Dave Wood's Book Report, Oct. 22, 2008
I guess I'm showing my age. I got all excited when I received for review
"Goodbye, Wisconsin," by Glenway Wescott (Borderland Books, $28). Borderland is an imprint of the University of Wisconsin Press, which for years has published a series of books by gay writers, most of whom were not from Wisconsin, like Christopher Isherwood. But Wescott -- he was a Wisconsin guy, who grew up in Kewaskum.
So I told several friends, mostly literature teachers, mostly younger than I am. And what did they say?
Back in my day, when it snowed more, rained more, blew more, when winter was much colder than now, when people were better liars, better lovers, better storytellers, Glenway Wescott was all over the place, his short stories anthologized, his 1920s novels required reading. He served as president of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. He was an expatriate in 1920s Paris, he hung out with Somerset Maugham, Jean Cocteau, Catherine Anne Porter and E. M. Foerster.
When he died in 1987, New Yorker writer William Maxwell said at his memorial service "What a wonderful life. A life dedicated with a saintlike monomania to the art of writing and the world of letters -- so crammed with friendships with gifted people, so rich in pleasures of the eye and the mind."
So now Borderland has collected a number of his essays and short stories in a handsome volume and I got another crack at the kid from Kewaskum who made it in the big time.
The Title comes from an article he wrote for the New York Herald Tribune when he returned from Paris. In many ways it's a tribute to Wescott's natal state:
"The state with a beautiful name -- glaciers once having made of it their pasture -- is an anthology, a collection of all the kinds of landscape, perfect examples side by side. Ranges of hills strung from the great lake to the Mississippi River in long lustrous necklaces, one above another from the northern throat of the state until well below its waist. Peacock lakes of bronze weeds and vivid water, with steep shores; for or five of them to be seen at a time from certain hilltops. Fertility and wilderness in rapid succession along powdery highways: classic meadows where the cattle seem to walk and eat in their sleep, sandy slopes full of foxes, ledges where there are still rattlesnakes. Sad forests full of springs; the springs have a feverish breath ... All summer the horizon trembles, hypnotically flickering over the full grain, the taffeta corn, and the labor in them of dark, over-clothed men, singing women, awe stricken children ...."
And in some ways it isn't so great:
"Wisconsin [has] a strangely limited moral order. Drunkenness; old or young initiations into love; homesickness in one's father's home for one's own, wherever it may be, or the more usual sort with its attendant disappointment; the fear of God; more drunkenness. Roads and piazzas and lawns, small houses and small towns and other tiresome roads. That is all there is to it. And set beside a complicatedly unfolding reality, it seems little or not enough; too formal, as one's view of something which in one's childhood one did not expect to see change; now too squalid and now too noble; painted with too rudimentary a brush."
It's difficult to categorize Wescott. There's the clear-eyed Wescott of the previous quotations. There's the romantic in Wescott as he limns the quandaries of teenage sexuality in a story called "Adolescence." Best to think of him as a Europeanized Sinclair Lewis with an oh-so-elegant literary style, often dripping with irony as in "The Wedding March", in which the groom to be looks down the aisle at his bride and can only think of an illicit love affair he had with a married woman when he was a lowly hired man.
Dave Wood is a past vice president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Call him at 715.426.9554.