A Conversation with DeWitt HenryBy Susan Tepper
November 10, 2018
Sweet Marjoram, your new book, is done up in shades of green, on a velvet-soft matte cover. It’s very tactile, this book. There is this sensation of the flora, moist and juicy, stretching up from dark waters toward an unseen light source. I think the cover image serves these writings extremely well. As I went through the differently themed chapters, I had a sense of Thoreau musing over things.
The cover design by is Marc Vincenz (also the editor of Mad Hat Press, the umbrella for Plume Editions). It’s meant to portray the herb sweet marjoram, which was believed to cure madness in Shakespeare’s time, hence this close-up photograph of the living leaves against a dark background. I took my title from the impromptu password that Edgar in King Lear (Act 4.6) offers the maddened Lear on Dover Beach, and I hoped to share that friendly, respectful spirit in my essays. Given the Lear connection, by the way, we had also considered a different image from a Lear performance in the 1960s, where Lear wears a crown of weeds (rather than thorns) and actually offers Edgar some weed like a stoned Timothy Leary. I preferred the first, simpler and more classic design, and I’m pleased it works so well for you: even bringing Thoreau to mind. Thoreau both explored Nature as a scientist and imagined it as a poet, or tried to. Interesting that his Walden Pond also helps him assess “unaccommodated man.”
Also, I suppose, just as Thoreau left civilized Concord for the woods, which seemed to others an odd and whimsical thing to do, here I’m leaving the serious literary work of novel and memoir writing, or seem to be.
You’ve sub-titled the book: “Notes and Essays.” Each chapter focusing on the whys and wherefores of a specific subject matter that everyone on the planet eventually encounters. The book begins with the chapter ON WEATHER, moving along to the final one which you titled ON MAGIC. (I found that especially provoking, since life may turn out to be, in the end, just one huge magic trip). But, that aside, you obviously have a great deal of interest in the world and its facts and foibles.
At first, to myself, I called them prose doodles. The first eleven were published in magazines as “Notes On…,” and then without my realizing the change for the next eleven (which tended to be longer), I dropped “Notes” from the titles and they became “On,” more in keeping with the traditional titles of say Montaigne’s essays. A friend asked if I meant to signal a progress by this. I didn’t. So in the book they are now all called “On.” Some, such as “On Falling,” are prose poems: in this case, I free-associate and meditate on a motif central to my fiction (see my collection: Falling: Six Stories). I want the reader to recall the physical sensation and also connect it to the “fact” of our common mortality. I freely quote from literary instances, such as Gloucester’s imagined fall in Lear; from the videos on Youtube of daredevil skydivers; from laws of physics; and finally to “when the bough breaks/down will come baby,” which my wife amends to the hopeful salvation of “into mommy’s arms.” The thoughts appear under-developed and sketchy, but ride on their own melting, as Frost said of his poems.
It’s kind of a feast. Each chapter breaks out in a new, individualized theme that sort of plays with reader, invites them to step in to the tasting room. As someone who is predisposed to being genetically thin, I nonetheless have a big appetite for both foods and the workings of our spinning planet. There is a lot to consume in this book (ON APPETITE being one of my favorite chapters). Other readers are responding to their favorites, what specifically nudges their minds, hearts, fears, desires and intellects. Sweet Marjoram is a gentle look at insistent themes that are not going away any time soon. It is most definitely a feast.
Thank you! I never know where a topic will lead me. I rely on imagination and research, and open myself to learning what I don’t know as well as what I didn’t know I knew. The biggest foible I confront in society, myself, and my reader, is that of presuming to know anything
For any writer, I believe the trick is to know less than your protagonist knows, or, in this instance, your subject matter. By not knowing what’s going to come out, a trap door to the unconscious mind springs open, where all the really juicy stuff lives.
One of my favorites is ON HANDSHAKES which appeared earlier in a Plume issue. The idea began with my being a faculty member on stage and watching the annual parade of graduates at Emerson, each of whom after getting a diploma shook hands with the College president and administrators. I was glad to be spared. Friends and strangers seemed practiced in firm handshakes, more often men than women, though some clasped too hard, as if to crush. Such a curious custom, I thought. I thought of fist bumps. I thought of “the prankster’s [handshake, which] is hiding a buzzer in the palm; or suddenly jerking back the hand, just before the clasp.” I thought of “tickling a shakee’s hand with the middle finger as an invitation to sex.” From there I considered religious customs as well as health concerns. Your hand in marriage; your hand in rescue. And I’m surprised at the end to think of Keats’s last poem, “This living hand…I hold it out to you.” Like Keats, as a writer I hope to make a connection with others with words, disembodied yet palpable. Besides ordinary customs and gestures, I’m interested in laden moral topics—topics that seem at best tired, and at worst empty in the era of Trump. The idea of human dignity, for instance, as we debate assisted suicide, “the right to choose,” or immigration policies. The idea of empathy (“surrounded by and blessed by larger hearts than my own,” I write, “I wonder if I suffer from ‘empathy deficiency disorder’….I hang up on charity calls”). I wonder about dreams, American and otherwise. The idea of silence. The ideas of privilege and oppression (“Aesthetic distance…where readers have no chance to intervene, is different from social distance, where…in small acts and large, we can reject oppression and take our place in a braver, more generous world”). The mysteries of conscience. Of courage.
If I were still teaching, I’d love to use each of my essays as a syllabus. The course would be in critical and analytic thinking across the curriculum.
Each stand-alone chapter could easily be an entire course. Returning to my first question, and your first answer. You said: “Thoreau both explored Nature as a scientist and imagined it as a poet, or tried to. Interesting that his Walden Pond also helps him assess unaccommodated man.”
Can you explain more about the unaccommodated man and how it might relate to this book?
Lear and Thoreau contemplate man in relation to Nature. Both are skeptical of civilized vanity, arrogance and artifice. For Lear we’re “a bare, forked animal” at the mercy of fate, each other, and the elements; and he wants to anatomize unnatural hearts. Thoreau seeks to reduce life to its lowest terms—the “bare necessities”—and determine whether it is mean or sublime. Thoreau seems more optimistic, as am I. In my way, I explore and circle what seems to me my life’s and literature’s fundamental questions. We are the nexus of our senses to be sure, and while we experience glory in the flower (see “On Color”), neurologists describe perception in a material, mechanistic way. Knowing is our greatest vanity: the apple of Wikipedia. I do my best to weigh our beliefs and our collective wisdoms against both personal example and what I can learn and absorb from language, imagination, and the findings and theories of science. I feel that I am an average, sentient, thoughtful person in a universe of human expertise beyond my grasp, an expertise that merges with mystery. I try to be well-informed. I weigh the dialectics and obligations, and I’m responsible for choices. I hope I lead the reader to deliberate and choose also; and to find fun, surprise, and beauty in the process.
The founding editor of PLOUGHSHARES, DeWitt Henry is the author of six books of fiction, memoir, and essays, and the editor of five anthologies of fiction and essays. He is a Professor Emeritus at Emerson College and serves as a contributing editor for both SOLSTICE and WOVEN TALE PRESS magazines. In 2020, MadHat Press will publish another book by Henry titled ENDINGS AND BEGINNINGS: FAMILY ESSAYS. More at www.dewitthenry.com
Looking forward to reading Sweet Marjoram, partly due to this fine interview. Dewitt Henry distills and, in a way, no doubt expands here on observations he has as he wanders and wonders about the world.
So glad you enjoyed our interview, Kathleen, and thanks for commenting here.