The Ploughshares years

By GEORGE KIMBALL  |  November 16, 2011

In those days I took poverty more or less for granted. Some of the hippies who flogged the paper in Harvard Square made more money than a Phoenix reporter. In fact, when I was commuting from Gloucester at the time of those initial Ploughshares meetings, Mary Ann and I still qualified for food stamps, and while that improved somewhat over the next year (and improved a lot with the B.A.D. buyout of the Phoenix), I assumed that pretty much everybody I knew had more disposable income than I did, particularly among the Ploughshares crowd. Peter O'Malley's cultured manner sort of hinted at Old Money and manor houses somewhere in his Galwegian background, for instance, and while Andrew Wylie was living the proletarian life in a Central Square hovel, you knew that that if one of the kids got sick, all he had to do was pick up the phone and call Daddy. By the same token, back then I thought of DeWitt as a guy who taught at Harvard, with all the implications of privilege that suggested.

Sweet Dreams was a real eye-opener in that respect, because as he reveals in his memoir, DeWitt, who married his girlfriend Connie around the time of the Ploughshares launch, was really scuffling from one adjunct gig to the next. His Harvard job, for instance, paid $4000 a year — even less than the start-up wage at the Phoenix. Yet in the midst of all this, once he had negotiated a minefied of red tape and obtained a grant for Ploughshares, DeWitt was in the end able to secure the required matching funds only by cleaning the last $800 out of his bank account.

So DeWitt not only had a far greater emotional investment in Ploughshares than the rest of us back then, he had a greater financial investment, too, and that it's still alive and kicking 40 years later is all due to him and nobody else. Thirty-one years after the first issue of Ploughshares, The Marriage of Anna Maye Potts — the book he'd been working on back then — won the Peter Taylor Prize for the Novel and was published, Finches and all, by the University of Tennessee Press. Recognition as a writer had come fairly late in life for DeWitt, but by then his work with Ploughshares had brought him acclaim and respect in both academic and literary circles.

Nearly four decades would elapse before I involved myself in another cooperative editing venture, and that experience was nothing like the earlier one. From the time we started working together, John Schulian and I shared almost identical interests, enthusiasms, and an appreciation of great writing, making the process that eventually resulted in our two anthologies — At The Fights and The Fighter Still Remains — an enjoyable one. I'm not sure that the sometimes exasperating Ploughshares experience was of any particular benefit, other than having taught me the value of being judicious in deciding which battles to fight — and any battles fought along the way with those two books were usually either with rights-holders or with the publishers, and not with each other.

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