The Grandmothers: A Family Portrait

by Glenway Wescott
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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 750

Hope’s Corner

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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 holds plates painted by the family daughter Nancy, who marries after the Civil War and moves to Iowa. After intermittent bouts with madness and recovery, she comes home to rest in the “silent land” of the family cemetery.

The kitchen is Grandmother Tower’s domain. Filled with treasures of the past—a dented copper kettle used as a foot-bath, a sugar barrel, and hand-hewn chests, the kitchen is a place where Grandmother Tower shares family histories with Alwyn. As she exercises her talents for cooking, sewing, and story telling, she teaches Alwyn that America is a land to be guarded and used for the glory of God, “the owner.” However, her stories also teach Alwyn of the “darkness of life” in the Land of Promise, as Grandmother Tower relates the personal tragedies that comprise the chapters of this novel.

Duff house

Duff house. Home of Alwyn’s maternal grandparents, Ursula and Ira Duff, in Aaronsville, Wisconsin, where Alwyn stays while he attends school. A typical middle-class house, it has a front lawn fenced by hedges, a vegetable garden, and a stable. The house reflects Grandmother Duff’s stiffness and modesty, which becomes a “form of madness” as she grows older. The antagonistic relationship between Ursula and Ira makes the house uncomfortable for family and friends.

Fielding house

Fielding house. Chicago home of Alwyn’s “third grandmother,” the mother of Uncle Jim’s wife, Caroline Fielding. The widow of a descendant of Cromwell Fielding, merchant tycoon of Chicago, Mrs. Fielding reigns in her house like royalty. She is a fearful person who rarely leaves home and forces her daughters to remain by her side. When Jim’s wife dies, Mrs. Fielding insists that he compromise his own ambitions and live in her home. Alwyn is a frequent visitor there, as he loves his Uncle Jim.


*Paris. Capital of France in which Alwyn spends time while wandering through Europe during the 1920’s. Apparently a member of America’s self-exiled “lost generation”—artistic expatriates who spend their days pondering the American republic and trying to explain it—Alwyn decides to publish the stories of his grandmothers so that others might better understand the American character. The people who settled the American West, he concludes, could not bring civilization to the frontier because they were “perpetual pioneers,” too caught up in the individual dramas of everyday life to build an orderly, sophisticated society. Yet they had given birth to a composite American character that was the “hero” of all his grandmothers’ stories. In comparison with that character’s dwelling place, Europe seemed merely the “scene of a classic play continually repeated.”


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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 251

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.

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