The Ploughshares years

By GEORGE KIMBALL  |  November 16, 2011

DeWitt included his own "Ballgame," a baseball story which represented an excerpt from his novel-in-progress. He was very proud of it, and almost pugnacious in defending something I considered pretty silly: he'd named one of his apocryphal baseball teams "the Finches." It was one of those arguments you just can't win because, as obvious as it might seem, in the end it's so visceral and nuanced that it's beyond rational explanation. Just try explaining to a Harvard guy why it's okay for baseball teams to have names like Cardinals and Orioles (and, a few years later, Blue Jays), but utterly ridiculous to pretend there's one called the Finches

Why not? You just can't, that's why. Nobody would ever name a team the Finches. A finch is a flitty little thing that jumps around in a cage and sings all day. Because there's nothing noble about a finch. . . . Aw, just trust me, it's a dumb name and it doesn't work.

In the end I lost that argument and the Finches made their big league debut in Ploughshares 1.

I don't know that we'd thought much beyond two issues back then, but this rotating editor arrangement presaged a unique tradition that would continue for the next four decades. Since that 1971 beginning, each issue of Ploughshares has had a different "guest editor," and I must say it's been a pretty impressive collection of names over the years. The Ploughshares Web site has an alphabetical list of them all, including (to name just a few) Sherman Alexie, Russell Banks, Ann Beattie, Raymond Carver, Andre Dubus, Richard Ford, Donald Hall, Seamus Heaney, Paul Muldoon, Tim O'Brien, Dan Wakefield, and Tobias Wolff. That's a shitload of Pulitzer Prizes and National Book Awards (and in the case of Heaney, who edited two issues, a Nobel Prize) for something that started in a dingy little one-room saloon on Mass Ave, especially one that prided itself, as O'Malley said of the Plough, in being "a place to meet others whose failures are more glamorous than your own."

There were, of course, some repeats in the editor's chair: besides that first one, DeWitt edited at least a dozen more issues over the years, and Jim Randall, my immediate successor when he became editor of the third issue, edited three more during the first 10 years. My active connection with Ploughshares essentially ended after two issues (by then I was living in Newport), but it was pretty exhilarating to have been there on the ground floor. It was groundbreaking in a very different way from what Grist had been, but I look back on my association with both with pride.

There were a few others who weren't in that initial group but had signed on before it was published. Thomas Lux, I believe, had (through his Barn Dream Press) worked with Joe Wilmott, the maverick printer who put out the early Ploughshares out of his storefront operation in the South End. (Lux would edit the fourth Ploughshares.) Once content had been determined, DeWitt and O'Malley and Omar White handled most of the nuts and bolts of the operation, laying the magazine out, and even managing to sell (and personally hand-strip) a few ads here and there to cover part of what turned out to be a $2000 printing bill, even at the generous rate Wilmott gave us.

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