DeWitt Henry, the founder and longtime editor of Ploughshares, is the author
of the memoir, Sweet Dreams: A Family History (Hidden River Press,
2011). He is also the author of Safe Suicide: Narratives, Essays, And Meditations
(Red Hen Press, 2008) and the novel, The Marriage Of Anna Maye Potts (University
of Tennessee, 2001), winner of the Peter Taylor Prize for the Novel.
Over the years, Henry has edited a number of highly praised anthologies including
Sorrow’s Company: Writers On Loss And Grief (Beacon Press, 2001);
Breaking Into Print: Early Stories And Insights Into Getting Published:
A Ploughshares Anthology (Beacon Press, 2000); Fathering Daughters:
Reflections by Men, with James Alan McPherson (Beacon Press, 1998); Other
Sides Of Silence: New Fiction From Ploughshares (Faber and Farber, 1993);
and The Ploughshares Reader: New Fiction for the 80s (Pushcart Press,
1984), winner of the Third Annual Editors’ Book Award [Pushcart Press].
A Professor of Writing, Literature and Publishing at Emerson College, Henry graduated
from Amherst College in 1963 and earned an M.A. in English from Harvard University,
as well as a Ph.D. in English from Harvard in 1971. He attended the Iowa Writers
Workshop, completing the requirements for an M.F.A. at the University of Iowa in
1968, but did not take the degree.
Henry is married to Constance Sherbill and they have two children, Ruth Kathryn
Henry and David Jiung Min Henry, as well as a granddaughter, Eva Luz Henry.
Derek Alger: Your recently published memoir, Sweet Dreams,
has fittingly been described by Richard Hoffman as “a remarkable feat of memory
delivered in extraordinary prose.”
DeWitt Henry: I owe Richard deep gratitude for his support of this book,
which he critiqued in an earlier draft that was being considered by a university
press. At the time, it had an opening section that was genealogical, and that narrated
my father’s coming of age against the background of his father’s and
grandfather’s lives in the same town, Wayne, west of Philadelphia. It covered
the years up through my parents’ marriage, the birth of my older brothers
and sister, my birth, and my father’s alcoholic breakdown. Richard thought
rightly that all this history was an off-putting opening. He tried cutting it from
60 pages to 6, so that the reader could plunge into the next section of my childhood
memories of everything but my father, whose behavior had apparently terrified me
so much that I had blocked him out. Subsequently, the university press asked me
to make other changes—to add a present-time voice-over something like Tobias
Wolff’s in This Boy’s Life—and I refused. But I did go
through two more deep revisions of the manuscript in the next few years. I was inspired
by Richard’s own Half the House, which had also gone through deep
revisions before he distilled it to its proper form. I also read and taught memoirs,
including Gorki’s, Frank Conroy’s, Annie Dillard’s, Tobias Wolff’s,
and Mary Karr’s. Finally, I hit on the idea of writing the present opening,
about growing up with and then rejecting sweets and the dream of succeeding my father
in the candy business. Readers would be drawn in now by the idea of sweets.
DA: Isn’t Wayne, Pa., near the Valley Forge Military
DH: Yes, the school where J.D. Salinger went before I was
born, the model for Pencey prep in Catcher in the Rye (more recently used
as the set for the movie Taps). Actually part of the Academy grounds, together
with its neighbor, the St. Davids Golf Club, was originally my great-grandfather’s
dairy farm. When Wayne was founded in 1880, he had been the milkman. My grandfather
went to business school, then started the chocolate company. My father grew up on
the farm until my grandfather sold it to move into Wayne. My father went to college
at Cornell, where he met my mother. Though he worked at first in the factory under
his father, he was hired during the Depression by the Walter Baker Company and began
a corporate career in Boston, only to be called home to rescue the factory after
my grandfather’s heart attack. That’s when I was born—the youngest
member of a fourth generation—and brought up during World War II in the same
house in which my father spent his adolescence. It was also when his problem drinking
began, intensifying until after my grandfather’s death in 1948.
DA: Tell us a bit about your mother.
DH: My mother was from Brooklyn, and before that from KC, Missouri,
where her father had begun the banking career that later brought him to Wall Street.
He was a self-made tycoon and worked with Jesse Jones in financing World War II
through the Reconstruction Finance Corporation. My mother was his intellectual equal
and favorite, but fought his overbearing sexism. He never approved of her marrying
my father. So here she was now, the dedicated and supportive wife, trapped (as she
put it) in the Henry world of Wayne, while my father lost control, was institutionalized,
and then returned as a recovering alcoholic for the rest of their lives. That was
the matrix in which I came of age. There was the legend of some primal shame and
near-disaster, for which my father was to blame, and of my mother’s martyrdom
and wisdom, which had saved the family. Of course all of this was our secret, even
from kin, while we kept up our social pretensions. My father was under the care
of Kenneth E. Appel, who began collaborating with my mother on a book about psychotherapy.
