Posts Tagged ‘Janet Lewis’

Janet Lewis: “Whenever I’m writing, I’m interested in everything, because I’m still waiting for the next page.”

Thursday, July 1st, 2021
A pensive Janet Lewis (1899-1998) at her Los Altos home. (Photograph: Margo Davis)

I wrote about Women Writers of the West: Speaking of Their Lives and Careers shortly after I arrived in Palo Alto in the early 1980s. I would later get to know the editor of that slim volume, Marilyn Yalom, one of the founders of women’s studies at Stanford – she’s featured on the cover of the book, looking out from the picture window in her beautiful home office, as she writes. Decades later, after I learned she was René Girard‘s first graduate student at Johns Hopkins University, I would include her in my own book, the first-ever biography of the French theorist, Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard.

I also interviewed one of the writers featured in that volume: the poet and novelist Janet Lewis, about the same time this book was published – by then her husband, the eminent Stanford poet-critic Yvor Winters, was dead. I visited her Los Altos home with the legendary loquat tree. “Being a writer has meant nearly everything to me beyond my marriage and children,” said the author who is best known for here book The Wife of Martin Guerre, which was featured at a 2013 Stanford Another Look book event. “It has concerned the way I have thought and the friends that I have made. I’ve noticed that whenever I’m writing, I’m interested in everything, because I’m still waiting for the next page. I don’t pay as much attention, when I’m not writing, to living in general.”

Through Marilyn and her legendary women writer’s salon, co-founded with the late Diane Middlebrook, I got to know the photographer Margo Davis, who took the portraits in the volume, and her portrait above is the reason for this post: the poet, the photographer, the editor, and the magnificent photograph above that brought them all together. “It is no longer clear to me that the degree of familiarity with the subjects determines the strength of the portrait,” Margo wrote in a photographer’s note. “I used to believe, like the French photographer, Nadar, that the person I know best is the one I photograph best.” She already knew three of the women authors in the book – Kay Boyle, Joyce Carol Thomas and Janet Lewis. She had a few hours to photograph the others. She wrote: “However, in those brief meetings, I felt a common understanding that even though we knew very little about each other as individuals, we knew about each other as artists. And that even though we come from different disciplines, whether it be words or photographs, we are involved in a similar process of expression and interpretation.”

Margo Davis at home.

The photograph with persimmons is my favorite of the older Janet Lewis – hands down. Here are a few more excerpts from the chapter, which was taken from a Stanford public dialogue between the author and Brigitte Carnochan in 1980:

For Lewis, writing is “putting things in order in my head” so as to be able to perceive a situation as completely as possible. This was one of the motivating forces of her novel, Against a Darkening Sky, which describes the effect of the encroaching terror of World War II on an ordinary Northern California family.


“I began as a poet. Very small-sized, too. My first published poems, or practically the first, were about Indians, about Manibozho and the legendary Indians of the Ojibways.” More than half a century later, in 1979, with the publication of The Ancient Ones, Lewis returned to the Indian themes of her first poems. In “Awatobi,” for example, she brings together sites as distant from one another as the French court of Louis XIV and the battle at Awatobi, united only in the commonality of bloody violence.


When asked how she had found the time to write, while raising two children and caring for a husband and a household of airedales, Lewis’s reply was typically straightforward, without a trace of having suffered unduly in her responsibilities. “I put aside a few hours a day. Probably the` best hours. My working time has always been when everyone went to school.” In one instance she typed the manuscript for a novel with her small daughter sitting on her lap. “She was very small, so I could reach around to the typewriter. I was working on The Invasion then, and I was under contract to finish it at a certain time. I worked very regularly, getting up very early in the morning before anybody else, except the baby, who had to be taken care of. She was quiet for awhile, she had her naps, and I knew what I was doing because I had been working on the book for a long time. I knew where I was going and didn’t have to pace up and down the floor and say, ‘what do I do next?'”

Marilyn’s salon, shortly before her death in 2019 (Photo: Reid Yalom)

How an eminent Stanford poet saved an innocent man from hanging

Friday, May 21st, 2021

Jazz scholar Ted Gioia is one of the latest internet refugees who have taken harbor at Substack, a subscription newsletter service for long-form blogging. He’s launched his column, Culture Notes of an Honest Broker, with a bang. In one of his posts, he revisits the 1933 death of Allene Lamson, whose husband David Lamson, a sales manager for Stanford University Press, was charged with the murder. Lamson was sentenced to hang, and imprisoned for three years in San Quentin prison before he was exonerated.

