I couldn’t stand my horrid little penis, and then I lost one of my testicles at the time of the writing of my first book, and so on. And I’ve got a malformed chest, and I’ve never wanted to be looked at or paid attention to.
As to his boyish bottom he remarked, “Much ado about nothing. My ado especially.” Of course this self-loathing was a psychological problem, not primarily a physical one, since he was considered by many to be one of the best-looking men of his generation.
His next book was The Grandmothers ; writing it struck him as “terrifying” since he’d already begun to develop a massive writer’s block that could be dynamited out of his path only with more and more effort and at longer and longer intervals. Perhaps it didn’t help that Wescott was living in Paris with Wheeler and hobnobbing with such productive writers as Somerset Maugham and Jean Cocteau. Nevertheless he was able to finish this autobiographical novel about his relatives and ancestors and to publish it in 1927. It won the prestigious Har- per Prize and earned him the envy and enmity of Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway said to a reporter from the Herald Tribune in a Paris bookshop as he picked up a copy of The Grandmothers :
Would you like to know what’s wrong with this book? In the first place, every sentence was written with the intention of making Glenway Wescott immortal. And in the second place—but what’s the use of telling you what’s in the second place. You work for a kind of family newspaper and you couldn’t print it. Your editor wouldn’t let you.
In The Sun Also Rises, Wescott had already appeared as a gay man “from New York by way of Chicago….” Like many a macho writer, Hemingway was convinced that he was being out-earned and upstaged by the pansy brigade—in his case a trio of gay writers: Glenway Wescott, Thornton Wilder, and Julian Green.
In The Grandmothers Wescott invented a mild-mannered stand-in for himself named Alwyn Tower, whom he would use several times in later books. The focus, however, is on his parents and grandparents and other Wisconsin relatives. A poignant gay love story between two uncles is set in the Civil War and told in a circular, never very precise fashion. Uncle Hilary is in love with his older brother Leander. Hilary is happy during the war, even during the hardships of the battlefield, because he doesn’t have to share Leander with anyone. But when he sees Leander contemplating a portrait of his fiancée, Hilary becomes desperate:
“I wish,” he said with great difficulty, “that I’d never been born—your brother. I’d rather—be dead. I don’t—count. The war won’t—last. You’ll go back—to her. What’ll I do? I want, I can’t—“
Hilary rushes out into the night and soon is missing in action. Leander realizes too late that he has failed to recognize the great love that has come his way. After the war Leander doesn’t marry, but becomes a postman and lives alone. Finally he adopts a beautiful, lazy, shiftless nephew named Timothy and pours all his regret and thwarted love onto the boy. Even his pleasure in Timothy leaves him exhausted: “Joy proved its reality by leaving scars on his face, smaller but deeper than those of sorrow.”
Wescott’s success as a writer continued with the publication in 1928 of an introductory essay and ten short stories called Goodbye, Wisconsin. In that collection he writes in “Adolescence” about a younger boy, Philip, who has a crush on an older, tougher boy, Carl. Of Philip, the narrator says, “He came from the country, and was sensuous and timid.” During a Halloween party Philip dresses in women’s clothes he finds in an attic. As he sits up in a tree he looks at his flounces and tries
to feel his boy’s body inside them; he shook himself from head to toe, and decided that wearing women’s clothes was like being tucked into a luxurious, portable bed. A whalebone in the old corset hurt him and had to be pushed back into place.
Philip watches his beloved Carl pursuing a girl in a Turkish costume “with boisterous but somber violence.” Suddenly Philip is alone with another boy, this one dressed as a soldier who obviously doesn’t recognize him. When the soldier tries to kiss him, Philip gives him a kick and flees. He leaves the party and hurries home, afraid that some of the men coming out of bars will attack him if they think he’s a woman alone—or if they recognize he’s a boy in women’s clothes. As he returns to the miserable boardinghouse where he lives, he wishes he had rich parents as Carl does. The landlady calls out, “Who’s that?” but Philip, still in his rumpled and torn finery, doesn’t answer and hurries upstairs: “She would think that one of her other boarders, the undertaker’s assistant or the patent-medicine vendor, was receiving company in the night.”