Unaware, I breathed in an air steeped in psychology. I would joke later that I had
had Franz Kafka’s father and D. H. Lawrence’s mother.
DA: For good or bad, your father was a major influence.
DH: Yes, I loved him and sought his approval at the same time
that we all mocked and belittled him. Much of my sense of social criticism was focused
on him as “dogmatically racist, sexist, classist, capitalistic, patriotic,
Presbyterian and Republican,” as I put it in Sweet Dreams. I even
wished him dead, so that my mother would be free. Of course, he did provide. He
did insist that we respect my mother, always. And while he gave each of us the chance
to succeed him in the candy factory, he pointedly encouraged us to follow our own
dreams, at least as long as those dreams were “practical”: such
as being a teacher, in my case.
DA: It sounds as if you were the trusted observer of your family.
DH: By an odd twist, the very fact that I was the youngest
put me in the position of witnessing after-shocks, without understanding causes.
Why were my parents concerned about my older siblings being damaged as each dropped
out of college and struggled with life? As a writer, I am a realist, I think, because
I grew up loving and being loved by adults who were scarred and doing their best
to shelter me. Their ordinary surfaces offered only clues to “reality,”
as did books and, later, my own rites of passage. So I was and wasn’t trusted.
I overheard discussions. My mother and sister were serious readers, and challenged
me with authors such as Dostoevsky, Kafka, Conrad, Faulkner, Steinbeck, Hemingway,
O’Hara, James Gould Cozzens, and James Jones, who offered at least some hearsay
about sex, and at most—in magnificent language—critiques of society
and soul. I started writing a novel in high school about a lonely boy in a family
and suburban world such as ours and his search for permanence.
DA: It’s probably safe to say that writing was your aspiration
when you went to college.
DH: I went from public school to Amherst College, where I loved
the emphasis on critical thinking and “original response,” where I was
trained to view literature as an inquiry into life, and where my writing was taken
seriously. I had wonderful teachers, particularly the critic William H. Pritchard,
the poet Rolfe Humphries, and my Shakespeare teacher Ted Baird. I edited the literary
magazine for three years. I took a course from Eudora Welty at Smith. I also worked
on what I conceived as a novel about a ranching family in Colorado (where I had
worked during high school summers), and which ended up being an oblique novella
and the first fiction thesis accepted by the college. I graduated in 1963, convinced
that I was a writer with a destiny.
DA: You eventually ended up at the Iowa Writers Workshop.
DH: First, I had a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship to Harvard in
English, where I specialized in Renaissance literature, figuring that would inspire
me as it had T.S. Eliot. But the rigors of professional scholarship stifled my fiction
writing. At the same time my draft board was after me, so mainly for continued draft
deferments, I applied to the Iowa Writers Workshop, and was accepted with a teaching
fellowship. I began my novel there, The Marriage of Anna Maye Potts, encouraged
by Richard Yates. Fiction became my religion, with the “objective correlative”
its first article of faith: that only by imagining your “other,”
can you create vivid characters. I was writing about workers in our candy factory,
whom I’d heard about around our dinner table. I corresponded with my father
about them now, and worked from his thumbnail sketches. But they grew as my inventions:
in voice, in thoughts and actions, in family attachments, and in the “what-ifs”
of their fates. Yates got me a research fellowship to stay for a second year, but
he himself left for Hollywood, and I was assigned to Nelson Algren, who disliked
my work and gave me writers’ block. I reentered the Ph.D. program at Harvard,
where I taught a workshop to undergraduates, studied to pass orals, and then began
my thesis on Romeo and Juliet. I had met Andre Dubus in Iowa, and he had
just published The Lieutenant. I used to visit him in Plaistow, while he
taught at Bradford College. Zefferelli’s Romeo and Juliet had just
come out and because Dubus said it was his favorite Shakespeare play, I tried to
write a thesis that he and other fiction writers would find readable. Of course,
by the time I finished in 1971, the Humanities job market had tanked, and I wouldn’t
find a full-time job for another twelve years.
DA: Meanwhile, you co-founded Ploughshares.
DH: Yes, with Peter O’Malley from Dublin, who was the
bartender and a partner in The Plough and the Stars, a bar newly rehabbed into a
literary pub several doors down from my bachelor apartment. I’d left an excerpt
from my novel with O’Malley, when they’d first advertised for a broadsheet,
which never materialized; he’d liked it, and with a group that included George
Kimball, Bill Corbett, Bruce Bennett, Aram Saroyan, and some others, we pooled our
contacts and undertook doing a magazine instead. The bar would pay the printing
bill as an advance on advertising. I was the co-director and the first coordinating
editor, the idea being that we’d use a revolving editorship, giving each member
a chance to argue for his or her own aesthetic. Each issue was an emergency, but
eventually we gained grants support and our “occasional” became a quarterly.