Poet with a passion for justice

“The case was based entirely on circumstantial evidence,” Ted writes. “A pipe found in the trash might be a murder weapon, although that was never more than hypothesis. His pregnant housekeeper might be Lamson’s lover—which seemed plausible until she gave birth to a redheaded baby who looked just like her redheaded boyfriend. Another woman in Sacramento might be Lamson’s mistress, but the evidence there never held together, and the prosecution didn’t dare put her on the stand during the ensuing trial. Above all, Larson’s character and personality—described by many acquaintances as ‘kind’ and ‘considerate,’ especially in his relationship with his wife—might be a charade, a violent, angry man hiding behind a gentle exterior.”

The hero of the story was Stanford poet-critic Yvor Winters, who investigated the case and wrote a pamphlet, The Case of David Lamson, that was instrumental in the ruling that the frail Allene Lamson died an accidental death. As Ted notes, the case, which dominated the news, was also an influential event for Winters’s wife, the poet Janet Lewis. The case led her to write The Wife of Martin Guerre (1941) and two other novels featuring “cases of circumstantial evidence.” I’ve written about her here and here.

Nowadays, Yvor Winters is too little known, though he was a powerful and influential critic and a notable poet. Ted writes:

Novelist of circumstantial evidence

“When I studied literature as an undergraduate at Stanford, Winters’s name was still said with awe and respect, although he had been dead for almost a decade at that point. But, more than any other individual, Winters had put literary studies at Stanford on the map. His work as poet and critic was known and cited all over the world, conveying an authority and erudition that none of his peers in the Department of English could match in those days. It’s important to recall that Stanford wasn’t yet an ultra-elite institution when Yvor Winters joined the faculty in 1934. And it definitely wasn’t a university associated with poetry. But he changed all that—a list of writers whom Winters taught or mentored would eventually include Edgar Bowers, Thom Gunn, Donald Hall, Philip Levine, Donald Justice, N. Scott Momaday, Robert Pinsky, Robert Hass, J.V. Cunningham and Kenneth Fields. People even talked about Winters as the progenitor of a whole school of poetry.”

“So I heard Winters’s name often during my student days. But no one ever told me about his involvement in a tabloidesque murder case decades before—or that he got a man off of Death Row. I only learned many years later about this strange crime story. And the reason for this silence, I now realize, is that many of Winters’s peers mocked and derided his fixation with a murder case and subsequent decision to play the role of amateur private eye. He was almost a laughingstock for this obsession—and it undermined the dignity both of Winters the professor, the Department of English, and the entire University.”

Read the whole story, “When a Famous Literary Critic Unraveled Silicon Valley’s Most Sensational Murder Case,” chez Ted Gioia here. (And if you go to Patrick Kurp‘s blog, Anecdotal Evidence, you can read Winters’s poem for Lamson’s heroic attorney.)

From Yvor Winters’s “The Case of David Lamson” (Courtesy Ted Gioia)

A new look for Janet Lewis’s Cases of Circumstantial Evidence

Monday, October 7th, 2013

lewis_wife-of-martin-guerre-fcDuring last winter’s Janet Lewis celebration with the “Another Look” book club at Stanford, I didn’t have an opportunity to write about this enticing bit of news: Ohio University Press/Swallow Press is reissuing all three novels in Lewis’s Cases of Circumstantial Evidence series in new editions with fancy new covers.  They’re gorgeous.

The publisher (full disclosure: who is also my publisher) sent me the advance review copy of The Wife of Martin Guerre, her best-known work (I wrote about it here and here) about a now-famous case of mistaken identity.  The jacket cites praise I had not included in my earlier writing. The New Yorker said it was “Flaubertian in the elegance of its form and the gravity of its style.” Larry McMurtry, writing in the New York Review of Books, called it “a masterpiece … a short novel that can run with Billy Budd, The Spoils of Poynton, Seize the Day, or any other.” This from novelist Ron Hansen in the Wall Street Journal:  “Janet Lewis brings the haunting qualities of fable to this novella …”  Michael Dirda of the Washington Post wrote: “One of (the short novel’s) most perfect examples is Janet Lewis’s The Wife of Martin Guerre.” Heady praise indeed.

