The DeWitt Henry Evening, in photos and introduction

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Radnor High graduates of the class of '59 came out in force last night to welcome DeWitt Henry home.  Pamela Sedor, the ever-young, always-beautiful mistress of the Radnor Memorial Library, did what she does to make the evening seamless.  Elizabeth Mosier and Chris Mills brought Ben Yagoda, Kelly Simmons, Cynthia Reeves, and me to their warm hearth; Kathye Fetsko Petrie brought her most ineffable self. And I was given the honor of introducing a man who has given stories—his own, those of others—a place of permanence. 

This was his evening.

When DeWitt Henry turned 30 years old, he wrote the following in a journal he was keeping:

“I can’t get a job.  I can’t have the things that normal people my age enjoy.  I can’t afford a family.  When I was twenty-five, that was clearly a matter of choice.  I was trying to be an artist, and I could always give up that ambition and still succeed by worldly standards.  But here I am skilled, educated, and living alone on $4,000 where any stiff can make $10,000.”

It’s classic DeWitt.  Self-effacing.  Never murky.  Sentences built of particulates.  It’s also preamble.  Because DeWitt Henry wasn’t actually just moping around in his thirtieth year.  He was on the verge of a next great thing, a brand new future—not just for himself, but for all us readerly stiffs.

So he was frequenting a bar called Plough.  So, in the early fall of 1971, $2,000 were played against 1,000 copies of what would become the first issue of Ploughshares, now one of the most esteemed literary magazines in the world.  What writer doesn’t know Ploughshares, or lust after a Ploughshares page?  The intention was, to quote DeWitt quoting Gordon Lish, to make “a distinct contribution to the national adventure in writing” and, to now quote DeWitt quoting Ted Solotaroff, “to convey the bright hope” of contemporary writing.

DeWitt has brightened the bulb of hope in many ways throughout his career—teaching at Harvard before becoming the Chair of Writing, Literature, and Publishing at Emerson College, and publishing his own essays and stories, pieces that the great Tim O’Brien called “flat-out wonderful.”  He has made a career of launching careers while steadily tending his own.

Through the thickness and the thinness, DeWitt Henry never forgot his roots.  The house on Bloomingdale Avenue.  Howard, the butcher at Espenshade’s.  Kay’s Dress Shop.  The Anthony Wayne Theater.  St. David’s Golf Club. St. Martin’s Dam. The halls of Radnor High.  These memories are the stuff of Sweet Dreams, the memoir he’ll be sharing tonight.

In an essay called “On Aging,” about running the Boston marathon, DeWitt writes “There is the lesson of self-awareness and acceptance, beyond unrealistic ambition....” and then:  “There is the lesson of celebrating, from your individual limits, the glory of full human possibility.”  Tonight we celebrate DeWitt Henry—self aware and wholly accepting, the absolutely full human.


Elizabeth Mosier said...

Your introduction set just the right tone, Beth. What a lovely evening!

KFP said...

Just back from an all-day-away trip, I check my favorite blog—this one—to see what has been written today. I discover that Beth Kephart, a writer I have been in awe of for over a decade, she who has the most beautiful way with words, has called me "most ineffable."

I don't think I have ever been more flattered.

Beth, you are too kind.

And I. Am. Floating.

Serena said...

This is wonderful. I adore Ploughshares.

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