Today, for reasons I’ll share here, the only piece of this writer’s body of work that might still exist is a long story called “Steel Blue” in a mimeographed journal called The Satyr that is moldering away in a box somewhere in my basement storage area.
I’m writing this piece between Thanksgiving and Christmas. All of us are used to the media annually doing its compulsory “Look back” and “Who we’ve lost this year” features as we approach the New Year. Often we see the list of actors ( sometimes even writers, such as John Updike last year) and other celebrities who’ve died during the year and say, “Darn. I’d forgotten that ______ died this year.”
We do the same as families and individuals – remembering our personal losses at the end of the year – but unlike our brief spasms of regret at the passing of a favorite actor or author, we never forget our own losses and the lists of those we lost are very personal indeed.
Since October of this year, I’ve been waking up every morning with that looming sense of having lost someone, but the irony here is that the person whose loss I’ve been feeling so sharply was murdered more than thirty-five years ago. I’m sure it’s not politic to tell this particular story, but I’m a writer (and telling stories is what we writers do – perhaps what we have to do), so with your patience, I’ll tell you the true tale of the Two Deaths of Duane Hockenberry.
Who Was Duane Hockenberry?
I met Duane when I was a freshman at Wabash College in 1966. He was a friend of one of my three roommates. Hockenberry – almost everyone who knew Duane at Wabash called him by his last name -- and that roommate of mine were sophomores.
The roommate he was friendly with was named Bill and Bill was from England, although his family was living in Alabama for a while. It was an unlikely friendship – Hockenberry’s and Bill’s – since Bill was somewhat sophisticated (to the point of drollery) and took his family’s relative wealth for granted, while Hockenberry was all low-income rural-Indiana in background and behavior. Although Hockenberry hung around Bill and our four-man suite in Martindale Hall that fall, there were a lot more interesting types hanging around (and setting fire to) our suite my first semester at Wabash (including a senior aptly named Greg Gross, about whom I started a cartoon strip (“The Gross”) in the campus paper, The Bachelor, after I’d been at Wabash only a few weeks), so I didn’t really pay much attention to Hockenberry until after that first Christmas break.
I noticed him then because he and Bill kept having verbal arguments and it was hard not to hear what they were yelling about.
Hockenberry’s father had died when he was very young and Hockenberry didn’t really get along with his mother or crazy older brother, so Bill had generously invited Duane down to Alabama for Christmas that year. The arguments I overheard in January centered around several incidents that occurred while Hockenberry was a guest at Bill’s home, but the one that Duane couldn’t let go of revolved around his being reprimanded by Bill’s mother for leaving his shoes in the living room. “We don’t do that here,” was Bill’s mother’s comment to Hockenberry, and Duane was so embarrassed and defensive about it that it made him angry every time he brought it up. He couldn’t let it go. Hockenberry was almost albino-pale with lank, pale blonde hair, and when he talked about the leaving-the-shoes-in-the-living-room reprimand, his face would go from pink to bright red to a purple-blotch.
I admit I felt for Hockenberry, whom I didn’t really know. My own naiveté and background in Midwestern poverty made me identify much more with Hockenberry than with my suave British roommate Bill.
So when Bill – who was as laid-back and outwardly unemotional as Hockenberry was volatile – more or less dumped Duane as a friend, I found myself inviting Hockenberry, who was a loner, to a communal table at dinnertime and debating various issues with him and a group of my freshman friends – topics such as literature, philosophy, politics, destiny, love --all the usual freshman subjects. Hockenberry didn’t debate very well. His opinions were him and once again his face would flush through the entire red spectrum toward purple when people disagreed.
The second semester of my freshman year and first semester of my sophomore year were busy for me – both my parents died of cancer then – but I did notice that autumn semester that Duane Hockenberry, who should have been a junior that year, wasn’t on campus any longer. (It was and is a small college – just 800 men – so such absences are noticed.) I assumed that Hockenberry had dropped out but it turns out that he’d taken a year off to work nights in a local Indiana steel mill in order to earn enough money to come back to college. That summer job would lead to Hockenberry writing the incredible piece of fiction, “Steel Blue,” that I mentioned is moldering away in my storage basement.
The Other Writer On Campus:
In the fall semester of my junior year, Hockenberry was back on campus after his year of night shifts in the depths of steel-mill hell, and we found ourselves – Hockenberry and me -- as half the total number of students in a non-fiction writing class created just because four of us juniors wanted an expository writing course. Wabash College was that sort of liberal arts school – if a few students asked for a course, some instructor would find a way to give it to them.
The class – all four of us -- met in the office of Walter Fertig, then head of the English Department and a legend in his own time at Wabash. Wally Fertig – dark suit, dark tie, black shoes, white socks – was a Chaucer scholar who, as all true Chaucer scholars must, had fallen in love with the Wife of Bath. (I agree with Harold Bloom when he says that the Wife of Bath embodies the life force in literature in the same way Shakespeare’s Falstaff does. Come to think of it, Dr. Fertig had the same small, pleasing gap between his top two front teeth that Chaucer and his peers considered a sign of high libido and sensuality in the Wife of Bath.)
At any rate, Wally Fertig would send us out in the little town of Crawfordsville, Indiana (pop. 15,000 in autumn 1968) so that we could choose places and things to write descriptions of – in my case, General Lew Wallace’s outdoor gazebo where he’d written Ben Hur and a ramshackle old railroad hotel on the verge of collapse. Then we’d sit in Dr. Fertig’s office – Fertig with his feet up on an opened drawer, white socks radiating whiteness – and critique and discuss and deconstruct our pieces of descriptive writing line by line, sentence by sentence.
And it was then, I think, that Duane Hockenberry decided I was his rival to be “the writer on campus.”
Actually, all four of us in that tiny class were better writers than 99% of adult aspiring writers I run into these days. There was Joe Sinzer, who went on to become a successful businessman and who was an able enough writer that I talked him into doing jazz columns for my “underground” paper, The Satyr, during our senior year. And there was my roommate, Keith Nightenhelser – a mere sophomore when the other three of us were juniors – who was not only an excellent writer, but a philosophy and Greek classics major and the smartest man I’d met up to that time and, some forty-one years later (after I’ve had the opportunity of getting to know many world-class writers, actors, and real men of substance), still the smartest man I’ve ever met.
And then there was Hockenberry and me.
I’ve mentioned that Wabash was (and still is) a small all-male liberal arts college – 800 men total, fewer than 200 graduating seniors – so I was mildly amused when I realized that Hockenberry’s ambition was to be the writer in next year’s senior class. Indolent ambition, I thought.
But Duane was serious about it, just as he was serious about believing he was in competition with me. (I was not focusing on being or becoming a writer then; I was too interested in everything – history, science, art, philosophy, literature – and taking so many courses that I still had no idea what my major would be. Hockenberry knew though. He was going to be a professor of literature (and would do his dissertation on Thoreau) and would write fiction while he taught in a good university somewhere.)
And suddenly, out of nowhere, here came this Simmons twerp to challenge his unstated but totally serious goal of being the writer on campus.
I remained as oblivious to Duane’s resentment and ferocious competition as I was of so many things in those days. My parents’ deaths the year before and the scattering of what was left of my family had shown me that life was too short for petty rivalries (unless they were a lot of fun), so I became real friends with Duane Hockenberry that autumn semester of our junior year. Let him be the writer on campus; I had other things I wanted to do and learn. Nor did I believe then that writing is a competitive act (and I’ve never believed it in the forty years since, even though being a full-time writer of fiction is one of the most mercilessly competitive professions in the world.)
In the second semester of my junior year – January-May 1969 – I headed off to Philadelphia as part of the Great Lakes Colleges Association’s “Urban Semester” there.
It should be noted that years off campus, even to foreign schools, were much less common then, but the GLCA Urban Semester brought undergraduates from a bunch of good Midwestern liberal arts colleges – Wabash, Kenyon, Denison, DePauw, Antioch, Earlham, Ohio Wesleyan, Wooster, Albion, Hope, Kalamazoo, Oberlin – and plunked them down in inner-city Philadelphia to pursue internships in education, law, psychology, etc., while the students were to learn about urban (mostly African-American urban) issues of the day.
