Honesty in the Use of Words: A Conversation with DeWitt Henry

DeWitt Henry works sagely across genres: a novelist, memoirist, short story writer, and essayist, he’s also the founding editor of the iconic literary magazine, Ploughshares, and Professor Emeritus at Emerson College. His recent essay collection, Sweet Marjoram, distills a lifetime of reading into twenty-two philosophical (and sometimes humorous) riffs on everything from meat to time—the latter of which was recognized as a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2018. I spoke to DeWitt via email on a crisp, clear day in late-September in this twisted Year of Our Lord, 2018.

Ryan Ridge: In the late-great Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules for Writing his number one rule is: “Never open a book with weather.” He calls it a weak move. Yet, your latest book Sweet Marjoram begins with the essay “On Weather” and it’s the perfect beginning—proof that writing “rules” are total bullshit. Tell me, DeWitt: where are you at the moment and what’s the weather like?

DeWitt Henry: I’m not big on truisms for successful writing, or for living, I suppose. I wasn’t aware of Leonard’s #1. But I am big on wisdoms, conventional and otherwise, and the way that weather is and stands for our common fate, our givens, our constantly changing circumstances, which we try to predict, adapt to, escape, and even influence (as in rain-making). As city dwellers and beneficiaries of technologies and engineering, we seem removed from the big rhythms of nature; though environmentalists have sounded warnings. The same is true of inner-weather, the body and the Psyche. From different angles, yes, I guess the nature of things is my subject and concern throughout this book. And as for the weather now (thanks for asking), it’s a perfect day in Boston, on the edge of crisp (66 degrees, sunny, clear skies); the first leaves are turning. It is also a clement season in my life (knock wood). I’m retired from teaching, lucky in health and family life, and writing full time. This book has been a later-life surprise.

RR: Can you talk a bit about the process of writing Sweet Marjoram? Which piece came first and at what point did you realize you had a project?

DH: “On Falling” came first, followed by “On Conscience” and then “On Weather.” In my earlier collection, Safe Suicide, I’d written narrative essays that used central symbols or topics as a kind of lattice that framed emotions, such as the essay on “Gravity.” In “On Falling,” I began free associating and riffing without any idea where I was going. I went from the season fall, to the fall of kings, to Lucifer’s fall, to Icarus’s, to Galileo’s law of falling objects. Each variation flashes by and builds, until I discovered my ironic ending. The ultimate fall is death, but we can sentimentalize it by imagining miraculous rescue: “down will come baby . . . into Mommy’s arms.” Poet John Skoyles was my first reader and encouraged me to try more such meditations or “doodles” (as I called them) on other topics, not just one or two more, but enough for a book. I doubted that I had more in me, but here, after three years of writing, is the book. Each new topic utterly absorbed me, from the first intimations, play and definitions, to deep research (“the current state of thought”), involving book-length studies on, say, the meaning of “silence,” to revisiting and pondering literary instances. “On Conscience” invoked Tolstoy, Joyce, Shakespeare, Jiminy Cricket, Tim O’Brien, and Freud. This was both fun and work. I had discovered a sense of form that I could apply, I thought, to almost any topic. And the topics emerged both as offbeat and as timely. Without the Trump abuses on one side and progressive challenges and “mindfulness” on the other, I would never have explored “privilege,” say, “courage,” or “empathy.” I wanted to surprise, and also to assess and clarify.

RR: In “On Empathy”, you write: “President Obama insisted on ‘empathy’ as a requirement for his Supreme Court nominees. A woman on the court, he argued, would temper justice with mercy and protect progressive social reforms . . . ” Have you been following the Kavanaugh hearings? Could the president have picked a worse nominee? Where do you see the state of empathy in America in the fall of 2018?

DH: Trump revels in being democracy’s nightmare (for an insight into the “deconstruction incarnate” aspect of Trump, see David Shields’s Nobody Hates Trump More Than Trump: An Intervention, which I reviewed here). His idea for Chair of the NEA remains Sylvester Stallone, suggesting either the dismantling of NEA as a liberal politbureau, or channeling its grants to promote Trumpism. I’m surprised that the Kavanaugh hearings haven’t revived Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. As far as empathy goes, speaking of nightmares, we’re in the world of It’s A Wonderful Life where Henry F. Potter prevails and George Bailey has never been born.

RR: Here at Juked we were lucky to publish a couple excerpts. In one of them, “On Time,” you write: “I believe in moments out of time. Art. Vision. Epiphanies.” Who are some of your favorite visual artists? Is there a piece in particular that brings about an epiphanic moment?

DH: I love the frescos of Masaccio, the Italian Renaissance painter, who features ordinary people connecting through tragedy. I love the class-conscious Post Office murals of the New Deal. I love Hopper (who paints people as if seeing them for the last time) and Wyeth’s dreamers (the teenager on a kitschy, duded-up bike, who peddles through a vast, flat landscape). However, since writing my essays, I’ve been drawn more to collage, abstract, and surreal painting. Picasso’s Guernica is one of the greatest. Hieronymus Bosch, Peter Breughel.

RR: In “On Dreams” you confess to having mostly dull and uninteresting dreams, but I’m curious: what’s the most vivid dream you can recall? Personally, I keep having this recurring one where I’m wandering around an abandoned bowling alley searching for my car keys. What do you make of that?

