Anthony Evan Hecht (hehkt) was born in 1923, the older of two sons in an upper-middle-class but financially unstable family in New York City. His parents argued constantly, their irritation with each other compounded by their problems with Hecht’s younger brother, who was disabled and epileptic. Hecht was an indifferent student in the New York City public school system, but he recalls that, as a child, he was entranced by nursery rhymes, which “began his literary education” and which he “instinctively knew to be about the unspoken and unspeakable.” During his freshman year at the experimental Bard College (then an adjunct of Columbia University), he declared his desire to be a poet. He found those days amid the congenial collegiate atmosphere “unquestionably the happiest time of life up to that time” but underwent a radical reversal in circumstances when he was drafted in 1943. He took several books with him when he entered the armed service but found basic training so fatiguing that he feared he would never be able to enjoy reading again, “a terrifying kind of pre-death.”
During World War II, Hecht’s unit, the Ninety-seventh Infantry Division, saw action in Germany, and more than half the soldiers in his company were killed or wounded. They liberated Flossenberg, an annex of the Buchenwald extermination and slave-labor encampment, where Hecht was assigned to interview French prisoners. “The place, the suffering, the prisoners’ accounts were beyond comprehension,” Hecht has said, his “anger and revulsion” compounded by his family’s Jewish ancestry. His wartime experiences became an inescapable aspect of his assessment of human civilization, and themes of cruelty and suffering have been paramount features of his writing from the publication of his first poems. Significantly, decades after the war ended, Hecht observed, “When I...
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