Students had to find their own place to live and I ended up renting space in the tiny attic of a settlement house on Bringhurst Street in one of the toughest sections of Germantown. I went to the GLCA Urban Semester for a proposed creative writing seminar, but since no other writers showed up from those other GLCA colleges, I ended up working with a professional filmmaker who was teaching filmmaking to inner-city elementary students. The modest program – just the filmmaker/teacher Steve Brooks and three of us GLCA interns – was funded by a small government grant. The students from all the participating liberal arts colleges would meet once or twice a week for “City Seminars” run by the local GLCA instructors. Outside our work assignments and the city seminars, the rest of the time was ours to do our work and to discover the city.
On weekends and evenings, when not exploring the city, I wrote fiction and non-fiction in the attic of the settlement house.
The GLCA Urban Semester turned out to be fairly important year for me since I met my future wife (Karen Logerquist) there and decided during my months working in an inner-city elementary school with the filmmaker Steve Brooks that I wanted to become a teacher (something for which Wabash College had no major or preparatory courses).
After the semester ended in May, I went back to Philadelphia for the long, hot summer in the city, finding a job as an aide in an inner-city private school for blind, deaf, retarded kids. Summer alone in a Philadelphia ghetto was, (for a scrawny white kid) I discovered, more exciting than winter months there.
Hockenberry’s Senior Year:
When I returned to Wabash in the fall of 1969, I learned after classes had already begun that there was a small, selective course on “writing fiction” being offered by Professor Bert Stern, one of the more interesting instructors at Wabash. I’d missed the selection cut-off date, but Stern told me that if I wrote a short story for him to consider that afternoon, he’d at least read it.
I cut whatever classes I had that day (I still hadn’t focused on a major and was taking far too many courses) and went back to my room and wrote a story called “Lawrence and Archie” about a kid (Lawrence) in a small town who was being terrorized by the 15-year-old bully (Archie) in his sixth-grade class. Lawrence asks his father what to do and his dad says, “Stand up to him. All bullies are cowards.” Lawrence stands up to Archie on the playground and gets the everlasting shit stomped out of him.
Lawrence goes to his teacher and the principal and – when Archie hears about it by being “warned” (with no consequences to him, of course) – Lawrence again gets the shit stomped out of him. Twice. In front of all the other kids.
So Lawrence is learning about how unreliable grown-ups can be and after a series of other beatings by Archie and his bully pals – the town (which would later become “Elm Haven” in some of my novels) is too small to hide in – Lawrence decides to do the obvious thing: kill Archie.
Lawrence takes his father’s Savage over-and-under combination .410-gauge and .22 and lies in wait for Archie, planning to shoot the bully from the window in Lawrence’s parents’ upstairs bedroom window. At the last second, Lawrence decides that the .22 might not be sufficient for this deed and he thumbs the selector from .22 to .410 shotgun. He remembers how he’d accidentally used the .410 on a bolting rabbit during his last hunting trip with is dad and dad’s friends and how the contents of the rabbit’s guts had slid out in a mass, the body coming apart after being blasted at short range with the cloud of .410 shot. They’d ended up, Lawrence remembers as he sights on Archie’s low slung belt, tossing the disintegrated rabbit carcass to Biff, the German shepherd with them that day.
And then Lawrence’s mother shouts up that lunch is ready (it’s a Saturday) and Lawrence remembers that she was making tomato soup and grilled cheese for him – his favorite – and that the John Carter, Mars library book he’d been reading was on the table, waiting for him.
Archie’s walking away now and Lawrence has a perfect shot on the bully’s lower back, but Lawrence’s heart isn’t into the shooting any more. Shouting “Be right down!” to his mother, he removes the .22 cartridge and .410 shell from the Savage and puts the weapon away in his father’s closet where it belongs. Then Lawrence goes down to lunch.
Professer Stern liked the story and let me into the course. He even read the tale aloud during the next class.
Duane Hockenberry, who’d been the “writer” on campus the previous spring and in this class, really resented my late appearance on the scene and Bert Stern’s appreciation of my story. In the class discussion, Hockenberry attacked various aspects of the short story, but the single thing that made it “totally unbelievable” to him, a farm kid and a hunter, was how Lawrence was considering using a .22 on this bully.
“A .22 wouldn’t kill anyone!” Hockenberry shouted his face getting red.
“Well, I had him switch to the .410 . . .” I began.
“Anyone who thinks a .22 would do the job, has never fired a .22,” shouted Duane, his face getter redder and redder and then purple.
Professor Stern, whom one wouldn’t exactly call a gun-guy, watched and listened with growing bemusement.
The upshot was that Duane had to put up with me in the class that fall semester and we took our discussions of writers and writing outside the course. Even with the demands of senior year upon us (and certain other demands on my part, such as seeing Karen from time to time – she went to Denison in Ohio – and also going to the November, 1969, anti-war rally in Washington) I loved that writing course – it turned out to be the only fiction-writing course I’d ever take – and I started the “underground paper” – actually a mimeographed journal – called The Satyr. Our journal was non-fiction at that time with great columns on politics, on movies, on jazz, on classical music, and on topics peculiar to Wabash College – and I got the best student minds in the school to write for The Satyr-- but in the harried spring semester of our senior year – interrupted as it was by the Cambodian invasion, the nation-wide shutdown of colleges and universities in protest, the shootings at Kent State, and all the rest – we put out a half-fiction, half-non-fiction issue, one side pink and one blue in homage to the old Ace science-fiction double novels.
I published “Lawrence and Archie” as my contribution to the fiction side of the Special Double-Issue of The Satyr. My roommate Keith wrote a wonderful story about his tiny Indiana home town of Goldsmith and about an elderly character there named Buck. (Buck and Keith’s young protagonist feel lucky to get summer work scraping roadkill carcasses off the state highways.) Duane Hockenberry submitted a brilliant – and brutal – long story about a literary-oriented young man’s descent into the hell of working nights in an Indiana steel factory. The story was called “Steel Blue” and it hits the reader like a fist in the forehead.
For the non-fiction side of The Satyr, Hockenberry submitted a devastating “exposé” of a psychology professor teaching at Wabash. For a school that prided itself (properly) for having some of the best teacher-professors in America, this particular psychology prof – both Duane and I were in his class that winter since Hockenberry needed it as part of his preparation for being a college instructor and I was taking it as part of a cobbled-together series of courses that would get me certificated (ugly but proper word) for teaching high-school English – was a disgrace: poorly prepared, unfair in his grading, and generally nowhere near being up to the high standard that Wabash demanded of its instructors.
We called Duane’s piece “My Most Unforgettable Character Assassination” and Hockenberry—certain that the professor would get revenge on him – refused to sign his name to the article. As much as I hate (and will always hate) anonymity, I allowed the piece to be attributed to “Student X,” although my own fingerprints were all over it as editor and illustrator. (I remember using that idiotic mimeograph stylus with the round steel bead on the end to press down to draw the accompanying illustration – a caricature of the psychology professor set in the crosshairs of a sniper rifle, pipe dropping from his open mouth.)
Well, I ended up taking a make-up exam from that professor the day that copy of The Satyr was distributed on campus (free to students, 15 cents for instructors). The prof was beside himself with anger, as well he should have been. (I learned years later that the man’s life and marriage had gone to shit years earlier and he’d become a serious alcoholic; everyone on the faculty and administration knew the terrible job this guy was doing, but Wabash being a sort of family, no one wanted to do what was necessary to get him fired. “Your Satyr article was a real service to the administration,” a professor told me years later. “It brought it all out in the open and [the psych professor] agreed to take early retirement. But it was sad. Very sad.”
All I knew at the time was that it seemed highly likely that I was going to get kicked out of school for Duane Hockenberry’s article.