DH: I wonder what your brilliant collaborator, Mel Bosworth, would make of it. If bowling suggests sex, you’ve come too late and want to get out of there? Still, “abandoned” sounds nostalgic. Hopper indeed. Best pay your $30 and try an internet interpretation. As I recount in my essay, my most memorable dream taps cultural guilt for adopting my infant son from Korea.

RR: After reading Sweet Marjoram, it’s clear that you’ve clearly read everything. If you had to pick a favorite writer (other than Shakespeare: he smokes everyone!) who would it be? Why?

DH: On the scale of Shakespeare, Tolstoy in the novel. And among my contemporaries James Alan McPherson, Tim O’Brien, Richard Yates, Seamus Heaney, Eudora Welty, Alice Munro, Lorrie Moore, and Andre Dubus, are all part of my thinking. I return to Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio and Hemingway’s In Our Time; and I love Forster and Orwell in the essay; and Frank Conroy in memoir. Why? They’re all masters of what Yates called “honesty in the use of words.” As for reading everything, I’ve neither read my daughter’s library, nor yours, but I did follow your suggestion of David Markson and loved his “novels” (Nonlinear. Discontinous. Collage-like. An assemblage.).

RR: As an editor, I’m curious as to what it was like to start one of the greatest literary journals of all time? Can you talk about how Ploughshares came about?

DH: My best, brief response is online. Ploughshares was born out of 1) the Irish pub tradition, 2) a 60s/70s lit establishment indifferent to the counterculture generation in Boston/Cambridge, and 3) a bonding of young exiles from literary scenes from Haight Ashbury to Iowa City to the Bowery to Black Mountain College to (in my case) Amherst College classrooms, and 4) their clash of aesthetics and styles. As Mailer put it about commercial publishing, “the shits were killing us,” so we set out collectively to prove that literature mattered and that “good writing” was a matter of significant, differing tastes. Our revolving editorship was rooted in practical criticism, debate, and passion.

RR: How did years of editing inform or affect your own writing?

DH: Writing, editing, and teaching are inter-connected for me. One feeds and energizes the other. I edited my first lit mag in college; and set out with Ploughshares to create the taste by which to be appreciated—not just for the realist fiction I wrote (“realism” was being widely misunderstood and disparaged in 1970), but for the “adventure of American letters,” as Gordon Lish put it. I wrote slowly, publishing excerpts from my novel, along with reviews and criticism. But I was hired finally by Emerson College to teach full-time as the editor of Ploughshares (with a Ph.D. in Shakespeare), rather than as a novelist. For me editing, whether of special issues of the magazine (such as a “Special Realism Issue,” or “Confronting Racial Difference”), or of anthologies (such as “Breaking Into Print,” “Fathering Daughters,” or “Sorrow’s Company”), was personally urgent and expressive. And that was the kind of editing, too, that I prompted from other writers as they took their turns at our “revolving editorship.” We thought of literature as a kind of conversation, and I was comparing subjects, standards and visions with such writer/editors as Fanny Howe, Thomas Lux, Tim O’Brien, Frank Bidart, Jane Shore, James Alan McPherson, Gail Mazur, Sue Miller, James Carroll, Seamus Heaney, Joyce Peseroff, Raymond Carver, George Garrett, and many others as the network grew.

There was also a certain backlash once my novel was finished. Publishers viewed me as from the wrong side of the desk. My protege and successor at Ploughshares, Don Lee, was told exactly this by his editor at Norton about committing to a career as a novelist. You had to choose.

I write full-time now, but I have remained an advisor to Ploughshares since 2009, when novelist/memoirist Ladette Randolph took over as Don Lee’s successor. I also volunteer as a contributing editor for both Solstice and Woven Tale Press magazines (both founded and edited by novelists, the former by Lee Hope and later by Sandra Tyler). Online publishing is the new frontier.

RR: You’ve written a novel, a collection of stories, a memoir, as well as a couple essay collections. Was the shift across these various forms and genres deliberate or organic?

DH: My novel took thirteen years to write and then publish; and when it wasn’t widely read—though it did win the Peter Taylor Prize—I was heartbroken. With the same themes and obsessions of my fiction, I turned to memoir and the art of fact. The shift was about wrestling with silence. Joking, but only half-, I proposed editing a Best American Silences anthology—I would invite nominations, and in addition to the “reprints,” I would list Distinctive Silences of the Year. There would be epigraphs, such as “—,” Ezra Pound. There would be famous contributors, but after their titles and attributions, the pages would be blank. “On Love,” perhaps, by Howard Stern. “On Justice,” by O.J. Simpson. “Life After Death,” by Elvis Presley. “Witness,” by Neil Armstrong. The final selection, of course, would be my own: “My heart.”

RR: What are you working on now? What’s next?

DH: Endings and Beginnings: Family Essays will be out from MadHat in 2020. I have a finished, short novel (still homeless) about suburban politics that feels timely: Top Cop Kills Town Manager, Then Self, at Council President’s Funeral: Fake News. I’m thinking that my column from Woven Tale Press might make a little book, A Writer’s Guide to the Internet: Selected Bookmarks. More short meditations. More oddities. Maybe a Collected Criticism and Reviews. But who knows what else may find me as I work with best laid plans?

RR: I’m excited to read the next one. Thanks so much for taking time to talk, DeWitt! Sweet Marjoram is out now from MadHat Press. Read an exclusive excerpt in Juked.  

Copyright © 1999 – 2024 Juked