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Glenway Wescott Personally: a Biography
Jerry Rosco

Madison; The University of Wisconsin Press, 2002
$29.50, 306 p., ISBN 0-299-17730-0


Reviewed by Jim Friel



What happened to Glenway Wescott? asked David Leddick in Intimate Companions:

At an early age, he was hailed as an important figure in the American literary world. With his first novel, The Apple of the Eye (1924), he was immediately recognized as an unusual talent, and his second novel, The Grandmothers, gained him the Harper Book Prize in 1927, and what seemed a firm position in a group of writers that included Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Yet this more than promising beginning was to wither away into years of little or no productivity. Gertrude Stein had already written perceptively about Wescott in 1933, saying, ‘He has a certain syrup, but it doesn’t pour’. A prophecy is a prophecy is a prophecy.1

Throughout the thirties, Wescott’s output amounted to a reluctant drip of Belle Lettres and abandoned novels, but, in 1940, Wescott did manage to produce a slim novel, The Pilgrim Hawk—Leddick allows that it is “perhaps his most nearly perfect work” [103]—and, in 1945, he wrote Apartment in Athens, which was a bestseller for a period; but, thereafter:

Five other novels were begun—and abandoned, and Wescott was to be known for the better part of his life as inveterate partygoer, loquacious raconteur and extra man about town… a minor celebrity who loved to know other celebrities [and] a great disappointment to his lifelong companion, Monroe Wheeler…[who] would have much preferred being linked to a great writer than a great party animal.2

There is no drink or drug problem to provide this downward curve with any seedy glamour or easy rationale; no periods of madness or murder; no final flowering rescues its descent; no suicide terminates it; there is no secret masterwork for death to disclose. For Leddick and for others—most noticeably, Edmund White, if we are to attend his entertaining satirical treatment of the couple in The Farewell Symphony—Wescott dwindled into being a cultural toady of whom even his lifelong partner was rather ashamed.

This, however, is very much not the figure Jerry Rosco’s biography draws for us: a much more committed, admired and loving man is the result of Rosco’s diligent research. He sees the last half of Wescott’s life far more positively, but, still, a sense of waste is unavoidable.
Was Gertrude Stein right? Was Wescott a syrup that could not pour? Alwyn Tower, the narrator of The Pilgrim Hawk and Wescott’s most persistent alter ego, might answer yes:

My own undertaking in early manhood [was] to become 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 got older. The unsuccessful artist also ends in apathy, too proud and vexed to fly again, waiting upon withheld inspiration, bored to death.3

“A prophecy is a prophecy is a prophecy”.4 Is this what happened to Glenway Wescott?

Glenway Wescott was born on April 11th, 1901, to a Wisconsin farming family. His father seems to have been not so much a fearful figure as plainly uncomprehending of his precocious elder son. His mother lived a long life, but she seems peculiarly uninvolved in her family’s life—at least as far as one can gleam from Jerry Rosco’s biography, (when he cannot be temperate, Rosco is often simply tacit).

Wescott first had sex when he was thirteen, with a fifteen-year-old boy during a sleepover in a large bed in which a third boy was fast asleep. A pattern was set here; although celibate for the next six or seven years, “triangularity” would become a motif that dominated Wescott’s sexual life, his art and most of his personal relationships. A strangely persistent arithmetic seemed always at work in Wescott’s life.

A bright boy, Wescott was educated away from home, before attending the University of Chicago in 1917, which he left two years later from illness, but also an increasing depression over his own inarguable homosexuality.
At Chicago he had met Yvor Winters, who encouraged him to be a poet in the emerging Imagist school, but, more crucially, he met Monroe Wheeler, young, exceptionally handsome, cultured and rich: it was a relationship that would last until Wescott's death in 1987.
Wescott was a precocious, but directionless young man at this point. It was Wheeler who encouraged him both to be homosexual and an artist. As Wescott recalled in one of the many long interviews that are the bedrock of Rosco’s biography:

We were walking on the campus of Northwestern University and we stopped to sit on the grass. By that time, we’d had a few episodes of love. I said I really took a dark view of my future and I didn’t have a vocation. And Monroe said, ‘I don’t know how I know this but I feel very strongly that in the American culture artists have privileges of freedom that are recognized. Most artists are eccentric. If you will be a poet and make a life of writing, they will let you alone’.5

For Wescott, being an artist and being homosexual were suddenly twinned, and this notion, generously supplied by Wheeler, liberated him as a homosexual and as an artist—but not necessarily as a homosexual artist.