The Dean of Students – the same man who’d told me to “Sit down, Simmons. Wabash isn’t finished with you yet” when I went in to tell him that I was leaving school that December of 1967 after my parents had both died and I had no more money for tuition – dragged me in on the carpet (no sitting down this time) and demanded . . . demanded . . . to know who’d written that article attacking the psychology professor. I refused to divulge the name of my writer.
“We don’t go in for anonymous attacks at Wabash,” said this dean who’d saved my academic life two years before and whom I held in tremendous respect.
“I understand,” I said, standing there on his carpet. “I usually don’t either. But I think the piece was fair and should have been published.”
“So give me the name of its author,” demanded the dean.
I shook my head. “I’m the editor of The Satyr,” I said. “I take full responsibility.”
“So you wrote it?” he demanded.
“I take full responsibility for it.”
The word “laser” was still new and exotic then, but I knew that the gaze Dean Moore was fixing me with could be described as “laser-like.” I’m surprised that it didn’t burn holes in me. I knew the next step was expulsion.
But I wasn’t kicked out of school for Duane’s article. The dean shook my hand that day and said, “Be damned sure you don’t publish anything else under a byline of “Anonymous” during the couple of months before you graduate.”
And so our senior year, with all of the social unrest and political confusion the Vietnam War was generating, came down to the wire. And the wire, for Hockenberry and me and the rest of the seniors, was Comps.
In those days, “Comprehensive Examinations” – three long days of testing on your major and minor subjects, two days written tests, one day orals – was becoming less common (at least as a serious exercise) around the nation, but it was still deadly serious at Wabash. If you didn’t pass Comps, you didn’t graduate. It was that simple.
(The president of our senior class was a likable born politician of a guy, one of our few African-American students then in 1970, a charismatic fellow named Dwight. We all liked Dwight; he was everyone’s friend. But I took the phonecall that May of 1970 with the dean on the other end of the line asking to speak to Dwight there in Martindale dormitory. For all his years of popularity at Wabash, Dwight had not passed senior Comps – something rare for a school that watches over and takes care of its own. He didn’t graduate that year.)
Hockenberry told me that spring that he’d been preparing for Comps for three years. It seems that English Department Comps were so difficult that it had been three years since any English major had received a “One” – the highest grade you can receive. That was Duane’s plan – to graduate with that “One” in English Comps under his belt. I told him that my goal was just to get through the goddamned things.
Hockenberry had been preparing for Comps, he said, even during his lost sophomore year in the steel mills. He really wanted that “One.” A better student than I would ever be, Hockenberry devoted four hours a night, seven nights a week, to Comps review and preparation.
My strategy for getting through Comprehensive Exams was far less noble and labor-intensive: the weekend before the ultimate trial by fire, I locked one of my roommates – the junior named Keith whom I mentioned above as the smartest guy I’ve ever known – into our suite for three days, feeding him tomato soup and animal crackers. Keith was a classics major, not an English major, but he knew more about English and everything else than anyone I knew, so for those three days and nights, I just had Keith grill me on possible Comps questions and essay possibilities – and then, when I didn’t have any clue as to the answer or themes -- let him tell me what they should have been.
For two days we took the written portion of Comps in the sacred room in the Lilly Library where no students were allowed for three years and eight months of their time at Wabash, all of us sitting around a giant round table that would have made King Arthur envious. The first two-hour writing exam had the beginning of what looked to be some novel – people on a lawn in a certain slant of light – and I did my usual thing of “Shit! Is this Henry James? It sort of feels like Henry James. But which James? I’d never got around to reading Portrait of a Lady so it could be the opening of that . . . or of a dozen other Jamesian novels. What the hell . . .no guts no glory. I’ll assume it’s from Portrait of a Lady and wing it.”
The oral half-day of Comps were, of course, far tenser and more grueling than the two days of writing answers. (When I failed to identify the author of the critical essay “Come Back to the Raft, Huck Honey!”, I was sure it was all over. And it should have been.)
Instead, I received the only “One”in English Department Comps that year. When I told Hockenberry I didn’t deserve it, I wasn’t blowing smoke up his skirt. I’m sure I didn’t. But I did deserve the national Phi Betta Kappa prize “in art and journalism” that I won that same week.
Hockenberry wasn’t happy with me after Comps, but we had become friends by then. He had a girlfriend that year – Mary – and sometimes when Karen came from Denison to visit for a Saturday, the four of us would do something together. Hockenberry seemed happier than I’d ever seen him.
His plan was to teach English at a good university and to write novels. My plan? Well . . . I’d been drafted and was going into the army shortly after graduation. I’d spent three years discussing the War, opposing the War, and watching friends make plans to seek conscientious objector status (or simply to head for Canada) rather than go off to that War, but I’d long since realized that I loved America more than I hated the Vietnam War (although sometimes it seemed a close thing) and that I really didn’t have any choice in the matter.
Hockenberry was going to graduate school and was then going to be a writer. I didn’t have the foggiest idea of what my future would be after going into the army, but if I survived that, I told him, (my stupid plan at the time was to hide my typing skills, thus all but guaranteeing that I’d end up in the infantry), I thought I might like to teach elementary-age kids someday. I’d even been accepted into an experimental – only eight students were to be selected – graduate program in education at Washington University in St. Louis. It seemed a shame that I’d be in the army rather than going to that program.
But at least Hockenberry and I were no longer competitors. When we shook hands and said goodbye that May 1970 graduation day, it was as friends and fellow fans of all the books and writers we’d discussed and argued about during our years there at Wabash. As William Placher said in his commencement day address (the tradition at Wabash had always been that only students, chosen by their classmates, are allowed to speak on commencement day) – and Bill’s was the finest commencement speech I’d heard before or since – the “real world” of 1970 was a dangerous one to go out into. Bill compared our graduation day to the last scene of a recent movie, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” where Butch and Sundance are surrounded by about three thousand Bolivian soldiers but choose to go out shooting and still joking.
Between the war, race riots, tough economic times, Richard Nixon in the White House, and a general social unraveling and confusion everywhere, 1970 was a tough year to leave the safe harbor of college and row out into such rough seas. But Hockenberry and I both loved Bill Placher’s suggestion that our obligation – to ourselves – was to go out like Butch and Sundance with guns blazing and sense of humor intact.
Cut to Summer of 1976:
Karen and I had gotten married in August of 1974 and immediately moved from New York State to Colorado where I found a job teaching sixth-grade.
Two years later, in the summer of 1976, we took her Ford Maverick and spent our long, wonderful summer vacation traveling across the United States (on a budget of a few hundred dollars) – driving from Colorado to Florida to visit my older brother, coming slowly up the east coast, celebrating the 4th of July Bicentennial in Philadelphia where we’d met seven years earlier, visiting her parents in Buffalo, NY – and along the way we stopped at Princeton where my old college friend Keith was teaching.
After half an hour or so of drinking beer and chatting, I said, “Hey, what ever happened to Hockenberry? My letters started coming back from Purdue a couple of years ago.”
Keith looked at me strangely. “You haven’t heard?”
What happened to Hockenberry was that he was well on his way to getting his PhD at Purdue when there was some allegation of plagiarism in his dissertation about Thoreau. Rather than work it out, Duane had resigned his teaching position there, dropped out of the PhD program, and gone back to his rural farm. He went to work at the same steel mill he’d described so brutally and so well in “Steel Blue.”
Duane worked the night shift, explained Keith. Hockenberry’s weird older brother worked the day shift. One morning Duane had gone in to wake his older brother and his brother didn’t want to wake up. Duane turned the radio on and left the room.
His older brother came into Duane’s bedroom where he was getting ready to go to sleep and shot Hockenberry. The reports varied – some said that the brother shot Duane six times, some said seven times, several reports said eleven times.
With a .22 rifle.
But all reports agreed that Duane had drowned in his own blood.
While Karen and I were thinking about this, Keith said that there was more. How could there be more? I thought.
