Stephen Henderson: Examining the Power of Writing Recursively to Face 21st-Century Challenges

On March 18th, a group of writers considered the audience they write for and the varying purposes the essayist entertains when she sits down to write. The question was posed: Do we write for those who want to know, for those who want to care, for those who want to feel? The venue provoking this dialogue is the Essay in Public Conference funded by the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities and organized by professors (Martha Elena Rojas (URI), Wendy S. Walters (The New School), and Patricia Ybarra (Brown University).The conference is part of an ongoing discourse on and collaboration of folks who are examining the role of the essay in the ever-changing landscape of journalism and politics while considering its place in academia as well as in more visible platforms such as blogs for outlets like Slate, Quartz, Gawker, and Buzzfeed News.

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Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Stephen Henderson was this year’s afternoon keynote speaker. Henderson is currently the editor for the editorial page of the Detroit Free Press, worked for the Baltimore Sun, and hosts the radio program, “Detroit Today,” and the television show, “American Black Journal.” Henderson’s talk centered on the idea of recursivity. He postulated that recursivity may be a means to “confront the challenges of the 21st century.” Turning to Picasso’s Guernica, Hamilton’s Federalist Papers, and a personal example of how recursivity has, of late, emerged in Henderson’s own life and work in his hometown, Detroit, the audience was called to reflect on what occurs when we think and write recursively.

Recursivity might work in multiple ways. As we return to a theme at different points in our lives, our thinking about topic may evolve as the natural result of our own life experiences.  So too, coming back to a topic, idea or issue in a way that is public—by writing or engaging in some other form of creation—one is also allowing for her audience to interact in multiple and potentially more profound ways with the same topic. Henderson turned to Picasso’s work to demonstrate how this occurs. Henderson’s talk centered on the idea of recursivity.

By using Guernica as one example of an artist who returns to certain images and themes, Henderson makes a case for the role of the essay to not only report but to induce emotion. He invited us to look, as he does, at “Guernica as an essay, an editorial, a

guernica3commentary,  someone reacting to the news and rendering his opinion about it; trying to convey his emotion but also the emotion his country should feel about it and damning the people who perpetrate this.” Through his art, Picasso questioned the brutal and violent regime that held power. Henderson showed sketches from Picasso’s notebook and other works where, over the years, Picasso continued to draw similar images. The horse, nostrils aflare; the woman wailing over the death of her child; the nearly-cyclopean bull. Could it be that a returning to these images aided in Picasso’s ability to create something for the public that would speak out against a fascist regime? Could our repeated study of the painting influence our political actions, our own writing and art? Recursivity may impact both audience and artist.

Henderson next brought our attention to Alexander Hamilton’s contributions to the Federalist Papers. What’s particularly interesting about this example is the timeframe in which Hamilton was working through his ideas. Henderson notes, “Hamilton wrote 51 of Federalist essays in 6 months. Each essay is distinct in that it is trying to do something different and discreet, but even in this exercise there is recursivity.” Henderson highlighted two of Hamilton’s papers, 66 and 76, which were written within roughly three weeks of one another. Each essay is examining the different powers that the separate branches of government will hold—specifically these essays look at the relationship and balance between the executive and legislative branches.  We see that by returning to a theme, Hamilton worked out or thought through an idea over time.

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Recalling Henderson’s musing that recursivity may help us to face 21st century problems, we might ask how sticking with the same subject can prove more beneficial than placing our attention in myriad areas as one might be wont to do given the glut of easily accessible, ready-to-Google information. We too are not fixed. We come to the topics that hold sway on us as different people than we were years or months or weeks ago when we last encountered the same subject. We write about the federal government differently, we change the lines or the size of the horse’s shoulders to depict more strength and agility, or perhaps when we next conceive of the same image it appears vulnerable. Our childhood home is still well cared for; others are creating memories in the same space. Or it slowly falls into disrepair, stripped of pipes for scrap metal, lawn overgrown with weeds. The home represents something about our foundational years, but it also represents something about a place that is larger than we are. In his final example, Henderson demonstrated what it is to disallow a place to go untended.

Henderson ended his presentation by sharing the subject that continues to call him to reflect, examine, act. In 2007, Henderson returned to Detroit despite the fact that his own mother questioned the rationale of one who would return to a city that was on the brink of bankruptcy and decay. Nevertheless, as Henderson reminded us, “emotion does carry our decision making in some very important ways.” Upon his return, he went back to his old neighborhood and was relieved to find his childhood home was still in decent shape. He expressed that it helped him feel anchored and that it even helped his writing to sit in his car outside of the house. Yet as the city bore the effects of the economic downturn, more houses became abandoned including his old house. His home served as a symbol for the city which, by 2012 had 70,000 abandoned houses.

At some point, thinking makes itself manifest in the material world. For Henderson, a reporter, it is logical that this thinking takes the form of writing. He wrote autobiographically about the house, the neighborhood, the sense of loss. Making his thoughts public through the medium of personal essay prompted others to engage in dialogue and also to take action. Old high school friends read his pieces, contacted him and are now working with him to buy houses on this block, spending time and money to rebuild. As Henderson wrote about his house, it prompted him to think about what his ideal vision for the space is. He settled on the idea of turning his old house in to a type of literary center with book readings and signings. It may function as a home for college professors who receive fellowships at the local universities. I suppose the city of Detroit could have, at some point, conceived of a valuable use for the block Henderson grew up on. But there is something to be said for the fixation he had on his house, the continued interest in it that serves as a catalyst for this revitalization.

What calls us to act? Emotion or reason? We can assume that at different times we are motivated by various different forces. By placing work in the context of its tendency towards recursivity, Henderson gave the conference participants cause to reflect on what it means to look at the same topic at different points in one’s life. Not only do we, the subject, change but it’s quite possible that the subject matter that’s the focus of one’s art and writing changes over time. This was certainly the case for Picasso who witnessed increasingly totalitarian policies under Franco. This was the case for Hamilton who was writing as the country was working to craft its government and identity. This is also the case for Henderson who has witnessed the changing landscape of the city where he grew up. The writer and artist are called to and charged with deepening or complicating our understanding of complex issues like war and political systems and the lives of cities. This they do by refusing to be satisfied with writing about issues once. No “one and done” for the essayist.


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