In a new introduction to the 1941 work, Swallow Press’ Kevin Haworth writes that the book is “a short novel of astonishing depth and resonance, a sharply drawn historical tale that asks contemporary questions about identity and belonging, about men and women, and about an individual’s capacity to act within an inflexible system.”  Maybe, but it’s a relentless and draining novel sans merci, all the way to its ruthless end.  I admit I didn’t have as much sympathy for Bertrande de Rols as I should have – and I developed instead a sneaking affection for the rakish Arnaud du Tilh, the baddy who comes on the scene to run a scam, but winds up falling in love, reforming his life, and effectively running an extended household. He is the only one who finds any kind of redemption in the novel – and naturally is destroyed. (How did such a nice woman write such a hard-hearted book?)

lewis_fc-trial-of-sören-qvistMore from Haworth: “This close attention to an individual’s moral choices in the face of strange circumstances links The Wife of Martin Guerre with the two novels that follow in the Cases of Circumstantial Evidence series. Though each of the novels stands on its own, they remain united by their shared origins in the history of law, discovered by Lewis in the same legal casebook where she first found the story of Bertrande de Rols and Martin Guerre.  The setting shifts to seventeenth-century Denmark in The Trial of Sören Qvist, which focuses on a devoted parson, albeit one with a harsh temper, who is accused of killing one of his workers. Again the law closes in on a man who may or may not be guilty, and again the characters struggle as much with their own consciences and the changing times as they do with the ambiguous legal facts in front of them. In The Ghost of Monsieur Scarron, Lewis returns to France, this time during the reign of Louis XIV. In this longest and in some ways most complex of the three novels, a bookbinder becomes enmeshed in a political drama that spirals out of control – the king is denounced in a pamphlet, leading to criminal charges – but the real crime is domestic, an adulterous affair that contributes to the tragedy as much as the public trial that follows. …

“To European critics, Lewis seems quintessentially American. To American critics, her fondness for European settings leads to comparisons as expected as Flaubert and as unusual as the Provençal writer Jean Giono. The New York Times compared her to Melville and to Stendhal. Another critic sees her, based on The Invasion and some of her short stories, as a definitive voice in Western regional writing. In some ways, Lewis’s writing remains elastic, allowing other writers to see in her a powerful reflection of their own interest. In short, as with all the best writers, her work and her decades-long career defy simple categorization or comparisons.”

As for Lewis herself, she hardly thought of herself at all. Hence, her refreshing sanity amid a world of egos. When asked if she deserved a bigger audience, she responded, “I think I’ve had as much recognition as I need and probably as much as I deserve.”

Yvor Winters’s westward journey

Sunday, September 15th, 2013


Loquat lover

“I have spent my entire life in the remote west, where men are civilized but never get within gunshot of each other,” wrote Yvor Winters (I wrote about him yesterday here).  According to poet Kenneth Fields, who was also Winters’s gardener for four years as a graduate student, “It’s usual to think of Yvor Winters as a Chicago poet who came west and spent most of his life in California — at Stanford, where he received his PhD and taught until his retirement. This is true enough, but his actual journey is more complicated and is reflected in some of his best poems. In some ways everywhere he lived before he got to Stanford was wild — even Stanford, but that’s another story.”  The incomparable Ken tells them all in “Winters’s Wild West,” in the current Los Angeles Review of Books, based on a talk he gave last April at Claremont McKenna College.  Ken traces his Winters’s path from Chicago, to Southern California, to Seattle,  to Chicago again, to New Mexico (where he not only taught, but also spent a couple years recovering from tuberculosis in a Santa Fe sanatorium), to Boulder and then to Moscow (Idaho, not Russia), and eventually (and finally) to his Los Altos home with the loquat tree in back.  I had never eaten a loquat before my visit to Winters’s widow, Janet Lewis.  Winters said “loquats are one of the finest fruits I know, but they deteriorate rapidly after picking and so are never marketed,” which explains why.

loquatKen compares Robert Frost‘s late-life “To Earthward” with Winters’s “A Summer Commentary”:  “As delicate sensations diminish with age, Frost craves stronger and more painful feeling until, at the end of the poem, he wishes for death; Winters does not. Winters contrasts his youth with middle age — always earlier in those days than it is for us. (I’m counting on all those 146-year-old men to keep me middle-aged.) With the loss of sharpness of sense comes something else, especially for a writer who looks for meaning. In his youth he was a spectator — he said once that free verse was a state of mind. With age, he is a participant. His point comes home through a kind of synesthesia, a blending of the senses — the dove makes two different sounds, one in its cry, the other in flight. The repetition of soft and sweet sets the tone of the poem, as does the oxymoron “rich decay.” Winters said the brandy of the fallen fruit was no metaphor. “You could almost get drunk on the smell.”

