Arts & Leisure

Hawley writes a vibrant chronicle of mortality & decline

RICHARD HAWLEY, RETIRED, retired from a career as an educator but most definitely not retired from his other career as a writer, pauses this week at his home in Ripton, where he is writing a series of books chronicling the age in which we live through the context of his own, slow decline. Independent photo/Steve James

Hawley’s “On My Way Out” is a love letter to the world, with a hint of farewell. He documents and captures what is fleeting and essential in later life. Frank and open about personal matters, he recreates our world with eloquence and charm; his amiable voice makes him a modern-day Samuel Pepys.

— Phoebe Stone

So who is this fellow Pepys (pronounced Peeps) that Richard Hawley is being compared to by local author and artist Phoebe Stone? Only the most famous diarist in the English language. Pepys maintained his diary for a decade, 1660-69, encompassing over a million words; it is a crucial source for understanding his era in British history.

Enough on Pepys. 

Richard Hawley, a Ripton resident, has been writing his “diary” for more than a decade — and he will no doubt get to a million words. Hawley’s is hardly a conventional diary, or journal, though entries are chronological and dated. Rather they are essays of various lengths, insights and inmost thoughts about matters large and small, personal and global. An undercurrent running throughout is the theme of mortality and decline.

Hawley’s purpose is to document his own decline in the broadest and most personal way. As he puts it in the preface to Book 0ne (2019): “what I have in mind is a careful charting of the passage from full sentience to less and still less and then none.”

Hence his title, “On My Way Out: A Reflection on Closure.”

Hawley began this effort in 2011, in his 66th year, and it now runs to four volumes. The last entry in Book Four, which will be released later this month, is dated September 20, 2021. He reflects in the preface: “I have not composed, nor did I ever intend to compose, a diary or anything like a comprehensive account of what I have done, or where and when I did it. I have compiled a record of insistent, unbidden impressions, many of which have surprised me on arrival.”

The essays in “On My Way Out” are anything but morbid. He is observing his world in both the closest domestic detail — we get to know well his family, friends, community, and larger cultural contours as well, as he responds to the “volatile political climate since the emergence of Trump and the contraction of ordinary life caused by the still uncontained COVID pandemic.”

Novelist Hilma Wolitzer observed that Hawley “makes the quotidian urgent and real.” 

Each of the four books begins with a context-setting preface and the repetition of a brief biographical essay, “The Man Writing This,” which first appeared in Book One. Thus, new readers can reasonably begin with any of the four books and dive right in.

What gives Richard Hawley the authority — the confidence! — to take on a project of this scope? Well, he writes beautifully and has had lots of practice. A writer of astonishing range, he has written over 25 books in various forms: non-fiction, fiction, poetry, memoir, and any number of monographs and shorter pieces. All the while (until he retired in 2005), he was as a teacher at University School in Cleveland, Ohio, the last 17 years its headmaster. 

He writes in what poet Sue Ellen Thompson calls “elegantly constructed and carefully measured prose,” which is accessible, not florid or didactic, smart, erudite yes, but not dense.

Hawley is a scholar; his base of knowledge is deep indeed and he draws on it compellingly in “On My Way Out.” He earned a B.A. in political science from Middlebury College, an M.A. in theology from Cambridge University, and a Ph.D. in political philosophy from Case Western Reserve University.

Richard Hawley outside his Ripton home with one of the many books he has written.
Independent photo/Steve James

Oh yes, he’s also a talented musician: he plays the piano for diners every Friday night these days at the Waybury Inn in East Middlebury. For many years, he taught fiction and non-fiction writing at the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference. 

“I always had a notion that writing was an exalted calling,” he said recently, responding to a question about his extraordinary output. “I always wanted to be the person who wrote the kind of things I loved to read. I always thought I was a writer. Honestly, I write the way I eat and breathe.” 

He writes these “reflections on closure” from his perch in Ripton, right in the center of town, where he has lived with his wife, the artist Molly W. Hawley, since retiring. He has four daughters and seven grandchildren. Daughter Claire lives in Middlebury with her family and teaches at the Cornwall School. 

Of Ripton, Hawley wrote in a recent entry: “I did not think it was possible to deepen my appreciation for living here, in Ripton, in this house, the river and woods beyond. On this August morning under bright sun greens are bursting out of greens, but in every season, however the light falls, I feel myself coming to rest here.”

When asked what attracted him to Hawley’s ambitious project, publisher Roger Lathbury (Orchises Press) wrote in an email: “I had already read four of Rick’s published books. “On My Way Out” seemed perfectly suited to his talents.

“What talents? Those of faithful reporter, judicious selector, and warm and engaged participant in a personal and public life close to that of his peers (if more consciously and penetratingly perceived). Rick is a recorder for the future — if the human race has a future — so it can understand the current zeitgeist as though living it themselves.

“It’s a pleasure to read his clean, economical, balanced prose.”

Ripton’s Samuel Pepys. 

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