Hockenberry’s girlfriend Mary – they were engaged until the plagiarism accusation, then Duane had tried to break it off – had stayed through the inquest. (The crazy brother was acquited of murder due to insanity, but was put away in a hospital for a while.) Then Mary had gone to Boston to get a job. Her first night there, she was sleeping in a second story room with five other young women who were staying there briefly when someone came in from the fire escape, stepped over the other five sleeping women, and strangled Mary. Her murder was within two months of Duane’s. The strangler was never caught.
“Holy shit,” I said.
“There’s more,” said Keith.
Hockenberry had continued writing – all during his undergraduate years, during his year off working at the steel mill, in graduate school and while he was assistant-teaching English at Purdue. He even continued writing fiction when he’d returned to the little farm house and gone back to work at the steel mill, working there at night and writing fiction during the day.
But after his murder, there’d been a fire at his mother’s farmhouse. All of Duane Hockenberry’s papers – dissertation, notes, but especially ten years of fiction – had gone up in the blaze. It was all gone. In a way, it was as if Duane Hockenberry had never existed.
The Hockenberry Award:
My relationship with Wabash College, my undergraduate alma mater, is unique in the sense that it’s the only organism with more than one human head that I’ve ever loved.
I said earlier that I loved the United States of America, but that’s a bifurcated love – one part of it for the physical places and people I’ve known, the other – deeper love – for the ideas upon which America was established and which so many have sacrificed to maintain for more than two centuries now. Those ideas and ideals – the primacy of individual human liberty over the power of any state or aristrocracy, the attempt to provide real equal opportunity for all people, the need for real freedom to choose so many things including one’s religion (or lack of) – all expressed in the Declaration of Independence, in the U.S. Consitution, in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and in other indelible statements and actions -- are what make me love the United States. As interesting as other nations are in their diverse ways, I’ve found no other nation on earth that was established to create, and which continues to embody, a set of universal principles of human freedom and opportunity and dignity the way the United States does.
But my love for Wabash College was different.
The little liberal arts college, established in 1832 and one of only two men’s colleges left in the U.S. (and under constant pressure to go co-ed . . . by the proponents of “diversity” who can’t tolerate real diversity), embodies certain ideals, including quality liberal arts education, excellence in instruction, maturity in its student body (the only rule at Wabash has always been the Gentleman’s Rule – i.e. “The student is expected to conduct himself at all times, both on and off the campus, as a gentleman and a responsible citizen.") – but it’s the place and people and reality of Wabash that I’d loved for decades.
I mentioned the time right before Christmas 1967 when I went into Dean Norman Moore’s office to say goodbye to him and the college – my mother had died of cancer in May of that year, my father on December 7, and I simply had run out of loans I could take out and money for tuition and all the rest – and after shaking his hand and just before I opened the door to leave, Dean Moore had said, “Sit down, Simmons. Wabash isn’t finished with you yet.” The school then put together a combination of grants, loans, and jobs on campus to get me through. (The “jobs” part included a couple of years of working nights from midnight to 5 a.m., cleaning and mopping the commons where everyone ate, but I never considered that a hardship. Especially since I was still working around 4 a.m. each night when Bertha, the night baker, made up her morning batch of donuts. In the summers, I worked at places such as R.R. Donnelley & Sons printing factory – perhaps the ultimate non-union factory job – and was glad to get the work. Hockenberry and I understood that aspect of life without having to discuss it.)
So I was delighted in the early 1990’s when Wabash invited me back to do some readings from my work and to meet with students to talk about writing. That first visit, the college had given me a $500 honorarium and I promptly turned that over to some of the students I’d been talking to there. Through professors from my undergraduate era who were still there, the students had learned about The Satyr and wanted to do some similar totally student-run literary journal. That mere $500 allowed them to put out a wonderful publication they called The White Rabbit for several years and I stayed in touch with several of the men – this was mostly before e-mail – for several years, even after they graduated.
Then in the 90’s there was a fund raising effort at Wabash where one could purchase “commemorative bricks” for a repaving of an area in front of one of the original 1830’s buildings. Karen and I paid for a brick with Duane Hockenberry’s name engraved on it. My old classmate and Satyr-contributor Bill Placher – who’d given the best graduation speech I’ve ever heard that May of 1970 and who was now an internationally respected theologian and head of Wabash’s religion department -- wondered if anyone who saw the brick would have any idea who Duane Hockenberry was.
Then, in 1995, Wabash surprised me with an honorary doctorate and while Karen and I were visiting the college at commencement time, we began discussions with various administrators and instructors at the school about a real and living memorial to Hockenberry.
Since Duane had been one of the finest writers I’ve ever met, I wanted to endow some small writing program in his name. For months we talked to instructors in the English department, administrators, old classmates such as Bill Placher and David Blix who were teaching at Wabash, my friend Keith who was teaching down the road at Wabash’s ancient sports nemesis, DePauw, and others. We discussed funding a writing center on campus, a series of seminars, a speakers’ series for visiting writers, a permanent student-run literary publication, a writing contest in Hockenberry’s name, and a dozen other ideas.
In the end, we decided that a summer writing internship called the Hockenberry Summer Writing Internship (also known as the Hockenberry Award) was the way to go.
The idea was that instead of having to go home to find a summer job, a selected Wabash student in the summer after his junior year each year would receive $2500 and room and board to stay near the Wabash campus where he would work on writing fiction – short stories, a novel, any sort of fiction. My concern at the time (I’d spent years setting up large programs for gifted/talented students in public school districts and knew the pitfalls when one group comes up with a plan but depends upon others to carry it out) was that this might put a burden on the English Department instructors who would meet with the Hockenberry summer writing intern for an hour per week to monitor his work.
Nonsense, the various professors in the English Department said. Between the professors who wanted to support such a writing internship, they said, there was no problem or burden whatsoever. If one professor were on vacation, there were others staying in town who would be glad to meet weekly with the student. Wabash had always prided itself on its instructor-student relationships and support and this summer writing internship, they said, would be no different.
So the Hockenberry Summer Writing Internship was born. (Our initial funding for the program was for four years – only $10,000 – with the understanding that we’d all monitor the success of the internship and decide whether a much longer-term funding was called for.)
Now comes one of the interventions of human agency that can (and usually does) screw up the best-laid plans of mice and men.
In this case, the intervening element was the current head of the English Department at Wabash then and was named Joy Chavez. (Her last name here has been changed – although her real last name was shared by a certain South American or Caribbean dictator.) But “Joy” she was.
Wabash College, one of two all men’s schools left in America and often made to feel guilty because of that fact, was delighted to have Joy Chavez in their English Department. Joy was an actual writer – some short stories published in “little magazines,” which is much closer to actual publication than most English professors ever get. She also was working on her book (which would be published during the years of the Hockenberry Award fiasco) which was about how, as a girl and young woman, she’d been molested by various men in her family.
Joy Chavez had been very enthusiastic about us funding the Hockenberry summer writing internship and the first to say that there were no problems with faculty involvement. (Indeed, she later included in Wabash College brochures the fact that the College was the only liberal arts school in the GLCA or Midwest to offer such a summer internship to writers.)
But that first autumn we funded the internship, I knew there were going to be problems between Joy Chavez and me. I was visiting the campus this time not as a writer or old alum but as a new member of the board of directors for publications – including the excellent alumni journal Wabash Magazine edited by my friend there Steve Charles. Between the two of us, Karen and I regularly received four alumni magazines – and have read many more – and Wabash Magazine stands out. It’s interesting – a pleasurable read even for non-alumni.
But the little hints that Joy Chavez and I wouldn’t see eye to eye popped up almost immediately.
She was nice enough to invite me to sit in on one of her regular English classes and to be a guest at her fiction-writing seminar. The regular class struck me somewhat as an exercise in feminism – which makes sense if an all-male school is going to have a female instructor as the head of their English Department – but the discussion in the very small writing class (there were six students, two of them absent that day) struck me as the academic approach I’ve seen so frequently in which students are taught that professional writing is a sort of whoredom and that the only serious writers are the ones published by small university presses -- and that the best writers are those who never get paid for their work.