It was Wescott’s poetry—praised by Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams and Marianne Moore—that first brought him to attention, but that attention increased into wider admiration for his first novel, The Apple of the Eye (1924), published when he was twenty-three, and developed into something like awe for his second novel, The Grandmothers (1927) and a collection of short stories, Goodbye, Wisconsin (1928).

Goodbye, Wisconsin indeed. By this time, he and Wheeler have moved to Paris, a world away from the rural settings of these early works. These books are suggestive and beautifully shaped, intent on delicate and insightful observation of character and locale, but their Wisconsin settings and remembrances almost fade from the work Wescott concentrates on thereafter.

He had fallen in love with Europe—as intensely as he fallen in love with Wheeler—but the stately sentences of his early work are proof that he was already well disposed to the civilised timbres of French writing, and the intelligence French writers consciously make evident and that American writers make much effort to disguise. Wescott’s prose was always a supple and high-toned instrument.

In Europe, particularly Paris, he and Wheeler immediately acquired friends like Jean Cocteau, Isadora Duncan, Ford Maddox Ford—“We call him Freud Maddox Fraud” [46]. Osbert Sitwell told Wescott—and gained enemies like Ernest Hemingway who resented Wescott’s greater fame and his evident homosexuality.

Wescott’s personal manner happily layered itself with a European veneer and his voice acquired an English musicality: both the manner and the voice would either be admired for its sophistication or mocked for its affectedness.6 Wisconsin was erased from the man far more markedly than from the work.

It might be this dismissal of the past was unwise—at times, even Wescott thinks so—for it is from this point that his work or, rather, how he labours at it and thinks of it, begins to falter. It may be that a great regionalist writer went traveling too far for the good of his own work. Certainly Wescott never wrote at such a pace again.

In Europe, however, he and Wheeler were free to live more openly sexual lives. Wescott and Wheeler were not long lovers in any physical sense, but Wheeler remained the true keeper of Wescott’s heart—for good or ill, there can never be any doubt of this—and they were soon introduced to the handsome, twenty year old George Platt Lynes. “His intimacy was generally with Wheeler, and occasionally with Wescott … From the start, their threesome was daring, original and unpredictable.”7

The 1999 book, When We Were Three,8 provides a visual record and a commentary on this time. Its many photographs can seem like stills from some glamorous road movie of the period, the trio handsome and gleaming in period black and white as they swim, lounge, motor and play their way around Europe. It’s an attractive and sympathetic book, mainly because the photographs display Platt Lynes’ nascent skill as a significant visual artist as well Wescott’s youthful good looks, Monroe Wheeler’s dark handsomeness and Lynes’ own wiry beauty. There are pictures, too, of Barbara Harrison, an heiress, pretty and chic, who helped support not only their lifestyle, but also Wheeler’s publishing plans.

Lynes, Wescott and Wheeler were lovers, as, for a time, were Barbara Harrison and Wheeler, and, possibly, Lynes and Harrison. Harrison would eventually marry Wescott’s brother, Lloyd, and Lloyd, it is strongly suggested, also had a fling with Lynes. Wescott had several affairs himself; with refugees from Jean Cocteau, like Jean Bourgoint, and with Jacques Guerin, who was also having an affair with Barbara Harrison, and intended to marry her.

The lifestyle here is free-thinking and sexually fluid, conducted openly and, frequently, with great civility. The participants are often physically beautiful—as the photographs in When We Were Three attest—and talented. It was a glamorous time, and each felt it to be so, then and thereafter. It is sometimes hard to keep track of these couplings at this point and throughout the book—although Rosco is a model of clarity and organisation—especially when these couplings begin as or evolve into triplings, even quartets.

Wescott was more often the helpful counsellor, the pander or voyeur in these relationships. Several are the accounts of him lying in bed with two others, physically uninvolved, but watching: a staged re-enactment of his first sexual encounter. He was sexually passive, his interest mainly ora—he is said to have been an expert cocksucker—with a predilection for torrid, dark and handsome men, such as the troubled Nelson Lansdale whose alcoholism provided the deep shading that makes Cullen so pathetic and complex a figure in The Pilgrim Hawk. One is reminded of the way his fictional self, Alwyn Tower, is often a witness to events, the ear to which the stories are told or, as in The Pilgrim Hawk, the central consciousness watching others, but never himself fully seen.

