Glenway Wescott Wescott, Glenway (Contemporary Literary Criticism) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Wescott, Glenway 1901–

Wescott is an American novelist, poet, short story writer, essayist, and editor. His work thematically reflects his native Wisconsin, as well as his period of European expatriation. Critics have admired his technical skill, his attention to rhythm, and his artfulness of construction. Wescott's fiction often deals with ideas of duty, the nature of freedom, and the perception of reality, both past and present. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)

Kenneth Burke

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The Apple of the Eye] is a book almost exclusively of emotional propulsion. Indeed, it even becomes a drenching in emotions, those softer, readier emotions which we designate usually as "feminine," an experience purely of "delight and tears" … and is thus a kind of revival in letters, an atavism, albeit a revival which is done with such force, such conviction, that one is caught unawares, and before he knows it is deeply involved in these partings …, this girl like wilted flower left to perish, these stutterings of love, the sleep-walking in the moonlight, the call, or lure, of the city over the hills and plains. The machinery of pathos is well utilized—which, once again, fails to convey the quality of the story, for it is so obvious that the author did not think in terms of the "machinery" of pathos. [Mr Wescott's] book, if it makes few demands upon the intellectual equipment of the reader, is a profoundly appealing piece of emotional writing, or one might better call it an emotional experience, for the reader's participation in the author's plot is intense enough to leave him in possession of the story's overtones much as one is left with the overtones of some dream or some actual event which has occurred in one's own life.

The principal objection I find to Mr Westcott's book is its failure to widen the field of our aesthetic perceptions…. In method, Mr Wescott's chief contribution is the bringing of a greater and more sensitive vitality to...

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Granville Hicks

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The Apple of the Eye] concerns the spiritual aspects of pioneering, especially the bleak, sterile attitude towards life that frontier hardships sometimes foster. Fundamentally it is the story of the conflict between two religions and of the effect of that struggle on a boy who wavers between them. On the one hand we find the narrow, rigid, utilitarian Protestantism of the frontier; on the other, a pagan acceptance of life and all its pleasures. (p. 279)

In The Grandmothers Wescott continued as he had begun, describing the frustration of three generations of pioneers. The pioneers, he suggests, were from the first unhappy men, and it was the absence of happiness that sent them westward. They struggled with the land, always in poverty. "God was poverty, but He was poverty which would become wealth." So they identified piety and prosperity, and bent their necks before the divinely-imposed yoke. In due course the continent revealed its riches and many became wealthy. "Nevertheless," Wescott goes on, "millions remained poor. Before their eyes lay the feast—they could not eat; and though there were millions of them, each felt alone in his poverty. They grieved, but stifled their grief, being ashamed of it; for if they had worked harder, if they had led purer lives, if they still worked harder…. Those who did not give up hated life secretly; those who did, despised themselves." Of the Towers, the family he is describing, he...

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Morton Dauwen Zabel

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The Pilgrim Hawk] is less the "love story" its subtitle suggests than a fable, and it shows again, but more explicitly and with greater critical weight, [Wescott's] natural inclination toward symbolic and legendary values in narrative. Where once—in The Apple of the Eye, The Grandmothers, and Goodbye, Wisconsin—he elaborated the mythic clues of the pastoral and folk tale, the tribal ritual of the family photograph album or the local daemon that haunts the hearsay, superstitions, and country legends of his midwestern homeland, he here reverts to a time and place grown more fabulous than Wisconsin ever could—to the France of the expatriates after the First World War, a lost paradise removed to lunar distance by war and change, whose delusions of emancipation linger in the memory with the unreality of life on another planet. (p. 304)

Mr. Wescott's story is one of the remarkable works of its kind in recent American fiction. Its deft shaping, sensitive and disciplined insight, and hypnotic suggestive force show it to be the work of a scrupulous craftsman and fully conscious critical intelligence. It shows the studied effect and stylistic scruple that point to a serious effort in a classic tradition. Yet in spite of its distinction it must be said of it that the balance essential to its genre is never clearly defined or resolved. The dramatic substance of his scenes and characters does not succeed in sustaining the elaborate commentary and moral deliberation he has imposed upon it. The annotation of the situation becomes too elaborate, ingenious, and uncomfortably self-conscious. A tendency toward a worrying preciosity of inference and analysis is never genuinely subdued to the natural impulse of the events, the given qualities of the characters, and the result becomes something too urgently contrived and at times almost desperately...