In each of his first three books, all of them about Wisconsin, Wescott frequently returns to the theme of poverty and thwarted desire. Sometimes he writes about women disappointed in love and sometimes about sensitive boys who have yet to figure out their homosexuality though they are already in the grip of a passion for another, older young man. In a sense the writing itself is in drag—modern psychological studies of gender ambiguity in the guise of regional studies of struggling, impoverished men and women. The reviews of the day did not recognize the gay themes in his work. To be sure, sexuality is fairly muted in all three books. Perhaps the most passion is lavished on the descriptions of nature and the rendering of the hardscrabble lives of his poor farmers. These are certainly lyrical, forceful works of fiction that deserve to be more widely read.
When Wescott and Wheeler moved to Paris in 1928 they were living with the American photographer George Platt Lynes. Though Wescott and Wheeler were devoted lifelong partners, they each began to take up with new lovers. Lynes (one of the most talented photographers of his generation, famous for his pictures of nude men, celebrities, fashion models, and ballet dancers) was first Wescott’s lover and then Wheeler’s. Theirs was a bohemian milieu in which people often played romantic musical chairs. Even Wescott’s handsome brother Lloyd, a famous womanizer, slept at least once with Lynes. In Paris Lynes pursued his affair with Wheeler and simultaneously with the brilliant young Surrealist novelist René Crevel, who seven years later would commit suicide. Author of Difficult Death, Crevel was not only the leading Communist among the Surrealists but the only prominent French Surrealist homosexual (André Breton was deeply homophobic). When the International Communist Congress irrationally expelled the Surrealists in the mid-1930s, calling them “pederasts,” Crevel killed himself in part because of this double rejection.
One of Wescott’s lifelong lovers was the wealthy book collector and perfume manufacturer Jacques Guérin. Later, after World War II, Guérin would become a patron and benefactor of Jean Genet—and Wescott (perhaps out of jealousy) would fail to see Genet’s genius. In his journals Wescott writes with a weary philistine sense of superiority, “Jean Genet, a kleptomaniac assassinophilic pornographic writer, is the great celebrity in Paris now.” When I interviewed the ancient Jacques Guérin in the 1990s for my biography of Genet, Guérin was still talking about Wescott with ardor and affection.
While in Paris until their return to New York in 1934, Wescott and Wheeler would socialize with many rich and fashionable people, including Pauline Potter, a Paris-born American fashion designer who would eventually marry Philippe de Rothschild and become known as one of the women of her generation with the best taste—surely an elusive distinction but one that has often been repeated. Wescott seemed to have a genuine gift for friendship. Among his many friends he counted Marianne Moore, Katherine Anne Porter, Somerset Maugham, the Russian painter Pavel Tchelitchew, the American poet Charles Henri Ford, and many others less well known. People often treat the gift of friendship as mysterious, yet (as in Wescott’s case) it comes down mainly to charm but also to energy and persistence.
Wescott was a talented and persevering letter writer. He remembered birthdays and made a great occasion out of every festivity. He was a confidant who also confided in others (intimacy is not always a two-way street, which egotistical friends don’t notice at first but come to resent in the long run). In fact he was fairly indiscreet, but in the beau monde that counts more as a virtue than a vice, while in the scientific world of Kinsey’s sex research Wescott’s gossipiness was a bad habit he was forced to shed, at least while he was in Bloomington.
Maugham was a difficult friend because he was always demanding that Wescott write more. Maugham was not only prolific but also a best-seller, though snobs dismissed his work as middlebrow (a category that few people worry about in our day but that once was anathema). When Wescott wrote his masterpiece, The Pilgrim Hawk, in 1940, Maugham (perhaps a bit envious) warned him,
You haven’t any business writing things like The Pilgrim Hawk…. You’ve got to choose right now. You can either be the American Cocteau, or you can be the American Trollope, and what you ought to do is be Trollope.
At the time, of course, Trollope was held in considerably less esteem than he is now and Cocteau was far better known than he is in 2008, though The Pilgrim Hawk is a tighter, more closely worked book than even Cocteau’s best novels, Les Enfants terribles (sometimes called in English The Holy Terrors ) and Thomas l’imposteur. In any event, Maugham’s comment was off the mark since Wescott was always more likely to achieve a Coctellian concision and epigrammatic wisdom than a Trollopian fluency and sociological breadth.
