I met Glenway Wescott in the fall of 1970. Richard Howard and I were spending a weekend with Coburn Britton, the founding editor of Prose, a thick, beautifully produced “little” magazine that was publishing reminiscences and meditations by Wescott. “Coby” had an old apple farm in New Jersey where we were staying, not far from Haymeadows, where the whole Wescott clan was living. Glenway’s handsome brother Lloyd had married a banking heiress, Barbara Harrison, and they’d bought the property. Lloyd and Barbara were in one house; Glenway was in another with his lover, Monroe Wheeler. Glenway and Lloyd’s parents lived in yet another house. There were cooks and farmhands everywhere, though the atmosphere was casual and friendly.
In those days I was a resentful young man since I was very poor and though I’d written several books I hadn’t managed to get any of them published. Richard Howard had already won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry and had translated dozens of the most important modern books in French. Coby was rich from his Cleveland industrial family and in the winter lived in a house on St. Luke’s Place in New York City. Although the Wescotts had started out as subsistence-level farmers in Wisconsin, they now lived in luxury, thanks to Barbara’s generosity. Glenway was nearly seventy but still tall and handsome and tweedy and celebrated in his own elite world. He was perhaps best known for his novella The Pilgrim Hawk: A Love Story, which was sometimes ranked as one of the best American short novels along with William Faulkner’s The Bear, Katherine Anne Porter’s Noon Wine, Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, and Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw.
When I met him I hadn’t yet read anything by him and he struck me as intolerably urbane and amiable, someone who had lived in France for ages and who had dashed off a few books but then fallen into a silence that had already lasted decades and that was broken only by occasional belletristic essays. He seemed most concerned with his social schedule and his activities connected with the National Institute of Arts and Letters (now called the American Academy of Arts and Letters), where he was an officer for years. He entertained foreign writers at his East Side apartment. He might have lectured on topics such as “Whither the Novel?” Everything I loathed. He wasn’t a real writer—he was a clubwoman! Moreover, though he’d touched on homosexuality as a theme he was pretty much in the closet in his published work, I gathered.
A bad first impression, perhaps all the worse because I could see myself giving up writing before I’d even started and substituting committee work for painful hours at my desk, though I supposed you had to publish something before you could retire. He had a light, “fun” manner that seemed very Parisian and mondain —and totally repellent. Now all these years later I’m a member in good standing on the awards committee at the American Academy, I write belletristic essays such as this one, I’ve spent sixteen years living in Paris far from my native Ohio, and my own manner is probably as flutey and “frivolous” as Wescott’s, even if I’ll never be as handsome or have such a mellifluous voice. Or write such a perfect piece of prose as The Pilgrim Hawk.
I suppose the main difference between us is that I have dealt with homosexuality openly and at length, for better or for worse—a freedom that was handed to me by the times, rather than one that I seized. And this freedom has made me far more productive than Wescott, as has my eternal scrambling after money: I live from one advance to the next.
In the meanwhile I’ve read most of Wescott and come to recognize his immense talent, which of course erases all my earlier doubts. A new biography, Glenway Wescott Personally by Jerry Rosco (a title that echoes the name of Wescott’s essay “Katherine Anne Porter Personally”), sets forth clearly the public triumphs and private sufferings experienced during this long and interesting life. A biography of a “minor” writer such as Wescott is always a labor of love and readers can only be grateful to Rosco for his curiosity and eloquence.
Wescott was born in Wisconsin on a farm in 1901, the older son of an overworked couple. He was sickly and a sissy and had no aptitude for rural chores, though he must have poured a lot of energy into observing the men and women around him, since they would provide the literary capital he would draw on for many years to come in three major books, The Apple of the Eye, The Grandmothers, and Goodbye, Wisconsin. Although he was troubled by his homosexuality, as anyone of his era would have been, he nevertheless had an affair when he was only thirteen with a fifteen-year-old neighbor boy— and the remarkable thing is that it lasted for a while until Earl discovered girls.
By the time he was fourteen Wescott was publishing stories in the school magazine, The Megaphone. His parents were so poor that he was passed around among relatives—and at sixteen he earned a scholarship to the University of Chicago. At first he didn’t get along at the big university:
I lived all the way on the West Side. I was small. I was bad tempered. I was homosexual. I was poor. And I had a very bad tongue, if you provoked me. I was not afraid of anybody.
