My uncle Henry Robbins was the God of Books. When a massive heart attack felled him at New York’s 14th Street subway station nearly three decades ago, he was also Dutton’s Editor-in-Chief. Others may have written the books, but he brought them full blown to life, like the magical green crystals that transformed the peach tree and insects in James and the Giant Peach. My uncle worked at Knopf in 1961 when they published that classic, his perfect gift to me as a nine-year-old who found refuge in stories. I considered it Uncle Henry’s book, though my mother kept telling me he was only an editor for adult writers. Still, as I read each page, the delicious, enormous peach and the orphaned boy’s lucky escapes from bad fortune all seemed imbued with Henry Robbins’ enchanted touch.
When Mom graduated second in her high school class, my grandmother asked, “Why weren’t you first?”
It was as if the old man in the tale spoke to my uncle’s gifts when he told James about the crystals, saying, “There’s more power and magic in those things in there than in all the rest of the world put together.” In the story, the orphan James desperately needed this mysterious help. He was distraught when he spilled those green crystals onto the ground. They fled into the earth, just as Uncle Henry’s legacy has eluded me.
Since his death in 1979 at fifty-one, my uncle has lived on as my muse and trickster. In comparison to his success, my modest writing career has disappointed me. He was too distant to offer any help or encouragement while he lived. In fact, he avoided it. And yet he’s directeperd my dreams ever since, distorting my vision.
Now I’m a few years older than he was when he died, still wrestling with the family directive demanding recognition and extraordinary accomplishments. The command emanated from my grandmother. She insisted her three children, my mother Rebecca, her other son Jack, and Henry — and their offspring — do so well at whatever they endeavored that they attain high status. My mother could never quite please her. When Mom graduated second in her high school class, my grandmother asked, “Why weren’t you first?” Uncle Henry, Grandma’s whiz kid, was ever her shining star.
My grandmother loved me fiercely, and whenever I called she exclaimed, “It’s wonderful to hear your voice.” But she also wanted me to rise to great heights. At the same time, this family matriarch didn’t believe females — especially me — were capable of it. I’ve fought against her expectations even as I’ve longed to fulfill them, stuck between desire for famed achievement and rebellion against this confining definition of success.
My current charmed life doesn’t seem to count. I’ve settled in a small Northwestern city, surrounded by my husband and teenaged son, intrepid and funny friends, and twenty flourishing blueberry bushes. My Master’s in English and fifteen years of instructing college composition and professional writing hasn’t offered me a full sense of validity — despite my enthusiasm for teaching. I haven’t redeemed myself with my 150 monthly columns for regional magazines and newspapers, occasional articles for larger markets, various technical publications for nonprofits, and longer essays for personal rejection letters. No matter what I do, I can’t escape a sense of dissatisfaction: I haven’t really gotten anywhere, haven’t become somebody.
Uncle Henry was somebody. His memorial service took place at the New York Society for Ethical Culture, filled with commentary from the giants in the publishing world. That summer, I was building trails in Montana’s Bitteroot Wilderness, living inside Norman McClean’s memoir, A River Runs Through It. The book included an essay about working for the Forest Service in the very spot where we were building a new section of trail. In MacClean’s words, I was “a fur piece from nowheres,” so I didn’t receive word of my uncle’s death until after the memorial. The letter came from my mother with one of our mule train resupplies. She said only, “Henry died of a heart attack. He collapsed at a subway station, where someone found his card and called Dutton. Love, Mother.”
The afternoon breeze cooled me as I sat under the ponderosa pines and read her short note. In response, I wrote a poem for Uncle Henry, lamenting his premature passage. The poem disappeared, save one fragment of a line I’ve remembered about his fall to the platform “…his books of no support.” His achievements, no matter how lofty, didn’t save him.
When I finally returned to civilization and the phone, my mother told me, tears in her usually melodious voice, “Grandma is distraught. She dreams he’s a child again, lost.”