Wescott’s social life was more crowded than his working life. One of the few times in which Rosco despairs of Wescott, or speaks less than positively of his work, concerns a trip to Germany in 1931. At Harrison’s suggestion and in her car, she, Wescott, Wheeler and Lynes travelled through Austria and Germany. When he had first arrived in Germany, Wescott had seen these places in the hungry days after the First World War, and he was now made aware of its emergent extremism.

Wescott’s concern here was real and sincere. The Second World War would later provide the setting for Apartment in Athens, and the occupation of France would provide the dark backing to the mirrored sheen of The Pilgrim Hawk. More than most American artists, Europe mattered to Wescott.

Wescott envisaged a way in which this journey could be narrated in a series of reflections on current affairs. The resultant book, Fear and Trembling, was a disappointment. While not without insight, it was also didactic, longwinded, and still-born as narrative: “Eight short chapters of background essays pass before the car trip is mentioned”.9

Wescott had it in him—and it is there in the situation and in the dramatis personae—to write something akin to Isherwoood’s Berlin novels or, perhaps, Rebecca West’s Black Lamb, Grey Falcon or Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water—although the latter two writers did not complete their set tasks until well after the war. Fear and Trembling is too wordy, too high-toned, too blurred in focus.

Rosco blames the paucity of good editing in Wescott’s publishing career. Unlike Hemingway, Wolfe and Fitzgerald, Wescott never met an editor with Max Perkins’ ability to curtail, encourage and correct an author into greatness. While it is true that Wescott never did find company that really challenged him as a writer, perhaps Fear and Trembling could not have been rescued, but if Fear and Trembling rambles, perhaps it is because it contains truths the author cannot bring himself to express. Perhaps it could not speak clearly about Germany because Glenway Wescott could not tell the truth about his characters.

That said, Fear and Trembling was at least completed, unlike the (at least) two abandoned novels on which he worked throughout the thirties.

After Harrison married Wescott's younger brother, Lloyd, in 1935, Wescott returned to the United States with Wheeler. He set up house not only in a corner of the New Jersey farm bought by Barbara Harrison for herself, her husband and all the Wescott family, and also with Wheeler in New York City, where they shared a series of apartments with George Platt Lynes.
Initially, Wescott, Monroe and Lynes lived together, although Lynes and Wheeler were lovers and Wescott was no longer sexually involved with either of them. In time, Lynes and Wheeler would separate, and other lovers would occupy their lives, but Wescott and Wheeler would always regard themselves as married to each other. It was the most famous and oldest gay marriage in America, benignly accepting of its many interlopers.

Wheeler began his rise to prominence and influence in Museum of Modern Art, but Wescott continued to sink. He gave up on novels that become constricted even as he constructed them, or that ballooned into hundreds of pages in which muddled and over-eventful plots were buried under exposition and essayistic ramblings. His characters’ lives were foxed by scandals and deviant impulses that their creator seemed not to have the confidence to voice outright, and it is here that the theory gains credence that his inability to express his sexuality hampered his progress as a writer. He could neither write candidly nor, like Thornton Wilder and Somerset Maugham, could he find other means to dissemble his subject. He could only resort to silence—as Forster had done, hugging Maurice to his chest until the world was fit to read it.

To this period belongs “A Visit to Priapus”.10 Sexually explicit, searingly honest about Wescott’s/Alwyn Tower’s status as a writer and his passive role in the lives of others, with Wescott’s eye for landscape and the revealing gesture as acute as ever, it suggests more strongly than any of his other fiction a road not taken.

In “A Visit to Priapus”, there is that “murderously precise and succinct”11 quality Michael Cunningham identifies in his introduction to The Pilgrim Hawk. The temperature of Wescott’s work rises when his narrator is at his most coldly judicious, but, in his journals, in Rosco’s biography, in the interviews with Robert Phelps and with Rosco, and in the recollection of his friends, Wescott can seem the sweetest of men, far too well-thinking of others—almost a fool for love, and so evidence for Leddick’s judgement of him as “inveterate partygoer, loquacious raconteur and extra man about town” [104].

As Alwyn Tower, however, Wescott could sometimes look with chill acerbity at himself and others. He could recognise the fool he might be, and his mockery of himself and others could then twist surprisingly into the most generous and unexpected insight. He could see a situation’s many facets, and how delicately freighted with sad significance or comedy a moment can be. “A Visit to Priapus” is wincingly insightful.

