The Grandmothers: A Family Portrait Analysis

Glenway Wescott

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Hope’s Corner

Hope’s Corner. Frontier farm of Henry and Rose Hamilton Tower, located on Stony Creek, north of Milwaukee, which became Wisconsin’s Washington County. Hope’s Corner is the primary setting for the novel. Alwyn Tower, the first-person narrator of the novel, grows up in the farmhouse occupied by his grandparents and his parents. A huge boulder by the hitching post looks like the Ark of the Covenant in Grandmother Tower’s Bible, and the kitchen doorstep is a discarded marble gravestone with the lettering turned toward the ground—symbols of the promise of a land of their own and the sacrifices required to realize that dream. During Alwyn’s childhood, the wilderness is already gone; he can see only plowed land and farm machinery of all kinds creeping like mechanical spiders over the slopes.

Tower House

Tower House. The house itself, the third built on Hope’s Corner, is a work in progress, as new rooms and porches are added to accommodate the generations of Towers who call it “home.” From this house, Tower descendants scatter throughout the West, and a few go to Europe. Some return home to live for a while or to be buried in the family cemetery, which for Alwyn, takes the place of a city child’s park.

In the house’s parlor, furnishings brought from New York by canal boat give evidence of the family’s hopes of becoming landed gentry in the West. The upholstered couch, on which Alwyn’s grandfather takes his daily nap, has the proportions of a lion’s body, with carved claws for legs and one end raised in a mass of fringed pillows. Above a writing desk a single frame contains embossed portraits of literary masters such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, and John Greenleaf Whittier. A wall rack over the couch...

(The entire section is 750 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Aldridge, John. Introduction to The Grandmothers, A Family Portrait by Glenway Wescott. New York: Arbor House, 1986. Sensitive overview of the novel by a respected veteran U.S. critic. Comprehends what is unique about the novel and those qualities that give it a permanent place in the reader’s memory; discusses how it partakes of an experience specific to the United States.

Bawer, Bruce. “Glenway Wescott 1901-1987.” The New Criterion 5 (May, 1987): 36-45. The most cogent general overview of Wescott’s career and significance. Stresses the aesthetic side of The Grandmothers; especially good on Alwyn’s psychological dilemmas and how his tangled relationship with his family affects his conflicts over his own identity.

Johnson, Ira. Glenway Wescott: The Paradox of Voice. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat, 1971. Stresses the poetic qualities in Wescott’s novelistic method and the extent of his identification with Alwyn. Explores issues of emotional involvement, emotional distance, and authorial perspective in the book.

Rueckert, William H. Glenway Wescott. New York: Twayne, 1965. General overview of Wescott’s career. Devotes a long chapter to The Grandmothers. Gives a good summary of the novel’s often complicated and crowded plot, and acknowledges the book’s symbolic dimension.

Wescott, Glenway. Continual Lessons: The Journals of Glenway Wescott, 1937-1955. Edited by Robert Phelps with Jerry Rosco. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1990. Provides a crucial picture of Wescott’s sympathies, prejudices, and concerns during the major years of his writing career. Contains impressions from Wescott’s childhood that are interesting to compare to the novel.