Uncle Henry’s memorial service program had on its cover, “In Memoriam/ HENRY ROBBINS: 1927-1979/ DUTTON,” all framed by the image of a book cover, as if the title was Uncle Henry and the author Dutton. So taken was I with the impressive list of speakers that it took me decades to see the oddity of the memorial. The only ones to comment about my uncle were those in the literary world: publishers, writers, and critics. No old friends from high school or college spoke; no cousins, siblings, or other family members gave their recollections. Only Henry the Editor mattered.
During the service, John Irving described the way my uncle helped him grapple with the placement of the last sentence in his break-out book: “In the world according to Garp, we are all terminal cases.” Irving was uneasy with this line, so Henry questioned the writer about his belief in the truth of the statement, then advised him to leave it where it was. “I always trusted him,” said Irving of Uncle Henry, “and he never disappointed me.”
Writer and critic Doris Grumbach seized Irving’s sentence about mortality and said, “Because of his [Henry’s] extraordinary importance to us, we must have thought him exempt. Tragically, we were wrong.” She also said my uncle seemed to have at times “a kind of sustaining extra-sensory perception,” to know without being told when someone needed his help.
The writer Wilfred Sheed ended the service by referring to Henry as a saint, a characterization the all-too-human man had vigorously denied. Sheed said Uncle Henry had “helped young writers whom he probably was not going to publish himself, but whose work he enjoyed and wanted to make better.”
“I always trusted him,”
John Irving said of Uncle Henry,
“and he never disappointed me.”
My uncle’s close friend Joan Didion didn’t speak at his service, though her husband, John Gregory Dunne, was the only one to address my two cousins directly in his comments, reminding them they were blessed to have this quintessential editor as a father. Thirteen years later, Didion published her book After Henry. The title essay told the story of Henry’s importance to her, and she called herself “Henry’s orphan sister, Henry’s writer.” My mother, Henry’s actual orphaned sister, was not thrilled with the phrase, and she showed her criticism by noting that Didion was wrong in saying the memorial service was the only event after Henry’s death. The authors had not been invited to my uncle’s private burial. Only family attended. There wasn’t much of a bridge between the editor and the beloved son, father, brother.
My mother’s reaction to Didion’s essay underscored a tension inherent in her adult relationship with her brother. She had always wished he would help her as he did his writers. One time, as Didion reports, he flew to California to support the author at a lecture she was giving at her Alma Mater in Berkeley, where we lived. This lecture later became Didion’s “Why I Write” essay, a piece I assigned many times during the years I taught English composition. In the essay, Didion began by claiming that “writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people…It’s an aggressive, even hostile act.”
Perhaps Uncle Henry felt my mother imposed on him, and I inherited this strain, the fear that I would demand too much from him. Though I never asked him to read a word, just my ambition to write made things awkward between us.
The worst moment came in my last visit with Uncle Henry during a gathering in Philadelphia for my grandmother’s 80th birthday party. All three children and eight grandchildren attended the celebration in my mother’s new apartment. She’d recently moved back to the city of her childhood and lived a mile away from Grandma. I sat with Uncle Henry by the picture window overlooking the Delaware River far below, my mother’s overflowing bookcases on the other side. Henry and I talked about my Great-Uncle Jimmy, my grandmother’s brother and another family symbol of accomplishment, who’d gone to what was then Rhodesia and South Africa as a young man and made his fortune in tobacco farming, mining, and water conservation projects. He’d also given the founding grant for what is now the University of Zimbabwe, the first interracial university in southern Africa. For his efforts, he received CBE (Commander of the British Empire) status from the Queen, the title just below knighthood.
“After I graduated from college, Uncle Jimmy wanted me to come to Rhodesia and help him in his business ventures,” Henry told me. “Because he didn’t have children of his own, he approached me. I turned him down because I was going back to graduate school in English.”
“I’ll bet Uncle Jimmy didn’t expect Mom to follow him instead,” I said.
Laughing, Henry agreed. “No, he wouldn’t have thought of Rebecca.”
