Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 669
Janet Lewis is regarded as one of the most important women writers of the twentieth century. She was born just outside Chicago and moved with her family—father Edwin, mother Elizabeth, and brother Herbert—to Oak Park when she was six. On summer vacations in northern Michigan, Lewis met the Johnston family, descendants of white settler John Johnston and his Ojibway wife, Neengay. Their campfire tales about their grandparents provided Lewis with memories she used as sources for future writings.
Lewis attended Lewis Institute and the University of Chicago, obtaining her degree in 1920. She worked briefly at the American consulate in Paris, followed by work at Redbook and teaching at Lewis Institute in 1921. In January, 1922, she was diagnosed as having tuberculosis. That summer she entered Sunmount Sanatorium in New Mexico. Except for short periods, Lewis remained at Sunmount until 1927. During these years Lewis published her first volume of poetry, The Indians in the Woods, and a children’s book, Ollie Ostrich.
She and Yvor Winters met in 1921, were engaged in 1923, and married in June of 1926. She stayed at Sunmount one more year, while he taught in Idaho. In the fall of 1927 the couple moved to California. Lewis published more poetry, The Wheel in Midsummer, while Winters began working toward a doctorate at Stanford University. During this time Lewis wrote short stories which appeared in periodicals and later were collected in Good-bye, Son.
Throughout the 1930’s, Lewis combined motherhood—a daughter, Joanna (born 1930), and a son, Daniel (born 1938)—with her writing. Her historical novel The Invasion, half documentary and half fiction, developed the Johnston family’s midwestern saga of the confrontations between the Native Americans and the European settlers. The newcomers tamed the frontier and imposed their political, economic, and social values upon the land’s earlier people. In the regional conflict Lewis not only showed what happened but also shaped her plot to show why it happened. Through the almost mythic character of the visionary Neengay and her symbolic household, Lewis suggested that the deepest social values of civilization are damaged when moral decay prevails. Thematically, Against a Darkening Sky (set in modern California) related to this fable, for it illustrated how traditional social and moral values break down when dreams of justice and responsibility are destroyed.
In 1933 the Lewis/Winters household was shocked by a Stanford murder trial. A university employee, David Lamson, was convicted on circumstantial evidence for his wife’s murder. Later, Lamson was retried and freed. Although Winters wrote a pamphlet defending Lamson and helped draft his appeal, Lewis was affected in a different way.
The plots for three of Lewis’s novels focused on misinterpretations of circumstantial evidence, based on brief summaries in Famous Cases of Circumstantial Evidence (1873). Frequently considered a short masterpiece, The Wife of Martin Guerre concerns a Frenchman who returns after a long absence in the wars and a wife who doubts his identity. The second, The Trial of Sören Qvist, portrays the unjust execution of a Danish parson and suggests philosophical reasons why he willingly accepts his death. Many critics view this work as superior to The Wife of Martin Guerre.
In 1951 Lewis received a Guggenheim Fellowship and personally researched Parisian sites for the third, The Ghost of Monsieur Scarron. This complex tale depicts a bookbinder, during the reign of Louis XIV, who is punished unjustly. However, plot actions center on the wife’s choices. Thematically, the victims’ punishments in these novels underline the universal theme of appearance versus reality. Yet, the possible conflicts and options for right and wrong social and moral actions in The Ghost of Monsieur Scarron characteristically projected deeper levels of philosophical meaning.
During her long career, except for a second children’s book, Keiko’s Bubble, written while she attempted to learn Japanese, Lewis wrote no more novels. Instead, she collected and published her earlier poetry; published The Ancient Ones, new poems inspired by several trips to the Southwest in the 1970’s and 1980’s; edited her late husband’s poetry; and wrote opera librettos.