The Pilgrim Hawk is one of the neglected masterpieces of twentieth-century American literature. It was Wescott’s first novel set not in the Midwest but in France, though the characters are an American man and woman, her servants (a couple from Morocco), and a visiting Irish couple and their dashing chauffeur. Wescott is no longer writing about poor farmers but about rich idlers just before the Depression who have too much money and too much time on their hands.
It takes place in one long afternoon at a house in a village next to a large landscaped park (in fact based on Barbara Harrison’s house in Rambouillet). Alwyn Tower, the first-person narrator based on Wescott, is quite clear about being an observer as sexless as Isherwood’s “Herr Issyvoo.” He’s also a disappointed writer. While thinking about mental and sentimental human hungers, he reflects on
my own undertaking in early manhood to be a literary artist. No one warned me that I really did not have talent enough. Therefore my hope of becoming a very good artist turned bitter, hot and nerve-racking; and it would get worse as I grew older.
The point is that the unsuccessful artist is like the aging falcon, which weakens and loses its eyesight and is no longer able to hunt and dies of starvation and humiliation. Paradoxically, Wescott is taking this self-defeated tone at the very moment he is writing his strongest book.
The distinctive element in this novella is also its occasional flaw—its “wisdom,” all the apothegms that sometimes are unconvincing or too obvious or downright sententious, though most of the time they are pithy and as effective as the epigrams in Elizabeth Bowen’s novels. One unconvincing comment is: “Women who have been spoiled by the many, tormented by one, often have an air of innocence.” That observation is so retrofitted to the specific case that it seems unsuitable as a generality. And here’s a bit of starstruck Wisconsin sententiousness: “But not even aristocracy can be expected to give good examples of itself all the time.”
When the generalities are convincing, they can have a peculiar poetic rightness about them, for example when Wescott writes about the character of Madeleine Cullen, the owner of the falcon, an Irish landowner who must keep traveling restlessly to distract her alcoholic and greedy husband from his drink and food. At the moment they are passing through Paris to shop and heading to Hungary to hunt. The husband, who is both uxorious and philandering, seems besotted with his wife and horribly jealous of the bird she’s protecting.
And although the falcon, Lucy (named after Sir Walter Scott’s heroine), is a symbol and an emblem and is seen in many different lights as many different things by the narrator, nevertheless it is a wonderfully wild and pagan presence throughout the book. Wescott has done his homework and refers knowledgeably to the whole vocabulary of falconry: “croaks” (a disease birds get) and a “haggard” (a falcon that has already hunted on its own before capture) and “mantling” (standing on one leg and spreading its wings) and “bating” (suddenly turning upside down) and the bird’s “mute” (shit). In describing the bird he rises to great heights:
I expected her to scream, aik! But the only sound was the jingling of her bell and the convulsion of her plumage, air panting through her plumage. The tail feathers and the flight feathers, shooting out rigidly, threshed against herself and against her mistress from head to foot. Mrs. Cullen, not the least disconcerted, raised her left arm straight up over her head, and stood up and stood quite still, only turning her face away from the flapping and whipping. Her equanimity impressed me as much as her strength.
The poor woman will need both equanimity and strength when her husband becomes violent—but I won’t give the story away.
Four years later Wescott wrote his last real book, Apartment in Athens, an anti-Nazi novel published in 1945. The times were so different from ours that Wescott was able to complain that whereas he’d hoped his book would be a best-seller the first edition sold “only” 500,000 copies in its first year! It is a powerful story of an upper- middle-class Greek couple whose apartment is requisitioned by a Nazi officer. He turns the couple into his servants and terrorizes them. When he shows a bit of vulnerability, however, after his two soldier sons are killed in battle and his wife is burned to death, the Greek man forgets himself (his own son has died in battle) and mutters something against Hitler and Mussolini. The German officer has the Greek thrown into prison—and then commits suicide, but stages it in such a way that it will look as if he’s been murdered by the Greek couple, whose relatives are known to be in the Resistance.