DA: What happened with your novel during these years?
DH: Actually, a section called “Ballgame” appeared
in the first Ploughshares. I kept working on it slowly, while I scraped
by on part-time teaching of freshman comp. I met my wife and life-partner, Connie,
in 1970 as well; we were married in 1973; she supported me with a job at Head Start
until 1977, when our daughter was born. From that point, we got by on NEA grants
for my writing, my editing, and for a separate trade association of small publishers,
Book Affair, which paid me a small salary, as did Ploughshares. I finished
a first draft of the novel in 1980. It was runner-up for an international award,
but it would be many years yet, years with different agents, different rounds of
submissions, and many full revisions before it won the inaugural Peter Taylor Prize
for the Novel and was published by the University of Tennessee Press in 2001.
DA: That must have been a redemptive moment for you as a writer,
although by then you had received a 1990 Massachusetts Commonwealth Award for your
work on Ploughshares, and had edited and published five anthologies.
DH: I wrote to George Garrett, the judge, that he had saved
my writing life. I should add that my other life, my teaching career, had been saved
by a full-time appointment at Emerson College beginning in 1983, thanks to Professor
James Randall. I taught Shakespeare, writing workshops, and later chaired the writing
department, and was able to bring Ploughshares to campus as an Emerson
DA: In your author’s note to Sweet Dreams, you
describe it as a prequel to Anna Maye Potts, and also to your 2006
memoir-in-essays, Safe Suicide.
DH: Among other things, Sweet Dreams is the portrait
of the artist who dreamed the novel and created the characters of the factory workers,
Louie and Anna Maye, characters somewhat inspired by my parents and my parents’
marriage. There is a certain irony in that, which my father understood before he
died, I think: a class irony, given his assumptions of superiority to his workers.
Of course, as memoir, Sweet Dreams extends beyond the writing of the novel,
but ends short of the novel’s ultimate publication. I close with a freeze
frame of me at age 52, shortly after my mother’s death. Safe Suicide
offers glimpses of this background, but is really about my mid-life journey for
another decade. It is about my marriage and our parenting our two children, about
self-doubt, imagination, bravery, cowardice, and mortality. It is necessarily bleaker
and edgier than Sweet Dreams, which has been described as “sepia-toned.”
Both my memoirs are meant to be objectively shaped, even as they question form.
In both I try to portray myself as fully as the fictional characters I most love.
At readings, I tell strangers that I hope Sweet Dreams is at least as much
about them as it is about me.
DA: Without polemics, you write movingly about social and moral
issues, especially about race. Such concerns are addressed in your anthologies and
in special issues of Ploughshares, such as “Confronting Racial
Difference” and Fathering Daughters: Reflections by Men.
DH: Yes, both collaborations with James Alan McPherson, a life-time
friend and a profound social observer. We first met in Cambridge after I returned
from Iowa. McPherson, then at Harvard Law, was considering going there. I advised
him not to, but he did go and also worked with Richard Yates. While there, he published
his first collection of stories, Hue and Cry, as well as a cover interview
with Ralph Ellison in The Atlantic. His interview would become a model
for my own interview with Yates in a 1973 issue of Ploughshares. But our
friendship began, really, in 1989, when I taught summer courses at Iowa. From then
on, our live conversations challenged both of us, with his abstractions balancing
my intimations. In addition to writing, we both enjoyed agenda editing: highlighting
imaginative writers as our most important social and moral commentators. In Fathering
Daughters, for instance, we both felt defensive about feminist claims that
fathers were the prime source of evil in women’s lives, yet both of us wanted
the “elbow room” for our daughters that feminism advocated. We invited
fathers, divorced, distant, or demonized, to voice their hearts. Somehow Jim stands
in my mind with Joyce’s Stephen Daedalus as he vows “to create the uncreated
conscience of his race”; only in Jim’s case it is the uncreated conscience
of democracy itself.
DA: What does the future hold for you?
DH: I am finishing another memoir-in-essays called Family
Matters, where I reflect on the outcomes of my older sibling’s lives and
parallel them to mine, to the young adulthoods of my children, and to my wishes for
my grandchildren. Our passages, in Gail Sheehey’s sense, invoke the cultural
changes of our respective lifetimes. I feel particularly challenged to address my
relationships with my sister, my wife, and my daughter. I also hope to revive a novel
in progress about key figures in the municipal government of the Boston suburb where
Connie and I have made our lives.
—Previously published in Pif Magazine (1 March 2011);
reprinted here by author’s permission
is a graduate of the MFA fiction-writing program at Columbia University, and
currently editor-at-large at Pif Magazine, where 94 of his interviews with
writers have been published during the past 12 years. His most recent fiction has
appeared in Confrontation, The Literary Review, Del Sol Review, and
“One on One” Archive at Pif Magazine