Homage to Miss Pennybacker

photoOne of my literary heroes is someone whom you’ve never heard of–and I’m not referring to a little-known essayist from the eighteenth century or an obscure poet from the Harlem Renaissance. No, this person is someone that you’ve literally never heard of, but I think it’s important that someone sing her praises at least once before she fades into complete obscurity.

My hero is Ruth Pennybacker, who taught creative writing at the University of Houston from the mid-1930s until the early 1970s. Her students included, among many others, the poet Vassar Miller and the novelist Donald Barthelme. She taught her students well, encouraged them in their work, urged them to enter contests (in which they were surprisingly successful), and created an environment in which creative writing flourished.

Yet as far as I can tell, she never published a single poem, short story, or essay. She was a rara avis: a selfless writing teacher who helped foster creativity and artistry in those around her, without possessing an ounce of ambition or professional jealousy. Getting her students to write well was enough for Miss Pennybacker: she herself had no apparent desire to enter the game of writing, publishing, and posturing.

About fifteen years ago, I wrote a magazine article about the University of Houston’s Creative Writing Program. I delved into old library archives, studied decade-old issues of the university’s literary magazines, and interviewed some alumni and faculty members. Over and over again, I heard Miss Pennybacker’s name from the old timers, those who remembered the university before creative writing programs in this country experienced explosive growth and popularity. These older faculty members and students referred to their long-dead teacher with nostalgic smiles and softened gazes, and I realized then that she had been an important person, perhaps even a critically important person, in the lives of many emergent writers.

Nowadays I see Miss Pennybacker as a midwife of sorts. Perhaps, being from an earlier generation and therefore old-fashioned, she might not mind being described as a handmaiden to art, a servant to the creative impulse, a person who waited on others in order to guide that impulse and shape it, enabling inexperienced writers to bring their work to fruition. So just for today, I ask my readers to join me in raising a metaphorical glass in a to toast Ruth Pennybacker. Just for today, I ask that we celebrate Miss Pennybacker’s selfless devotion to good writing, remembering that in the words of Milton, “they also serve who only stand and wait.”

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