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Book Review

Memoir traces a sensitive soul’s bittersweet family history

By Steve Almond
February 1, 2011

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DeWitt Henry’s engaging new memoir opens with the most tantalizing of visions. Our young hero, whose father owns a chocolate factory, is set loose in the packaging department, its conveyor belts layered with booty. “We would take paper bags from the sample room and start working the belts and bins,’’ he recalls. “We bit into round, oblong, and square chocolates to find out what they were: nut chews, creams, marshmallows, mints (green, pink, orange inside), coconut, nougat, caramel, and syrupy cherries.’’

Talk about your childhood wishes.

But “Sweet Dreams: A Family History’’ turns out to be a bittersweet sojourn. As the scion of a prosperous Philadelphia Main Line family, Henry enjoys every material advantage growing up. His family, though, is in ruins.

Henry’s father — besides being “dogmatically racist, sexist, classist, capitalistic, patriotic, Presbyterian and Republican’’ — is a devoted alcoholic who abuses his wife, and harangues her for a divorce. Henry’s mother struggles to shield the children from this strife, but eventually suffers a nervous breakdown and travels to Bermuda for six weeks to recover.

As the youngest child, Henry is spared the worst of these turbulent years. His parents reconcile, but an uneasy mood settles over the family. “My own sense of Dad involved respect for his power and fear of his disapproval. But I also sensed that he was demoted somehow at home; that he had surrendered to rules and wisdoms beyond him,’’ Henry observes. “Mom’s job and ours was to support him with domestic order and to launch him each day, if not like Achilles in armor, then like an actor going on stage.’’

While his older siblings escape into unhappy marriages, Henry seeks a refuge in literature. By fourth grade, he’s printing a newspaper (the Swiftset Rotary News) for his classmates. He ships off to Amherst, studies with Eudora Welty, writes a novella, and dreams of being a published author. At the Iowa Writers Workshop, the novelist Richard Yates mentors him. He eventually finishes a doctorate at Harvard and settles in Cambridge where, besides teaching and writing, he helps launch the venerable literary magazine Ploughshares.

All around him, the ’60s are raging. Henry pursues doomed affairs and tomcats around town with a fast-talking accomplice. He goes to see Janis Joplin in concert, though, perhaps appropriately, the speaker system is broken. (“All that crowd eager to marvel at her, and here she was nothing, nobody, only some chick doing her gyrations way off out there, in silence.’’)

Mostly, Henry is focused on what he calls “my world of loneliness and ambition, of struggling under the idea that I could only be gifted, could only tolerate myself as an artist.’’ Any aspiring writer will recognize the symptoms: pretension, solipsism, a tendency to drive away potential mates.

His portrait of the artist as an aging bachelor gradually gives way to a more nuanced tableau: that of a sensitive soul who in seeking to escape from the respectable cloister of his past has deprived himself of a family. Although Henry finds a wife and settles into a literary life that is sustainable if not glamorous, he remains haunted by the sorrows of his legacy. “I don’t know how I choose or if I choose rightly, or what right is, honorably, or by nature,’’ he confesses at the end. “The examples trouble me, Mom’s of self-martyrdom and frustration; Dad’s of expiation for some natural monstrosity.’’

This is not a flashy memoir, written with Hollywood in mind. But it is candid, clear-eyed, and humble before the insoluble mysteries of the human heart.

Steve Almond, author of the memoir “Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life,’’ can be reached at sbalmond@earthlink.net.

SWEET DREAMS:

A Family History

By DeWitt Henry

Hidden River, 239 pp., $20