My usual response to this approach is to mention such names as Dr. Samuel Johnson (“Only a blockheard would write for any reason other than money”) and Charles Dickens and Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald and Philip Roth and John Fowles and John Updike and Toni Morrison and Saul Bellow. They were all bestselling authors. They were popular. They were paid well. They produced excellence.
So I did my little spiel about aspects of being a full-time novelist and one of the students surprised me by looking me in the eye and asking, “How much do you get paid?”
Obviously this is one of those questions no one answers (if you have any class at all), but I’ve been asked it frequently enough that I had all the stats ready – i.e. the average full-time writer in America, according to a recent Columbia University study, declares a little under $19,000 a year on his or her income tax statement. (And, according to another study by the same university, there are fewer than 500 full-time writers of fiction in the United States, out of a population of more than 300 million people. In other words, the odds of a young person becoming a major league baseball player or NBA star are greater than becoming a full-time novelist who makes enough money to support his or her family.)
This student wasn’t deterred. He kept looking me in the eye but said, “Yeah, yeah, but how much do you make a year writing novels?”
It was rude of him. But it was also completely pertinent to what I’d told the tiny writing class about writing for publication being an honorable profession. And I admit that I’d been irritated by the multiple messages I’d heard from Ms. Chavez of “Writing for no money = good; writing for money= being a whore.”
So I looked the kid in the eye and said, “Let’s put it this way. I was a school teacher for eighteen years before I began writing full time. As a self-employed writer, I pay estimated taxes four times a year. Each of those estimated quarterly tax payments comes out to a little more than twice the total amount I would have been earning annually – with a master’s degree and thirty years experience – if I’d stayed in teaching.”
I knew the student couldn’t do the math (how many people know what public school teachers earn?), but I could see him trying to figure it out. And I could also see the cold dislike in Joy Chavez’s eyes. It was a pure Harry Callahan stare.
The next year, Ms. Chavez gave her first Chapel Speech at Wabash.
I need to hasten here to say that there’s (usually) nothing religious about Wabash’s weekly Wednesday chapels. It’s a tradition that goes back to 1832 and one that was compulsory when I was a student there in the ‘60’s – one which died out in the 70’s and 80’s – but was revived (by students!) in the 1990’s. Wabash Chapel speeches, sometimes given by visiting scholars but more often by Wabash faculty (and, rarely, even by a student) are serious scholarly efforts. It’s not unusual for a scheduled Wabash chapel speaker to work two years on his or her talk. They’re taken seriously by both the scholars invited to give them and by the students and other faculty that show up to hear them.
Joy Chavez’s Chapel Speech received much approval but generated some controversy.
Another old tradition at Wabash was for instructors to be invited to dinner at all the fraternities (about two-thirds of Wabash men join fraternities – a fate I avoided) and Ms. Chavez announced that while visiting one of the fraternities, she was shocked . . . shocked! . . . to find an obscene and dehumanizing sexist poster in one of the private upstairs areas of the fraternity house.
(Frat houses have sexual and sexist posters in them? Stop the presses!)
What followed was a brutally honest (her words) assessment of the generally and unredeemably sexist atmosphere of the inexcusably all-male Wabash College. Since conservative elements kept blocking the school’s moral imperative of going co-ed, she explained, the only proper use that Wabash College could be put to was to serve as a “gender laboratory” – her terms – in which the male students’ innately sexist attitudes could be turned around by faculty, administrators, and other students. She talked about how this – inculcating feminist sensitivities in the male students -- would be the English Department’s primary goal and she demanded that each department develop an “action plan” for including feminism as its primary goal. (Something which both the music and mathematics departments later had to beg apology for not be able to implement fully.)
Feminists from around the nation would be watching and judging, Joy said. As an all-male college, Wabash (and its barbarian fraternities) had already shown its hopelessness, but as a gender laboratory in which the liberating doctrines of feminism could be taught in and emphasized across all disciplines, with the male students’ progress measured by her and other feminists, sexist Wabash would finally have some reason for existence in an otherwise enlightened and diversified academic world.
Most of the faculty applauded this speech and program, but some students and professors later showed opposition to Joy’s plan to turn Wabash into a gender laboratory. They suggested that it wasn’t fair for young men (and their families) to pay the admittedly high tuition to come to this liberal arts college (known for its high academic standards) only to be treated like lab mice.
But Professor Chavez thrived. She was busy on a second book with the same subject matter as her first. She was invited as a speaker to innumerable conferences and – as far as I could tell – spent almost half her time at Wabash out on sabbatical.
But before that chapel speech, during that autumn 1995 visit, during a delightful dinner at a country restaurant paid for by the Publications Department that had invited me there as part of its board of directors, the lines were drawn between Joy and me.
I mentioned during dinner that the centennial of Ezra Pound being fired from the Wabash faculty (for harboring a chorus girl in his room) was coming in 2007. I’d been interested in Pound when I was an undergraduate at Wabash and had used some of his more incendiary anti-war poetry in the daily bulletins we’d put out during the long Cambodian crisis/college shut-down period in the spring of 1970. Now I suggested to President Andy Ford and others at the table that it would be fun if Wabash could organize some sort of scholarly conference for 2007 – on or near the January date when Pound had been summarily fired for his moral failures – and invite Pound scholars from around the world.
Ms. Chavez fixed me with an icy stare and said coldly (and loudly), “I’m sure there are many more Modernist poets who were not fascists and anti-Semites whom Wabash could honor before Ezra Pound.”
“Yeah,” I said (I’d known that Pound was an anti-Semite, and crazy as a shithouse rat, even when I was a student there), “but the other Modernists didn’t teach at Wabash or get fired from here. After getting kicked out of Wabash, Pound took a boat to Italy and told his friends there – ‘Saved! Saved from the seventh circle of desolation!’ – by which he meant Crawfordsville, Indiana. As pathetic as Pound was as a person, he’s still the most famous name ever to come out of Wabash . . . if you don’t count the actor Dean Jagger, who never graduated. Some college or university will host a conference for Pound. It’d be cool – and funny -- if Wabash did it on the centennial of his getting his butt fired.”
Well, that was it with Joy Chavez and me. I was never to receive another honestly civil word from her.
She moved on a year or so ago, accepting a higher paid position elsewhere, and leaving behind an all-male gender laboratory with a lot of terminally confused lab rats in it.
The Demise of the Hockenberry:
For a year and a half after our funding of the Hockenberry Summer Writing Internship, Karen and I heard almost nothing at all from Joy or the English Department or the College. We didn’t want to push or pry. Finally, in what should have been the last weeks of the second annual internship, I sent an e-mail query to Joy Chavez. “How’s the Hockenberry going?”
Well, she admitted, it wasn’t in the best of shape.
For the first year, she’d personally chosen the candidate. (I’d talked extensively with President Andy Ford and the English Department about selection processes for the award – devising selection processed for advanced and gifted progams is something that I’d done extensively and even consulted nationally about – but they assured me that in a school as small as Wabash, they’d just know who the deserving students would be so no selection criteria would be needed.)
The first “deserving student” was a kid I’d met during my autumn visit there. He joined some faculty and us for lunch and I admit I never would have considered him as a possibility for the Hockenberry Award. The Hockenberry internship was designed for men there who, like Duane Hockenberry himself, had read widely and well and who could – or at least were serious about wanting to – write. This kid seemed serious about comic books and video games and being a smart-ass.
But Joy chose him and handed him the $2500 in cash before the summer began.
The boy showed that he was, indeed, gifted. He pocketed the money and went home to get a real summer job and never showed up on campus that summer and never wrote a word. (The only obligation I’d put on the award was that the student would do a public reading of his work in the autumn, during a week when other disciplines’ interns were publicly showing their work in science, math, etc.) This kid couldn’t show his work, of course, since he’d done none. Also because he dropped out of school that autumn.
The second year of the Hockenberry wasn’t going so well, Professor Chavez wrote me, because she and the English Department had been really busy that year and had simply forgotten to post word of the internship or to choose anyone. (Later she said that no one met the standards that year, but since there were no standards and news of the internship hadn’t been posted at all, her first statement of simply having forgotten – supported by other members of the English department I was later in touch with – was the true one.)
