Monday, April 02, 2012

The Unselfish Memoirist: Ploughshares Founder

The Unselfish Memoirist: Ploughshares Founder
DeWitt Henry reads at Endicott College

by Michael T. Steffen

This Thursday evening (28 March 2012) the Endicott College reading series, organized and hosted by the founder of Ibbetson Street Press Doug Holder, welcomed memoirist and founding editor of Ploughshares DeWitt Henry as its guest speaker. While Mr. Henry’s seminal associations with Ploughshares, one of the most respected literary magazines in America, would be enough to draw interest on any campus – and Endicott faculty and student turnout witnessed to the occasion – the readings and discussion given by the speaker highlighted Henry’s memoirs, in particular passages from Sweet Dreams a family history (Hidden River Press, Philadelphia  2011). It is a book of great patience and personal research, which Thomas Larson best sums up:

Ranging from early childhood to the death of his parents, DeWitt Henry’s Sweet Dreams is among the more unselfish memoirs you’ll encounter. What’s so engaging about this book is Henry’s kaleidoscope of family mishaps and cultural adventures that involve him in someone else’s becoming, which, in turn, come to be his own. The memoir portrays with warmth and grace how we mature in the crowded many more so than we do in the isolated self.

Reading from a few of the more dramatic passages of the book, Henry spoke of the implicit “contract” between the memoirist and the reader, binding the writer to stay faithful to things and accounts as they were and happened – opposed to any inclination he may have to embellish. He suggested the responsibility of the memoirist, in particular, to confront the damage behind the scenes of the fantasies much of literature’s euphemistic tendencies produce – even betraying the allurement of his book’s title, Sweet Dreams, evoking the candy factory his father owned and operated.

     For those who have read Sweet Dreams, it would be hard to think that much – if anything – had been added or omitted. That said, Henry revealed that his brother Chuck didn’t altogether agree with him on all of the accounts of their childhood.

     I hesitate to give much detail of the book, not only for the reader, but with an instinct that the heavier matter of Sweet Dreams is DeWitt Henry’s to tell. Before the reading, I had a chance to chat with him about some of the book’s memorable marginalia, the hushed nearly sacred aura that banks used to have, the milkman dropping pints of milk and cream off at the door in the morning, bailing hay on a ranch in Colorado… These few instances don’t begin to account for the wealth of detail in the book, yet remind me of the source of pleasure and meaning I received reading it. Henry’s memoir served as a pathway to the things and events of my own young life, from childhood on through to my struggles, fears and modest accomplishments as a college student and then as a teacher and writer.

     Importantly, in our somewhat egocentric society, DeWitt Henry, in his writing as well as in person, conveys the notion that a self, the “I,” is, “unselfish,” composed so much of the things and people surrounding the observer’s consciousness – all we take in dearly, with challenge or discomfort, as encouragement or threat to ourselves.

Listening to Henry, I thought of the poem “Keeping Things Whole” by Mark Strand:

In a field
I am the absence
of field.
This is
always the case.
Wherever I am
I am what is missing.

When I walk
I part the air
and always
the air moves in
to fill the spaces
where my body’s been.

We all have reasons
for moving.
I move
To keep things whole.

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