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Walter Allen

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Glenway Wescott's] main theme has been what might be called the Mid-Western version of the American's complex fate. For the greater part of the thirties Wescott was an expatriate, living in France, but, on the evidence of his fiction, still unable to escape from Wisconsin, his native state, which seems at times almost as much a state of mind as a place…. (p. 105)

Wescott's strength as a novelist lies in his very ambivalence towards his subject, and in his finest novel, The Grand-mothers …, it appears in depth and at length and with a nostalgia that is always controlled. The action flows between the present and the past; the novel is a discovery of the past, a coming to terms with it. It is in essence a young intellectual's imaginative reconstruction of the lives of his grandparents and their families and relations, pioneers in the opening up of Wisconsin in the middle years of last century. In a way, it is history become myth…. (p. 106)

Walter Allen, in his The Modern Novel in Britain and The United States (copyright © 1964 by Walter Allen; reprinted by permission of E. P. Dutton; in Canada by Harold Ober Associates Inc.), Dutton, 1965.

Ira D. Johnson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

During the 1920's, Glenway Wescott … was generally considered by critics and discriminating readers as one of America's most promising young writers. (p. 3)

In certain ways Wescott is [indeed] of his time and place and in the mainstream of American literature. His beginnings as an imagist poet, his early appearance as a critic-reviewer in the pages of The New Republic, Poetry, The Dial, and other little magazines, his themes and his experiments with form in his novels and short stories which appeared before he had turned thirty, his years as an expatriate—all have their parallels to the production and careers of other American writers of the twenties. Contemporary criticism, although appreciative and optimistic about his career, was with few exceptions brief and ephemeral, predominately placing him as a regionalist, a chronicler of pioneers, a recorder of frustrated and rebellious lives wasted away in remote middle-western towns….

Despite the quality and the uniqueness of his sensibility …, [Wescott] is not a major American writer…. [He] appeared to have just those qualities needed for major achievement and to have started early and fast in that direction, only to disappoint; by the time he was forty-four he had stopped writing fiction. (p. 4)

The Apple of the Eye [his first work of fiction (1924)] is characterized by many techniques in the modern tradition, but especially by a limited though powerful and rhetorical narrative voice. Two serious flaws are evident: the novel's didacticism, due to Wescott's conception of image and truth, and the disparity between the omniscient narrator and the rest of the work. Consideration of these two problems are necessary in measuring Wescott's intention and achievement. It soon becomes clear that it is only when he is able to resolve them that his fiction achieves the potential it at other times seems to promise.

The Grandmothers [1927] to a surprising degree does fulfill that promise, fusing secondary themes with what are always to be Wescott's major themes, love and the self. Here Wescott has found a form that is not only amenable to his subject, but perfectly suited to his strengths—and his failings—as an artist. His great technical achievement is the development of a participating narrator, identical to the author's second (artistic) self, inseparable from subject and form, and gifted with a voice able to exploit what is outstanding, the lyrical and rhetorical quality of his prose. Such a narrator nearly eliminates the disparity between voice and other elements, and it makes functional what in the first novel had been flaws—including the abstracting of truths from images, which now becomes essential to the narrator's rumination on the family of stories. Yet, rather than develop important techniques that would give him greater flexibility, Wescott was apparently, by means of the new participating narrator, able to make virtures of some of his rather pronounced artistic shortcomings. (pp. 5-6)

[The] theme of the self, the concept of image and truth, and the technique of the participating narrative voice are so fused in Wescott's creative imagination and, apparently, so closely related to the author's personal self, that this fusion results in his only consistently successful form of narration.

What Wescott sought was a greater distance between the personal self and the second, or artistic, self. In The Babe's Bed [1930], he attempts to put an end to the method of the participating narrator and to search out and destroy the psychological necessity behind it because he feels that the result is self-projection rather than what he calls truth. In this sense The Pilgrim Hawk [1940] is a rewriting of The Babe's Bed. Yet in neither work does Wescott recognize the contribution of his concept of image and truth to the very abstracting and generalizing he so deplores. A rationale that led to serious shortcomings in his other works, it is still retained in his attempt at an objective novel, Apartment in Athens [1945], and significantly contributes to its failure. Neither does Wescott succeed in eliminating the narrative voice; in its emasculated form it is the second major cause of that novel's failure, which suggests, along with evidence in the essays, Images of Truth (1962), that Wescott is still strongly drawn toward the form in which he achieved so much. Although the ultimate reasons are probably deeply personal, Wescott's long fictional silence [since Apartment in Athens] has been due to being drawn toward two opposing and irreconcilable concepts of narration and form, only to find himself immobilized between them. (p. 6)

