By: Robbie Morris, Jessie Schmitt
Beneath the warm glow of a chandelier last week, Kidder strode haltingly across the Mural Room, amid hearty applause, towards a small podium on the makeshift stage. His voice wavered and he stuttered a bit as he addressed the attentive crowd. Clearing his voice often, Kidder picked up momentum, losing his initial nerves while delivering an emotional account of his Andover experience. The room fell silent, riveted by his story.
He was in the Mural Room at Phillips Academy Andover to receive the Alumni Award of Distinction at All School Meeting the next morning, honoring him for his outstanding contributions to his field. Tracy Kidder has had an illustrious career as a literary journalist over the past four decades. Kidder has had an illustrious career as a literary journalist over the past four decades. He has had 8 books published and has written articles for the Atlantic Monthly, the New Yorker, the New York Times, Granta and other national publications. Kidder’s book The Soul of a New Machine earned the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction in 1982. Many of his other books were bestsellers and received various awards.
In the Mural Room that night, Kidder talked about his Andover experience 55 years ago. He explained that, when he was here, he was a good enough student and a popular enough guy. He was tall and athletic. However, he was a bystander to the bullying of a Chinese-American student dubbed “Paul Z.” Now, 55 years later, his cowardice still haunts him. He said in his speech that he hoped that, now, students at Phillips Academy would never have such regrets in their lives, that they would be brave enough to stand up for a kid being bullied.
Later that evening, settling down in Upper Right of Commons for interviews with student journalists, he removed his round, wire-rimmed glasses and rested them on the table beside him. He tugged at his mock-neck sweater, crossed his legs, straightened his blazer, and leaned backwards in his stiff-backed chair. When he talked, he gestured with his hands in gentle, wave-like motions. Every so often, when touching upon a topic that excited him, he leaned intently toward his interviewers.
Kidder talked about how his studies at Andover and at Harvard guided him towards a career in narrative non-fiction. Kidder talked about his short, but concentrated, time with Paul Farmer in Haiti that inspired his book Mountains Beyond Mountains.“Time is a weird thing in this trade, it’s elastic, sometimes you can spend days and days and months and months and get almost nothing that you want to write. And sometimes, a week with Farmer was more than you could fit into a book,” said Kidder.
John Tracy Kidder was born in 1945 and spent his childhood in Oyster Bay, Long Island. He lived with his mother, Reine, an English teacher, and his father, Henry Maynard, a lawyer. Kidder left Long Island in 1959 to attend boarding school at Phillips Academy.
He has written, in two texts, about his experiences in high school and college. In a memoir, My Detachment, and in a magazine article, Courting the Approval of the Dead, he revealed the academic and personal struggles he faced at boarding school.
High school was a time of discovery and transformation for Tracy Kidder, who struggled to find his place and identity away from home. Kidder divulged the truth about his Andover experience in My Detachment. “[During] my first year in Andover, wanting to be different from the boy I used to be, I decided to switch my first name to John,” wrote Kidder. However, he changed his name back to “Tracy” before his sophomore year. The change was prompted by the realization that his behavior as “John” was not reflective of his genuine self, he wrote. His grades and teacher feedback improved once he stopped pretending to be someone he was not. As John, he was timid, but as Tracy, he was courageous. Teachers embraced this change and no longer commented that, “whenever the going got real tough and it involved real courage, [John] would not proceed with any test,” wrote Kidder.
However, Kidder wrote that he continued to question his identity and doubt his capabilities as an Andover student after his Freshman year. Kidder’s self-doubt infiltrated his relationships with many teachers and classmates. His fear of failure often discouraged him from seeking outside help for his classes, and when he did reach out to his teachers, he feigned disinterest to mask his vulnerability and self-consciousness.
Kidder’s tough exterior hid his internal struggles. At a time when hazing was severe at Andover, he joined in to suppress his own insecurities. “Of course I was afraid of being ostracized myself,” he wrote, even though being a varsity athlete granted him immunity. Kidder’s status as a varsity baseball and football player strengthened his facade. “I felt as though I lived for the local prestige of playing football for its licensed violence, but my chief ambition those four years was getting through that school,” he wrote in his memoir.
Kidder’s studies at Andover exposed him to formal writing and taught him how to read and appreciate sophisticated literature. Everything at Andover, even math tests, seemed to require knowledge of writing, he said. Kidder doesn’t know how Andover may have directly influenced his career, but he said that it taught him “how to write a sentence.” “I remember having to write an essay in eighth grade [at public school]. As I recall, what you were supposed to do was copy something from the encyclopedia,” said Kidder. Kidder’s learning at Andover began during summer session, where he received some “remedial help” with his writing before his Freshman year.
At Andover his English teacher, Fred Peterson, set strict rules for student writing that Kidder found very “tedious.” Kidder said that, in hindsight, the guidelines set by Peterson helped to refine his writing skills. He also memorized a lot of Shakespeare at Andover that he still remembers to this day. Kidder said that he draws inspiration from readings and memorized pieces to incorporate into his own work.
Kidder was accepted to Harvard University and was inspired to pursue diplomacy after watching “The Ugly American,” a movie about the political tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. He enrolled in Harvard in 1963 as a “Government” major who sought to spread democracy, wrote Kidder in My Detachment.