Ken’s piece is about as good an introduction to the legendary Winters as one will find anywhere. Read it here.

Janet Lewis’s Wife of Martin Guerre and the cold, cold face of justice

Wednesday, February 13th, 2013

He got around.

The second event in the “Another Look” book club (I’ve written about it here and here and here) is drawing nigh:  The event will take place next Wednesday, on the 20th of February.  The book is Janet Lewis‘s The Wife of Martin Guerre – well, I’ve written about that here.  (And did you know that Michel de Montaigne attended Martin Guerre‘s trial?)

I’d welcome some of your thoughts on the book before the event – or even afterward.  Meanwhile, here are a few of my own about the calculated lie that sets the plot in motion and the cold, cold face of justice.  The rest is on the “Another Look” website here.

The movie version

A calculated lie is at the center of Janet Lewis’ The Wife of Martin Guerre, and the lie explodes the life of everyone around it.  The novel is a brutal tour de force, defying reader expectations.

“Another Look” seeks out short masterpieces forgotten, neglected or overlooked.  In the case of The Wife of Martin Guerre, we didn’t have to look farther than home.  The 1941 book was born at Stanford, and the author taught in its English Department.  Hailed as one of the top books of the last century, it’s too little-known today. The story has become famous, but the book has not.

The short novel, about a 16th-century case of imposture in southwestern France, has been made into a play, an opera, several musicals, and most notably The Return of Martin Guerre, a 1982 movie with Gérard Depardieu in the title role.

The story is a tragedy, and like all great tragedies, has a lie at its core.  Oedipus is not a stranger who rolled into town; he’s the son of the city’s murdered king.  Claudius is not the unexpected beneficiary of a throne and wife, he’s guilty of regicide and fratricide.  King Lear’s eldest daughters do not love him, despite their protestations.  But these lies are quickly overwhelmed by their effects; in Lewis’s novel, the lie is the hard, unbudgeable kernel of destruction that no one wants to examine.

The judge’s version

Like Agamemnon, Macbeth, and so many tragic heroes, the “new Martin” resolves, “If only I can keep this, all will be well, I’ll make everything else right in the end.” But the lie he wishes to keep eventually damns any possibility of a future or peace.

The heroine, Bertrande de Rols, is initially the passive prisoner of the thing she most wishes to be true, but doubts in her heart.  In the world Lewis creates, the greatest enemy is not a person or a judicial decision: it is in the thing we do not wish to be fact – the unbearable truth just around the corner, the truth seen with peripheral vision, just by the tail as it goes down a hole.  The lie at the core of the book gives rise to a welter of smaller daily lies, which, in turn, buttresses the great one.

The characters move seamlessly from victim to perp, from perp to victim, and back again.  As poet Tim Steele, a friend of Lewis, writes in Numbers (1989-90), the book is a psychological study of “people who betray others or who are themselves betrayed in the course of the interpretation of evidence.”  When Bertrande finally turns to the truth, it turns her to stone; Lewis hints it may even lead to her death. … Read the rest here

“One of the most significant short novels in English”: Janet Lewis and The Wife of Martin Guerre, Feb. 20 event

Tuesday, January 29th, 2013

She loved to travel. (Photo: “The Selected Poems of Janet Lewis,” used by permission of Ohio University Press)

NOTE:  Some of you may remember the launch of the Another Look book club last fall – I wrote about it here and here and here.  This season’s pick is another winner:  Janet Lewis‘s 104-page The Return of Martin Guerre, a novel that was, in fact, born at Stanford.  As I wrote in an article here, it all began with a terrible scandal in 1933.  From the “Another Look” website:

In May 1933, a Stanford University Press sales manager was arrested for the murder of his wife at their campus home on Salvatierra Street.

Was it murder or accident? Placid Palo Alto was embroiled in a sensationalized scandal that endured for more than three years. After conviction, appeals and retrials, David Lamson was finally acquitted.

Young Janet (Courtesy Melissa Winters)

One of the unlikelier outcomes of the notorious case: three distinguished novels by Stanford poet Janet Lewis, focusing on historical trials that had been swayed by circumstantial evidence. The most famous was The Wife of Martin Guerre (1941), which eventually became the subject of an opera, a play, several musicals and a film. Atlantic Monthly called it “one of the most significant short novels in English.”

The book will be the focus of the second “Another Look” book club event at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 20, at the Stanford Humanities Center’s Levinthal Room. The event will be moderated by English Professor Kenneth Fields, who was a friend of the late Janet Lewis (1899-1998) and her husband, renowned poet-critic and Stanford professor Yvor Winters (1900-68).  