When Jimmy had died in the late Sixties, he left his money to create a charitable trust, dedicated to medical education and research. My mother took over the reins ten years later and developed programs in the new country of Zimbabwe. Her pride was a scholarship program for young women to become doctors — there were few female physicians in the country.
At the party, Uncle Henry asked about my adventures, focusing his full attention on me with one gentle inquiry after another. He wanted to know all about my trips in the outdoors, and he commiserated with me about a disastrous kayak expedition I’d taken several years earlier. It was to be a four-month trip across northern Canada, my own youthful attempt at greatness. I went with three men and left after six weeks of turmoil. I don’t remember anything he said so much as the unwavering warmth in his eyes, the sense there were only two of us in that room full of people.
In fact, this kayaking expedition had fully launched my passion for writing. My journal became my only friend as I traversed the rapids of the Churchill River, and I’d typed up the fifty pages after I left the journey. One of my professors had encouraged me to keep writing about the trip, and I’d composed my first short story based on this expedition — but I didn’t mention the work to my uncle.
My mother’s old friend interrupted our discussion. “Henry, you should see the short story your niece wrote,” she said, smiling at me. “It’s wonderful. Rebecca showed it to me.” Then she left us.
We sat in awkward silence, and Uncle Henry changed the subject. He asked me a question about my experiences on trail crew in the Bitteroot Mountains, as if he hadn’t heard what my mother’s friend had said. I carried on as well, but it was a crushing moment. Why was he pretending I didn’t write? I couldn’t challenge his reaction and bring the subject back to my work. He was the God of Books, and his judgment reigned. Who was I to question? At the time, I thought he’d decided my stuff most likely wasn’t good enough to warrant acknowledgement. His silence stung.
In a sense, I’ve held on to this self-denigrating explanation all these years, not really expecting recognition for my writing. But he would have been horrified by my interpretation of his silence. His response during our final conversation probably had much more to do with my mother than with me. He never would have wished me harm.
Henry had, as his son said, an unusual gift for nurturing — especially for a man of his generation.
My mother adored him, and a family photo taken during their young adult years illustrated their bond. They were movie-star gorgeous back then, both thin and unblemished, with dark hair and confident carriage (his ears did stick out a little). Her eyes seemed determined, and Henry’s shared that characteristic — but with added tenderness. He stood behind her, his hands on her shoulders. His vulnerability showed on his fingers; all his life he bit his nails down to the quick.
When Uncle Henry took his trip to Berkeley to bolster
Joan Didion, my mother was splitting up from my father and trying to find a job in the academic world.
A much later photograph of Grandma and her three children, taken at her 80th birthday party, highlighted a shift in their adult relationships. Henry’s face and build had rounded considerably from his earlier picture, and his hairline was receding. He and my mother still shared the determined look, but the energy that propelled them during their earlier years was missing in this later photo. Uncle Henry looked tired, his eyes a little sunken — it was only six months before his death.
My uncles and grandmother all leaned toward each other. Rebecca, looking uncomfortable, tilted slightly away. Uncle Henry stood in the back, his chewed fingertips resting lightly on my grandmother’s shoulders, and she wore a smile of pride. Grandma saw her offspring as extensions of herself, and it was difficult for them to distance themselves.
I recall the annoyance in Henry’s voice when he spoke with her, the exasperated “Mother” in answer to one of her requests. Though he didn’t discuss his own feelings about Grandma, at the party he did mention his surprise that Mom had returned to live in the same city as my grandmother. “Rebecca and Mother have a strange dynamic,” he said, referring to Mom’s tendency to push Grandma away while moving towards her.
Now I think Henry could have as easily been referring to the tension in the relationships between my grandmother and all three of her children. Perhaps they needed distance because Grandma relentlessly hounded them, a trait underscored by one of Uncle Jack’s stories. An adventurer and mountain climber, he and his then new wife were trekking in the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan during a period of relative calm in the region many years ago. They stopped at an isolated guard station for a passport check, high in the Karakoram Range, and the officer’s phone rang. My uncle’s wife joked, “It’s your mother, Jack. She’s found you.”