The plot is melodramatic but no more than the times were. Wescott was in reality too good a writer to be an effective propagandist. Monstrous as his Nazi officer is, he is nevertheless a well-rounded, all-too-human character—we end up understanding him and nearly forgiving him. The only flaw is that the officer’s rhetoric sometimes sounds too much like Schopenhauer (minus the pessimism) to be true. He tells the Greek that whereas ordinary mortals want to win and win now, Germans are indifferent to victory: “You naturally are afraid of fate. We are not afraid, because we have identified ourselves with it, we are active in it, we are it.”
In 1947 Wescott was elected to what was then called the National Institute of Arts and Letters and began four decades of work for the institution. In this period Wescott and Wheeler and Lynes all passed young lovers around, including a Russian named Yuri of whom Wescott said, “It was like going to bed with sweet butter and toast.” E.M. Forster visited Wheeler and Wescott in New York with his married policeman, Bob Buckingham.
Wescott’s terror of writing grew with every year—exactly why no one seems to know. Some people suggest that he feared failure. That he’d written himself out. That he was too closeted to tackle his real subject, homosexuality, though in fact he did write in 1938 an entirely successful long short story called “A Visit to Priapus” that he refused to have published till after his death. It’s a sad and comic story of someone who hears about an extraordinarily well-endowed man living in a New England village. The narrator goes far out of his way to meet this prodigy—but in fact Priapus, after spending a lifetime servicing straight men as the town queer, doesn’t want to be serviced himself and has no use for his huge organ. In this way Wescott was like Forster, who would let Maurice, his queer novel, be published only posthumously (Wescott and Isherwood were the literary executors who shepherded it into print).
Perhaps the most interesting and unexpected chapter in Wescott’s post-artistic life was his collaboration with Alfred Kinsey, the great sexologist. Wescott, who became a friend (and even occasional sex partner) to the bisexual Kinsey, spent long periods at his research center in Indiana, sorting through the largest pornography collection in the world outside of the Vatican. Kinsey took sexual histories of Wescott and all his friends. Kinsey was even invited to a gay cocktail party in New York for two hundred young men given by one of Wheeler’s lovers. Kinsey was certainly one of the more intelligent and least conventional people of his era and Wescott learned to like himself a bit more because of their friendship (and sexual camaraderie).
Over the years Glenway Wescott wrote some extraordinary literary essays—“mere appreciation,” as literary theorists would say, which of course is the best kind of writing about writing and the only kind the general public likes to read. In Wescott’s case these essays were intimately tied to his friendships. He wrote on Katherine Anne Porter, on Somerset Maugham, on Thornton Wilder, and on people he admired but knew only casually (Colette, Thomas Mann, and Isak Dinesen). These essays were collected in Images of Truth (1962). Although the Colette essay has been largely superceded by Judith Thurman’s definitive biography, at the time it introduced many readers (including this one) to the French novelist’s superb oeuvre.
Robert Phelps (who had edited Colette’s writings in order to piece together an autobiography, Earthly Paradise ) excerpted Wescott’s journals to produce Continual Lessons: 1937–1955 (his co-editor was Jerry Rosco). The book, as arranged by Wescott, was published only in 1990 after his death. It is full of gossip. Wescott says he is avoiding Thornton Wilder because of his dirty fingernails and his hypocrisy about his homosexuality. As early as 1949 he is expressing guilty despair over having written no fiction since Apartment in Athens. Again and again he speculates about the causes of his own silence, which obviously torments him. He is at once complacent and hypercritical of himself:
I haven’t any great strength of character even for art’s sake; only a certain persistent subtlety. I haven’t great inspiration; only a lifetime’s know-how, and accumulated subjects.
Susan Sontag declared in a late essay, “Where the Stress Falls,” that The Pilgrim Hawk belongs
among the treasures of twentieth-century American literature, however untypical are its sleek, subtle vocabulary, the density of its attention to character, its fastidious pessimism, and the clipped worldliness of its point of view.
It seems that at one moment, just as the war was beginning, Wescott was able to look back at the expatriate Twenties in France, the period he clearly had liked the most, his glory days “before the revolution,” and write about it with all the moral seriousness of his Wisconsin forebears and the fluidity and sophistication of his adopted Parisian milieu. He produced many beautiful pages and only one short masterpiece—but a great piece of fiction of any length is a cause for celebration, not regret.