The Apple of the Eye, The Grandmothers, Good-Bye, Wisconsin, a handful of uncollected short stories, and The Babe's Bed, more than half of Wescott's fiction and all of what is his first and largest period of production, make use of middle-western material. Yet to categorize Wescott as a regionalist, as some critics and reviewers have done, is to be short-sighted. (p. 8)

The Apple of the Eye is one of Wescott's minor works…. Characterization is certainly one of the novel's weaknesses. Of course, other qualities such as dialogue, dramatic realization and general conception, to name a few, are also pertinent to the characterization. But it is in the inadequacy of character in relation to the development of theme … that [the characters] fall most short of their function. Measuring them by the very moral framework that the novel insists upon reveals not only their lack of verisimilitude and realization, but the inadequacy and the moral confusion of the novel as a whole. (p. 11)

Dan Strane is, of course, the major character, and he is the most convincing and best-realized. The whole final third and much of the second section is directly concerned with his process of maturing, his growing break with his parents, family and home, "country" or region, and religion. It is here that Wescott's prose is able to serve its most sympathetic function; even though his character is not realized in very objective terms—it is hard to think of him except as a sensibility—what effectiveness there is in the final section depends on the successful rendering of the subjective life of Dan Strane. (p. 16)

The major symbol in the novel (barring Hannah) is the marsh. It is to some extent a cumulative symbol, taking on additional meaning with repeated usage, and it is a many-faceted or revolving symbol. That is, what it symbolizes depends on the context, but often on the character acting within the context as well, who may, or may not, be aware of its symbolic quality. As a symbol, the marsh is all-pervasive, and gives unity to the novel. As a part of the nature imagery it also aids the rhythmical structure. (pp. 18-19)

[In The Apple of the Eye] the use of imagery to create symbolic texture as an intrinsic quality of the prose, to build cumulative symbols which through their numerous facets of implication can be said to be revolving because they can be turned from one facet to another for meaning … form a major aspect of Wescott's art, a positive one, which even in this early novel is impressive, and which justifies serious attention to the work in spite of its shortcomings….

Wescott's prose style is one of careful diction that achieves a finely-chiseled quality and a surface of meticulous finish imparted alike to landscape, animals, and human figures. It is the source of much of the regional quality of [The Apple of the Eye]. (p. 28)

The adjectives and adverbs, although profuse, are chosen with precision, the lushness often given by the modifying phrases and clauses. The sentences and paragraphs so carefully carved and fitted together, slow and even halt movement, giving a static effect, for there is a shift required from image to image. If action is involved it is nearly always slow, and the effect one of turgidity. (p. 30)

However, the lyric, disciplined, imagistic prose of sensibility—which is Wescott's notable achievement so early in this first novel—is markedly limited, inflexible and awkward when it comes to two important elements: creation of scene and dialogue. Except for Mike Byron, a sometimes garrulous mouthpiece of romantic sensibility, the other characters are not only awkward of speech but inarticulate. What is worse, the dialogue is strikingly unrealistic and often unauthentic—by forfeit, for the idioms common to region and time are remarkably few, and the result is a limp and emasculated standard American English. The dramatic potentialities of situations—for characterization, for thematic tension or clarification, and for other purposes—are rarely if ever imaginatively realized, especially in confrontations of character with character. (p. 31)

Wescott's use of point-of-view and narrator … is the most important key to both his powerful and impressive prose and to his fundamental failure in this novel. (p. 32)

The point-of-view … throughout the novel is omniscient, and the language and all its qualities (except for that of dialogue) are those of the omniscient narrator. [Sometimes] the point of observation is far outside, and, one may say, above that of the characters. The concern is with the matter of distance, the gap between the material viewed (countryside, people, or thoughts and feelings of character in isolation or dramatic action) and the means of viewing, which are here the omniscient narrator who quite deliberately colors with his vision everything seen, and what is very important, makes himself known in terms of voice, the accent or tone of the language which implies the attitude behind it.

Sometimes the narrator seems to lessen his distance to give us the thoughts of his characters….