I went back to Wabash that year and suggested we either drop the internship or completely redesign the award. Karen and I worked with a few people at Wabash to come up with totally different alternatives – a Hockenberry Award open to all juniors and based on pieces of writing judged by professional authors, going back to the visiting-authors seminars, and many other ideas. Again we explored the idea of creating a Writing Center at Wabash with the $2500 annually.
No, said Chavez and the rest of the English Department. The summer internship was the best idea. They’d get on it that next summer and the Hockenberry Award would make us all proud.
That next year they did post word of the internship, had three students show interest, and chose one according to criteria known only to Joy.
The only other obligation I’d put on the money was that I’d get to see the finished work by the student supported during the summer. This second Hockenberry recipient had written about ten very short stories. No one asked me to, but I did careful line editing and comments on each of the stories. It was a depressing exercise for me simply because the quality of writing was atrocious. My sixth-grade students – literally – could write better works of short fiction by Christmas of each school year. This chosen Hockenberry Award recipient needed instruction on spelling, avoiding run-on sentences, paragraph construction, use of similes and metaphors . . . everything. And the majority of non-stories (they had no story element or real characters) came across as lectures about sexism.
I had business at Wabash that fall and brought the commented-on manuscripts with me, each with a typed commentary from me as well as the prodigious line-editing, since I’d been told that I’d be meeting with that summer’s Hockenberry Intern. But the meeting never took place. The student was absent from campus (and later also dropped out).
I ending up tossing the stack of annotated manuscripts in a waste basket.
The next year, the third Hockenberry recipient, I was told, was the charm. “He’ll make us all proud,” Joy wrote me.
When I asked about the young man’s qualifications for a $2500 writing internship, I received what I considered a strange answer from Joy –
The young man was a minority – part African-American, part Hispanic. He lived in a ghetto section of Chicago. He was attending Wabash on a full scholarship because of his ethnicity and socio-economic status. Even more pertinent – she said – he was gay. He’d lived a life of such persecution and discrimination that he had a lifetime of subject matter to write about.
“Can he write?” I queried.
A cold silence was the only response.
Later I received excited updates about the young man’s work. Unlike the other two Hockenberry award interns, this guy was writing each and every day of the summer. He was working on a novel (based on his own life, of course) and by mid-July had completed some 500 pages.
I queried whether the whiz-kid was getting any real feedback during the weekly meetings with Joy and other faculty – any real line-editing or work on the word level. “He’s fantastic and so is his work,” wrote Joy. “This is a major discovery.”
In August, I received an e-mail from Joy saying that the young man’s still-expanding novel was so good that it needed to be published. More than that, she’d already promised him it would be. She’d use her own agent to get him published if need be. (This sounded promising.) She wrote that she told the young man to go to Crawfordsville’s one off-campus bookstore and to “choose a publisher.”
“Choose a publisher?” I wrote back, not quite sure I’d read the words correctly. He was to go to a bookstore and choose a publisher and she’d guarantee that he’d be published by that house?
Yes. He was that good. And the young man, who admitted that he’d “never really looked at books up close before”, chose Knopf. One had to admire his ambition. Ms. Chavez told him (and me) that Knopf it would be. I admit that I was getting excited to see the finished product – a novel so good that it would be published by Knopf.
Hockenberry, old pal, I thought into the Void, this is what your award was really about.
At the end of the summer they sent me a copy of the thousand pages of the young Chicagoan’s novel. I began reading the afternoon it arrived.
To say it was a mess would be far too much of an understatement. To say it was preliterate – devoid of the writing skills of a moderately gifted 10-year-old – is not an insult but a fact. But the “novel” was more than that – it was an exercise in gay pornography and revenge against a cruel world. (It’s true that such a formula gets a reading in today’s publishing world, but this pornography was unreadable in its badness; the revenge against the world too much like something written on the wall of a schizophrenic’s cell (in the inmate’s own exrement.) The thousand or so pages – I quit doing line-edits somewhere around page 300 – were unfixable and unreadable. It was a raw emotion-dump of hatred and paranoia and masturbatory fantasies with no characters or human beings in it except the Protagonist (i.e. the student) versus a hated and hateful world endlessly and spitefully picking on him (because of his high intelligence and his ethnicity and his gayness.) Still and all, if there had been the slighests glint of good writing there, someone might have helped the young writer shape it from scratch. But except for a few short passages scattered here and there in the thousand-page revenge fantasy, there was no sound writing to be found.
It was, in all writing-publishing terms, a complete non-starter.
Joy Chavez’s agent delivered basically the same assessment of the ms to her, leaving out the part about the sense of a schizophrenic writing in his own excrement (but hinting at that) The book, the agent said, was unpublishable and unfixable. There was nothing in it, no fragment or particle, that suggested a publishable talent had been involved in the screed. Even in an age where publishing thrived on paranoid accounts of minorities being persecuted by villainous social forces, the agent said, this book, this rant, this mass of disconnected pages, was not something that could be submitted to publishers or even fixed.
The student, after screaming “Does this mean Knopf won’t be publishing it!!??” -- freaked out. He wouldn’t come out his room for days, wouldn’t talk to anyone. The time was coming for him to do his public reading – the only requirement that his $2500 internship had put upon him -- but he demanded Joy’s copy of the book back and announced the next day that he’d destroyed both it and his copy of the novel – “drowning them.” (Personally, I thought this showed some real style and literary acumen – the writer “drowning his Books” the way Prospero did in The Tempest. Nothing so became that manuscript than its form of demise.)
But I called the student (my first direct intervention or interaction with any of the Hockenberry recipients.) First, I told him, I was FedExing back a copy I’d made of his ms and told him that to live up to his agreement for receiving the $2500, he would do the public reading at Wabash that month. I’d marked three short passages of the ms that I thought would read all right.
The student received the FedExed ms just in time and did the reading and later wrote me “I feel good about myself again.”
Well, fine. But I didn’t feel good about any part of this Hockenberry Summer Internship program.
Once again we offered to change the program completely, but once again Joy Chavez and the English Department argued to keep the summer internship. “We’ll do a better job,” one of the English professors I knew wrote me.
One thing was obvious: they needed a bigger and better talent pool. I asked them to open the applications to any junior from any department who wanted to apply for the internship and they somewhat grudgingly agreed.
The last student to receive the Hockenberry Award (there were five recipients, oddly (and counting the year the student just stole the money), since a friend there at the college, someone who could ill afford such a financial gift, put up his own personal funds for a fifth summer) was a philosophy major. His name was Jacob and his work – which I received in September before traveling to Wabash on business – showed real promise.
But his writing also showed no intervention from any instructor – no line-editing help, no advice on writing style or format, nothing that any editor or real writing instructor would have offered a promising (but struggling) young writer.
This time I insisted on meeting with the intern and spent more than ninety minutes with Jacob on campus. I showed him the line edits and markings and typed comments I’d done on all his stories. Rather than being “ totally crushed” – a stated fear of Joy Chavez and some other members of the English Department should the students receive criticism – Jacob was earnestly grateful. If he’d had such guidance through the summer, he said, his stories would have pleased him – which these frustrating and clearly falling-short efforts did not.
“What did you do with Ms. Chavez and the others all those weeks?” I asked.
Well, Jacob explained, there were weeks skipped due to English profs being on vacation. And he met with several instructors, so there was no real consistency. No one person had been reading his work through the summer and had any sense of his progress (or lack of.) When he met with Ms. Chavez, he said, they often just wrote in silence in her office, each on his or her own manuscript, and then spent the last twenty minutes or so just “kicking around general concepts.”
“Did you ever get down to the paragraph, sentence, and word level?” I asked him.
“Not until today.”
And so, after five years of this, I asked that the College and we all sit down and see how we could improve the Hockenberry Summer Writing Internship. The first $10,000 had been spent (largely wasted, in my view) and I wanted to get back to a blank slate before continuing funding.
