Sweet Dreams/DeWitt Henry: Reflections

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

As the founding editor of Ploughshares and the former Chair of Writing, Literature, and Publishing at Emerson College, DeWitt Henry has stirred, ushered, and promoted all manner of writerly dreams. He's put first stories into print and published the work of our greatest living (and sometimes not living) authors. He's sat in classrooms, seducing and exhorting.  He's said to others, You can. You will. 

With his memoir, Sweet Dreams (Hidden River Press), Henry traces and comes nearly to terms with his own fantasies and emergent needs, as he tells the story of his rising and his wanting. Much of the book is devoted to a childhood and adolescence spent in the very swath of the suburban Philadelphia that I have, since my eighth-grade year at Radnor Middle School, called my own, and so I turned the pages of this book with acute interest, admiring the precision of Henry's recall—the stunning accuracy of descriptions about a place that has changed entirely and, then again, changed hardly at all.

I have (unknowingly) walked by two of Henry's childhood homes many a time; in Sweet Dreams the porches, yards, rooms, rooftops come alive with Henry's artist mother and alcoholic father, with siblings that struggled to find their own way, with episodes of generosity and scenes of terrible despair. I spent my time at Radnor High; DeWitt did, too, with peers whose last names are familiar to me. Henry walked among the ponds and water wheels and the majestic Walton Estate before it became Eastern University. I have walked there, too, plenty of times, taking photographs like the one above. The local movie theater can be found in Henry's pages, as can Eaglesmere, an outpost I have visited. Roadways and greenways and pause and hurry—it was then, it is now, and Henry brings it to vivid life.

Sweet Dreams is a coming-of-age book. It is a book about the boy who grew up with candy wealth, fell in love with a toy printing press, and decided, early on, to be a Writer. One can decide to be a Writer, but the world, in some ways, has to stand equal to that dream. It's a contest of wills, or it can be seen as one, and DeWitt takes us through the bruises and glories. He dreams out loud. We're there.

Here he is talking about the aforementioned Walton Estate (Walmarthon), now the heart of the Eastern University campus:
... Walton's was ten minutes or so away—you waded and pushed through overgrown bushes, ferns, and low hanging branches, with dankness, cobwebs, and with shade from the branches interlocking and arching above, while woodpeckers hammered, echoing, and cicadas whirred. You'd come out, then, following a creek, above the smaller of two ponds, set in the estate's open expanse of lawn, gardens, driveways and walks. A big white house, lived in, was to the left, far off were the gatehouse and wall, and far to your right, the castle-like mansion, deserted now.




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