Fields will be joined by acclaimed novelist Tobias Wolff and award-winning Irish poet Eavan Boland, both professors of English. An audience discussion will follow. The community event is free and open to the public, but seating is limited and available on a first-come basis.

Winters’ role in the Lamson case was legendary: Outraged at the injustice, he actively campaigned for Lamson’s acquittal and helped prepare the defense brief. With a colleague, Winters provided a cogent 103-page pamphlet for public consumption, explaining why Lamson could not have killed his wife in the manner required by the prosecutor’s case.

A prescient colleague gave the Winterses a 19th-century book, Famous Cases of Circumstantial Evidence, including real-life accounts of the failure of justice. Lewis was struck by the 16th-century story of Martin Guerre and his wife, Bertrande de Rols.

Guerre abandoned his family and returned eight years later a changed man – or did he? Was he Martin Guerre at all? The case of imposture wracked southwestern France, just as Palo Alto had been roiled by the Lamson case.

Outraged … and right.

According to the New York Times, “Miss Lewis pursued a literary life in which the focus was on the life and the life was one of such placid equilibrium and domestic bliss that she had to reach deep down in her psyche – and far back in the annals of criminal law – to find the wellspring of tension that produced some of the 20th century’s most vividly imagined and finely wrought literature.”

But for Lewis, The Wife of Martin Guerre was also born of her love for France. Lewis had been a French major at the University of Chicago. According to her friend, poet Helen Pinkerton, Lewis’ passion for the country began in 1920. For her graduation, her father gave her a round-trip ticket to Europe and $400. Lewis got a job with the passport office on Rue de Tilsitt, behind the Arc de Triomphe, and stayed for nine memorable months. She returned with a John Simon Guggenheim fellowship in 1950.

There was another reason for Lewis’s novels and short stories: Lewis was a gifted poet, but her prose brought more money than verse – and the Winters family of four needed the extra cash. In pre-war days, academia was still something of a gentlemen’s profession, with many professors holding independent incomes.

Moreover, colleagues who had been riled by Winters’ pugnacious opinions delayed his promotion to a full professorship until he was 50 years old – although he went on to get an endowed chair, a Bollingen Prize, a National Institute of Arts and Letters award as well as grants from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.

David Levin, writing in 1978, recalled that the Lewises “lived in extraordinary simplicity”: “The plain furniture in their small house in Los Altos did not change in all the years of our association, and Winters drove a 1950 Plymouth Suburban from 1949 until he stopped driving in the year before his death,” he wrote.

Her friends describe the Winterses devotion to their Airedale terriers, their cooking and their gardening in the Los Altos house they’d assumed in 1934 and never left.

The poet in her 90s. (Photo: Brigitte Carnochan)

Lewis nevertheless made time for her writing – and perhaps the externally uneventful life contributed to the celebrated psychological poise. The British poet Dick Davis wrotein London’s Independent: “Her books possess a quality of deep repose, a kind of distilled wisdom in the face of human disaster and pain, which is difficult to describe and impossible to imitate, but which, once encountered, is unforgettable.”

Lewis has never been short of admirers: W.H. Auden, Marianne Moore, Theodore Roethke, Louise Bogan and others praised her work. Yet writer Evan Connell observed, “I cannot think of another writer whose stature so far exceeds her public recognition.”

In the years since her death, her reputation has been fostered by a circle of friends, including Los Angeles poet and Stanford alumnus Timothy Steele, who praised her poems for their “clear-sightedness” and “intelligent warmth.”

“They’re full of joy and sorrow. It’s very directly stated. No evasiveness. She doesn’t hide behind ironic postures or anything like that,” he said. “She is someone who has both a sense of the permanent patterns of existence and the transitory beauty of living things, of people and animals and plants.”

Steele recalled, in particular, a party on a summer day at the home of Helen Pinkerton and her then-husband, English Professor Wesley Trimpi. “Among the guests was [political philosopher] Eric Voegelin. He was brilliant, wearing a three-piece suit and discoursing very eloquently about Plato,” remembered Steele. “Janet appeared and said happily, ‘Does anyone want to go for a swim?’

“It seemed such a contrast – a rewarding experience in both cases. She was so vital and connected with physical activity and the warm summer afternoon.”

In any case, Lewis didn’t wait for a reply, but headed for the cabana and changed into her swimsuit for a quick dip. She was well into her 80s.