THE BOOK: Endings & Beginnings: Family Essays (paper, 150 pp)
PUBLISHED IN: 2021
THE AUTHOR: DeWitt Henry
THE PUBLISHER: MadHat Press (www.Mad-Hat Press.com; editor-in-chief and designer, Marc Vincenz, who comments: “MadHat publishes work that stretches imaginative and structural boundaries. We lean toward passionate, lyrical and explosive work, well-crafted and somewhat cerebral”).
SUMMARY: Endings and Beginnings: Family Essays marks the third and concluding volume of my trilogy-in-memoir, a work that began with Sweet Dreams, A Family History and extended to Safe Suicide: Narratives, Essays, and Meditations. In the first, I described coming of age in the 1950s: Philadelphia’s Main Line; dysfunctional, candy-manufacturing family; an alcoholic father, artistic mother, and two older brothers and a sister.
In time, I follow my siblings in debating and defying our WASP heritage, its dreams of dynasty, and its prejudices about class, race, place, morality, and material success. Each of us marry, settle, and raise families elsewhere. And each negotiates decades of cultural revolutions, future shock, and personal mid-life crises, which became my impetus for the second volume. Now with this last collection, I measure my own searches and becoming by the outcomes for my parents and older siblings, and by the adult struggles and crises of my daughter and son, along with hopes for their futures.
As John Skoyles writes in the introduction to Endings & Beginnings: “In Henry’s world, Family is not restricted to the household of his parents, siblings and extended relatives. A graceful writer of tremendous compassion, Henry sees all lives as interconnected and each of his essays breaks the boundaries of its original impulse. The resulting collections often focus on family at the start, but reach well beyond, and have an appealing sweep of understanding of all walks of life.”
THE BACK STORY: I began as a novelist who believed that to make your deepest emotions signify, you need to imagine lives different from you own. I worked for 13 years on my novel, The Marriage of Anna Maye Potts (2000), based on characters who were life-time workers in our family’s candy factory. I thought of it as an objective fiction; but after I finished, I realized that the characters and conflicts of my imagined working-class couple actually mythologized my own parents’ conflicts and that my parents’ struggle was the true epic in my emotional life. So I turned, of necessity, to writing memoir, thinking there wasn’t time to speak the truth in lies, as it were.
I would begin, I thought, with “the autobiography of my father,” narrated by him as I imagined him. Then tell my own autobiography as researched and narrated from midlife by me (and in reality from still later, with later understanding). Then would conclude from an imagined future, say 2050, as narrated by my daughter in midlife after my death.
This design soon proved beyond my powers, though I remained intrigued by the relation of individual destinies in families to cultural surrounds over generations. How do our different “times” (and I would add “landscapes”) shape not only us, our particular family, but all families? I love Tolstoy’s theory of history at the end of War and Peace: that each one’s self is an integer in epic events, and a measure of common nature. Hence my family’s story was connected to my nation’s. We were typical and representative in our WASP privileges and pretensions in the 1950s, in the secret of my father’s alcoholism and adultery, in our ambitions to out-achieve and escape our pasts, and in our failures and future shocks.
Yet as I explored our story, I discovered experiences and perspectives I could not imagine, which remained baffling, private, and beyond me. I learned to make speculation part of the form. Increasingly I learned my material by living it. Increasingly, from my second volume to the present one, I used abstract topics as occasions for insights, or like frames through which the personal pressed, as if obsessively and always emphasizing the search: experiences of sports, such as swimming, golf, and marathon running, or of concepts such as gravity, parenthood, mortality or conscience. The more I learned relatedness the more I relied on collage, rearranging experiences in overlays, parallels, and contrasts that registered love, regard, bewilderment and wonder.
Endings & Beginnings consists of meditations, narratives, and journeys. Different essays, some brief and lyrical, some fugue-like and symphonic were written between 1994 and the present, but their design is other than chronological. I am baffled, I confess, by history, personal and public, as were such models as Robert Lowell and Frank Conroy.
WHY THIS TITLE?: Discrete beginnings, middles, and ends don’t feel true to my experience. Instead my chapters spiral, in theme, incident, and character, returning with deeper insights to life facts. The cover image of M.C. Escher’s “Bond of Union,” also suggests both form, where there are no endings or beginnings, and relatedness, where we view individuals through their connections. In families, as in nations, as in cultures, we move forward, backwards, and even sidewise in our stories, choices, values, generations and heritages.
WHY WOULD SOMEONE WANT TO READ IT?
