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."