Sunday, October 02, 2011
DEWITT HENRY: PLOUGHSHARES and other ‘Sweet Dreams’
Interview with Doug Holder
DeWitt Henry is an acclaimed essayist, and fiction writer. He is the founding editor of Ploughshares literary magazine. Ploughshares is perhaps the most influential literary magazine in the country. Henry has a new memoir out, Sweet Dreams, that covers his youth, his time at Harvard, the formation of Ploughshares, and his coming of age as a writer and a man. I spoke to him on my Somerville Community Access TV show: "Poet to Poet to Writer to Writer."
Doug Holder: You are one of the most educated men I know. You have a PhD from Harvard and completed course requirements for an MFA from the Iowa Writer's Workshop.
DeWitt Henry: I wanted to avoid the draft (Laugh).
DH: You came from a Philadelphia Main Line family, but your childhood was far from idyllic. Your dad was an alcoholic, a racist, and he abused your mom. Some people would retreat into drug abuse, mental illness, etc... in reaction to all this. Do you think literature was the elixir that saved you?
DWH: I was a child when this was going on--so I had an innocent perception of things. My father was a decent man; he tried to make up for what he did. I was the baby of the family; my older siblings experienced the brunt of it. But really--I don't think anyone has a so-called totally "happy" background.
Yes. Literature was a shelter for me. My mother was a writer and artist. During the trauma caused by my father she had her own nervous breakdown. My mother hooked up with a prominent psychiatrist--and later on she became a sort of psychiatrist's assistant. She helped my father and in a way protected me. In retrospect I grew up in a protective environment. My sister and mother promoted reading. My sister was very literate and a good writer. She encouraged me to read stuff over my head. So in eight grade I was reading Crime and Punishment. I probably didn't understand it!
DH: Your father was a successful candy manufacturer. What did he think of your desire to be a writer?
DWH: He wanted me to be a candy maker. I considered it--we all did at one point. He himself was second generation. My grandfather started the company. He sent my father to business school. My father got into chemistry which was sort of the high tech of the day--very in vogue. This was in the 1920's. He worked for DuPont for a year, then briefly for the family business, where, during the depression he attracted the attention of a chemist at Walter Baker Company here in Boston. One thing led to another; he was hired by Baker, and before I was born, he was moving up in the Baker management. But then my grandfather had a heart attack, and begged him to come home and take care of the family business. He essentially sacrificed a corporate career for the sake of family.
DH: You got your PhD at Harvard and you also attended the Iowa Writers Workshop where you studied with Richard Yates, author of Revolutionary Road among other novels. Was Yates' background similar to yours?
DWH: Well, he was born in Yonkers, N.Y. His mother was socially pretentious and ambitious. She appeared in many different guises in his fiction. He was 14 or 15 years older than me--but both our families had the drive to rise in society. The Main Line Philadelphia society where I grew up was very socially stratified. It was worse than the Boston's Brahmins. It was the kind of a place if you went into a dry cleaner or a Woolworth's, within five seconds they tried to place you . So we had that common background of parents dreaming of gentility.
DH : Was there elitism prevalent in the Boston literary scene when you arrived?
DWH: When I arrived there was a literary stratification between the establishment and the young and unknown writers. The big Boston publishing houses, Harvard, were not interested in the newer or younger people. They did not encourage community. They were just the opposite. It was a Brahmin culture.
One thing about starting Ploughshares at the Plough and Stars Pub in Central Square, Cambridge, with the co-owner Peter O'Malley--was that it was Irish. Behind it was tradition of the Irish against the Boston Brahmins, against Harvard, against the established order.
DH: Is a pub a good place to birth a magazine?
DWH: I'm not sure I would recommend it, but there is the Irish tradition of the literary pub. It goes way back to William Butler Yeats and the Irish Renaissance. The literary pub has a tradition of readings and publishing broadsheets. The tradition was inherent in the presence of Peter O'Malley . O'Malley is still around--you will probably find him having a drink at the pub to this day.
DH: The memoirist Malachy McCourt told me that when you write a memoir you should not get bogged down with facts. Memoir is more about impressions.
DWH: The kind of memoir I write is more like fiction--rather than literal fact. You have to look hard for details for your writing. I tell my students to look for artifacts around their homes that are unexplained ... kind of bizarre. In my family we have these bear skin rugs--bear skin rugs--how do you figure that? You really have to use your imagination to make things come alive.
DH: How important was the founding of Ploughshares in your development as a writer?
DWH: As I say on p. 196 of Sweet Dreams, the venture of starting Ploughshares lent me social identity as a writer...I was taken seriously by writers my age who had themselves managed to publish books and land teaching jobs." I needed that because my first novel was such slow going. The magazine also exposed me to contemporary poetry and fiction, and to the emerging writers producing it, like colleagues, and I felt both in my editing and my writing that I was talking back to them in "the cultural conversation." I think of Tim O'Brien, Andre Dubus, Fanny Howe, Thomas Lux, James Tate, Jim McPherson, Sue Miller, Frank Bidart, David Gullette, Joyce Peseroff, the list goes on. The magazine helped to forge my sense of literary enterprise, combining editing, writing, and teaching. It also proved to be the credential--more than my PhD--that helped me find my place at Emerson College and the Creative Writing Program there. Of course, in the long view back, I had been writing and producing magazines since my school days with a toy printing press, and later a basement print shop, and then in college editing the Amherst Literary Magazine. My love of reading, writing, and publishing had been one love for most of my life.