Joy Chavez wrote a letter, backed, she said, “by the entire English Department,” stating that the Hockenberry Award had never been a good idea and she had never been in favor of it. First of all, she said, Wabash had no deserving students for such an internship. “The talent pool is too small here,” were her words. Secondly, it was unfair to ask members of the English faculty to spend their summer time working with students (even for 30 minutes a week). More than that, she said – speaking for the entire department (she said) – it was a violation of their negotiated agreement between faculty and the college. We were infringing on their legal and contractual rights.
Karen and I could only look at each other. After six years and all our efforts to make sure that the summer internship program wasn’t being dumped on people who were unwilling – or unable – to do it.
And so died the Hockenberry Summer Internship Program.
The Hockenberry’s Chance for Resurrection:
Years passed. Ms. Joy Chavez moved on to implement her feminist agenda elsewhere.
My friend Bill Placher – who someone described as the “heart and living soul of Wabash College” – died suddenly of a heart attack last winter.
College President Andy Ford left and was replace by President Pat White.
But queries continued, from friends and faculty there, about someday reviving some version of the Hockenberry Award. Wabash College, they pointed out, used to be nationally known as a school where every student became proficient at writing. It was no longer. Could I help?
I didn’t think I could. Such a commitment to enabling young writers had to be a grassroots thing, I pointed out, not just from the English Department but from the entire faculty and administration. It had been that sort of demand for a high level of writing expertise that had produced a graduating class of writers such as Duane Hockenberry, Keith Nightenhelser, Joe Sinzer, Bill Placher, Dave Messerschmidt and others in 1970 when I started up The Satyr as an outlet for such talent. Those young men could write.
But as dejected as I was, the occasional contacts and discussions continued – with Placher until his death, with Keith who was now a professor at DePauw University, with Steve Charles at Wabash Magazine and others there whose opinion I valued.
And then President Pat White got in touch.
Pat and his wife Chris are the kind of people who make you want to move to their neighborhood just to have a chance to hang around them, to talk to them over summer cookouts or at Christmas parties. Pat has a wonderful sense of humor and he often sets himself up as the Twain-like “innocent abroad” in his funny stories.
More than that, Pat had taught English and writing. He’d studied English and writing fiction at Iowa State under my dear friend David Morrell (the creator of First Blood and its character John Rambo.) Indeed, Pat had been in David’s class when Mr. Morrell – looking stunned – came in to announce that he’d just sold his little-known anti-war novel First Blood to the movies and young Pat White, in a move he says is totally alien to his shy character, leaped out of his seat, threw his arms wide, and shouted at a surprised Morrell – “Adopt me!”
So about a year ago, after meeting with Pat and Chris and writing back and forth with others, I began looking at recreating the Hockenberry award or program. From scratch.
Everything we’d learned the painful way (or known to begin with but not factored in) went into my thoughts about a new Hockenberry. The first thing I did this April after I’d finally finished my book tour for Drood and finished the writing of the overdue Black Hills was to send the requested formal proposal for the new Hockenberry Award to Pat.
The New Hockenberry Award and the Wabash Writers’ Workshop at Windwalker:
First, working on the premise that students can’t be expected to show skills they haven’t been taught, the workshop:
There would be no immediate “award”, only applications to W4 -- the Wabash Writers’ Workshop at Windwalker (my mountain cabin in Colorado.) Such travel is common for Wabash students these days; they have “immersion courses” that take them to Pompeii, Greece, France, South America, the Arizona desert, and a dozen other learning sites.
The W-four workshop would be at Windwalker in June (but with some of the activities at our home down here below the foothills, about 35 minutes away.) It would be a weeklong boot camp of a workshop – instruction in the morning, Milford-style workshopping all afternoon, traveling and writing in the evenings -- for one full week. I’d be the primary instructor but there would be at least one other bestselling novelist involved (David Morrell had shown interest, if his schedule allowed it) plus one female poet-writer I know who is gifted in organizing and running such events.
I stipulated that the W-four writers’ workshop would be open to any Wabash student, freshman through junior. I would come to Wabash twice during the school year to do public readings, to meet with interested students, and to talk up the W-four writers’ workshop and possible Hockenberry Award (more on it later.)
Along with their applications in the spring, the students would have to submit a writing sample – based on a “suggestion” I would give – and I’d be the only one to assess these samples. A student wouldn’t have to show mastery of all basic writing and composition techniques to get into the workshop (unlike the previous Hockenberry Award, where such mastery was theoretically required), but would have to show real potential as a writer. My assessment would be holistic in nature (a technique that I’d taught as a national consultant on holistic assessment of writing skills) and I hoped to get from 8 to perhaps 15 students to qualify.
So the students (and certain volunteer Wabash instructors or other personnel, such as my Wabash Magazine editor friend Steve Charles) would be welcome to attend the weeklong W-four workshop, but they wouldn’t teach there. We’d find room for all the students at our home and at the Windalker cabin itself. We’d provide breakfast and lunch each day; in the evenings we’d usually be going to mountain restaurants up there or cooking out at the cabin. Tours to everything from nearby Rocky Mountain National Park to Rockies baseball games would be offered. (Writers need grist for their writing mills.)
And so the week of the Wabash Writers’ Workshop at Windwalker would present comprehensive instruction, constant writing exercises, and long afternoons of Milford-style workshopping. Having experienced the boot-camp intensity of such workshopping myself in the all-professional Milford Workshop and been a guest writer at the expensive six-week Odyssey Workshop for adults in New Hampshire, I had every anticipation that students willing to do the work could jump several years in their writing ability and understanding in that one demanding week at W-four.
And through it all would be an emphasis on writing professionally for publication. The workshop students would get a serious glimpse at what it meant to be a professional writer of fiction. They’d hear from the guest professionals and me what a writer’s day is really like . . . and why so few are able to attain a career as full-time author. The students would hear about the business side of writing, something that takes up more and more of every successful writer’s life and energies. And the evenings on the cabin deck or sitting by the fireplace at Windwalker were where questions and answers would fly: such off-duty informal hours are always the heart of any well-planned workshop.
And only after the W-four workshop was finished in June would the possibility of the Hockenberry Award become real.
The New Hockenberry Award:
If none of the students graduating from the W-four workshop chose to continue writing that summer, fine. The workshop was a thing unto itself. But if some of the Wabash students were inspired to keep writing after the workshop, even while they returned home to their summer jobs and lives, I would be their ongoing e-mail interlocutor and editor for the summer.
Via e-mail, I would continue doing workshopping and line-editing and ongoing commentary for those students who were still pouring all their effort and newly trained abilities into their writing. A student could work on short fiction or start a novel (which wouldn’t have to be finished by the end of summer, but which would be shared along the way.)
And here – perhaps, not inevitably, but perhaps – the Hockenberry Writing Award would reappear.
Just as I would be the only one to select students for the workshop, I would be the only judge for the Hockenberry Awrd. For most summers, despite the success of the W-four workshop, it was possible, perhaps probable, that no student would qualify for the new Hockenberry. But then again . . . odds were greater with the larger talent pool, the greater demand for student effort, and the professional-level workshop itself (not to mention more than ten weeks of editing interaction over the summer) that someone would qualify.
Someone whose demonstrated writing shows that he deserves to get a glimpse of what being a full-time professional writer is like from the publishing side. (They’d already heard from professional novelists and short-story writers about their side of publishing life at the W4 Workshop.)
So again, $2500 for a Hockenberry Award, but this time not a cash gift to disappear with the giving.
Any recipient of the Hockenberry Award would, in the autumn when school has resumed, receive an all-expense paid three-day trip from Indiana to New York City. Once there (and in a decent hotel), they’d go to scheduled meetings with my literary agent, with editors I know, and with actual publishers. During those three nights and two long days in New York, they’d get a glimpse of the business side of publishing. And they’d also receive a $500 cash award to spend however they wished. Their obligation, upon returning to Wabash, would be almost the same as earlier iterations of the program: to read their work before the campus public and now to discuss what they’d seen about the publishing world in New York.
