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Glenway Wescott

Glenway Wescott Essay - Wescott, Glenway (Short Story Criticism)

Wescott, Glenway (Short Story Criticism)

Introduction

Glenway Wescott 1901-1987

American novelist, short story writer, poet, essayist, and critic.

Glenway Wescott was an American expatriate who lived and wrote in France after the first World War. While he produced work in several genres, it has been argued that Wescott was a short story writer first since several of his longer works, including the novels The Apple of the Eye and The Grandmothers, may be viewed as collections of interrelated stories. A contemporary of Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Wescott is best known for his nostalgic novel The Grandmothers, which was awarded the Harper Prize, and his critically acclaimed novella The Pilgrim Hawk. Both works were published early in his career, leading critics to anticipate a promising future for the young author. Yet Wescott's overall fictional output was slight, ending with the 1945 novel Apartment in Athens. Though seldom read today, his contribution to American letters is significant. Indeed, The Pilgrim Hawk is frequently regarded as the most perfect novella written by an American.

Biographical Information

Wescott, whose father was a farmer, was raised in rural Wisconsin, the setting for several of his novels and stories. After spending two years at the University of Chicago, he traveled extensively throughout the United States and Europe, eventually settling in France, where he lived from 1925 to 1933. While in his twenties, Wescott completed two collections of poetry, several novels, and the ten stories that he collected in 1928 and published as Good-bye, Wisconsin. Twelve years later Wescott produced a thin and unexceptional novella called The Babe's Bed. Another decade passed before Wescott published The Pilgrim Hawk, during which time his reputation in literary circles had begun to suffer. His final fictional work, the best-selling novel Apartment in Athens, soon followed. After 1945 Wescott published essays, lectured, and served as president of the National Institute of Arts and Letters.

Major Works

The stories in Good-bye, Wisconsin are all set in Wescott's native state, although the venue is less significant than the culture depicted in these works, which Wescott described as "a certain climate, a certain landscape; and beyond that, a state of mind of people born where they do not like to live." Even so, Wallace Stegner argued that the collection "is no Menckenesque assault on the northern Bible Belt but a thoughtful and objective community portrait." The tales explore themes that concerned Wescott at the time, particularly discrepancies between past and present, old and new, Europe and America, as well as themes concerning exile and return, love and marriage, and the journey from a state of innocence to one of knowledge. Marked by lyrical prose and vivid symbolism, the tales of this collection are alike in their exploration for a central truth. In "The Whistling Swan," for example, Herbet Redd—a musician forced to choose between a rich, artistic life in France and married life in a small, Midwestern town—goes for a walk in the woods where he is startled by a large swan. After Redd impulsively shoots the bird, it lets out a loud cry: "In despair at dying, it whistled, whistled, and took its breath. Broken open, a heavy stream of music let out—but it was the opposite of music. Now husky, now crude, what were like dots of purity often, the rhythm of something torn." The bird's death song persuades Redd to remain in Wisconsin and marry his sweetheart. While Wescott's acclaimed Pilgrim Hawk takes place in France, it explores similar themes, primarily themes associated with marriage. The story opens during the 1940s as an American novelist named Alwyn Tower reflects on a party hosted by a young American woman in a French country home twenty years earlier. Guests include Tower, two servants, and a wealthy Irish couple, Larry and Madeleine Cullen. Mrs. Cullen carries a pet falcon named Lucy, which serves as the central metaphor of the story. After a drinking party, Mr. Cullen, who is strangely resentful of Lucy, frees her from her tether in the garden. The falcon revels in its freedom, but soon returns. Tower considers the bird's captivity symbolic of the miserable state of the couple's marriage, but when the hawk chooses captivity over freedom, Tower discerns greater depth in the marriage relationship, concluding "To see the cost of love before one has felt what it is worth, is a pity; one may never have the courage to begin."

Critical Reception

Though uneven in quality, the stories that comprise Good-bye, Wisconsin have garnered critical regard for their objectivity, lyricism, and imagery. They are seldom read today, possibly, as Stegner argued, because they followed the established traditions of James Joyce's Dubliners and Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, thus making Wescott's achievements less significant. Critical commentary of Wescott's short fiction has focused primarily on The Pilgrim Hawk, particularly on the significance of the hawk in the novella. Katherine Woods argued that Wescott's "odd little work stays close to the pilgrim hawk, whether we see her as figure of allegory, catalyst, or character in a tale." Bruce Bawer, pointing to the work's restraint, complexity, and drama, considered it "an exemplary novella in the classic tradition, its manner stately and elliptical, its characters subtly and ironically etched."

