DeWitt Henry, who co-founded Ploughshares, will guest edit our 40th anniversary issue – the Summer 2011 issue – set to be released on August 15th. We are proud of and excited for both his contributions to this magazine and his successes as an author.
In January of this year, Hidden River Press published Sweet Dreams: A Family History, the new memoir by Ploughshares co-founder DeWitt Henry. Today we thought we’d give our readers a brief taste of all the praise that’s been heaped on it — and add a little of our own.
What many critics have liked best about the book is its compelling personal narrative — its “Portrait of the Artist” quality, as Ploughshares’ fiction editor Margot Livesey puts it — and the way Henry charts his development as a writer. Certainly it’s fascinating to see Ploughshares’ origins in Henry’s home-typeset newspapers for his middle school classmates, especially against the backdrop of his full and colorful childhood. But while those more personal threads can be easily tugged from Sweet Dreams, doing so ignores the other lives woven loosely around Henry’s story, and the much larger design he clearly intends.
The book’s subtitle, after all, is A Family History, and through most of its first half Henry is present more as chronicler than participant. He speaks with fond admiration of his older sister Judy and all she did for him and his mother. He idolizes the masculine ideals embodied by his older brothers: Chuck, who’s sent to Vietnam with the army and ends up helping orphans, and Jack, who the young Henry imagines as a frontier cowboy in Colorado. He reveals a tender confusion about his mother’s life during his childhood — though looking back, he can see she was unhappy — and his alcoholic father, too, who Henry says he has no memory of before his eighth birthday, receives careful attention even in his absence.
That intense focus on the lives and emotions of those around him is probably what Thomas Larson, author of The Memoir and the Memoirist, means when he calls Sweet Dreams an “unselfish” memoir. It’s also unselfish for not being accusatory or angry toward those who caused Henry pain over the years, emotional or otherwise.
But Sweet Dreams is unselfish in a less tangible way, too: through what other reviewers have praised as the “vivid,” “photographic” descriptions of Henry’s childhood, readers are able not only to experience his memories, but to revisit their own. It’s impossible to read Henry’s sprawling, reverent descriptions of his earliest years without wondering whether you could remember yours in as much detail, and if you try, after dipping into Sweet Dreams for a few pages, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how much comes rushing back. That seems like the greatest praise we can heap on anyone.