[When] the focus is on thought or attitude, exposition or analysis or generalization, the language is pithy and aphoristic, the result of insight—rather than the following of the flow of thought. (p. 34)

The omniscient narrator in this novel is all-pervasive. Armed with the impressive but nevertheless sometimes inflexible quality of Wescott's prose, making himself evident, making himself heard through the quality of voice, he is the very medium through which everything is experienced by the reader. Though the focus may vary, the voice always maintains a distinct distance. There is, of course, nothing wrong with such a technique in principle. But artistic success will then depend upon the success of the narrative voice. It is evident that characterization, realization of dramatic potentialities, and rendering of subjective states are often not successful. Yet the prose itself and the power of the voice is what makes the book more than the ordinary first novel. (pp. 36-7)

Nevertheless, there is a disparity between the narrator and other elements of the novel. The attention to the qualities which will make for spellbinding seems to be at the expense of "intellectual demands," particularly characterization, dramatic realization, and adequate confrontation of the two thematic polarities that should take on a form of believable life. It is at the expense of a moral vision complex enough, and realized enough, to justify what the narrator insists is the theme; for he does insist, in aphorism and generalized statement or through a substitute, didactic dialogue. It is this disparity that at the very beginning of his career is one of Wescott's fundamental artistic problems. By it his intention and achievement can be measured. It is only when he is able to overcome it that the result is fiction of the highest quality and significance. (pp. 39-40)

[It is] The Grandmothers: A Family Portrait upon which much of [Wescott's] literary reputation rests, fulfilling, essentially, the predictions of those who had seen him as a writer of great promise…. It is his greatest and most successful fictional exploitation of middle-western material. (p. 41)

The novel [is not] a regional work [, but rather] one of the reality and myth of the American past, of its meaning, in other words, to the modern pioneer, one who seeks to find and clarify the self—in this case, Alwyn Tower, expatriate and artist. His concern with the past is what sharply distinguishes Alwyn Tower from the expatriate protagonists of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and others. (pp. 41-2)

It can hardly be overstressed that only in the larger, and hence metaphorical sense is pioneering the subject of the novel, and that its major themes are love and the self. Both of these are related to every other theme, it seems, intertwined, and sometimes indistinguishable…. (p. 58)

Two of the important motifs that are part of the general love theme are homosexuality and incest…. The novel delineates a sharp American polarity between the "masculine" and "feminine" traits. Sensibility (including artistic sensibility) is considered feminine, or at least effeminate, and insensibility, even brutishness, is considered masculine. (pp. 61-2)

Incest is of course a form of love, and what it emphasizes here is the claustrophobic nature of the Tower family relationships, their sensibility seeking love within the isolated family, a situation which is partly due to their idealism, pride and aristocratic pretensions. (p. 63)

The profuse generalizations throughout the novel lead to the broader generalizations developed in the conclusion. It is here, too, that the several themes find their synthesis in a broad family metaphor. They serve also as strands binding individual characters and chapters to each other, each character to the family, and the family and regional chronicle to the American past. The primary structural principle is that of the narrator. He is not only the primary structural principle but the primary formal one, the highly successful fusion of form and function in this novel rests on the successful use of the narrator and voice….

[Each] of the dozen major characters upon which so much depends is adequately conceived for the purposes of the work. There is no sense here of the moral confusion, of the lack of verisimilitude, and faulty realization that so flawed The Apple of the Eye…. For one thing, no single character is meant to carry as heavy a thematic burden as Hannah Madoc, even though the characters in the second novel are generally more complex. No single character is intended to be a secular saint. Rather it is what may be learned from all of these lives, as they are made material for the investigating, ruminating, contemplating mind of Alwyn Tower…. (p. 65)

Wescott's fondness, even insistence, upon making generalities, upon carefully turning aphorisms and driving his "truths" home with specific statements is still with him. The difference, a great one, is that in his second novel the results of this fondness are in principle justified by the subject and form. Yet a question of degree is aesthetically important…. (p. 66)

Apparently, in Wescott's view, at least in his practice, truths are necessarily abstract and general. Images are concrete—an entire story may be an image—and images have to be, it seems, converted to truths before they can be mentally digested and then made use of, and it is the use of these truths that justified the creation of the images. This concept of image and truth applied in both of the first two novels is a curiously pragmatic and utilitarian view of art and human sensibilities, and one that would seem antithetical to Wescott's values generally in life and in art. It is a concept which works well enough in The Grandmothers and is central to the book's conception. The excess of generality is not enough to constitute a major flaw. But, in The Apple of the Eye, the concept is central to its failure, and it becomes a major aesthetic problem in Wescott's career.

Two related shortcomings in The Apple of the Eye which directly concerned unsuccessful characterization had to do with the inadequate quality of, and scarcity of, dramatic scenes and dramatic confrontations of character. Again there is a great gap between the two novels, at least in effect. Certainly a more mature and complex conception of character in the second novel makes a great difference....

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