Fortunately he met Yvor Winters, a very young mentor in search of an even younger disciple. Winters, who would later teach for many years at Stanford and influence students such as Thom Gunn, Donald Hall, and Robert Pinsky, took an interest in Wescott and pushed him toward the principles of Imagism. Winters was opposed to Romantic rhetoric and believed in understatement and strict forms; perhaps he usefully curbed some of Wescott’s natural exuberance. Wescott always credited Winters with turning him into a poet. Though Winters was completely heterosexual and even a bit homophobic, he was willing to shape the talent of the sixteen-year-old sissy from Wisconsin.
Two years later Wescott met his life companion, Monroe Wheeler, who was only twenty himself. Wheeler had decided to skip college and had gone to work for a Chicago advertising firm. He was from a middle-class family of bibliophiles in Evanston; when Monroe asked his father for a motorcycle for his eighteenth birthday his father gave him instead a small printing press, a prophetic present since years later in Paris Monroe would publish beautiful limited editions and still later become the director of publications at the Museum of Modern Art.
Glenway, after working a few weeks at the only conventional job he would ever have, as a shipping clerk in a department store, took off and accompanied Yvor Winters to Santa Fe, where Winters was sent by his parents for his health. Urged on by Winters, Wescott wrote many poems and became friendly with Vachel Lindsay and Marsden Hartley as well as other local writers and artists. He flirted with lots of men and was condemned by some of them for being too “obvious.” As he later recalled:
I really was a very heady brew—I was too good looking, too pretty, with a pout like Rimbaud, and very flamboyant. I talked and talked and some people adored me, and others got irritated.
According to Jerry Rosco’s biography, “by the end of 1920, Wheeler and Wescott began to form the bond that would produce one of the great relationships of the century.” It wasn’t particularly sexual but it did promote their shared social and artistic ambitions and it was full of an enduring tenderness and mutual esteem. For a while Wescott lived back in Evanston with the Wheeler family until Mrs. Wheeler drew him aside and said his presence was an undue economic burden on them. Wescott moved out and became an office boy for Poetry, the celebrated little magazine edited by Harriet Monroe. There he met Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap and charmed most of the local literati except Carl Sandburg, who thought Wescott’s obvious homosexuality was disgraceful. (Years later even Sandburg came around.)
Wescott and Wheeler spent the summer of 1921 in the Berkshires house of an artistic patron, which had been the birthplace of William Cullen Bryant. There Wescott wrote the first part of his first novel, The Apple of the Eye. When this novel was eventually published in 1924 it proved that he was a regional writer of both great delicacy and strength. The delicacy lay in the language and the descriptive details and even the moral observations. The strength consisted in the unforgettable presentation of characters, particularly women.
The Apple of the Eye, praised by Kenneth Burke and Sinclair Lewis, was an auspicious beginning, although it seemed more a series of accomplished character sketches than a unified narrative. The first third of the novel is dedicated to Bad Han, a woman who has a dalliance with a young handsome farmer who gets her pregnant—and then abandons her to marry an heiress. Hannah drifts off to a nearby town, Fond du Lac, and becomes a casual prostitute. When Jule (her ex-lover) and his wife find out what has become of Hannah they give her a farm and invite her to move back among them. Hannah becomes a useful if eccentric nurse and midwife to the local farming families. She is even something of a witch, though a sympathetic one who smokes a pipe and looks after her animals. The unspoken understanding that Jule and his wife come to with Hannah defies most readers’ preconceptions about narrow rural prejudices. In fact the novel provides its characters with a generosity of spirit that is completely unexpected and convincing.
In 1921, Wescott tried to make love to a Chicago writer, Kathleen Foster, with a view toward marrying her:
I took her in my arms and kissed her and—I almost jumped out the window. It was a very extraordinary panic—not disgust but an experience so foreign, the physical sensation so foreign, that it really was the limit.
At least he did not go so far as George Eliot’s young husband, John Cross, who actually did leap from their hotel window during their honeymoon in Venice.
After the failure of his attempt at marriage and heterosexuality, Wescott and Wheeler moved to Europe. They became friendly with the Sitwells and the novelist Mary Butts (a follower of the satanic Aleister Crowley and the woman whom the gay composer Virgil Thomson in his tell-nothing memoir pretends to be in love with). As if being tempted to jump out the window while kissing Kathleen Foster were not enough of a sexual trauma, Wescott next contracted Spanish flu and had to have a testicle removed. No wonder years later he hesitated before letting sexologist Alfred Kinsey film him masturbating: