Janet Lewis in poems and novels: “at last, a self drives through modesty.”

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The young Janet Lewis

The Book Haven wrote about novelist and poet Janet Lewis (1899-1998) for Stanford’s 2013 Another Look book club event on her novel, The Wife of Martin Guerre. I had met the writer years before at her home in Los Altos.

Author Richard Stern, writing in a 1993 Virginia Quarterly Review, made the same trek I had once ventured to the modest home with the big loquat tree, where Janet Lewis had lived with her husband, the poet-critic Yvor Winters (1900-68), for decades. Since it’s a few days before Lewis’s August 17 birthday it’s time to share an excerpt from Stern’s essay:

Almost half a century before the silicon chip, Janet Lewis had written about ecological disaster, “the incoherent civilization emerging from the physical wilderness.” (Against a Darkening Sky. )

I took the El Monte turnoff, then drove along San Antonio Road to West Portola, near El Camino Real. A couple of hundred yards up the east side of the road were a mailbox, a garage, a grape gate and, behind that, the small, tree-shaded cottage to which Janet Lewis and Yvor Winters moved in 1934, seven years after they’d come to California. The door was opened by a tallish, straight-backed, white-haired woman wearing glasses on her strong, straight nose; the face was amiable, thoughtful, alert. The initial shock was, “This woman can’t be ninety-one years old.” In a minute, you forgot age, though Janet Lewis does move and talk with that special economy which is the product of an exceptionally long, therefore successful intercourse with the world. Perhaps because I’d read her Indian poems, I thought that there was an American Indian quality to its grace.

On Yvor Winters and her novels…

They’d married in 1926, but Janet was too ill to go with him to Moscow [Idaho]. She did accompany him to Stanford, where he went for his doctorate. “We lived on the outskirts of Palo Alto. I felt marooned up there, and wrote a story about some neighbors. The Bookman accepted it, and I felt I was a writer again.”

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The older Janet Lewis

I said she wasn’t the only writer born in 1899 who grew up in Oak Park.

“Yes, Hemingway. I didn’t really know him. He was around, but he dropped out for a year to do newspaper work, then graduated the year after I did. I was in class with his sister Marcelline for three years.”

I thought of pursuing the comparison of their short stories about northern Michigan—hers are low key and a bit rambling next to his—but she took that up in another way. “I became a writer in the country, during summer vacations on Neebish and St. Joseph’s Islands. I had a close friend, Molly Johnston, who was part Indian. Her brother Howard was a wonderful storyteller. I wanted to preserve his stories about the family. I went at it in the wrong way, embroidering a sketch about Molly. It didn’t make sense unless you went back and told the stories in back of the stories. These went back to the 18th century, to their Ojibway grandmother Neengay and her Irish husband John Johnston.” Out of research came The Invasion: A Narrative of Events concerning the Johnston family of St. Mary’s (New York: HarcourtBrace, 1932), her first important prose book.

lewis_wife-of-martin-guerre-fcOf Janet Lewis’s four other novels, three, like The Invasion, spring from actual events. “I have this affinity for the circumstantial case. I like to get at the intimate obliquely. Perhaps I’d have been more successful if I’d been more personal. Though my contemporary book, which is more personal, is rather shapeless.” This is Against a Darkening Sky (Doubleday: 1943), the story of the violent accidents and unhappy love affairs which pound the quiet life of a house-wife living in a Santa Clara County orchard. “Some of these accidents happened to our neighbors.”

It’s Janet Lewis’s historical fiction which has been highly praised, especially her second novel, The Wife of Martin Guerre (1941). Albert Guerard Jr., the teacher under whom I read it in 1948, called it “one of the greatest short novels in American literature.” Like the others, The Trial of Soren Qvist (1947) and The Ghost of Monsieur Scarron (1959), the book revolves around the misinterpretation of evidence. The critic Donald Stanford relates this theme to the murder conviction of a friend of the Winters, David Lamson, sales manager of the Stanford University Press, who was accused, indicted, tried, and sentenced for the murder of his wife. The Winters were active in his exoneration; Yvor Winters helped with the defense brief and co-authored a book on the case.

birthday cakeLewis’s reliance on circumstantiated cases as the basis of fiction may be related to her poetic reliance on meter and rhyme: the need for an unwavering, authoritative center. In her later poetry, written when she’d stopped writing fiction, meter gives way to free verse, and the pure imagistic presentation is mixed with commentary and exclamation, as if, at last, a self drives through modesty.

Read the whole thing online here.


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