Coming Home to Roost

In a previous post called Blogging and the Memoir Community I promised to review DeWitt Henry’s memoir called Safe Suicide because he was the first published author who found me through this blog. Here goes, DeWitt.  Hope you come back to read this little review.

Safe Suicide has an internal subtitle which describes its structure and genre–narratives, essays, and meditations.  Most of the chapters were published previously in literary journals.  The publisher is Red Hen Press.  Since publishing individual essays first is one of the routes I am considering in my own writing, I was especially interested to see how a complete set of essays, beginning with a memoir of the author’s father and concluding with a meditation on aging, would either hang together or seem fragmented.

The answer I discovered is–both.  As a product of a postmodern life in academe (a long career at Emerson College), the author is highly conscious of fragments, employing them deliberately.  Most of the essays highlight fragments in their structure, using subheadings or little printer’s breaks to indicate the loss of linear progress.  This lack of flow in the short run, however, does not stop the stream of consciousness.  As one thought or memory leaves off, another picks up–like rivulets of beaded water flowing over a dusty riverbed.  The necessary repetition of certain facts in separate essays does not seem jarring but accumulates force.  We see the author’s wife Connie, for example, through many different lenses–as teacher, lover, mother, dog catcher, partner, and independent thinker.  The same is true of the sister, brothers, nephew, parents, and colleagues who enter and exit the various stories in different roles.

Amazingly, the author, who has been honest with us about his negative feelings toward his obese, recovered/alcoholic father, and who has steadfastly refused a sentimental view of any family member, returns in his own old age to some of the same values his father held.  Like his father, he takes delight in the growth and progress of his children, even more after they leave home than before.  And like his father, he recognizes the power–even saving power–of the women in his life.

I would probably not chosen to read a book called Safe Suicide without encouragement from the author.  But I am glad I got past an initial aversion to the title to experience deeply the pastiche of a life as noble in its ordinariness as my own–or yours.  I recognized, and loved, the many Shakespearian allusions sprinkled through these essays.  DeWitt Henry is an English professor’s English professor.  He does not just read the richest texts in the English language; he literally takes them to heart.  Art is life and life is art in this memoir.

Henry concludes his last essay with words that summarize the philosophy that ties all the fragments of his life together: “Life itself is our glory and our ordeal, our measure of heart, and of passion.  We do our best. There is no finish line.”

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About Shirley Hershey Showalter

Author of memoir Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World. Blogging about Magical Memoir Moments and Jubilación -- vocation in the second half of life.
This entry was posted in Classic Memoir/Autobiography, My Reviews, Tips and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Coming Home to Roost

  1. DeWitt Henry says:

    It is an honor to be reviewed here, and included among your 100! Thank you. These essays became a book partly thanks to the editorial eye of a wonderful poet and memoirist, John Skoyles (SECRET FREQUENCIES, U. of NB. Press). I had written them over a number of years as they had to be written, but when your material is “fragmented” by time, one thing you need be careful of is repeating facts that might be needed to frame a self-standing essay, eg. I teach at Emerson, etc. Skoyles urged me to edit out such repetitions. He also persuaded me to leave out “narratives” that distracted from the life flow (I actually had a retelling of King Kong, the 1933 film, which is posted on my Fooling Around in Prose site). I don't think I could have seen the deeper continuities and the rhythm of the book without his help. But there it came together. The form is to my mind something like Tim O'Brien's THE THINGS THEY CARRIED, where the repetition of theme and image is really a spiral.Thank you, also, Shirley, for the enlightening point that you see this writer returning to some of the values of his father. That is truer than I realized. One last note (for now), I wish you luck with your own writing. And both you and your readers should be aware that Ploughshares is now reading submissions for a memoir issue guest edited by Kathryn Harrison. It will close January 1. See http://writingitreal.com/blog/?p=240 .

  2. shirleyhs says:

    What a pleasure, this morning, to find your comment, DeWitt. Now I can tell you a few other things I enjoyed about your book. The place names in your first essays were quite familiar. I spent two summers during college working at the Devereaux Foundation as a counselor and living at Knollwood, one of their large estate properties in Devon. The Philadelphia mainline seems under-explored in literature, as does Pennsylvania in general–compared to Boston or New York and even Atlanta and Charleston. And, of course, I admire many of the writers you have known–Tim O'Brien, Dan Wakefield, and others. I spent 21 years as a professor at Goshen College, most of them in the English department, so I know the joys and travails of that life also.Thanks for the encouragement to submit to Ploughshares. I hope to get some writing time next month, and your invitation will help create just the deadline I need to spur me forward. Your experience in constructing a book after accumulating a lot of essays was helpful. I've been told that publishers prefer a more novel-like structure, so it is good to see that a collection of essays is at least a possible way to go. Thanks for confirming my hunch that you share more of your father's values than you would have guessed at earlier stages of your life. For many people, this epiphany is a surprise, and not an altogether welcome one–perhaps one that is only possible to see (admit) after age 60! I also enjoyed discovering this theme without too many hints along the way. You gave me the reader an “aha” moment.

  3. shirleyhs says:

    What a pleasure, this morning, to find your comment, DeWitt. Now I can tell you a few other things I enjoyed about your book. The place names in your first essays were quite familiar. I spent two summers during college working at the Devereaux Foundation as a counselor and living at Knollwood, one of their large estate properties in Devon. The Philadelphia mainline seems under-explored in literature, as does Pennsylvania in general–compared to Boston or New York and even Atlanta and Charleston. And, of course, I admire many of the writers you have known–Tim O'Brien, Dan Wakefield, and others. I spent 21 years as a professor at Goshen College, most of them in the English department, so I know the joys and travails of that life also.Thanks for the encouragement to submit to Ploughshares. I hope to get some writing time next month, and your invitation will help create just the deadline I need to spur me forward. Your experience in constructing a book after accumulating a lot of essays was helpful. I've been told that publishers prefer a more novel-like structure, so it is good to see that a collection of essays is at least a possible way to go. Thanks for confirming my hunch that you share more of your father's values than you would have guessed at earlier stages of your life. For many people, this epiphany is a surprise, and not an altogether welcome one–perhaps one that is only possible to see (admit) after age 60! I also enjoyed discovering this theme without too many hints along the way. You gave me the reader an “aha” moment.

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