The Ploughshares years

By GEORGE KIMBALL  |  November 16, 2011

I don't know that I'd have described myself as one of Thompson's fans, though he was a friend. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas wouldn't be published for another year, so I'm not quite sure in what connection his name might have come up in 1971 unless DeWitt and I had occasion to debate the literary merits of Hunter's Hells Angels book. That I knew Hunter Thompson and had gone to Iowa (DeWitt had been an undergraduate in Iowa City years before my own time at the Workshop) were undeniably true, but the rest of it doesn't say much for the powers of recovered memory: I'd run for sheriff in Lawrence, not Kansas City, I'd lived at half a dozen addresses in New York, none of them the Bowery, and — this was as true in 1971 as it is now — anybody who thought the Phoenix was an "underground weekly" had either never read the Phoenix or never read an underground paper.

It's not that I considered DeWitt's description especially unfair, just unreliable. If he could get that much wrong in a single sentence reciting known facts, you'd have to conclude that he was either a notably inept diarist or that he had placed his faith in a pretty shaky memory, and neither possibility argued particularly well for the veracity of an entire book based on personal recollections.

DeWitt was at that point almost a career grad student, having invested eight years toward his PhD (his thesis was on Shakespeare) at Harvard, where he was teaching freshman English, while working on his as-yet unpublished novel. He'd been the editor of the Amherst Literary Magazine during another of his academic stopovers, so in that respect he was even more qualified than I when it came to the magazine we hoped to launch. There were sometimes close to a dozen others involved in those early, and often interminable, meetings, and while they were conducted in an atmosphere of cordiality, I suppose the implicit battle lines had been drawn up from the outset: did we hope to establish a cutting-edge, avant-garde publication (Grist with expensive typesetting?), were we going to put out the Cambridge version of the Amherst Review, or something in between?

Andrew Wylie, now one of the world's foremost literary agents but then a struggling Cambridge poet, was also part of that initial group. Wylie negotiates seven-figure advances and wears three-piece suits nowadays, but back then he wrote spare, hard-edged verse, wore shades indoors, and dressed like a Che Guevara acolyte. Only under pain of torture might he have admitted that his father was Craig Wylie, the editor-in-chief at Houghton Mifflin, the genteel old Beacon Hill publishing house. Even before I met Andy, as he was still known then, at an early Ploughshares meeting, I'd known his sister Meg, who was part of the lively young music-oriented crowd that hung out at Jack's, another saloon just down the street from the Plough.

I'd been the one who brought Saroyan into the mix. I don't know that I'd so accurately anticipated the philosophical differences among the editorial board that I'd figured I was going to need every ally I could muster, but that proved to be the case. I'd met a few members of the group before, and those early meetings provided my first introduction to some of the others; between the early Ploughshares mastheads and DeWitt's memoir I can piece the group together with reasonable accuracy:

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