Sam Hynes: from our pastures and piloting to publishing and PBS

Sam Hynes
Florentine Films
Author and World War II pilot Samuel Hynes, who went to the University of Minnesota, in a scene from “The War,” the PBS documentary by Ken Burns.

Is this the same Sam Hynes described in “The Growing Seasons: An American Boyhood Before the War”? The Sam Hynes who traveled the length and breadth of the country, living in boarding houses while his father hopped from one bad job to another during the Great Depression? Is this the same Sam Hynes who worked as a hired boy on a farm near Litchfield, Minn., back in the mid-1930s, the Sam Hynes who loved stomping on cow pies on his way to get the cows in for milking?

The same Sam Hynes, whose South Minneapolis pals taught him how to pass Saturdays by shoplifting at Dayton’s and conning free meals at Woolworth’s? Is this the Sam Hynes who was by his own admission “a pain in the ass” while a student at Central High School?

Yes, the very same.

These days, the noted Princeton academician has added a new facet to his life of 83 years. Hynes has become something of a media darling, making commentary in every episode of Ken Burns’ acclaimed documentary about World War II. (See a video clip of Hynes in “The War” here.)

Of his performance in “The War,” Nancy Franklin wrote in The New Yorker, “Burns brings to the fore an uncannily gifted storyteller and synthesizer. … In fact, he brings two of them to light: Samuel Hynes, a fighter pilot from Minneapolis, and Quentin Aanenson, an Army pilot from Luverne. These two soft-spoken thoughtful men anchor the series. …Together, they are the Shelby Foote [narrator of Burns’ “The Civil War”] of ‘The War.’ “

Hynes was a natural for the job having written two popular books, “Flights of Passage,” a 1988 account of his career as a Marine pilot during World War II, and “The Growing Seasons,” his 2003 memoir about growing up in Minnesota during the Great Depression.

MinnPost called Hynes at his home in New Jersey where he talked about his multifaceted career and his plans for the future.


MinnPost: What’s been happening in the wake of your appearances on TV?

Sam Hynes: Oh, emails and letters from old friends and former students. I’ve made appearances on local TV and given presentations in Philadelphia, New York and Trenton. It’s usually a sea of gray hair, with medals hanging off pisscutter caps and warm-up jackets telling what legion post they’re from. Very nice, very polite. But I think I disappointed them. They wanted a Tom Brokaw to tell them they were the great generation. There’s no great generation. We just happened to be there at a great event. But still no offers from Hollywood to take over Tom Cruise.


MP: What led you from writing scholarly books about poets and literary movements to writing popular non-fiction about how war intersected with your life?

SH: The academic world, at least in literature, is parasitical. Literary scholars depend on other people’s imaginations. You put that in a book, it gets published and you get tenure. Nevertheless, you’re writing all the time, and writing becomes an addiction. Like heroin. It’s like discovering sexual experience. You want to do it again and again. And you want to stop being parasitical. You want to have your own sex life, if you will; not some poet’s. And you also want to play ball with the big guys, reach a larger audience.


MP: Which was more fun — the academic books like “The Edwardian Turn of Mind” or the more general autobiographical books?

SH: Autobiography. It’s like writing fiction, without actually lying.


MP: Both “Flights of Passage” and “The Growing Seasons” received critical acclaim. Which book was more difficult to write?

SH: I guess it would be the first book. Maybe it’s like sex to bring that up again. It’s easier the second time. I began writing it in the ’50s, from my log books. In the ’70s, I got a McDowell fellowship and put it in shape, but then received 17 rejection letters, including one from William Maxwell of The New Yorker, who said they couldn’t publish it because war was so unpopular. I hadn’t intended to make it sound great. Finally, years later, we found Naval Institute Press, which specializes in books about war, like Tom Clancy’s “Hunt for Red October.” They did a great job and I got lucky.


MP: “The Growing Seasons,” which John Gregory Dunne called “brilliant,” was short-listed for a Minnesota Book Award, but didn’t make it to the top. Any thoughts on that?

SH: Let’s not go there.


MP: That’s very Minnesotan of you. After all your years out East, you still remember your years in Minneapolis with affection. How so?

SH: Anyone my age remembers his youth as an Edenic time, confusing the place with his own youth. There’s so much nostalgia about war — especially long-ago wars — as a great triumph. What they’re really remembering is being 21. So I’m a bit distrustful of nostalgia. But I remember Minneapolis as a place where everyone had the same income, which was never quite enough. But no matter. We got along. We ran around as kids in the night without fear of being raped, although that could — and did — happen.


MP: In a very touching scene in “The Growing Seasons,” it turns out your mother, who died when you were 5 years old, had saved $400 toward your college education. Your hard-luck father had saved that money through all the bad times and presented it to you upon high school graduation. This enabled you to attend the University of Minnesota. What was the U like back then?

SH: It was less congested. There was the knoll, right next to Folwell Hall, where you could have some success with a girl. That’s now covered with buildings. There were two classes of people: the ones with saddle shoes who sat on frat house porches and there was us. We wore our old high school clothes, but I don’t think we were jealous of the saddle shoes. And the U was astonishingly full of things one didn’t know about. I remember hearing that a new book of poetry by Wallace Stevens was available at the bookstore near the bridge café. I ran there to make sure I got a copy before they were out. I don’t think that would happen today.

Innocence is a wonderful condition in which to be educated. High culture was available at the U and it excited those of us who were first-time collegians. There were people who knew so much. I took a writing course from Saul Bellow, but dropped it when it conflicted with lunch! So I took Carol Ryrie Brink, the children’s author, from whom I learned nothing. But I took William Van O’Connor, who taught me that New Criticism only required that you be quick on your feet and you didn’t need to know anything. [Robert Penn] “Red” Warren was also my teacher and a lifelong friend. I owe EVERYTHING to “Red” Warren, who was not only an artist but a wonderful man.


MP: And then it was on to a Ph.D. at Columbia, teaching jobs at Swarthmore and finally Princeton, where you distinguished yourself as a literary historian, then a critically acclaimed memoirist. Have you had enough of it or are there plans for more books in your future?

SH: I’m working on a book about Americans who flew in World War I. It’ll be a collective biography. And it won’t be about the air war. It will be about how those men felt about the war, about going to Europe, about what they were afraid of and how they learned to fight and to die. You know, the primal human question is “What was it like?” All art comes out of that question. Curiosity is the father of imagination.

So I love to sit down to the typewriter every morning.

Dave Wood is a former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune and the author of several books. He lives in River Falls, Wis.

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