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.”