Perhaps the family history of pursuit made it difficult for Henry to respond when my mother asked him for assistance. When Uncle Henry took his “Why I Write” trip to Berkeley to bolster Joan Didion, my mother was splitting up from my father and trying to find a job in the academic world. She probably regaled him with an account of her difficulties in pursuing her Ph.D., likely saying, “The Political Science Department is hostile to women, especially women with children. They constantly undermined me when I was writing my dissertation.”
She wanted his help publishing her Ph.D. thesis on the Food Stamp Plan, a difficult prospect because her dissertation was a dense thousand pages, a long way from a commercial product. For years, she complained to me about him. “Henry could have helped me when I was divorcing your father. If my brother had done anything to assist me with publications, I would have had a much easier time of it.”
For his part, I imagine her needs appeared unending, and he pulled back, just as he must have attempted to get away from Grandma. Henry’s son described the many times Mom called my uncle. They spent hours on the phone during the difficult years when my parents separated and divorced. Though most of the conversation, Henry listened.
Like my mother, I also wanted the support from Uncle Henry that my father couldn’t give: faith in my ability and encouragement for my pursuits. It was tantalizing because Uncle Henry offered just that to so many, as John Irving noted during the memorial service when he said, “…he [Henry] could give even the most fragile of us a measure of confidence in ourselves.”
Despite my uncle’s warmth and interest whenever our paths crossed, he remained detached. Even now, I agonize over the sense that I’m trespassing by evoking his name and discussing his associations. Herein lies my own push-pull struggle with the long deceased Henry Robbins: I can’t get away from him, nor can I comfortably claim him.
Every summer of my childhood, my older sister (who has sensibly never wasted a second agonizing over these issues) and I stayed with my grandmother in Philadelphia. We always took the train to New York to see my uncle and his growing family. They lived on the Upper West Side, in an apartment with black and white checkered linoleum. I remember the visits as punctuated with discussions of publishing firms, as he moved from Knopf to Farrar, Strauss & Giroux to Simon and Schuster and finally to Dutton. Even as a child, I observed the struggles in each move, the sense that he was seeking something. Nothing changed his status for me as the God of Books, sipping ambrosia on the literary Mount Olympus.
After the busy summers with Grandma, I was often home alone during the school year. Books brought me comfort, role models, security, and adventure. Even the heft of the old hardbound volumes, most gifts from my mother, centered me. The stories had enough substance for me to dwell inside them — and I continued this habit into my trail-building years. Pippi Longstalking provided a show of physical strength and resilience. The Land of Oz gave me a sense of destiny and the faith that I fit into a puzzle greater than myself, and The Secret Garden showed a blueprint for the healing powers of nature and friendship. Sara Crew in A Little Princess offered the central vision. In the hundred times I read Frances Hodson Burnett’s tale of the orphaned girl, I learned how to remain generous and honest when under duress. I didn’t so much dream of being a writer during my girlhood; instead I learned to treasure language, to see stories as important as life itself, to believe in the power of images. No wonder I viewed Uncle Henry as a kindred spirit.
I also considered him a valiant but tragic figure. He carried a trace of the epic in his bearing, noted at the memorial service. John Macrae III of Dutton said Henry was “a friend of the heroic stripe.” However, no one alluded to the sorrows and strains in my uncle’s life. He was buried next to his first child, born when I was five and named after my long deceased grandfather. During Baby Louis’ first year, Grandma took care of him one evening while my uncle and aunt went out. Once they returned, Grandma headed back to Philadelphia on the train. As she arrived at midnight, the phone was ringing. Baby Louis was dead of SIDS. My grandmother never stopped feeling responsible.
In the years before Henry died, there were other family losses, these precipitated, at least in part, by my uncle. He left his wife and two teenagers and moved in with a young woman in Greenwich Village. I knew few of the details surrounding the separation, except that it came during the time he also had three heart attacks. By some measures, his personal life did not appear as a triumph, but then death caught him at an awkward moment. Who knows how his story would have unfolded had he lived?
