Bill Henderson ’63
Bill Henderson ’63, founder and publisher of the influential Pushcart Press, also claims this distinction: proprietorship of “the world’s smallest bookstore,” a 9-by-12-foot structure atop a hill in Sedgwick, Maine. The tiny shop contains, among other works, all of Pushcart’s impressive output. For his contributions to Pushcart, the American Academy of Arts and Letters presented Henderson with its 2020 award for Distinguished Service to the Arts. In 2006, the National Book Critics Circle gave him its Lifetime Achievement Award. Henderson, who is also a writer, divides his time between Maine and East Hampton, N.Y.
In the Beginning
The evangelist Billy Graham arrived at Ocean City, N.J. My dad, a fervent Christian, took me to Billy’s rally on a music pier jutting out over the roiling ocean. Billy yelled at this 8-year-old that the world was awash in untruth and sin, and we’d better do something about that or go to Hell. I resolved to follow his instructions.
Truth and Hoops
In high school, having abandoned the literal Biblical truths of my dad, I searched for The Truth in Thoreau and started a Thoreau club. I also co-founded the Philosophy Club. On Saturday nights we kids argued for a while about “Was God or Wasn’t He.” Then we grew bored with the subject and played basketball under the streetlights.
Down the Hill
I picked Hamilton instead of a co-ed school because it was like a monastery, remote and rural — and No Girls Allowed. Girls were a distraction on my Truth hunt. I also took German from Herr Colby so I could read the German philosophers in the original. After a few weeks, the No Girls bit didn’t work, and many weekends saw me hitchhiking to Vassar. My hitchhiking buddy was Kirby Williams ’61, a Black guy from Manhattan. This suburban Mainline Philadelphia boy had no idea what to say best friend. We have been talking nonstop for over 60 years, and I recently had the honor of publishing two to the urban Kirby at first. Turns out he became my of his novels.
The Only Question
Having trouble in my God and Truth pilgrimage, I met Ron Stone [’62], who informed me the only question worth asking was, “Do you think life is sacred or not?” I voted for sacred. On that premise I have proceeded ever since. (Ron died of COVID last year.)
Paris. I labored in the attic of a Left Bank hotel on my first novel, The Kid That Could. I thought this was what all great writers did, and I intended to join them with my vision. That novel went into seven drafts in seven years and was totally rejected by the commercial publishing establishment. I published it myself under a pseudonym and got it reviewed in The New York Times. I am still mad at the commercial boys and girls.
For some reason Doubleday, the largest publisher in the world at that time, hired me as an associate editor. I worked with John Eisenhower (Ike’s only son) and Otto Preminger on their manuscripts. Better yet I founded the New York Publishers softball league. It took a-year-and-half for Doubleday to fire me — I loved softball too much.
I started Pushcart Press from a studio apartment in Yonkers, N.Y. Pushcart’s first book was The Publish It Yourself Handbook, a revolutionary anthology of self-published authors — Leonard and Virginia Woolf, Anaïs Nin, Stuart Brand of Whole Earth Catalog fame, and Luke Walton (me). That book eventually sold over 75,000 copies. This was my answer to the commercial publishers.
I published the first edition of The Pushcart Prize: Best of The Small Presses with the help of founding editors Ralph Ellison, Joyce Carol Oates, Paul Bowles, and 20 other literary legends. The 47th edition of this annual anthology of poetry and prose from hundreds of presses has sold more than 250,000 copies over the years.
At age 42, I married Genie Chipps, a writer, actor, and TV producer. We left New York for a more rural seaside life on the east end of Long Island. The next year our daughter, Lily, was born.
Lily presented Genie and me with twin grandsons, William and Hunter, and I began to worry about the world they will inherit. Lily and those boys are a gift from God, a cliché I know. I recognize the sacred in them and in all creation.
I am 80. I’ve written and published six memoirs and just recently my first poetry collection. I have no idea why I was allowed to live so long and survive those winter hitchhikes to Vassar. However, I am still angry at the commercial establishment for rejecting The Kid That Could. Righteous anger is a great fuel.