Tom Engelhardt Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Taking Back the Word: Conversation with Tom Engelhardt, Editor and Writer, April 23, 2004 by Harry Kreisler

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Tom, welcome to Berkeley.

Thank you very much.

Where were you born and raised?

I was born in New York City, raised in New York City, and it was in the fifties and I thought I'd never get out.

And we both did.

Yeah, we did. We did.

Looking back, how do you think your parents shaped your thinking about the world?

My mother was a cartoonist. She was the Hirschfield for whatever paper he wasn't at. I'll tell you one small way in which my world was shaped: I grew up around cartoonists. We always had them over to parties. I can remember Irwin Hasen of Dondi, a strip nobody remembers anymore, sitting by my bed as I went to sleep, drawing, "Dondi loves Tom" for me.

I grew up loving comics, so when I got into publishing, a couple of the most successful things I've ever published were comic books: Art Spiegelman's Maus, the Beginner's Book [series], and so on and so forth. I'm doing a comic book right now. My mother left me with a fascination for cartooning and comics, and drawing.

Does this also give you a sense of irony, to stand outside of things and see them?

I'll tell you, I have no idea where that comes from. I have always felt slightly askew the world, and I was meant not to. My parents raised me to be the "successful" whatever. I was being raised to hold the banner high and do whatever. I don't know how I ended up feeling a bit askew our world, but I always say to my students now, that if you feel a little askew the world, that gives you a perspective. It gives you a perspective as an editor, too. In order to write about our world, but also in order to edit the writers who are writing about our world, you need a little bit of distance. Distance does everything.

What about your father?

My father was in the insurance business. And he shaped my world [in ways] I've only understood fairly recently. His deepest belief was that you should be your own boss. I rejected a lot of the stuff that I thought he stood for, but I found in recent years that the deepest feeling I have in work situations is, if anybody is above me, "Leave me alone; I want to be my own boss." It's a very powerful feeling, and I didn't realize it had anything to do with my father until recently.

He was a vet; he was a 36-year-old who went to war, World War II. He was a Jew. As soon as it hit, he volunteered, and ended up, of course, in the Pacific, although he volunteered against Hitler. He came back like a lot of those guys from the war, very silent. Of course, the culture stood in for him; he didn't have to say anything. I spent much of my childhood growing up with war movies, watching the glory of it all, playing with toy solders. I grew up in that post - World War II American triumphalist culture. It had a great effect on me, and it's one of the major things I've written about over the years. So in that sense, that silent dad, whose place was taken by John Wayne in all my fantasies, had a powerful effect on me.

Where were you educated, undergraduate and graduate school?

I went to Yale undergraduate. This was a great triumph for my family, but actually not for me.

You should have come to Berkeley right away.

I went to Yale; I overlapped with George Bush -- everybody there seemed like George. Not everybody. I made some wonderful friends, but coming from a not exactly wealthy background, I had never run into such blank moral privilege in my life, and it stunned me at the time. I was a Jew, and the quotas had just come off. I knew nothing about this; I just stumbled into the situation. So there was a certain amount of misery in those years for me.Heading cross-country with a photographer (Peter Whitney) and my future wife (Nancy Garrity) in 1973. From this trip would come my first book: Beyond Our Control: America in the Mid-Seventies But academically it was fantastic, because my escape from everything that was Yale was to plunge into my education, and I did.

What did you major in?

I tried several things, and finally ended up in Chinese history, because there was a wonderful, crazed woman there named Mary Wright, the first woman professor at Yale. I became fascinated with China, and I convinced her to let me to go into her graduate seminar as a junior, and from there on I was hooked. It was the farthest thing I could imagine, China, from New York City. That's what it came to. It was the most exotic. If you were askew the world, you might as well study China. I didn't think it out, but perhaps China and Truffaut's movie Jules and Jim were the two things on which I judged you in life. If you didn't like Jules and Jim back in 1964, I didn't bother with you. I was a terrible, terrible snob of a certain sort.

And then graduate school?

I went to Harvard, East Asian Studies, and into Chinese history, and then the sixties came along and swept me into another universe.

What impact did the sixties have on you?

Like a lot of people, it had the impact of turning me a little inside-out. In the fifties I spent, like many middle class white boys (and maybe a lot of other people), a lot of time looking toward a horizon that didn't seem to be there, wondering when something would happen. The sixties, it was like the earth opening up; you could just jump in. "Underground" printer at teh New England Free Press, 1969I did, more or less, in my own way, and distinctly within the bounds of who I was.

First, I organized: I was part of the draft resistance movement. I organized against the war. I was swept out of graduate school entirely and became a printer, a so-called "movement" or underground printer, although we weren't underground at all. My father was basically a working-class kid, and his reaction was perfectly reasonable: "You're a printer: why didn't I send you to vocational school?"

Then I went west.

By west, you mean you came out to California?

I got into a car and came out. I was going to go to the Northwest, but I didn't know anybody there. I ended up in Berkeley. It was the only place I knew anybody.

I see. This would have been what year?

This would have been 1970, I think. Then somebody I knew very vaguely came to me and said, "You're a writer. I know an Air Force medic who's so angry about the war wounded, he wants to sneak a journalist onto an airbase to do interviews." I wasn't really a writer, and I certainly wasn't a journalist. But I was a very good boy of the fifties -- I didn't do things illegal, really. But I was so angry about the Vietnam war, so I snuck onto this base; I wrote a series of stories. Orville Schell had just started Pacific News Service; I gave the story to him. The next thing I knew, I was a journalist and an editor. I was editing stuff for him. It was one of those start-up things at that moment, an anti-war news service.

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