A first-year course in creative writing at Harvard sparked Kidder’s passion. His self-imposed obligation to pursue a “hobby” led him to enroll, he wrote in his article, Courting the Approval of the Dead. “I went to college in the ‘60s and the life of the author at that time still seemed like a rather romantic one. Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, I’ve always been into the American novels. But I wasn’t intending to be a writer at all,” said Kidder in a 2010 interview with Kara Becker of The Bygone Bureaublog. Despite his intentions, writing came naturally to him when he wrote “just for the fun of it,” he said. However, he was encouraged by the success of his first short stories that flowed nicely and captured the attention of his professor. “My first strong impulse to become a writer sprang from this realization: the writing could be a means of meeting and impressing girls,” he wrote in his article.
Kidder’s attitude towards writing transformed when he enrolled in another college writing course; this one taught by American poet Robert Fitzgerald, he wrote in Courting the Approval of the Dead. Kidder wrote that he really “became a writer” when he craved distinction from his elder classmates as the youngest student in class. Fitzgerald’s class further cultivated his appreciation for literature and writing that Andover instilled in him.
Kidder began writing short stories and drew inspiration from his experiences at prep school. “I set one at boarding school and depicted a pair of boys: a popular one who feels stirrings of compassion for another who is tormented by his classmates,” wrote Kidder in his memoir. Kidder switched his major from political science and graduated from Harvard with a BA in English, according to his Northwestern University author biography.
Kidder has revealed that his enlistment in the Vietnam war was due, in part, to peer pressure he experienced at Harvard. “He joined R.O.T.C. in the spring of 1966, thinking of Hemingway, but also to please his friends — only to discover within a few months that all the friends he wanted to please were now protesting the war,” wrote Verlyn Klinkenborg in a New York Times book review of My Detachment. A similar pressure to protect his reputation and integrity plagued Kidder at Harvard like it did at Andover. “I think I went to war because it seemed like the safest thing to do.” wrote Kidder in his memoir.
Kidder, along with most of the nation at the time, disagreed with the premises of the war. His regret and disapproval made his time in Vietnam lonely and highly unenjoyable. However, his experiences inspired a series of short stories that he wrote for The Atlantic after the war ended. The Death of Major Great, Soldiers of Misfortune, and In Quarantine are said to be “among the finest reporting to come out of Vietnam,” according to his Northwestern University biography. After graduating from the University of Iowa Master’s Program, Kidder’s journalistic career began with his residency at The Atlantic.
The magic behind Kidder’s writing lies in his ability to dig for the hidden details that bring a story to life. This particular talent allows him to take seemingly ordinary topics, such as the construction of a house or the happenings of a small suburban town, and craft enthralling tales that explore the complex relationships of human life. “I do believe you can take a specific story and by paying attention to the details of that story, unusual though they may be, and unique even, it’s going to have resonance in the wider world,” said Kidder in a visit to Nina Scott’s journalism class
Mr. Kidder emphasized the importance of details and that “the great temptation is to generalize about it, but that’s not worth anything to you later on, not worth a thing. You’ve got to look around and write down concrete things, that’s the only thing that matters in your notes.” During Kidder’s own reporting he takes extensive notes, often filling up to as many as 150 notebooks just for one book. Then he rifles through these volumes and parses together a story which brings a human being to life on the page. In fact, Kidder once said to his editor Richard Todd “it seems to me that a storyteller’s job was to get life on the page.” To which Todd replied, “No, it’s really to get life off the page and into the reader’s imagination.”
Although Kidder can turn nearly any topic into an engaging narrative, his work becomes even more impactful when he tackles major world issues, as he does in Mountains Beyond Mountains. Kidder’s book on Paul Farmer’s fight against the global AIDS crisis exposed the Central Plateau of Haiti’s plight to the world. However, in his visit to Nina Scott’s journalism class Kidder said “I’m generally not trying to make great pronouncements or do good deeds, I want to tell good stories.” Although his intentions aren’t set on a greater good, Kidder’s influence lends him great power. After the successes of Mountains Beyond Mountains, Paul Farmer’s organization Partners in Health received massive exposure. Their good deeds, “a real antidote to despair” as Kidder says, gained global recognition and support.
In The Soul of a New Machine, Kidder delves into the world of technological corporations. He follows the fervent efforts of an engineering team at Data General and their leader Tom West as they work on a secretive new project dubbed “Eagle.” The Eagle team was constructing a 32-bit minicomputer, unlike anything else on the market and a massive technological advance for the era. Kidder observed as the team worked themselves to the point of collapse. One hundred hour work weeks left them with little sleep and barely time for meals. Some even lost their ability to articulate and simply went blank in the middle of sentences. His brilliant coverage of the intriguing topic earned him the Pulitzer Prize in 1982.
In Tracy Kidder’s latest book Good Prose, he offers guidance on how to improve in the art of nonfiction writing. “I’ve seen some students who just seem to have some kind of talent. But part of the talent is just the willingness to do it and stick with it and do the work. To learn how to write well, you have to read and you have to write well,” Kidder said in the interview. He asserts that there is no formula for how to write engaging material, you must find something that captures the imagination.Despite the connotation of non-fiction, Kidder’s work has a very organic element and as he said, “Writing is a sound, you know? Good writing on a page is a sound in your head.”