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An Interview with DeWitt Henry about Endings & Beginnings: Family Essays

(MadHat Press, 2021)



WH: First off, about your daughter Ruth, in Father of the Bride you say, “how glad I was to know her.” After having read Endings and Beginnings, I said the same about your family—your dad, mom, Dave, Chuck, Jack, Connie and the rest of the tribe. “How glad I was to know them.” Good book, my man.

DH: Thank you, Will. There’s no more gratifying response!  And thanks, too, to Richard Hoffman and to Solstice for arranging this conversation between strangers.

WH: Here is a series, in no particular order, of questions/observations that are floating around in my head.

At the wedding Diego’s father asked you what religion you were. Your response: Protestant.
Yet, you found that the funeral services for both your father and later your mother were “foreign, offensive and a mockery.” And in the course of things, you got more out of a massage parlor than a church. To me your book is severely secular. Any comments?

DH:  From my skeptical teens (informed by my mother’s and older siblings’ skepticisms as well as by my reading) I was a fall-away Presbyterian, as I have written in SWEET DREAMS: A FAMILY HISTORY.

While my father saw church as a badge of status and respectability, not unlike the Masonic Lodge or country club, “at dinner we collectively discussed the hypocrisy of organized religion, the social gospel that had replaced any moral urgency, psychology, Paul Tillich, and the other new religious philosophers of the Fifties, whom Mom read in connection with her work with Dad’s psychiatrist, Dr. Appel. By no accident my term paper senior year in high school–the writing sample that helped to get me admitted to college–would be on comparative religion, with the thesis that no one religion was right, that each had its dogmas, and each, rather than embodying ‘truth,’ embodied a kind of necessary fiction. Dad was upset, when, at fifteen or sixteen, I printed my personal Christmas card in the basement and handed them out at school: ‘Happy Commercial Holiday, from An Agnostic.’”

That said, while secular, we were philosophically so.  My questioning as a writer and reader feels kindred to Thoreau’s. I was attracted to my wife’s spirituality in our mixed marriage.  Although her older brother was a Conservative Rabbi, the rest of her family was reform and welcomed me without proselytizing.  With our children, we observed both Jewish and Christian holidays.  At first, I sat through odd, elaborate rituals with a polite smile but later, especially in mourning family deaths, I came to envy their communal power.

I view literature as a search for meaning, not as an answer or a sermon, as in Deist or Soviet dogma, or even consumer materialism and the idea of the “good” life.  Literature, like life, demands and awakens faith-hunger.  We bring to literature’s scales whatever systems of belief or unbelief we have.  In my recent discursive essays (SWEET MARJORAM: NOTES AND ESSAYS), I find myself returning to Camus’s idea of existential solidarity.

WH: Why do you think Maureen finally married Chuck?

DH:  Chuck, my older, doctor brother, whose ending I write about in “Long Distance,” was “a stoic and a skeptic, as I knew him.  He had a bleak view view of history, society, and the personal life.  We come, we go.  And yet Maureen said that he had told her that you could feel the passage of a soul with a dying patient, like a brush of wind past you.”  Both he and Maureen pursued material pleasures in retirement.  Both were survivors of divorces, where each had felt exploited and betrayed.  Both had independent means. Though he asked, she refused to remarry, at least until he stopped drinking; and then agreed when he was on his deathbed in the hospital.  His three estranged sons viewed her as a gold digger, and when as his wife she automatically got half his estate, they contested his will in court.  As his executor, I had to testify to his mental competency, and that with Maureen over years, he had found intimacy, “the rare thing in this life when you can trust someone absolutely.”  Also that he couldn’t trust his sons with inherited wealth; hence the second half of his estate had been left in restricted trusts for the educations of his grand children.  I can’t know why he and Maureen married.  But I can ‘wish for her private, kindred depths; her true perceptions of his best self”; and that the marriage was a closing  affirmation that his life had been shared during their years together.”

WH:  Adopting a child is tough stuff. Given the cultural challenges, the Anti-Asian attitudes that you knew Dave would come across later on at Beaver, why did you decide on a Korean child? Did Dave ever know, or care to know, who his natural parents were? Was this ever an issue?

DH:  Again, as I wrote, we’d needed to despair of our secondary fertility as a couple and try AIH before I myself was ready to adopt and Connie insisted.  We pursued international adoption out of positive feelings about differences in background and race.  For my part, I felt that a non-white child would deepen our balance of cultures in the minds of both our families.  Given a choice between Indian, Asian and Central American programs, we favored the Korean because they had a system of orphanages in place dating from the Korean War, the health of the babies was rated excellent and they valued education (we were both teachers).  Also the history and cultures interested me, my sister’s husband was half-Indonesian; and Chuck had served a postwar Army tour in Korea and supported our choice.

Growing up Dave had mostly white friends, but did date Asian girls.  One girl at college had a divorced white Dad teaching in Hong Kong, who arranged an internship there for Dave.  After graduation, we sent him on travels with a white friend and he toured several Asian countries, including South Korea.  He never tried to locate his birth mother, as far as I know, as other adoptees have (another movie-making friend from college had even done a documentary about such searches).  The orphanage files are lost or closed.  But in his own words, Dave had grown up with racism.  And when he did settle down and marry, with a job in New York, it was to Korean-American woman, a teacher, who had a large first-generation family in New Jersey.  He identifies himself as Jewish and dotes as a father on their first daughter.  We celebrate our joined families.