The story was not published until after his death. What would have happened if it had been published at the time it was written? The writing—prone only to occasional euphemism—is graphic in its depiction of sex. He attends to the penis with the intensity and detail he later gives the bird in The Pilgrim Hawk.

Published, it would have shocked readers, demonised Wescott, and upset his family and his friends, especially as it names Wheeler and Platt Lynes, and others in his circle are easily identifiable. He could not have published the story without drawing unwelcome attention on himself, his sexuality and, importantly, on those he loved and who trusted him to be discreet and, tacitly, supported him as long as he remained so. Is this what happened to Glenway Wescott? Did he hide the best of himself—not only out of shame and fear, but from the debt he felt he owed to others? It was an ignoble position, and he knew it, but he remained in it.

Or, back in New York, did he simply feel alien? Had he stayed abroad too long?

“I had spoken French for too long. I came back not only thinking but dreaming in French. And I’d had all that success with my Wisconsin material and with Paris and the luxury of Paris. That’s when I decided it was the fault of my language. And I wasn’t able to write”.12

If he could not write about Wisconsin, he could not write honestly about his life in France or, now, in New York, and, moreover, a writer needs confidence, some belief in his own status. He was unable to earn much money. Harrison, now his sister-in-law, supported him while her husband, Lloyd, supplanted him as head of the family. A somewhat ruthless sister stole one of his lovers from him, and Wescott was forced to be uncomplaining of this. He was very much a kept man, someone invisible to his own family, exploited even as he was supported, but Rosco’s biography makes too little of these tensions, and Wescott only murmurs of them in the published journals.

Add to this, Wheeler’s professional success, his involvement with other men, specifically Lynes, and his long periods of travel, all of which kept Wescott feeling very much a third wheel—not the kindest way of being attached to another for all he expressed pleasure in it.

Throughout the thirties the great promise of Wescott’s early work dissipated into a few short stories and several essays. Where was the great deal that was to be expected from him? It was a long time coming, and, when it did come, in 1940, it did so quickly, and in the deceptively slight form of The Pilgrim Hawk.

In just over a hundred pages, the novel recounts one afternoon in a Parisian suburb and the visit of a well-heeled Irish couple to two young Americans: an heiress, Alex, very much based on Barbara Harrison, and her friend, the sometimes-writer, Alwyn Tower.

Mrs Cullen emerges from the chauffeur-driven Daimler in high heels and with a hooded hawk on her arm. In the course of an afternoon, Mrs Cullen discourses on the hawk, and, once she retires from the room with Alex, Tower and an increasingly drunken Cullen discuss the hawk and Cullen’s precarious hold on his wife, revealing to Tower’s inescapably mordant eye his abject failure as a man—while in the kitchen, off stage, as it were, the chauffeur and Alex’s two servants mimic their masters’ troubled love lives.

Things reach a pitch when Cullen—to anger his wife and reclaim his status—releases the hawk. His wife retrieves it. The Cullens decide to leave, but there is one more incident with a handgun—an attempt at suicide or murder, we can never be sure.

We are left with Alex and Tower alone, their future uncertain until we recall the quiet bomb that has been set ticking in the very first paragraph of this intricate, perfectly fashioned work of art.
It is writing at perfect pitch. Its analysis of character is swift and profound, both slippery and epigrammatic. And the Pilgrim Hawk itself, Lucy, is shaped into a richly loaded metaphor: for the depleted artist; for the chaining effects of amorous desire; for abstemious bachelordom and the mysterious woes and loyalties of the married; for the dull success with which the wild are civilised by the awful difficulty of hunger, mental and sentimental; for castration and for liberty; for love and drunkenness; for the Anglo-Irish, for self-exiled Americans and a future Occupied France.
So weighted is Wescott’s wonderful bird, it is a wonder it can convincingly fly let alone hunt with such murderous precision, but, as all who read it recognise, Lucy exists not only as complex symbol, but also as a bird made of flesh and feather, as real a bird as any writer ever trapped on paper.

