We are really proud here at Hidden River, to be publishing DeWitt Henry’s memoir, Sweet Dreams: A Family History. Recently, we sat down and came up with some questions for this highly-respected member of the literary community, which he was gracious enough to answer.
DLS: Can you talk about the journey of this book? Why did you decide to write it? What was the process like for you, digging so deep into your own family memories? What do you hope to accomplish by this project? What do you hope people will bring away from reading this book?
DH: The section of SWEET DREAMS called “Distant Thunder” was published by BOULEVARD in 1988 and subsequently won the BOULEVARD Fiction Award and a Pushcart Prize. That was twenty-two years ago.
I began by writing fiction and believing with my mentor, Richard Yates, in the notion of the objective correlative—that to express your deepest emotions you need to imagine lives different from your own; as an artist, you need that distance on material. I worked for years on my novel, THE MARRIAGE OF ANNA MAYE POTTS, based on characters who were life-time workers in our family’s Germantown candy factory, and about whom my older brothers told stories around our dinner table. It was pure fiction. But when I finished, I realized that the characters and conflicts of my imagined working class couple actually mythologized my own parents’ struggle and that that struggle was the true epic in my emotional life.
The novel had taken years to write and when it wasn’t published right away, no matter how praised by Yates and other writers, the rejections broke my heart—my belief in fiction—and I felt that there simply wasn’t time in life to speak the truth in lies, as it were. That in my case, my family history, our WASP privileges and pretensions in the 1950s, the secret of my father’s alcoholism, and my mother’s martyrdom in staying with him for our sakes (while sacrificing her ambitions and dreams for “self”), were the true story I needed to tell. And there were other needs, also, as I had to teach for livelihood and compromise my ambitions for the sake of marriage and my children once I settled in Boston. I was also growing through the culture shocks of the 1970s—Civil Rights and the new Feminism, for instance--and lived by different and more enlightened values than my parents had or were (I thought). I felt the need to connect to a past that I had rebelled against and jettisoned, and which neither my wife and children, nor my friends really understood. I wanted to recover a lost self and add it to my present in order to feel whole. It was also at this point that my father died.
So I began with memories of my childhood up until age 8. I could remember everything except for the figure of my father, any memory of whom I had blanked out, presumably, from terror. Memories of my father only began after he had submitted to treatment, dried out, and become the caricature of a man. This was the father whom I loved and hated during my adolescence. My mother, older brothers, and sister, of course, all remembered both his “bad times,” and the times before I was born—the time of his rising career in Boston before he had been summoned home to Wayne by my ailing grandfather to save the Henry candy business. According to them, before this as a father he had been wholehearted and present.
As I wrote about my childhood, I projected a larger book, which would be a documentary novel—literally “true,” and yet imagined as an epic. There would be three parts. The part I had just finished, about me, would be expanded into my autobiography, following the pattern of say, Gorki’s CHILDHOOD and exploring the classic topics of school, sexuality, discipline, religion, friendship and social awakening. But it would be preceded by the “autobiography of my father” –an idea inspired a little by Rosellen Brown’s novel, THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MY MOTHER.
I gathered all the facts that I could about my father’s childhood and adolescence; about his education, about his relation to his own parents; and about his marriage and early parenting. I was searching for the seeds of his eventual breakdown.
I tried to imagine and portray the man he had been before I was born. My mother helped by answering questions and offering her own version of his past. But I also drew on photographs, letters, home movies, and personal artifacts. I studied literature about alcoholism as a disease. I studied local and national history from the 1920s to 1950s. Eventually this section wanted to be a separate book, so I cut it, and with it the overt and eerie parallels between my father’s life and mine.
The third section in this grand design was to be the imagined autobiography of my daughter, literally eight at the time, but which I would set in 2020. I would imagine and speculate, as in science fiction, about her coming of age and adulthood, about her memories of me and my life, and about her adapting and growing partly in reaction to the future as history. But this proved to be so far beyond my reach that I never began it.
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