For a lot of readers today, the word “memoir” has become a kind of code word for dysfunctional family history: a portrait of a victim-turned-artist who overcomes tragedy and abuse to become the superproductive and somehow-still-sane citizen we all thought we knew and loved. Often titillating and always voyeuristic, these stories can be highly entertaining and even somewhat cathartic for those, like this reviewer, who thoroughly enjoy the genre.
But every once in awhile, a writer comes along and throws a wrench in system, sharing an unselfish and powerful family story that challenges the reader and truly demands to be heard, creating a literary event that is so much more rewarding than even the best of the typical memoir fare. That’s the best way this reviewer can describe Sweet Dreams: A Family History, the new memoir by author DeWitt Henry, founding editor and long-time director and editor of Ploughshares.
In the book, DeWitt, in astounding photographic detail and extraordinary prose, chronicles the first 50 or so years of his life, from his privileged post-war childhood and coming-of-age (as an heir to a candy factory) in Wayne, Pennsylvania, a wealthy suburb on Philadelphia's Main Line, to the self-imposed poverty of a literary academic in the 60s and 70s, and finally the “respectable happiness” that always eluded his father in the 80s and beyond.
Don’t worry. The dysfunction is still there, and still palpable: alcoholism, mental illness, infidelity, suffering, and physical abuse. But Henry, the youngest of four children, the one “unscarred” by his father’s alcoholism, reveals the details of these events as echoes of how they ultimately affect his family and their relationships.
In fact, DeWitt’s own story, his portrait of the artist, always seems tangled in the failures and successes of his family and friends—and reveal themselves in his own character (“a witness more than a participant”) as a son, a sibling, a friend, a lover, a husband, and a father by means of devastating judgments and critical concessions that fall as often on the author as they do on the others.
What was especially interesting for this reviewer is DeWitt’s portrayal of his experience of the 60s–70s, which is so different from the free love era of sex, drugs, and music we’re so much more familiar with that supposedly fueled the Civil Rights and antiwar movements.
DeWitt’s pre-birth-control-pill generation of cautious sex and academic deferments brought a new and fascinating parallel perspective. Instead of Vietnam, DeWitt takes us along on his tours through Amherst College, Iowa and Harvard Universities, elite worlds known by those other few good men and women who fought the good fight from the top down.
Bottom line: DeWitt is a writer’s writer, and his commitment to literary excellence alone will no doubt attract glowing blurbs of praise from literary bigwigs. Ignore this praise. Ignore this review. Instead, take a few minutes and read a few pages of Sweet Dreams to discover for yourself the rare and guilt-free pleasure of a compelling and unique memoir.