Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 716
Glenway Wescott’s life is made up of two diametrically opposed phases. He was born on a farm in Kewaskum, Wisconsin, on April 11, 1901. Glenway was very close to his mother, who nurtured his interests in music, acting, and literature. He soon, however, proved to be a great disappointment to his father, Bruce Peters Wescott, because he hated the drudgery of farmwork. When Glenway was thirteen, his relationship with his father became openly hostile as the result of a minor incident, and he was shunted from relative to relative. During his last two years at Waukesha High School, Glenway lived with his father’s brother, a preacher named William Samuel Wescott. His uncle’s vast library opened an entirely new world for the young man, which he continued to explore in the literary society to which he belonged in high school.
By the time Wescott was sixteen, his experiences were no longer like those of other boys who had grown up on Wisconsin farms. After graduating from high school in 1917, Wescott went to Chicago. While he was living with the wealthy mother of his uncle’s wife, Wescott attended the University of Chicago. His new experiences, like his previous ones on the farm in Wisconsin, were later to serve as material for his fiction. Wescott had no interest in a literary career when he first entered the university, but his distaste for required courses led him to enroll in several literature courses during his first semester. His enthusiasm for literature soon led to his involvement in the university’s newly formed Poetry Club. Through the imagistic poetry that he wrote as a college student, Wescott learned how to solidify an intense moment and to etch it into the consciousness with sharp imagery.
In 1918, Wescott went to New Mexico to recover from a failed homosexual relationship that had driven him to attempt suicide. Between 1918 and 1920, he began writing poetry based on his New Mexico experiences and published it in a volume entitled The Bitterns. Harriet Monroe was so impressed with Wescott’s work that she hired him to work for Poetry in 1921. It was also in 1921 that Wescott published his first short story, “Bad Han,” which launched his career as a prose writer. Wescott’s developing style was influenced by writers whom he met while working for the magazine, including Edwin Arlington Robinson.
It was during the summer of 1921 that Wescott traveled to Europe with his friend Monroe Wheeler. During the next eleven years, Wescott produced the fiction that established him as a midwestern prodigy. He became financially solvent following the publication in Europe of two novels, The Apple of the Eye and The Grandmothers, and a collection of short stories, Good-bye, Wisconsin. He was less successful with his two departures from fiction, Fear and Trembling and A Calendar of Saints for Unbelievers, both written in 1932.
Convinced that Europe had become a “rat trap” for him, Wescott returned to the United States in 1933 and settled in New York. While he was growing accustomed to living in the United States again, Wescott produced no fiction at all until 1940. In many ways, World War II shocked him into writing again. The Pilgrim Hawk: A Love Story, which continued to be his most popular work, changed the minds of those critics who believed that he had “written himself out.” In 1945, he wrote Apartment in Athens in an attempt to convince his publisher that he was still a “valuable property.”
Despite the success of Apartment in Athens, Wescott produced no more works of fiction, even though he did begin several projects. In 1962, a collection of essays entitled Images of Truth established him as one of the most influential critics in the United States, because he was writing to the cultivated general reader, not to the most sophisticated and highbrow critics. Wescott’s profiles of six writers whom he admired offered a memorable insight into how his own fiction-writer’s mind perceived the world. Although this, his final work, did not totally satisfy his faithful coterie of admirers, who had looked forward to the kind of a large complex novel that they believed he had the ability to write, it eloquently confirmed his faith in the literary life. It was a fitting end to the career of this melancholy yet tantalizing literary figure.
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