Tim O’Brien: A Classic Looks at Twenty

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O'Brien_Photo.jpegFirst Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl named Martha, a junior at Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey. They were not love letters, but Lieutenant Cross was hoping, so he kept them folded in plastic at the bottom of his rucksack. In the late afternoon, after a day’s march, he would dig his foxhole, wash his hands under a canteen, unwrap the letters, hold them with the tips of his fingers, and spend the last hour of night pretending…

So begins Tim O’Brien‘s The Things They Carried, only published twenty years ago yet already part of the American literary canon. A Pulitzer Prize finalist, and winner of the French Prix du Meilleur Livre √Čtranger, O’Brien’s collection of short stories chronicles the Vietnam War experience for an American platoon.

A Ploughshares Veteran

We’ve had the privilege of growing up with Tim O’Brien. In the early years of Ploughshares, he helped to edit three issues (Spring 1976, Fall 1977, and Winter 1978). His work appeared in our Fall 1974 “Realism” issue–only our sixth journal, back when they sold for $2.00–alongside Richard Yates and James Alan McPherson.

Acts of mercy. Acts of love. Perry’s winter ministry chilled him through. He could not help anyone. And he was getting fat, eating too much, exercising not at all. His sermons were stale. The words hung in the church, rippled up to the organist in the balcony, then died. The church smelled of dust. And he had a toothache. The decayed tooth was at the top of his mouth. It hurt him most outdoors, as he walked down Summit Avenue toward the church.

The opening of “A Man of Melancholy Disposition,” Fall 1974

Spring 1976 contains an early rendering of what would become Going After Cacciato, his National Book Award winner in 1979. “Quantum Jumps,” in our Winter 1983 issue, later became part of The Nuclear Age. He returned to edit the stories in our Winter 1995-96 issue in tandem with Mark Strand.

things-they-carried.jpg“Mega O’Brien”

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt is pulling out the stops for the twentieth anniversary: a re-release in hardcover, paperback (both with new covers), e-book, and Kindle. In Publishers Weekly, HMH conjectures that the mass-format promotion is “a first for a backlist title.” Brace yourself for live webcasts, contests, giveaways, and a “mega O’Brien” website, according to HMH. All O’Brien, all the time.

Author tours can seem like Stone Age relics in our increasingly digital era–but lo, Tim O’Brien will make the rounds of New England. He comes to Cambridge on March 25, at the First Pariah Church Meetinghouse, where he will read from his lauded book and speak about the impact it has made.

We profiled him not long after his incendiary essay for The New York Times Magazine, “The Vietnam in Me.” Despite much criticism and concern, he told us in 1995 he did not regret the article: “It was a hard thing to do. It saved my life, but it was a fuck of a thing to print.” Critics often dissect the story-truths he tells, blurring the lines of his own Vietnam War experience with fiction. “The emotions in war,” O’Brien said, “and in our ordinary lives are, if not identical, damn similar.”

The Awards He Carried

In other news, the American Academy of Arts and Letters bestowed the Katherine Anne Porter Award upon Tim O’Brien on March 10. The prize recognizes “a writer of prose whose achievements and dedication have been demonstrated.” Among the 2010 committee members were Ploughshares alums Philip Levine and Rosanna Warren. O’Brien joins past recipients John Edgar Wideman, Arturo Vivante, Nicholson Baker, and Lynn Freed.