DeWitt Henry Derek Alger One on One

portrait DeWitt Henry

interviewed by Derek Alger

Published in Issue No. 166 ~ March, 2011

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 Third Annual Editors Book Award.

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.

DA: Your recently published memoir, Sweet Dreams, has fittingly been described by Richard Hoffman as “a remarkable feat of memory delivered in extraordinary prose.”

DH: 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 ms. 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 Academy?

DH: Yes, the school where J. D. Salinger went before I was born, the model for Pensey 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 K.C., 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 Dostoyevski, 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 Rolph 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 PhD 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 publication.

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 adulthood’s 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.

  • Wonderful interview. DeWitt Henry is an inspiration.