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The Return of Janet Lewis

The Dear Past (1994)

by Janet Lewis
Robert L. Barth, 48 pp., (out of print)

The Wife of Martin Guerre (1941)

by Janet Lewis
Ohio University Press/Swallow Press, 109 pp., $7.95 (paper)

Goodbye, Son (1943)

by Janet Lewis
Ohio University Press/Swallow Press, 221 pp., $10.95 (paper)

The Invasion (1932)

by Janet Lewis
Michigan State University Press, 356 pp., $21.95 (paper)

The Trial of Soren Qvist (1947)

by Janet Lewis
Ohio University Press/Swallow Press, 256 pp., $12.95 (paper)

The Ghost of Monsieur Scarron (1959)

by Janet Lewis
Ohio University Press/Swallow Press, 378 pp., $11.95 (paper)

1.

In 1922 the printer-typographer Monroe Wheeler, who would go on to have a long and distinguished career with MoMA, set off to be a young-man-about-Europe. He was determined to publish poetry and publish it elegantly, to which end he established (first in Germany) an imprint called Manikin, under which he issued three booklets of verse. The first, The Indians in the Woods, was by a young Midwestern poet named Janet Lewis; William Carlos Williams’s Go Go was the second; the third and last was Marriage, by Marianne Moore.

Not long before he left Illinois, Wheeler had got his feet wet typographically, so to speak, by publishing two books of verse now not easily secured: The Bitterns, by his friend Glenway Westcott, and The Immobile Wind, by a young teacher of languages named Arthur Yvor Winters, who had, not long before, been released from the Sunmount Sanatorium in Santa Fe, where he recovered from a serious bout with tuberculosis. Young Winters was soon to go off to Moscow, Idaho, to take the only teaching job he could get, but, on a trip to Chicago, he met Janet Lewis. Monroe Wheeler was one link, poetry a second, and tuberculosis a third, for Janet Lewis too was soon forced to go off to Sunmount, where—after nearly five years—she also recovered. Hers was a close call. The two married in 1926—Janet Lewis was still in Sunmount and Yvor Winters still teaching in Idaho, from whence he carried on an intense correspondence, largely about poetics, with Hart Crane, Allen Tate, and others. Once Janet Lewis was well, the young couple moved to California and Winters took up the professorship at Stanford that he was to hold for the rest of his life.

Together the two writers raised children (two), Airedales and goats (many), and—one might say—poets: ranks upon ranks of poets who came to learn from Winters; in their memoirs he is still legend. He wrote his books, Janet wrote hers. To his enemies in criticism—at various times they included the Agrarians (particularly John Crowe Ransom), Eliot, Pound, R.P. Blackmur, and many others—Yvor Winters was a bruiser, a kind of absolutist gladiator who struck often and with considerable accuracy at flaws in a poem or a critical system. To poets—from Hart Crane on to J.V. Cunningham, Donald Justice, Donald Hall, Thom Gunn, Ann Stanford, Robert Haas, and many others—he was a kind of Apostle, though of course they felt varying degrees of allegiance to his beliefs about poetry and of attachment to the man himself; but to Janet Lewis he was, for forty-two years, a much-treasured husband, as she makes clear in an audiotape made twenty years after his death. The cut of that grief went very deep; his name, A. Yvor Winters, is still on the mailbox of their modest house in Los Altos.

Of all the above mentioned, Wheeler and Westcott, Crane, Tate, Williams, Marianne Moore, and Yvor Winters are gone, but Janet Lewis lives on, for the most part happily, in Los Altos; her sight has weakened but not her spirit. She has published poetry in every decade of this century except the first, poetry that has never lacked for champions. One of the most ardent, at present, is Thom Gunn, who had this to say about her most recent collection, The Dear Past (1994):

I think she should be getting the closest attention. In this collection of old age, almost incredibly, she is simultaneously as stringent and sweet-natured, as sharp and generous as she was throughout the Collected Poems. She is as ever deceptively simple. That is, hers is the best kind of simplicity, because it contains an implied complexity….

The Dear Past reprints poems published between 1918 and 1991, a wingspan all but incredible, and made the more so by the clarity and authority of a voice she has sustained for so long: a voice that is considered, lucid, spare, and tough on itself in a high Midwestern way. Though perhaps less imperatively than her husband, she too has touched many poets, from the time of Hart Crane to the time of Robert Haas. Of her verse she has kept and reprinted only about a poem a year, taking her time and finishing her work; luckily she has been granted a great deal of time to take.

In addition to the poetry Janet Lewis has written two children’s books, six books of prose, four libretti, and a number of chorales. Though I am mainly concerned in this essay to applaud and perhaps bring new readers to the three remarkable historical novels she published between 1941 and 1959, I do think that Janet Lewis’s more than eighty years of vigorous, variegated, and steady devotion to literature deserves a salute. She is a striking example of a quiet talent working quietly through almost the entirety of a noisy, celebrity-heavy century.

From so much attention one would expect a masterpiece, and it too is there, The Wife of Martin Guerre (1941), the story of an artifice so skillful, so confusing to its victims, that simple honesty is defeated and a good woman brought to ruin.1 It’s a short novel that can run with Billy Budd, The Spoils of Poynton, Seize the Day, or any other of the thoroughbred novellas that might be brought to the gate.