Principal Works

Short Fiction

. . . Like a Lover 1926

Good-bye, Wisconsin 1928

The Babe's Bed (novella) 1930

The Pilgrim Hawk: A Love Story (novella) 1940

Other Major Works

The Bitterns: A Book of Twelve Poems 1920

The Apple of the Eye (novel) 1924

Natives of Rock: XX Poems, 1921-1922 1925

The Grandmothers: A Family Portrait (novel) 1927

A Calendar of Saints for Unbelievers (nonfiction) 1932

Fear and Trembling (essays) 1932

Apartment in Athens (novel) 1945

Images of Truth: Rememberances and Criticism 1962

The Best of All Possible Worlds: Journals, Letters, and Remembrances, 1914-1937 1975

Criticism

Mary Butts (review date 1929)

SOURCE: "Mr. Wescott's Third Book," in Dial, Vol. LXXXVI, May, 1929, pp. 424-27.

[In the following review of Wescott's Good-bye, Wisconsin, Butts finds Wescott's style flawless but considers his subject wanting.]

It was probably time for Mr Wescott to say good-bye to Wisconsin. For ten years or twenty he can leave it alone; by then he and the rest of the world may have made up their minds about the place in creation of the Middle West. Until it entered our geography, European conceptions of America were based on New England, California, and the states in the South. That America, our America, the tenacious, childhood's United States, is now out of focus and the imagination's new map as hard to make as if a piece off a dead star had landed and stuck on the earth's side, altering proportion, pace, gravity, the planets' give and take.

Good-Bye Wisconsin is the farewell of a man to a land whose child he is by accident, or the reproach of a son to a father who has taken the wrong wife, to a mother who is uncertain who the father has been. Eleven stories about a country of unlimited beauty and prosperity, whose wealth is insufficient to nourish the best of its children. There is often in nature some subtle turn to spoil or make ineffective her prodigal creations; she will distil a drop of poison into her richest milk, the elixir of life from her poorest. A card of this sort she usually keeps up her sleeve, and seems to have played it in Wisconsin. Mr Wescott's exquisite elaborate talent, his mind capable of loyalty and admiration, found themselves undernourished and he left. His book is one of eleven folk-tales told with the virtuosity of a seventeenth-century master writing airs for a prince. The book of a man fallen out of love, and in his embarrassment likely to overscore his subject rather than show the least ingratitude or brutality. "As far as one could see in Wisconsin that afternoon, trees were rolling in their deep valley beds, and there was an atmosphere of sorrow which nothing had happened to cause." This is as far as his reproaches go and they are rarely repeated. In his disillusion there is no hope, a scrupulous justice without complaint. He catches superb physical loveliness in flight, winter and summer flash past, scenes from the window of a train, told by a man who has done the journey on foot. His descriptions sometimes remind one of the perfectly projected landscapes of a film where the story is thin, and where the setting has no relation to the play. His grim farmers and small-townspeople live against a background of dazzling beauty, a world "like Russia with the vodka prohibited and no stationary peasantry" where "once a month the new moon sets out like the crooked knife of a fairy-tale in search of a heart to bury itself in." The moon enters very few hearts there and the sorrow is causeless and the children go away, and the Middle West appears as a land of maladjustments, the land with the people, the people with their sudden prosperity and even more lately won comfort, the wealth to be spent in contrast to its owners' sense of values. One of nature's little jokes over a space the size of Europe.

Mr Wescott turns his mirror to catch his people from angles that shall show their significance and beauty; he knows that mystery is the same there as here,...

(The entire section is 1382 words.)

Katherine Woods (review date 1940)

SOURCE: "A Strange Tale by Glenway Wescott," in The New York Times Book Review, December 1, 1940, p. 7.

[In the following review of Wescott's novella The Pilgrim Hawk, Woods notes the symbolic value of the hawk in the story, concluding "it is a story of love versus freedom. "]

The Pilgrim Hawk is the first piece of fiction to come to us in a decade from the Wisconsin writer whose novel, The Grandmothers, won both the Harper Prize and conspicuous general success. If Glenway Wescott's name has taken on a somewhat legendary suggestion in the intervening years, that atmosphere will probably be enhanced rather than dispelled by his latest book....

(The entire section is 714 words.)

F. W. Dupee (review date 1940)

SOURCE: "Return of Glenway Wescott," in The New Republic, Vol. 103, No. 24, December 9, 1940, pp. 807-08.

[In the laudatory assessment of The Pilgrim Hawk that follows, Dupee contrasts Wescott's novella against "the nostalgic lyricism of his early work," noting in particular the novella's complexity and objectivity.]

In novels like The Grandmothers, Wescott anticipated by a decade our current pious preoccupation with the American past. For some reason, however, he has avoided native materials in The Pilgrim Hawk, which is his first story in several years. Perhaps the familiar nostalgic principle operates in Wescott's case: for his most...

(The entire section is 908 words.)