1) stylistic grace and range;
2) “reality hunger” in content and form;
3) imaginative generosity;
4) cultural and moral criticism;
5) family themes (deracination, impact of social/cultural/political changes, rebellion and growth);
6) breadth of material in time, characters, setting, and life passages;
7) vulnerability, honesty, and good humor.
“How many people get their big moment on the stage, and if so, for how long? This is the writer’s implied question throughout. Maybe it’s better to resist the usual tendency to extrapolate from accounts of other people’s lives in order to better understand our own, and to simply read them as individual statements that point inward, to the heart of an individual. These would be good essays with which to start.” —Ann Beattie, author of A Wonderful Stroke of Luck
“In these superb essays, DeWitt Henry shows himself to be a master of the form. Whether he is writing about his life-long experience as a golfer or with guns or having grown up in the shadow of privilege and alcoholism, one senses that Henry is stepping nakedly, and with a clear and unsentimental eye, into the abiding mystery of the decades of his life thus far: as a son, a brother, a husband and father, a writer, a teacher, a friend. But he accomplishes all this without trying to solve that mystery but to simply live it. This is not an easy path, but perhaps it is the only path toward wisdom, which is abundant in this moving, deeply compelling, and indispensable collection. Endings & Beginnings: Family Essays is a gem.” —Andre Dubus III, author of Townie.
“Endings & Beginnings is a stirring distillation of what it means to be connected—whether through life-long rituals of golf and swimming, or the more monumental of weddings and family losses. As well as through the things of our lives; Henry recalls the BB pistols of not only his own childhood, but of his son’s, when he sets up a makeshift range in his office to shoot at cartoon targets; then of his dying brother teaching his son how to shoot another gun he remembers. The careful refining of such moments into, as Henry describes, ‘a wholeness to the landscape in which I live,’” is the driving power behind this keenly thoughtful and at turns, humorous and haunting new collection.” —Sandra Tyler, author of Blue Glass
“A writer who depicts with fearless precision his own longings, flaws, and remarkable gifts.” —Margot Livesey, author of The Boy in the Field.
AUTHOR PROFILE: In late career, I am a writer, a husband, a father to a daughter and son, and grandfather to three granddaughters.
I left for college from the Philadelphia suburbs and settled for keeps in the Boston suburbs. I was the founding editor of Ploughshares in my thirties, married an elementary school teacher, and taught writing and literature at Emerson College for four decades.
As well as literature, I love fitness and athletics: running, swimming, and trail hiking.
ENDINGS & BEGINNINGS is my seventh book, not counting four anthologies of fic-tion and nonfiction that I’ve edited. (Details at http://www.dewitthenry.com).
AUTHOR COMMENTS: I’ve tried to capture time in its flight, measured by lives I know, imagine, and don’t or can’t know. Challenges wanted, wonted, sought and unforeseen. The personal never is, really. We’re all clues to each other: such wonders and becomings. “Memoir” is about the reader, finally, not about the writer. That is the adventure.
On Swimming (2003)
I was a good swimmer as a teenager, in a swimming family. My mother had been good and loved swimming still, even after operations in her shoulders and elbows for bursitis. She told stories about diving off cliffs at Cornell. My older brother Chuck was on the team at Martin’s Dam, our swim club, and also at Haverford School. He swam a hard crawl and also butterfly and I don’t remember if he ever won.
My sister Judy, however, was better than good. She was a star on the Martin’s Dam team, doing crawl, butterfly and backstroke, and practicing for hours in the lanes set up for fifty yards between the diving float and racing dock. At Baldwin School she swam races but also water ballet. She and her best friends, Kathleen and Cathy, practiced manically, and I went to their meets. I remember the smell of chlorine and slick seal-like clinging of wet suits, as well as the inane music of Blue Tango they used for ballet. For racing she specialized in rac-ing dives and for backstroke in flip turns. I tried to imitate all this on my own, as a junior at Martin’s Dam.
I don’t remember if I ever placed. but I must have at some meet, second or third. We were given ribbons and badges. I remember the practices, grueling, under the aegis of the Martin’s coach, who was also my science teacher at public school. I imitated Judy’s smoothness in my crawl stroke, turning my wrist to slide into the water, and cupping my hand for thrust, rather than slapping the water. When she swam, she seemed streamlined and effortless, gliding. She would pull ahead of her rivals so smoothly. Just the steady, powerful glide and pull, and she would surge ahead. I tried my best. But my wind, even after hours of practice, laps and laps, was never good for swimming. I could push myself to the brink of nausea, but that was never the equal of the gifted.
