In Safe Suicide, an assemblage of revealing, interrelated essays, DeWitt Henry — Emerson professor, writer, and founding editor and longtime guiding creative force behind literary magazine Ploughshares — offers up to us his world, honest and intimate. The essays concern his family life growing up in the Philadelphia suburbs (sexually charged; alcoholic father looming); his marriage and struggles over his own possible parenthood (questions of sacrifice as well as his readiness, willingness, and even ability to be a father); the birth, adoption, and raising of his two children; the genesis and development of Ploughshares and the literary scene in Boston from the seventies onward; plus, thwarted ambition, marathon training, fatherhood, friendship, and the lifelong challenge of how and where to focus and divide your passions. Taken together, the essays become an extended — and elegant — meditation on manhood.
Henry’s candor in writing about his childhood and adolescence can be disarming — is he actually telling us this? In “Subversions,” the strongest piece in the collection, Henry recalls himself as an eleven-year-old when his mother asks him to please rub Ben-Gay on her aching back. “She tells me harder, more, and I feel queasy, and even angry, rubbing as high as under her brassiere strap and as low, at her insistence, as the top of her buttocks and buttocks crevice.” We’re squeamish with him, cringey, discomforted. Later in that same essay, he reveals that as a 13-year-old, toeing the threshold of sex, he asked his 20-year-old sister if he might see her naked. A bold request. Bolder still: she obliges, in the fullest possible way, “showing me more than I had understanding to see.” Henry’s writing is confessional, yes, but these episodes don’t feel designed to shock. More so, they’re an acknowledgement of the strange, strained intimacies we share.
Henry takes a more guarded, distanced approach in describing his father, a recovering alcoholic, “perpetually brooding, silent and withdrawn.” The overriding attribute ascribed to him is of impotence, “of utter flaccidity.” It’s a motif (and a condition) that will echo in Henry’s life as well. In “Arrivals,” another highlight — which, paired with “Subversions” carries much of the emotional ballast of the collection — Henry parallels his reluctance over starting a family (“just a little longer”) and eventual acceptance (due in part to advice from writer Richard Yates: “Think of the girl”) with the beginnings of his literary life and the founding of Ploughshares. His exhilaration and pride, over his new daughter and the literary magazine, are richly felt. But infertility, of body and mind, will afflict and nearly cripple him. It takes balls to admit that your novel gets repeatedly rejected, that you can’t make your wife pregnant. And here again, Henry’s candor gives access to great depths of frustration and fear.
The essays that falter are ones that tend towards the observational, towards the improvised or experimental. In “Bungee,” for example, Henry gives an account bungee jumping at a writer’s conference out west. He writes: “fall forward, as if to dive, pulling coils of the bungee after, so all becomes resistless drop, weight seeking earth like love, weight weightless, plummeting, dropping, nothing to catch, to grab, all loss and empty, wild, let be, let, plummeting, faster . . .” and so on. The galloping prose is almost too predictable for the subject matter, and the thrust of the essay — how close we can come to throwing everything away — gets diluted because of it. The same is true in the pieces that relay dreams Henry has had (if there are words that trigger instantaneous zoning out better than “So, I had this dream last night,” I don’t know them).