None of us completely controls our destinies, not even our own talents. We don’t fully determine whether our abilities are above average or remarkable. In my own case, it’s simply my fortune that I’m smart but not brilliant, more analytical 19th Century than edgy and clever Post-Modern.
I’m striving to find an alternative framework to assess my own contributions. My rebellious side has always appreciated this perspective, an outlook nurtured by the months I spent in wilderness, where society’s take on success seemed meaningless. Becoming a mother has been the most powerful role of my life, a position that never appears on a résumé. The culture’s definition of achievement — coinciding with Grandma’s — has continued to plague me, making it hard to enjoy my accomplishments. And then again, it doesn’t appear that many really find pleasure in their successes for long, no matter how great their victories. Ours is the land of never enough.
The first of the dreams came a few years after Uncle Henry’s death, while I attended a writing workshop on the Oregon coast. Each day the class met in the morning, and we wrote in the afternoon. In between, I walked the beach, meditating on my work in time to the beat of the ocean waves. Close to the end of my two weeks focused only on writing, Uncle Henry appeared in a dream. “Don’t write fiction,” he commanded quietly. “Write nonfiction.”
At first I ignored his direction. When I returned to graduate school in English, I composed a novel for my creative writing thesis. I struggled with the imaginary plots and characters and slowly recognized that Henry was right. My creativity comes to life in the connections I make between real events, people and ideas. Nonfiction is my calling. But my story doesn’t have the Hollywood ending — that popular promise that the right path guarantees fame and fortune. Through the dream, Uncle Henry simply took on the role of muse, not of agent.
A second dream fifteen years later spoke to the difficult moment at my grandmother’s birthday party. In real life, I’d just completed writing a memoir. In the dream, Uncle Henry returned as a shooting star, beautiful, but unable to find peace as he soared around the galaxy searching for something. He took human form as he came to a party of my extended family. Instead of focusing on his children, he spoke with me, interested as always in anything I was doing besides writing. I told him about the memoir and said, “Would you like to see it?”
Awkwardly, he shifted from one foot to the other and didn’t respond. I smiled at him. “I’m not asking for any help getting it published, Uncle Henry. I just thought you’d enjoy reading it.”
Sighing with relief, he said warmly, “Oh, I would. I’d like very much to read it.” And then he left, flying out of the party as the magnificent shooting star, my enticing alter-ego.
Here on earth, some deranged part of me wishes I could trade all I have for the feel of that sweet success he enjoyed, for the thrill of being the center of the junior high in-crowd instead of my unremarkable self, neither the outcast nor a member of the cool group. This adolescent vision is my fiction. That chimera of humble brilliance will never be mine. I’ve wanted it too much. Uncle Henry attained that perfect state of sainthood. As John McCrae, III of Dutton explained in his eulogy, “However modestly, however reluctantly, Henry Robbins found fame. Look around you this morning [at all the famous people]; he didn’t seek celebrity or power for himself. His gift was to develop it in others.”
Henry found the success I’ve craved. And yet, I suspect I’ve far preferred wanting unsolicited celebrity, power, or fame to actually having these things. My life choices all point to this truth: my easy-going husband who believes that above average is good enough; my decision to make my home a town that dubs itself The City of Subdued Excitement — not in the electric atmosphere of New York; my desire to work part-time after having my son. By focusing on the impenetrable world of my uncle, I’ve lived inside an imaginary tale that has tinged my life with unnecessary misery.
In James and the Giant Peach, the legitimately miserable boy loses his grip on the green crystals. He’s supposed to ingest them so the magic can save him from a life of isolation and cruelty imposed by the two abominable aunts. He’s lived with them since his parents’ death. All seems lost when the crystals disappear into the soil, but instead they create a giant peach tree and enormous talking insects, giving James a chance to escape. Like this little boy, I’ve longed for my uncle’s magic since I was a child. Just as James misses his opportunity, I’m also unable to drink the elixir directly — not that I need it. After all, thousands of delicious blueberries encircle me, and I already have a home that James found only at the end of his story.
