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Issue 115 |
Fall 2011

About DeWitt Henry

DeWitt Henry, founding editor of Ploughshares, grew up in an affluent suburban neighborhood of Philadelphia, with three older siblings—two brothers and one sister. His father, the owner of a candy factory, was a recovering alcoholic, a brooding, self-absorbed, volatile man. His mother was a self-sacrificing, long-suffering homemaker with artistic interests. Much of Henry’s writing has been driven by his dysfunctional family background. Henry gives his mother and sister, both artists, credit for his early interest in serious literature. As he told Katherine Kenney, journalism major at Emerson College, by his junior year in high school, he was reading such literary greats as Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Emily Brontë, Steinbeck, Hemingway, and Faulkner. He had also begun his “own first novel about a lonely boy coming of age.”

While Henry received praise for his writing early on, it was the recognition at Amherst that made all the difference to him—that helped launch his writing future. In his sophomore year he was elected editor of the Amherst Literary Magazine, a post he held throughout his undergraduate years. His senior thesis, a novella based on his ranch life out West the summer before his junior year in high school, was the second creative thesis accepted at Amherst. Through a fraternity brother, his literary efforts put him in touch with the commercial publishing world—with McCall’s managing editor, Maggie Cousins, who soon left to become a senior editor at Doubleday. Cousins hoped to see Henry’s work published at Doubleday, but she did not find his novella publishable.

Henry soon began work on a new project. Although he had gone on to do graduate work at Harvard, he felt that the traditional academic scholarship was killing his fiction writing. With a fellowship in hand, he took a year away in 1965 to attend the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where, under the mentorship of Richard Yates, he began a novel centered on working-class people in a setting based on his father’s Germantown candy factory. Yates considered this early start “the real thing” and declared that it would have to be a novel. The Marriage of Anna Maye Potts was over fifteen years in the making. Henry received unequivocal encouragement not only from Yates but from writers such as George Garrett, who considered it a work of significant literary importance. A portion of the novel garnered a $10,000 NEA Fellowship in Fiction. And yet, as Henry states in an interview with Rusty Barnes, editor of Night Train, “[E]ditors advised me to drop it and write something easier and more appealing.” When the novel did finally see publication in 2001, it won the University of Tennessee’s inaugural Peter Taylor Prize for the Novel.

The Marriage of Anna Maye Potts centers on Anna Maye’s fundamental need to find her rightful place in the world. Her gracious, giving spirit doesn’t fare too well at the candy factory, where she’s charged with an uncompromising supervision of twenty-five women, especially when the business is sold to a major candy manufacturer and total efficiency becomes the rule. Nor does Anna Maye have a welcome, fulfilling place at home, dominated as it is by her jealous, neurotic sister with her family of four. Her marriage to a fellow candy factory supervisor, Louie Miscello, a sometimes crude, sometimes distant man, brings even more conflict, and yet Anna Maye’s resolute, loving spirit ultimately helps her carve out a place where she finds inner peace and harmony. Henry’s prose style is often jarring, frenetic, sometimes staccato, mirroring the combustive nature of his characters’ conflicts, especially Anna Maye’s. At other times it is provocatively lyrical, mirroring the ups and downs in ordinary people’s daily lives as they confront the world and themselves.

Material for this novel came from stories his two brothers told around the dinner table, Henry states in an interview with Debra Leigh Scott, editor-in-chief of Hidden River Press, the publisher of his second memoir, Sweet Dreams. But there was more at hand: “It was pure fiction. But when I finished, I realized that the characters and conflicts of my imagined working-class couple actually mythologized my own parents’ struggle and that that struggle was the true epic in my emotional life.”

Henry has a second novel in progress, based on the conflict of two government figures in Watertown, Massachusetts, where he and his wife, Connie, have lived for years and raised their two children, but much of his attention after Anna Maye has been on writing memoir. In his interview with Scott, he explains why: “The novel had taken years to write, and when it wasn’t published right away, no matter how praised by Yates and other writers, the rejections broke my heart—my belief in fiction—and I felt that there simply wasn’t time in life to speak the truth in lies, as it were. That in my case, my family history, our wasp privileges and pretensions in the 1950s, the secret of my father’s alcoholism, and my mother’s martyrdom in staying with him for our sakes (while sacrificing her ambitions and dreams for ‘self’), were the true story I needed to tell.” Other needs figured into this. He needed to “connect to a past” he had rejected and “jettisoned” for the new, more liberal values of his own generation. He wanted to “recover a lost self and add it to my present in order to feel whole.”

