Reviewed by Alexa Josaphouitch
While I have trained myself not to judge a book by its cover, I am easily persuaded by a book’s title. DeWitt Henry’s Endings & Beginnings: Family Essays (MadHat Press, 2021) drew me in for this reason. I was surprised by Henry’s writing style and intrigued at the way he traced his family’s history. While the essays could have been tied together more, each explores a type of ending or beginning within the family model.
Henry was the founding editor of the literary magazine Ploughshares, serving as its editor and director of 1971 to 1995. This collection is the conclusion of a trilogy-in-memoir with the earlier books Sweet Dreams and Safe Suicide, although I fared fine without having read the previous two books. The nine essays included are not in chronological order and most were previously published elsewhere. Henry’s style of writing is heavy on exposition. He dives into the lineage of his family tree, particularly focusing on his father’s side. His family owned a successful candy company in suburban Philadelphia and was part of a wealthy community, although not without secrets. He traces how his grandfather came to own the company, his father’s success story before joining the family business, and the relationships with his three older siblings. Henry also writes about his own children and how their life experiences are both shaped and independent from his own.
The best moments in Henry’s writing occur when he scrutinizes the familial connection, especially with his father. His father was an alcoholic, although he was sober later in Henry’s life. As the youngest, Henry doesn’t remember the intense periods of his father’s alcoholism. His brother expressed anger, not only about the way he is portrayed in Henry’s writing, but also about sharing such personal stories in general. Henry notes, “I needed to understand the passions behind our family’s pretense of normal.” As a sibling of an addict, trying to portray this pretense is familiar to me, as is trying to understand the reason behind such behavior. Henry also tries to understand how his father could be both versions of this man: an alcoholic enraged by his responsibilities at work and home versus the loving man who doted on his mother.
Henry writes that “only by seeing through your father’s weakness and by admitting to his humanity can you claim your life.” While this may be true for Henry, he is unable to interrogate himself as a father. There are mentions of his own infertility problems and the pain this caused him and his wife. Yet this collection doesn’t explore this in any depth. His son experiences grief at a young age when his childhood best friend and that child’s father die of cancer, one after the other. Henry describes being frustrated and confused by the deep level of anger his son displays, which do not align with the familial dynamics. Henry breezes over his son’s confession that he was bullied as a Korean adoptee. What this collection lacks is an exploration of Henry’s own responsibility as a patriarch, which I believe he could do well with his writing ability.
The essays include powerful moments and Henry ably creates characters of the people in his life. He briefly mentions his academic career, which includes tense politics in academia and his work founding a thriving literary magazine. Although he is well-known in the literary world, he does not use space in this collection to brag or provide many details about it. (One such detail about his career involves this collection, which is long-listed for the 2022 PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay.) Henry’s place within the genre of nonfiction is well-earned, and even while missing the examination of his own part in the family, reading Endings & Beginnings: Family Essays is worthwhile.