In a statement given to Stanley Kunitz and Howard Haycraft for the 1955 edition of that still-invaluable reference work Twentieth Century Authors, Janet Lewis made a couple of intriguing statements. She mentions her husband’s standing as a breeder of Airedales, but says nothing about his fame as a literary critic, encouraging us to suspect that the much-feared Yvor Winters, one of the hardest hitters of the bare-knucklers who slugged it out in the bloody pit of criticism as it was in the Thirties and Forties, may really have put more of his heart into his dogs. About herself she has this to say:

I have lived a life rather lacking in “events” but with a rich and in the main very happy background. This sort of life does not provide a very interesting brief biography. The interest is chiefly in the background, which can’t be treated briefly and still be interesting.

Though that statement was made forty-three years ago, I doubt she would modify it much today.

2.

That life began in Chicago, in 1899. (Janet, who is often amused, was particularly amused recently when a schoolgirl pointed out that if she makes it another couple of years she’ll have lived in three centuries.) Her father, Edwin Herbert Lewis, a teacher and writer, encouraged his children’s artistic leanings from the first. Her brother, Herbert Lewis, designed the dust jacket and endpapers for her first work of prose, The Invasion (1931). She went to the same Oak Park high school as Hemingway, at the same time, and was friends with his sister Marcelline, who was in her French club. “So I heard a lot about Ernie,” she says now. She and Hemingway each have a poem in the January 1923 issue of Poetry.

The Lewises, like the Hemingways, had a summer place up in Michigan, in the Lewises’ case way up, on an island in the St. Mary’s River, midway between Mackinac and the Sault Ste. Marie. She includes three or four up-in-Michigan stories in the collection Goodbye, Son, stories which contrast interestingly with Hemingway’s Michigan stories. The emotional saw-teeth beneath the clear surface of Hemingway’s prose are not there in Janet Lewis, though, like as not, her stories are more overtly tragic than his. In stories such as “Proserpina,” “River,” and “Nell,” the local tragedies and misfortunes—a kindly drunk’s drowning, an appealing young woman self-thwarted—are ringed with a soft Midwestern melancholy closer in tone to Sherwood Anderson or Edgar Lee Masters than to the pre-existential edginess of Hemingway. The St. Mary’s River country she describes in The Invasion is that country unspoiled, as it was in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; but in his “Big Two-Hearted River” the same country is despoiled, the scarred terrain a natural metaphor for burnout. Janet Lewis had been happy in Michigan; she saw it as a fullness, whereas for Hemingway it seemed to accentuate the absences in life.

Another difference is that her interest in Michigan, once it went beyond the responses of an enraptured child on a summer outing, was historical. She made Ojibway friends, and was soon deep in the history of that much-disputed region: first Indian, then French, then British, then American, and always, after the French arrived, metis. The Invasion is an imaginative history of the founding Johnston family, a family in which Scotch-Irish and Indian blood soon mixed. It happened to be the family, too, into which the pioneering ethnographer Henry Schoolcraft married, a distant result of which was Hiawatha, Mr. Longfellow having depended more than a little on Henry Schoolcraft’s researches. Janet Lewis has always insisted that The Invasion is a “narrative,” not a novel; whatever one calls it, it is a confident, pungently written first book, with close attention paid to the densities, the shading, and the smells of the Northern forests and its peoples, at the time when the Americans first came to them.

That Janet Lewis, the woman, was less depressed than her schoolmate Ernest Hemingway is not to suggest that her work is Pollyanna-ish; the message of her major fiction is very dark indeed. She comes back again and again to the fate of honesty in a violent world. Her novels are tragedies, and this despite the fact that she was the product of a happy family, and, as a wife and mother, helped mold a happy family. The calm of her prose, and of the best of her verse, is a hard-won—indeed, a philosophic—calm. No one, saint or poet, could have lived through almost the entire twentieth century—or any century—and remained undisturbed. It is what she makes of her disturbances, as she struggles to keep her balance and do her duty, that is impressive. Not for nothing was the little magazine that she and her husband published for a single year in the late twenties called The Gyroscope: the instrument that spins and yet does not lose its balance.

HartCrane was awed by Yvor Winters’s learning—why, he could even read Portuguese!—and so impressed by his sensitivity to poetry that he allowed him to midwife The Bridge, rather as Pound had midwifed The Waste Land; and, though there was an ugly quarrel once Winters’s harsh, disappointed review of the finished poem came out, Crane had not been entirely wrong to trust Winters’s ear and his sensitivity. Yvor Winters from the first put the act of evaluation at the center of his critical practice. In The Armed Vision Stanley Edgar Hyman poked fun at some of Winters’s wilder overestimations—Elizabeth Baryush, Jones Very, Sturge Moore—but he still respected Winters’s force as a critic. This essay is about Janet Lewis, not Yvor Winters, but it is, I think, of interest that all Janet Lewis’s major fiction hinges on the difficulty of just and accurate evaluation, not merely in the law but in the mundane circumstances of everyday life, where the consequences of misevaluation are apt to be more destructive than they usually are in literary criticism. Something of the evaluative habits of the poet-critic husband soaked deep into the creative practices of the poet-novelist wife.

  1. 1

    For a skillful unraveling of the complex history behind the Martin Guerre story, readers are referred to The Return of Martin Guerre, by Natalie Zemon Davis (Harvard University Press, 1983).

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