Her body was as long as her mistress’s arm; the wing feathers in repose a little too long, slung across her back like a folded tent. Her back was an indefinable hue of iron; only a slight patine of the ruddiness of youth still shone on it. Her luxurious breast was white, with little tabs or tassels of chestnut. Out of tasseled pantaloons her legs came down straight to the perch with no apparent flesh on them, enameled a greenish yellow.
But her chief beauty was that of expression. It was like a little flame; it caught and compelled your attention like that, although it did not flicker and there was nothing bright about it or any warmth in it. It is a look that men have; men of great energy, whose appetites or vocation have kept them absorbed every instant of their lives…In Lucy’s case it appeared chiefly in her eyes, not black but funereally brown, and extravagantly large, set deep in her flattened head.
On each side of the upper beak there was a little tooth or tusk the able bird in the prime of life uses to snap the spinal cord of its quarry, which is the most merciful death in nature. It reminded me of the hooked gloves which our farmers wear to husk corn; and so in fact, I thought, it must work: the falcon in the sky like a large angelic hand, stripping the meat of pigeon or partridge out of its feathers, the soul out of its throat.13

The Pilgrim Hawk might be more widely known if it were a longer piece of work, but, if it were any longer than it is, it would be less worth knowing: its force comes from its density of perception and its equal lucidity of expression. It deals with only a handful of characters, and rarely moves from one room. It is, almost literally, a chamber piece, one that is quietly yet viciously precise in following the ways one may definitively judge others by a word, a whim or a gesture, and yet fail to come to a permanent understanding of them, and how one might confess with elegant and definitive exactness the flaws in one’s own character and yet do nothing to correct them.
It’s a paradox, when one considers the carefully phrased insights and ruminative dignity of Wescott’s narrative style—how painstaking and considered his work can seem—that the best of his work—and The Pilgrim Hawk is the best of it—was executed with particular rapidity. At other times, it was as if—and this was Maugham’s belief—too much thought disabled Wescott’s talent.

Despite whatever confidence came from the reception given The Pilgrim Hawk—as well as the sheer unexpected fact of it—there were two more abandoned novels before another one them zigzagged, in 1945, into sudden completion.

Apartment in Athens14 is the story of a Nazi officer boarding with a family during the Nazi occupation of Greece. It is, at times, a tense and unnerving work, but also, in its understandable demonising of German culture, somewhat dated where it most wishes to be impassioned. It is a thoughtful engagement with current events that more fully realises the intentions behind the failed project that was Fear and Trembling. In tune with a post-war mood, it was Wescott’s most commercially successful work—if no match for the sales of Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge, although Wescott’s novel does bear Maugham’s influence. While it is by far the least biographical of his works, its narrative fluency, more complex notion of plotting and more extensive range of characters that suggest a new period in Wescott’s work.

It was not, of course, a new period, but it was, effectively, a full stop. After looking outward, as he did in Apartment in Athens, Wescott’s gaze blinkered itself. It’s as if, faced with new territory, the hawk placed the hood on its own head. Wescott never completed another novel.

There were attempts at novels, all aborted, sometimes at very advanced stage. One, “Children of This World” based on his childhood and his time at University, promised to be a bildungsroman of sorts. Rosco speaks highly of it, but describes how the impetus stalls and the narrative stumbles as Alwyn Tower fades into the background and becomes the narrator of dramas other than his own. Starting with Tower, and then turning him into a secondary character (and thus avoiding the directly confessional) was a common feature of his uncompleted work. Wescott’s true material was his own life, but he could make nothing full or satisfactory of it thereafter.
There were considerable social pressures on him and all homosexual artists, ones that the passing of time might encourage one to underestimate. Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar—nowhere near as frank as Wescott’s manuscript sounds—had met with controversy and severe criticism of a type Wescott could not have borne, and would not have borne for the sake of Wheeler or his own family, particularly his brother and his wife. In his journal at this time he confesses: “My feeling of being prevented from writing about homosexuality (by Monroe + Lloyd + Barbara) equals in an important degree my own inhibition, more or less cowardly, fear, dread of punishment, uncertainty of the moral ethics and the psychology”.15

Had Wescott become like the Lucy in The Pilgrim Hawk, hooded and on a leash, dependent on sustenance from others when he should have hunted for himself? Years later, one of his keepers acknowledged it might be so when Harrison wrote him: “[I] ask myself to what extent the ‘security’ I have provided for you has not in fact hindered and burdened you”.16

And he may have called Wheeler “my great unpardoning undiscouraged consort”17 and Wheeler would have been sincere in wanting Wescott to produce great art, but work that was explicitly sexual, work that advertised and proselytised homosexuality?

Was Wheeler’s lifelong embrace, effectively, a restraining hand?

