Glenway Wescott honed his writing skills early in his career by writing poetry: The Bitterns (1920) and Natives of Rock (1925). He went on to write three novels, The Apple of the Eye (1924), The Grandmothers (1927), and Apartment in Athens (1945), and two volumes of essays, Fear and Trembling (1932) and Images of Truth (1962). Additional works include a hagiography entitled A Calendar of Saints for Unbelievers (1932) and a nonfiction volume, The Best of All Possible Worlds: Journals, Letters, and Remembrances, 1914-1937 (1975).
Of all the expatriated Americans who were living in Europe during the 1920’s, Glenway Wescott is most notable for the pursuit of his theme. Regardless of whether Wescott was writing about his native Wisconsin or Europe, he always returned to his theme of returning home. In a sense, Wescott’s single novella, three novels, and numerous short stories can be viewed as a journey in search of the source of the creative self.
Because Wescott stopped writing fiction at the age of forty-four, some critics have classified him as a writer who had the qualities needed for great achievement but who failed to live up to the promise of his early works. Although Wescott’s body of work is relatively small, his technical achievements were significant. Not only was he a master of the carefully turned aphorism, but also he invented the technique of the participating narrator. Wescott may not be a major American writer, but he still ranks as one of the most distinctive prose stylists in twentieth century American fiction.
Glenway Wescott’s first published work was The Bitterns: A Book of Twelve Poems (1920); another volume of poetry, Natives of Rock: XX Poems, 1921-1922 appeared in 1925. Two of his short stories were privately published in France by friends as separate books:Like a Lover (1926) and The Babe’s Bed (1930). A collection of stories with a long title essay, Good-bye, Wisconsin, was published in 1928. Other books include a variety of forms: Fear and Trembling, a collection of essays (1932); Twelve Fables of Aesop (1954); and Images of Truth: Remembrances and Criticism (1962). Several uncollected poems and stories appeared in literary journals, along with a number of personal and critical essays. Perhaps Wescott’s most imaginative work is “The Dream of Audubon: Libretto of a Ballet in Three Scenes,” in The Best One-Act Plays of 1940 (1941), which holds the key to Wescott’s extensive use of bird imagery and symbolism.
After his beginnings as a published poet, Glenway Wescott often reviewed books of poetry and fiction. His critical pieces reveal that from the time of his earliest experiments in prose fiction, he was forming his idea of the novel and the aims of the art that it best embodied: to present images of reality and the truth of experience.
Even after his first two novels were published, critics disagreed as to whether Wescott was a novelist. The skepticism had several causes, mostly related to form. The first section of his first novel, The Apple of the Eye, was published separately as the story “Bad Han” in two parts in The Dial. Wescott then expanded it with two more parts to make a novel. The Grandmothers, accepted as a novel by the Harper’s Prize judges, was a series of portraits of individual characters. Today, these books are recognized as formally innovative: They focus on the process of self-discovery, and they are unified by the relation of the parts to the experience of theprotagonist.
The short stories in Good-bye, Wisconsin seemed to support the critics’ judgment that Wescott was essentially a short-story writer and their further pigeonholing of him as a regional realist attacking the narrowness of culture in the Midwest and as a typical expatriate writer. Doubts about Wescott’s capacities as a novelist were permanently laid to rest, however, with the triumph of The Pilgrim Hawk,...
Baker, Jennifer Jordan. “‘In a Thicket’: Glenway Wescott’s Pastoral Vision.” Studies in Short Fiction 31 (Spring, 1994): 95-187. Explores the paradox of the Midwest as isolating and repressive as well as simple and idyllic in one of Wescott’s best-known stories, “In a Thicket.” Shows how Wescott treats this tension with narrative conventions and the narrative perspective of traditional pastoral.
Benfey, Christopher. “Bright Young Things.” The New York Times, March 21, 1999, sec. 7, p. 9. A review of When We Were There: The Travel Albums of George Platt Lynes, Monroe Wheeler, and Glenway Wescott; comments on Wescott’s fussy style but claims that his novella The Pilgrim Hawk is a brilliant work that can stand comparison with William Faulkner or D. H. Lawrence; asserts the central image of the novella comes from Wescott’s relationship with George Platt Lynes.
Calisher, Hortense. “A Heart Laid Bare.” The Washington Post, January 13, 1991, p. X5. In this review of Wescott’s journals, Continual Lessons, Calisher provides a brief biographical sketch of Wescott; claims that he was not a true original as a novelist, but rather he was a reporter of a nonfictive kind; contends the image we have from the journals is a writer not quite in the closet and not quite out of it.