It’s ironic that James unintentionally fell into the dream of success when his peach landed on the Empire State Building. In the end, this famous fellow lived in the middle of the Big Apple, surrounded by his rich friends, the oversized bugs. To top it all off, he penned a book of his adventures — a best seller, no doubt.
It turns out Uncle Henry, while clearly magic for many writers, has not been so for me. In a much kinder way, he was more like the aunts in the story, not really engaged with my existence or needs. And yet our connection would have strengthened had he lived. We’d have shared the celebration of Uncle Jack’s second marriage and together marked my grandmother’s passing. He would have laughed with us at her family memorial when my brother said, “With Grandma gone, we’re all a little closer to becoming homeless people,” and my cousin added, “Grandma was a like a steamroller, and she just slowly rolled to a stop.”
Henry would have joined us in those crushing days after my mother’s sudden death in 1998. At her funeral, Uncle Jack read a letter from Zimbabwe, written by the woman who’d headed the board for the scholarship program for girls. The letter said Rebecca was “a mother, a grandma, a confidante, a visionary, a great woman.” The writer continued, “She set us on a path of no return and we shall try to keep her spirit alive and make her dreams a reality.”
My mother’s importance to others affirmed her existence in a world turned upside down because she’d suddenly vanished. When I found the transcript from Uncle Henry’s memorial service among my mother’s possessions, I received a similar comfort from rereading the speeches. Limited though they were to one aspect of his life, the speakers all gave a singular testimony: this life mattered. In the end, this reassurance is all we survivors really want.
At my mother’s funeral, I longed for Henry’s presence, even though I knew he might have made me self-conscious when doing the most important writing of my life: her eulogy. I read my tribute at the service, detailing her quirks as well as her achievements. I related our final phone conversation when she informed me for the hundredth time that her greatest contribution to the world was her three children. I said, “She left me grateful, without regret.” Then speaking directly to her, I discussed the day I came home to an answering machine message quoting one of Grandpa Louis’ favorite sayings, Mind over matter. “Your matter is gone,” I told her, “but your spirit is with us still.” The same held true for Uncle Henry. We may all be terminal cases, but that’s not the end of the story.
In Zimbabwe, as my mother explained to me, the Shonas believe that the deceased family members are manifest in their living relatives. The Zimbabweans saw Rebecca as the embodiment of Uncle Jimmy — never mind that he’d hadn’t intended to pass his legacy to her but would have preferred to hand off to Uncle Henry. Likewise, my mother hoped to give the control of the charitable trust to me, but it was the pediatrician son of her brother Jack who had the passion to take over and change the focus to mother-infant AIDS transmission. So the inheritance of the Trust has shifted from uncle to niece to nephew following a meandering pattern, never in the way the elder had planned. But they’ve each kept the zeal of the one who came before, even as they brought their own interests to the enterprise. The spirit of the dead has remained alive in the next generation. Has this peculiar pattern also repeated itself with Uncle Henry and me? If so, what have I taken over from him? I couldn’t be farther from the head editorial position at Dutton. What of Uncle Henry lives on in me?
Faith in the power of the written word. Through writing isn’t a way to live forever — a false promise — we can reach into the abyss of mortality. Words can fleetingly bring someone back to life, touch for a moment the person lost. And language helps us recapture what is missing in ourselves. As I’ve realized time and again, from the journal on the kayak trip to the eulogy for my mother, writing is my deepest response to life. It’s this reaction that makes me a real writer. I also wish for connection with an audience and a sense of service to the world, but I don’t really have doubts about myself, only questions about how to proceed.
Like Uncle Henry, I’m a seeker, hoping to use my insight to compose meaningful work. He was searching for something in his passion for literature when death cut him off. As the shooting star in my dream, he continues that quest. And in life, I follow him along the zigzag path.