WH: And speaking of David, growing up he really didn’t have any cousins nearby.  The death of his childhood friend was harrowing and partly explains why Eva came to be so important to him, no?

DH:  I believe so, yes. .

WH:  How has he reacted to your writing about him?

DH:  Well, he respects that this is what I do, who I am, and that I love, admire, and respect him.  He’s never challenged my right to do so, though he has accused me, during crises in his growing up, of thinking I know about him when I don’t.

WH:  At one point in your life you became the family photographer. Then, the family’s Ken Burns….
producing a documentary of the Henrys for all the world to tune in on. Your father’s affair with Ida, his alcoholism—at what point is it no else’s business, outside of the family to know? In other words, having seen some of the Henry dirty laundry, why should I care? Or—’nuff said—have we all carried home from Ludlow Fair pints and quarts of Ludlow beer?

DH:  Why should strangers care?  I have several hopes.  (There’s also the related question of why loved ones object to having their privacy invaded, but I’ll get to that.).

First, they appreciate the art and urgency of the writing.  The stylistic range.  Why does the writer write so earnestly and painstakingly?  What are the stakes?  They’ve probably never heard of the living author or his family members. None are celebrities.  They’re neither significant victims, nor are they exemplars of industry and success, such as Ben Franklin.   To the reader they can only be relatable as fellow humans, as “characters,” to be sympathized with and judged.

That said, in terms of theme, they do portray the downfall of WASP culture in mid-century America, and trace our collective progress towards a more diverse, fairer society and world, or so I hope.  Morality is a theme as well as mortality.  The spiritual bankruptcies of materialism are themes.  Love, marriages, and confusions are themes; they each have crises, make mistakes, and usually mean well.  To their credit they share senses of humor and nurture creative talents.

After some magazines found my separate essays “too personal,” I came to realize later that it was for lack of a larger context.  The essays gain from being read together and arranged as a collage in time.

Story regardless of genre must be more important than “the personal,” meaning the selfish needs of the writer. It has to offer strangers recognitions and communion.

And similarly, on the matter of privacy (a concern now more than ever in the age of social media).  When Chuck told me “to forget the family stuff and write thrillers instead,” I replied that I could only write what I could write.  Nobody cared about the model’s identity, or even about the artist, so much as the “art” itself.  The transformation into vision and meaning.

WH: In his intro to Yesterday’s Noise Joe Mackall writes, “It is my family, past and present, that sustains me. And exhausts me.” Is this true for you too?

DH:  Exhausts, no.  Inspires and provokes, yes.  As do close friends, colleagues, spiritual kin, and students while I was teaching.

WH: Early on, you observe that “I had begun my fifties believing in my ‘Self.’ How has seeing your ‘Self’ as being almost a separate character in your life’s journey, a kind of a doppelgänger, impacted who you are or have become?

DH:  I wrote a poem recently, “On Character,” that rehearses various meanings for “self” and only ends in questions: “Self and idea-of-self. / How do I catch / my own imagination? / Who do I mean to be?/ Who can I stand to be?”

Incidentally one of my favorite lines from Robert Lowell is “My eyes have seen what my hand has done.”

WH:  Just to satisfy my curiosity—how did Connie, the little wife back home in the kitchen, respond to your experience in the massage parlor when you confess: “…being tendered, being loved: this is what I wanted and missed most in my life.” (How was it out in that suburban dog house?)

DH:  “On Swimming” is its own answer, but I will share this: Connie respected my honesty, even as she heard the warning (that I felt deserted in our contests of needs and mid-life stresses).  She took my account in stride so long as I agreed to change real names before the essay first appeared.  Then she sampled a therapeutic massage for herself.

WH:  A critic who read Eugene Onegin argued that Pushkin was writing about himself, that Eugene Onegin was, in fact, Pushkin in poetic disguise. Pushkin denied the charge and took offense. Rabidly. In what could be seen to be an attack on memoirists, he wrote,

As if today, through some restriction,
We’re now no longer fit to write
On any theme but our own plight.

How would you respond to Pushkin?  How do we account for the popularity of memoirs today, where writers seem to be obsessed with nothing “but their own plight”?

DH:  I think I’ve already answered Pushkin earlier.  Memoir’s highest subject is the reader, not the writer.

There is new critical theory too, perhaps best articulated by David Shields’ REALITY HUNGER or by Tim O’Brien’s “How To Tell a True War Story.”  The manners of traditional fiction for many—including readers—have come to seem just that, a form of politeness and pretense, untrue to genuine experiences of genocide, nuclear annihilation, mass communicated lies, and global, planetary, and intergalatic awareness, not to mention microbiology.  We’re too hungry to express and to explore what feels like our general and unique confusion to worry about which spoon or fork to use.

WH: I don’t judge a book by its cover, but…that cover on my paperback edition (Mad Hat Press).  What is going on there?  Who are the two faces?  What are the swirls?  The balls?  What is being suggested about what is to follow?

DH:  I chose M.C. Escher’s iconic painting “Bond of Union” for the cover of E&B to signal a form that spirals rather than a chronological or linear one (a notion also suggested by the epigraph from John Donne, “we that will reach  [truth] about must and about must go”).  Escher’s ribbon of connection, suggesting DNA, also appealed to my sense—only an illusion perhaps—that there ARE no endings or beginnings, no unrelated identities, fates, or claims to meaning.  We see difference; yet the eye follows a single, continuous ribbon.


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