Wescott, Glenway (Short Story Criticism)
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.
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.
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."
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."
. . . 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
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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...
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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. This novelette, in other words, is a strange little story, the product of an intensely individual mind. Its scene is the softly beautiful French countryside of the Seine-et-Oise; its principal characters are British and American; its time is the Nineteen Twenties; its action takes place in a single afternoon. And in a familiar setting, among modern sophisticated nomads, the medieval sport of falconry is brought into actual play, and the story's incident and revelation are precipitated and symbolized by a pilgrim hawk. The peregrine falcon Lucy is always in the forefront of the stage.
In the village of Chancellet in the Ile-de-France a lovely young American woman has turned ancient dwellings into a beautiful—if...
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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 ardently American tales were written, I believe, in Europe; while The Pilgrim Hawk, which is laid in France, comes out of a long stay at home.
But the nationalism, if we may call it that, of his earlier books was really incidental to another emotion: his passion for involvement in normal affairs. The intimate routines of the family, love's power to survive its own abuses, to arrest the flux and establish continuity, filled the younger Wescott with frank wonder and curiosity. And he used to astonish the sophisticated twenties by exhibiting all this the stuff of average human experience, as something very rare, almost a mystery. He was the poet of the family album; a repentant Ishmael, to whom his artist's exclusion...
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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 in narrative. Where once he elaborated the mythic qualities of the pastoral or folk tale, the tribal ritual of the family photograph album, or the local daemon that haunts the country hearsay, superstition, crimes, defeats, and personal legends of his Midwestern homeland, he here reverts to a time and place grown more fabulous than Wisconsin ever could: to postwar France of the expatriates, a fool's paradise now removed to a lunar distance by change and war, its delusions of privilege and emancipation lingering in the memory with the preposterous unreality of life on another planet. He tells of the rich Irish Cullens, whose love, fixed by psychic necessity, is sped to its crisis by Mrs. Cullen's pet falcon, which figures both the husband's...
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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 questioning his own observations—boomerangs, and the tale leads us back to the teller. We believe in him as a character but we become suspicious of his point of view. He reveals more than he knows, and what he reveals is himself without seeming to be quite aware of it. We are dealing with two things at once: the story Tower tells and Tower's story. The effect is something like watching a movie whose main character turns out to be the cameraman.
The setting of The Pilgrim Hawk is a house and its garden in a French village; the action takes place in one afternoon. The classical unities of time and place are respected. The period is the twenties—the twenties being looked back at from the forties—and Mr....
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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, at twenty-three. The year before the publication of Goodbye Wisconsin, his novel The Grandmothers had won him the Harper Prize, many readers, and universal critical praise, and had established him as a major name among the gifted and aggrieved who were turning the twenties into an American renaissance. Now these short stories, prefaced by a lyrical essay on the themes of exile and return, added to his already formidable reputation.
The reputation, buttressed by other and very different achievements, has lasted, but the vogue has passed; and in particular Goodbye Wisconsin is a book known by name—and sometimes confused with a short novel by Philip Roth—but not much read. Though exile...
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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 reactions and grievances which appear in the lead essay," and "illustrate the reasons he (Wescott) cannot stay in Wisconsin," they would be simply regional works. Rueckert is more accurate in pointing out that though "all the stories are set in Wisconsin and are bound to the region by virtue of the details of the physical scene, only a few are regional in the usual sense of the word; most of them could have taken place anywhere in the Midwest or in any rural community; and some of them could have occurred anywhere." Three of the stories are regional in that they have as their material the lives of "uneducated farm people," "treated as representative types of the region." These three, "The Runaways," "Prohibition," and "The Sailor," are regional...
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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 and definition, that the work itself is the definition. The setting for all of Wescott's work of this period is Wisconsin, but that is simply the stage, not the substance, of these works. Indeed, the region is richly evoked in a highly distinctive lyrical and imagistic prose, and through the strategies of this style, Wisconsin becomes the microcosm by which the American experience and mythos, as Wescott understood them, is rendered.
In the essay "Goodbye Wisconsin," which gives the book its title, Wescott speaks to us, as it were, in his own voice and makes explicit those loves, concerns and rejections fictionalized and symbolized in the stories and novels he wrote in the 1920s. For Wescott, Wisconsin is the place...
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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, since so many years have passed—in a house at Chancellet, outside of Paris, where he then lived with his "great friend Alexandra Henry," also known as Alex, who would later marry his brother. On that May afternoon some friends of Alex's, a rich, foolish Irish couple named Larry and Madeleine Cullen, come to visit, bringing with them Mrs. Cullen's new pilgrim hawk, Lucy. Mrs. Cullen's affection for, treatment of, and remarks about Lucy (particularly her hunger) cause Alwyn to think about, and to see the hawk as a symbol of, a variety of things. For instance, Mrs. Cullen's observation that falcons feel hunger more intensely than people makes Alwyn reflect that "[a]lthough I had been a poor boy, on a Wisconsin farm and in a slum in Chicago and...
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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 encapsulate his ambivalence toward the Midwest: the region is isolating and morally repressive; yet, simple and idyllic, it always holds a certain allure.
In "In a Thicket,"1 the story of a 15-year-old girl's coming of age, Wescott explores this paradox of the Midwest through his use of conventions and a narrative perspective common to pastoral writing. Unlike a traditional idyll, the story does not simply glorify the life of solitary rustics; rather, it also reveals the loneliness and repression that Wescott sees as inherent in the countryside and, more specifically, the Midwest, a region that is for Wescott the pastoral landscape of America. Wescott's story, then, is not a modern recasting of traditional pastoral...
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Kane, Patricia. "Glenway Wescott's Odyssey." Critique No. 1 (Winter 1965-66): 5-12.
Discusses the common theme of journeying home in Wescott's novels and short fiction.
Quinn, Patrick F. "The Case History of Glenway Wescott." Frontier and Midland 19, No. 1 (Autumn 1938): 11-16
Evaluation of Wescott's novels and short fiction that addresses why, as early as 1938, the author's fiction suffered from a decline in importance.
Schorer, C. E. "The Maturing of Glenway Wescott." College English 18, No. 6 (March 1957): 320-26.
Traces the development of Wescott's fiction, noting "a gain of technical virtuosity, a loss of reality."
Additional coverage of Wescott's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16 (revised), 121; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 23, 70; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 13; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 4, 9, 102.
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