Edwin Honig: A Life of Literature

Professor Emeritus Edwin Honig 1919-2011


Edwin Honig: A Life of Literature
by Lori Baker, '86 (AM)

Back when he was a teenager, Edwin Honig didn't have any intention at all of becoming an English professor. In those days, Honig, a precocious teen by anyone's standards, was already earning money writing book reviews for a local newspaper.

"I never took a writing course," Honig says. "I always thought you could learn to write if you wrote, and that's what I did."

So it's easy to imagine his astonishment at finding himself, in 1957, sitting at a desk in the English Department at Brown, a brand new associate professor with a mission: "I was hired to head up a new program in writing," says Honig. He adds, with a modest wink, that he'd been teaching for six or seven years then, and still wanted to avoid it.

"I never thought I'd be a professor, and, secondly, I never thought I'd be a professor who taught others to write," he says.

Today, more than thirty years later, Honig, who is professor emeritus in Brown's English Department, looks back fondly--although perhaps with a bit of bemusement--on his accidental academic career and its many notable accomplishments, including the founding of Brown's Graduate Program in Creative Writing.

Honig did his undergraduate work at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, a "liberal arts school that promoted an experimental college for practicing philosophers" and, as he notes, "the first place to have a sit-down strike in the nation." Honig didn't trouble with any writing courses at Madison; he majored in Spanish.

"I didn't want to do graduate work," Honig says. "After school I got drafted." When he left the army he obtained a job teaching writing at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago--and thus began his paradoxical career. Although Honig returned to Madison for an M.A. in Spanish and wrote a groundbreaking text on the work of Spanish poet Federico García Lorca (García Lorca, New Directions, 1944), English departments just couldn't seem to leave him alone. He was offered a job as editor of the New Mexico Quarterly, a literary magazine, and then as instructor of English at the University of New Mexico. After a Guggenheim fellowship allowed him to spend a year writing about allegory (which would later lead to his book, Dark Conceit: The Making of Allegory), he was offered a job in the English Department at Harvard University.

"Back in those days, it was a very open field," Honig says. "The requirements for professorship weren't as strict as they are now." In part, he says, that was because the second world war had drawn so many men--scholars among them--overseas. "In normal times, I wouldn't have gotten into the university," he says, modestly.

While he was at Harvard, Honig says, he saw opportunities for writers opening up in academe for the first time. "Harvard did have a professorship for young writers. They were able to teach writing," he says. One of the young writers hired at Harvard was the author of the experimental novel, The Cannibal: John Hawkes. Several years later, Hawkes would be the first writer hired by Honig when Brown called on him to establish a graduate program in creative writing.

At that time, the truce between writers and academics was an uneasy one; members of both camps worried that the university was an "inappropriate" place for "real" writers.

"Josephine Miles, the poet and scholar, used to say that writers should write, not work as English professors or teachers," Honig says. "Making your way in academe was seen as antagonistic to being a writer. Of course, you can always write the same old novel about how awful your colleagues are," he adds, jokingly.

In fact, though, the situation wasn't funny. Entire universities--such as Princeton--had taken a stand against writers in academe. Even Brown was a little squeamish about the prospect.

"Barnaby Keeney, who was then president of Brown, was very interested in the idea of having writers at the university," Honig says. "But the English department was more tentative."

When he first came to Brown, he says, among the few writers who had been affiliated with the university was New Yorker writer S.J. Perelman.

"There was some kind of literary tradition here," Honig says. "It was 'the gentleman's writing'--they sort of looked at it as a club. But I decided we must have real writers teaching those courses."

What Honig had in mind was a real writing program, one that would include graduate as well as undergraduate students. "It seemed to me that the serious part of the program had to be at the graduate level, and that we needed real writers to teach it." he says.

Even though the university's president was backing him up, Honig encountered resistance. "I couldn't get the university to agree to give an M.F.A. rather than an M.A." he says. "I wanted this to be a writing program that would prepare students for writing outside of school." (Today, of course, Honig's desire has finally been realized--the graduate writing program began granting M.F.A. degrees in 1990.)

When Honig hired experimental novelist John Hawkes, it was the beginning of the end of the "gentleman writers."

"Gradually, they resigned, retired, or died." Honig says.

He quickly added several other writers, hiring novelist R.V. Cassill, poet and playwright James Schevill and poet Keith Waldrop (whose wife, Rosmarie Waldrop, is also a distinguished poet).

With the writers came the presses.

"Keith and Rosmarie brought Burning Deck to Providence, and that really located writing here," he says. "They gave the program a center."

Honig himself established Copper Beech Press, which is now run by Randy and Mutlu Blasing. "In this manner," Honig says, "a productive atmosphere was created."

For awhile, Honig convinced Brown to offer a doctoral degree in writing. "I started a D.A. program, and had seven candidates," he says, "three of whom got the degree. But then the program committed suicide--it ran out of money."

Faculty members Michael S. Harper, Barry Beckham and George Houston Bass were hired in the early 1970s.

"The period of the mid-sixties to the late seventies was really the period of greatest action in the writing program," he says. "In some ways, it was a testing ground for what Brown had to offer. The writing program opened another option for graduate students, one that they might never have thought of."

"We had misfits for students," he adds. "They wanted to take writing and nothing else. The program was very popular." While Brown offered fewer slots than its competing program, the University of Iowa Writer's Workshop, it offered "more direct contact with faculty."

"What started happening was that students didn't want to go to Iowa because it was too big--there were 150 undergraduates and 75 grad students."

The "other side" of what made Brown special was that "the university was very encouraging to faculty," Honig says. "People were allowed to take leaves of absence to write. That made it possible for us to get entrenched here, get a faculty who would stay."

Brown, he says, also "helped establish the idea that writers could be teachers."

He notes that there were relatively few women faculty, until poet C.D. Wright was hired, and then fiction writer Meredith Steinbach. Novelist Robert Coover came on board part-time in the early 80s and Paula Vogel joined the faculty in the mid 80s.

Of course, with so many writers around, things didn't always go smoothly. "Students came into the university thinking of themselves as writers," Honig says. "They have strong egos and sometimes those egos brush against each other. Lots can happen that way." Honig, ever discreet, won't reveal those writerly skirmishes. "They wanted to be approved of by other writers as well as doing the writing," he says.

Honig, who is the accomplished author of approximately three dozen volumes of poetry, prose, translations and academic works, says he is pleased with the way the Graduate Program in Creative Writing has turned out.

"The writing program has more wheels under it now," he says. "It almost has a momentum of its own. Its virtue is that it isn't a big program, and also that it has faculty who've become an active part of the Brown community. When I first came here, none of the writers would go to faculty meetings. Even that has changed.

"It's been good for professors in other departments who are writers, too" he says. "The writing program gives them a lift. It's had a positive effect on the university."

At last, he says, "the making of literature has been accepted as a vital part of the university."


[The interview that led to this article took place in Spring 1992.]