The Grandmothers: A Family Portrait

by Glenway Wescott
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Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 937

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 sense of sin and therefore no history, Alwyn responds by immersing himself in his family history, which he had an opportunity to observe and learn about as a youth. The Tower family represents the U.S. past and the creativity of the American spirit. Particularly in remembering the religiosity of his mother, Marianne, Alwyn exalts ordinary U.S. piety even as he perceives what, for him, are its limitations. His mother’s faith is a distinctly American kind of religiosity, because of its social concern and combination of emotional passion with a public identity in the church and in the community. As much as Alwyn believes his family represents the American soul, the United States has not rewarded them in kind. The Towers seem to perceive themselves as losers and failures, their dreaminess always at odds with the more materially oriented people among whom they live. When Evan Tower deserts the U.S. Army during the Spanish-American War (of which Wescott provides the best evocation in extant American fiction), goes to London to marry Suzanne Orfeo, and returns to the United States to forge a new identity as John Craig, he is acting out in literal terms the sense of being at odds with the rest of the country that is felt by all the Towers.

Another demonstration of the Towers’ sense of uniqueness and vulnerability is in the marriage of Alwyn’s Uncle Jim, deemed the brightest and most talented of all the Towers. Jim marries into the bourgeois and complacent Fielding family and fritters his talents away in order to please them, becoming a run-of-the-mill local minister, lacking the genuine emotion of his sister-in-law Marianne’s piety. Jim was a talented singer and could have pursued his talent in that direction, but was forced to renounce this ambition and pursue a more conventional path. Alwyn’s decision to become a writer and leave Wisconsin can be seen as a fulfillment of Jim’s thwarted desires.

Despite Alwyn’s physical escape from Wisconsin, it still seems to psychologically captivate him. Alwyn brings tenderness and empathy to his observation of his family’s past, making sensitive observations about the lives of older people. There also might be something slightly pathological about Alwyn’s obsession with his family’s past, at the cost of fashioning the independent identity he externally achieves. The surname Tower may symbolize, in Alwyn’s case, the self-conscious artist: witness the towers always used as symbols for poetic isolation in French symbolist poetry. In the context of the entire family, the surname may well symbolize their enclosure and isolation from the rest of U.S. society. Alwyn plunges into his family’s past to avoid this isolation, but sometimes his feelings for his family tell us as much about himself as about others. His grandparents had a loveless marriage, due to Serena Tower’s early death and Uncle Leander’s escape westward, leaving Henry Tower and Rose Hamilton to marry each other. Alwyn’s great interest in these events may give readers clues about Alwyn’s own confusion about matters of love, including his possible homosexuality.

In the United States, where literature often celebrates the promise of the future, The Grandmothers is saturated with the bittersweet memories of the past. This may make it minor in the eyes of some critics, but it does not diminish the novel’s emotional power and resonance.

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