The Grandmothers is the kind of novel that is usually damned with faint praise as a minor classic. Wescott’s novel, however, is more than a curiosity. This lyrical mixture of memory and desire gives meaning and resonance to a time, a place, and a sensibility, all the while remaining aware of the highest standards of novelistic craft.
Most of the U.S. literature that is usually called regionalist was written in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Authors wrote primarily in a realist, local-color mode. By the time Wescott came of age as a writer, regionalism was in disrepute in U.S. literary circles; indeed, the most renowned U.S. writers, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, wrote substantially of life abroad. Writers who wrote about the United States, such as Sinclair Lewis, were uniformly perceived as satirical and negative. The rise of literary modernism and of a more artistically self-conscious approach to fiction made regionalist realism seem behind the times. Wescott’s achievement in The Grandmothers is to have pioneered a form of modernist regionalism that recounts the history of a particular part of the land while keeping the psychological and literary complexity of ambitious art.
In The Grandmothers, there is a conflict between the young, sensitive artist, represented by Alwyn in Wescott’s novel, and the ingrown and provincial atmosphere that has produced him. Wescott uses a mixture of narrative modes, combining third-person point-of-view narration, stream of consciousness, and documents—such as the 1911 memoir of Grandfather Tower—to make up a rich fictional tableau. In Wescott’s works, however, unlike those of many other writers of his time, what predominates is not the urge to break free and find a new, more liberated life (as Alwyn does when he goes to Europe) but rather the sweet regret about what has been left behind. Alwyn feels superior to his parents, grandparents, and other relatives because he has a fuller perspective on life than they do; but their experience is what his acquired perspective permits him to interpret.
As an adult in Europe, Alwyn finds that he cannot leave the United States (meaning, for him, Wisconsin) behind. Taunted by an Austrian that the United States has no...
(The entire section is 937 words.)