I remember varsity meets at Martin’s. The shivery dawn. The butterflies in the stomach, which Judy had too and tried to calm with jelly beans. The pretense and pomp of a real race, team to team. Standing on the block, arms back, ready for a racing dive. The tense expectation of the starter’s gun, then crack! And spring forward for a shallow splash and already churn-ing kick, and stroke, pulling deep. Trying to keep in my lane. Barely aware of anyone ahead or behind. Plunging, digging each stroke, pull, kicking hard. Heart wild. Gasping every third stroke for breath. Harder. Hitting the slimy edge of the diving dock and duck-ing under for a tuck and turn, then push, glide, and back, pulling, digging, as my strength failed, arms ached, gasping, keeping in the lane, between the floats, kicking my best, can I make it, harder, one hundred yards, gasping, failing, and dimly aware of splashing in the adjacent lanes ahead of me, all body, all effort, finishing fourth, fifth, sixth, my hand hitting the dock. Heaving breath at the finish, hardly able to lift myself out.
Our meets were tense with other clubs, sometimes away. I remember Colonial Village, just down the street from Martin’s. The different format, different pool. And shivering, having to show up early, Saturday at 8 a.m. When I got to college, swimming was too difficult a sport. Not only in muscle and stamina, but in time. At Amherst freshman year there seemed barely time to breathe and think, let alone go out for demanding sports, and swimming was one of the most demanding. I watched a couple of meets. I remember a star, Jack Quigley, now a doctor. The conditioning, the regimen, the dedication, and the performance were utterly beyond me. As for Chuck, I think he tried swimming at Franklin and Marshall, after he had flunked out of Cornell, but then he quit. Judy, I think, tried too at Swarthmore freshman year, but then she quit when she got pregnant and married an upperclassman. We never amounted to much, as swimmers.
My mother, after our father died, lived alone in their suburban Philadelphia ranch house, and had the notion to install a swimming pool for health. In her late seventies, said she was too fragile to travel anymore, so she wanted to make her house a spa, where we all would visit. The pool, in a sheltered Plexiglas enclosure, became our baptismal pleasure, and we all clamored in, splashing, playing, with our wives and children. Alone, she swam laps for as long as she could.
I don’t swim much anymore, I confess. In my pre- retirement sixties, I am dedicated ath-letically to workouts in a gym. Neither my wife, my daughter, or my son are serious swimmers. Our New England waters are mainly Walden Pond (inland) or various beaches south of Boston and on the Cape, or the local MDC pool, less than a mile from our house.
Walden for our family has spiritual connotations. From the time our children were young, we and friends would go there, stunned by the privacy no matter how crowded the park. Our family’s best friends also swam there and had appropriated a beach near the original Thoreau cabin, on the far shore of the pond. Sometimes we joined them for picnics. Sometimes they went with our children and without us.
My daughter, always precocious, sneaked into Walden as a teenager for illegal skinny dips. Years after these family friends had suffered untimely losses to cancer, first of their eight-year-old son (best friend to our son), and then of the father, Pat (a second father to our son), we rarely swam at all, and rarely took the trip together to a beach or to Walden.
Now summers, in the heat, I may run ten or twelve miles around the Charles River, then dip in the MDC pool alone on the way back home. It is a shallow pool, crowded with frolicking teens and sub-teens, but exhausted and hot, it is a blessing on a long run. I try a few laps in the old free-style crawl of my sister, but my stamina is only good for twenty yards, if that. Sometimes, special times, my wife Connie joins me, and we swim together in these shallow, neighborhood waters. One of the lifeguards is Caitlin, sister and daughter of the family friends with losses to cancer. We are middle-aged. Two teachers. My wife at an elementary through sixth-grade school, to which she has given her life and now is assistant director, and me to Emerson College, where I have given my professional life.
Two summers ago we are alone at Walden. We both feel the losses and the toll of time. But there is a lovely buoyancy. We wend our way through the paths around the rim and discover that our favorite spit has been reclaimed for conservation. We slip into the wa-ters from a nearby beach. And the waters are warm. We swim together. The bottom falls away to the deep of the pond. I love my wife. I cannot speak to her or to others in words how much. She is a pure, constant and affirming soul against all the doubts and contra-dictions of living. My loving is not worthy of her. But in this twilight we swim as newly-weds.
LOCAL OUTLETS: On special order: Harvard Bookstore, Newtonville Books, Porter Square Books, Brookline Booksmith.
WHERE ELSE TO BUY IT: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other online sellers, as well as the publisher’s website: http://www.mad-hatpress.com
CONTACT THE AUTHOR:
Twitter handle: @dewitthenry