Morton Dauwen Zabel (review date 1940)

SOURCE: "The Whisper of the Devil," in The Nation, Vol. 151, No. 25, December 21, 1940, pp. 636-37.

[Below, Zabel claims that The Pilgrim Hawk, with "its sensitive insights, deft shaping, and hypnotic suggestive force," ultimately fails as a fable because the "dramatic substance of his scenes and characters does not manage to sustain the elaborate commentary he has imposed on it. "]

The Pilgrim Hawk with which Glenway Wescott returns to fiction after a twelve-year absence, is less a story of love than a fable, and it illustrates again, but more steadily and with greater critical weight, his natural inclination toward symbolic and legendary values...

(The entire section is 1257 words.)

Howard Moss (review date 1967)

SOURCE: "Love Birds of Prey," in The New Yorker, Vol. XLIII, No. 3, March 11, 1967, pp. 184-86, 89-91

[In the following review of The Pilgrim Hawk, Moss discusses the relationships between characters in the novella, focusing on the theme of freedom versus captivity.]

Glenway Wescott's short novel, The Pilgrim Hawk, has come out in a new edition, twenty-six years after it first appeared. Subtitled "A Love Story," it is told in the first person by a narrator named Tower. Mr. Wescott's use of the first person is more than just one way of telling a story. What passes for a more or less objective account of events—more or less because Tower keeps...

(The entire section is 2650 words.)

Wallace Stegner (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: "Re-discovery: Wescott's Good-bye, Wisconsin" in The Southern Review, Vol. VI, No. 3, July, 1970, pp. 674-81.

[In the following essay, noted American author Wallace Stegner comments on the critical reception of Good-bye, Wisconsin and offers his own evaluation of the stories, claiming "Wescott's farewell to the climate, landscape, and state of mind of the Midwest is a book that deserves not to be lost. "]

When Goodbye Wisconsin appeared in 1928, Glenway Wescott was twenty-seven years old and already a prodigy. He had published his first volume of poems, The Bitterns, at nineteen; his first novel, The Apple of the Eye,...

(The entire section is 2972 words.)

Ira Johnson (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: "Good-bye, Wisconsin; The Babe's Bed; and Other Stories," in Glenway Wescott: The Paradox of Voice, Kennikat Press, 1971, pp. 83-111.

[Here, Johnson provides an overview of the major themes, characterization, symbolism, and narrative structure of Wescott's collection Good-bye, Wisconsin, his novella The Babe's Bed, and several uncollected stories.]

Good-Bye, Wisconsin, which appeared in 1928, one year after The Grandmothers, contains the title essay and ten short stories, written for the most part between 1924 and 1927.1 If, as Kahn states, the stories were "lyrical and impressionistic dramatizations of the explicit...

(The entire section is 11420 words.)

Sy Kahn (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: "Glenway Wescott's Variations on the Waste Land Image," in The Twenties: Fiction, Poetry, Drama, edited by Warren French, Everett/Edwards, 1975, pp. 171-79.

[In the following excerpt, Kahn identifies elements of the wasteland tradition in Wescott's collection Good-bye, Wisconsin, centering on the theme of disillusionment in the stories.]

In Wescott's work of the 1920s fictive narrator and author are never far removed from each other—persona is almost person, fiction almost biography, or discovered biography. One has the impression that the past is not simply recalled for its record of things past but imaginatively evoked for the purpose of exploration...

(The entire section is 1905 words.)

Bruce Bawer (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: "Glenway Wescott 1901-1987," in Diminishing Fictions: Essays on the Modern American Novel and Its Critics, Graywolf Press, 1987, pp.143-58.

[In the following excerpt, Bawer touches on several themes in The Pilgrim Hawk, as well as the narrator's relationship to the author.]

After his silence of the Thirties, Wescott produced two more long works of fiction, The Pilgrim Hawk ( 1940) and Apartment in Athens (1945). The former, a novella, is perhaps his most nearly perfect work—taut, subtle, and exquisitely ordered. It takes place on a single afternoon in May of 1928 or 1929—the narrator, Alwyn Tower, can't quite remember which,...

(The entire section is 1318 words.)

Jennifer Jordan Baker (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: "'In a Thicket': Glenway Wescott's Pastoral Vision," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 31, No. 2, Spring, 1994, pp. 187-95.

[In the essay below, Baker investigates pastoral components of "In a Thicket" specifically "the implied contrast between rural innocence and urban corruption."]

Like Hemingway, Fitzgerald and his other expatriate contemporaries, Glenway Wescott fled to Paris in the 1920s only to return home continuously in his writing. In Goodbye Wisconsin (1928), a collection of short stories set in his native Wisconsin, Wescott explores the themes of small-town life, flight and expatriation. The collection and its introductory essay...

(The entire section is 4044 words.)