In his two memoirs, Safe Suicide: Narratives, Essays, and Meditations, published in 2008, and Sweet Dreams, in 2011, Henry takes up this basic challenge of reconnecting to his past, though the two works are quite different in form and style. As the subtitle of Safe Suicide suggests, this isn’t a traditional autobiographical kind of work; it moves beyond narrative and straight exposition to include other prose modes. An overall narrative shapes the work’s terrain: his upbringing, his academic career, his writing and editing pursuits, marriage and children, aging. Special attention is given to marriage and family—the personal dynamics, the consciousness-raising: over the weight of family needs against professional goals, the prospect of children, infertility, adoption, the raising of children, their growth into young adulthood, the pains, joys of committed fatherhood. Outside this basic narrative structure, where we feel Henry’s pulse of life, the book includes highly imaginative, poetic pieces that embody abstract concepts—such as gravity: seen metaphorically, that which gives weight to our earthly existence, and to others; that which gives our existence its ultimate, redemptive meaning. A strong theme that runs through the book is the value Henry places on a life given to service to others versus one driven by greed and an acquisitive spirit. In “Returnables,” for instance, Henry reveals an appreciation for the indefatigable efforts of two elderly Southeast Asian refugees who recycle cans they pick up along the roadway, doing as much as they can to help support their children and grandchildren. Henry’s father’s racial prejudices, as well as his elitist values of material success, wouldn’t have allowed him to see the beauty in this kind of sacrifice, one imagines—especially after one reads the much fuller account of Henry’s father in his second memoir.

Sweet Dreams: A Family History was originally titled Tribal Scars. In terms of style and mode, it is much more the standard autobiographical work than Safe Suicide, framing Henry’s growth from childhood to manhood in the context of the whole Henry family, principally his immediate family members, thoroughly delineated: their personalities, interests, hobbies, life goals, dreams, attitudes, biases, weaknesses, breakdowns, and recoveries—and in the context of the larger social fabric of the times. Whereas Safe Suicide takes us up to the present, Sweet Dreams ends with Henry’s mother’s death in 1985. What gradually unfolds over the course of the book is a dynamic portrait of Henry as man, scholar, and writer. Margot Livesey calls the work Henry’s “own beautifully original Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” Sexuality is arguably central to the question of personhood. If in Safe Suicide Henry deals with his childhood curiosity about sex, in Sweet Dreams he covers, in considerable detail, his dating years from his teens to his thirties, the years when he was not only discovering women and sexuality but also discovering his own personal path, his profession, and his place in a world undergoing significant social and political changes. His father’s presence is felt much more heavily in this work, as Henry deals with his alcoholism, his violence, breakdowns, and an extramarital affair with a young woman at the candy factory— and the damaging effects on his mother, who had to leave the family for an extended period for reasons of emotional health. We see the father with his emphasis on business success, on image and reputation, and we discover in his mother artistic leanings and endeavors—deep passions never fully expressed due to her sacrifice for her family. Some overlap exists between this work and Safe Suicide, in Henry’s academic pursuits and his founding of Ploughshares, though Safe Suicide deals much more fully with the founding of the journal, the daily work load, the seeking and obtaining of grants, and the conflict that arose with cofounder Peter O’Malley. Sweet Dreams deals much less with Henry’s marriage and children. Overall, with the dramatic, interwoven details of the various influences on Henry’s life and writing—family, education, and experience—this second memoir lays the groundwork for much of the psychological/spiritual terrain of Safe Suicide.

Besides his novel in progress about a rogue police chief and a younger, idealistic city manager of Watertown, Massachusetts, Henry is currently putting together a short-story collection and a collection of critical writings he intends to call My Life in Letters. He is also well into his next memoir, Family Matters. As a memoirist, he has sometimes received negative responses from family members he’s included in his work. But as he explained in his interview with Barnes at Night Train, he does not view memoir as being “about the model; the model is the means to the art’s truth. Getting the models to believe that is another matter.” Thus, Henry sees memoir writing as largely metaphorical, pursuing a larger truth than the literal: “The character and life of the memoirist is only an occasion for writing about the reader: the reader’s heart; the reader’s need for clarity and meaning. There is always the risk of failed art, of course, when literalness fails to serve figurativeness.” From Anna Maye and his two memoirs to the various works he’s busy with now, Henry deals with this challenge—this difficult balancing act.