Finally, in this new design of the workshop and Hockenberry Award, students could continue to qualify for the W-four workshop for the three summers of their eligibility. They could also remain eligible for the Hockenberry Award itself for three summers. If the same student won the Hockenberry Award a second time – well, an all-expense-paid trip to Los Angeles to look at the movie-sales side of being a writer, with meetings with movie agents, producers, etc. wouldn’t be a shabby prize. If he won a third time . . . well, I’d have to get creative. (But I did consider the pros and cons having any three-time Hockenberry Award winner to spend some weeks after their graduation with me or some other writer like Stephen King or Harlan Ellison or David Morrell. Or perhaps arrange visits to all of these writers, to see how they lived and worked and to hear what they thought about the profession. Wabash president Pat White’s undergraduate cry of “Adopt me!” might come true after all.)
I sent this formal proposal to Wabash President Pat White in April of 2009. My only absolute requirements were – a) this program wouldn’t end up in some sort of pissing match with the Wabash English Department (i.e. if they felt their territory was being invaded, my proposal was null and void) and b) Pat and Wabash should decide as soon as possible, preferably before their 2009 school year was over that spring, since I had to make a lot of changes in my own deadlines and delivery schedules if I were to plan curriculum for such a serious workshop the following June (and to make all necessary arrangements, including convincing David Morrell or Harlan Ellison or Stephen King to join me for all or some of the week of instruction.)
Hockenberry’s Final Death:
Pat White was a busy man at the end of the 2008-2009 school year (two students had died on campus that year, including one as a victim of fraternity hazing, every college administrator’s worst nightmare) and we didn’t discuss the W-four workshop and Hockenberry Award proposal until he was visiting Colorado in early July. Even if we’d approved it on that date, it would have been a rush for me to make the arrangements I’d have to make to prepare for the workshop the following June and to set aside the next summer for constant e-mail contact with any interested student writers (not to mention arranging the actual September New York meetings for the Hockenberry recipient).
Our luncheon meeting at my home in July was enjoyable and seemed productive. Pat assured me that he’d be be able to run it by the Wabash English Department and other faculty members before college classes resumed in September. He seemed very enthusiastic about it. I still had my doubts, but I was willing to commit to at least four years of the workshop and Hockenberry Award offers if we could decide by early September of 2009. (As mentioned, one of the small things I’d have to rearrange if I were to do the June workshops was the actual delivery and publication dates of my novels.)
Pat assured me that he’d have it decided by September. If there were the slightest opposition from the English Department or any other faculty, he told me, he’d let me know and we could just drop the Hockenberry proposal before it became a problem.
All right, I said. As long as we decide before September. (At this point, the idea had been discussed verbally for more than a year and had existed in formal written proposal form for more than four months.)
September arrived . . . and passed . . . and no word.
In October, I queried Pat on his progress with discussing the new Hockenberry proposal with faculty and others.
He admitted that he hadn’t begun the process yet. He and the school, quite rightfully, had other priorities. But he did tell me that one of the newer English professors at Wabash was thinking of offering a fiction course for the first time in years. (I managed to contain my enthusiasm at this news.)
So in the second week of October of this year, seven months after I’d submitted it, I formally withdrew the proposal for a Wabash Writers’ Worskhop at Windwalker and the separate new Hockenberry Award.
So I wake often with a sense that someone close to me has died. I realize how silly that is, but it’s true.
Some friends have suggested to me that I’ve “made Duane Hockenberry immortal” through my much-loved character of Duane McBride in my novel Summer of Night (or so it seems, since readers were furious at me for killing the 11-year-old Duane off and send me angry letters about it to this day). But that “Duane” was based only partially on Duane Hockenberry (more so on friend or friends still living) and that’s a poor sort of backhanded immortality at any rate.
I don’t believe that the Wabash Writers’ Workshop at Wabash, no matter how effective, or the concommitant Hockenberry Writing Award visit to New York to see publishing in action would have immortalized Hockenberry in any way, but goddammit, it would have made his name known again on the Wabash campus. It would have been something.
I’m Sorry, Duane:
I hope I’ve made it clear that I don’t blame others for this second and final death of the Hockenberry Award. President Andy Ford, in his last years at the college, had no vested interest in taking on a popular feminist head of the English Department who’d decided that the Hockenberry Summer Internship was worthless.
Nor am I “disappointed” in current Wabash president Pat White, who extended me every courtesy and whom I still think of as a friend. It’s not the job of any Wabash president to try to sell such an off-campus program taught by someone other than campus faculty. Pat had a thousand pressing issues to deal with this summer and fall and many other priorities. I’m sure that no one who hasn’t experienced it first hand can imagine the full spectrum of pressures and demands on a college president’s time and energies.
I’m tempted to blame myself for the multiple failures of the Hockenberry Award in all its iterations – and it’s true that I had enough experience creating curricula and educational programs that work to have mistakenly believed that I could hand off the Hockenberry Summer Internship to such uninterested parties as Joy Chavez and still hope to have any success. My hands-off approach was stupid and self-defeating from the get-go. In the end, Karen and I wasted $10,000 through that oversight, but the real loss was to the Wabash students – especially those actually chosen so carelessly for the first Hockenberry Summer Writing Internship Award – who never got an opporunity to receive real instruction, real writerly feedback, and, most importantly, to achieve real excellence in their writing.
But I do believe that the combination of the W-four workshop here in Colorado in June, off-campus, with other professional writers and myself as instructors and workshop leaders, would have been of real value to undergraduate men who had any serious interest in becoming a novelist or full-time writer of fiction. And it may just be ego, but I still believe that any student whom I chose for the new Hockenberry Award and its chance to meet with publishing pros New York, after a summer of my monitoring and editing that student’s work, would have benefitted from the experience.
A quote by John Keats that I’ve used more than a few times in my discussions of writing and one that has deep personal resonance for me is – “That which is creative must create itself.”
The real Duane Hockenberry understood the meaning of that sentence more than most of us. Coming out of poverty and out of the intellectual loneliness of rural Indiana life, a compulsive young reader and complex thinker surrounded by non-readers and infinitely less ambitious minds, Hockenberry had – in a way that I understood all to well even then – begun at Wabash College his life’s work of re-creating himself in a creative way. To do that, he’d already disciplined his raw talent and apprenticed himself to the Word in a way that only other serious writers can understand.
Duane Hockenberry was no John Keats, but – like Keats – he had a rare talent and died far too young. Hockenberry was probably a better writer than I was and I suspect that he might have achieved some brilliant goals if his life and career hadn’t been cut so short.
My hope in designing the Wabash Writers’ Workshop at Windwalker and in the new Hockenberry Writing Award was that students at my alma mater would get a chance to taste the kind of discipline that Hockenberry had achieved through solitary effort and that they’d get something he never did receive when off-campus – i.e. to have some support in striving to become a writer.
I know for a certainty, even across the intervening decades, that Duane Hockenberry appreciated the great gulf between wanting to be a writer and actually becoming one. And I also know for a certainty that the effort he’d put forth in those solitary years of apprenticing himself to the Word was no easier or less dangerous than the heat and flame and sweaty labor of working nights in that Indiana steel mill.
Paul Valéry once wrote – “Great men die twice. Once as men and once as great.”
That certainly applies to Ernest Hemingway and other successful authors whose reputations are attacked as soon as they die – like the body of a dead lion being set upon by the jackals who were afraid to approach when the lion was alive, in Malcom Cowley’s famous words – but it hardly seems to apply to an unknown Indiana man who died in his mid- twenties before he could even realize his career. Hockenberry didn’t live long enough to see if he could become a great man.
But I continue to feel that my failure to establish a workable writing program or award at Wabash, one named after Hockenberry, was, in its way, a second death for my old friend and self-styled competitor’s forgotten name.
But that which is creative must create itself. I like to think that Hockenberry – his talent and his work -- would have achieved that full self-creation if he’d lived. We’ll never know.
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