It is in this period that his journals become more honest, or more grudging, about his personal position,18 and we hear in muffled bursts of his brother’s infidelities; Harrison’s physical and mental ill-health; his sister’s relationship with one of his ex-lovers; his “tiny” genitalia and low self-esteem (Wescott was a handsome man, but beside Wheeler, Lynes and many of Lynes lovers, most men would feel plain); but another enthusiasm now took powerful sway: Wescott met Alfred Kinsey.

The Alwyn Tower of The Pilgrim Hawk and “A Visit to Priapus” could have narrated a fine comic novel about Wescott’s involvement with Kinsey. For all its far-reaching and mostly positive consequences, particularly for homosexuals, in its dogged thoroughness, in its refusal to judge or admonish, in its careful spelling out the vast unspoken alphabet of American sex lives, in its absolute seriousness, there is about Kinsey’s great work a wonderful liberating joy and po-faced comedy as well as a strong accompanying sadness.

In the journals, and in Rosco’s biography, not only is the comedy there, but also there is more than enough to suggest that, along with Wheeler, Kinsey was the other great love of his life—but a more paternal love, perhaps.

Kinsey’s researchers filmed Wescott masturbating, and Kinsey pointed out the jackknife his body made on orgasm: a response rare in people, but common in rabbits and guinea pigs. This made Wescott inordinately proud.

Wescott became heavily involved in Kinsey’s interviews, and Kinsey’s interviewing style, oblique yet encouraging, is not unlike Tower’s with Cullen in The Pilgrim Hawk—albeit without the satirical commentary or malicious impulse.

He also—and with a boy scout’s glee—helped assess and catalogue Kinsey’s vast library of pornography and erotica. He was filmed having sex, singly and in pairs, and arranged the filming and interviewing of his many friends, even Wheeler, Lynes and many of Lynes’ handsomely-bodied models. He helped itemise the Kinsey archive of dildos, sex toys, artworks and manuscripts; and invited Kinsey to sex parties where Kinsey would sit, imposingly large and besuited, taking notes while others frotted and fucked about him; and, perhaps, had sex with Kinsey, too: the evidence was once said to be slight, but the possibility now seems very likely. “He gave Alfred a window not just on sexual behaviour but on gay male sexuality and psychology: individual backgrounds, love attachments, jealousies, personal traits—far more than Kinsey could learn just in observing”.19

Wescott never even attempted to write a novel about Kinsey—although it would have been his great subject. He saw in Kinsey’s epic project his own ideal intention made scientific and publicly impactful: his involvement in it, which was deep, sincere and practical, was compensation of a sort.

What Kinsey did supply was courage, personal approbation and a rationale: the life of homosexual men—his life—deserved and needed to be recorded, but the work he envisaged remained still-born or unraveled even as he attempted it.

By the time of Kinsey’s death, Wescott was no longer a practicing novelist, but, like Wheeler, a public man of the arts: an active member of the Academy, the Authors’ Guild, Pen and, eventually, President of the National Institute of Arts and Letters, Wescott was a member of the old guard with, like Wheeler, a position to protect and defend.

In this position he was, indeed, protective of old friends—Marianne Moore, Katherine Anne Porter, Eudora Welty—but younger, bolder writers considered him to be an impediment. Their outspokenness as gay men intimidated him and their greater adventurousness as writers made him dismissive of them. William Burroughs spoke against him often, and to the grave.20

Although Wescott was self-evidently a homosexual and part of a known couple, neither he nor Wheeler declared themselves in the outright way that became obligatory, and Wescott was never particularly progressive in his literary tastes. His Paris of the Twenties might have touched Hemingway's and Stein’s, but not Joyce or Beckett’s. He admired Cocteau the man, but not his work—and he never came to terms with Jean Genet at any level.

This taste for what might be called classical, European literature, essentially nostalgic in form and conservative in impulse, where what is subversive and even deviant is subsumed or disguised, is evident in the collection of essays, Images of Truth, the only substantial work Wescott published in the second half of his life. These essays mingle criticism with memoir and interviews, and reflect on the work of Katherine Anne Porter, Isak Dinesen, Thomas Mann, Somerset Maugham, Thornton Wilder and Colette: that shelf of literature to which his own work belongs.

Good authors all, they are also writers, Colette apart, whose sexuality informs their works secretly: a silver thread that glints and catches the light. They are also writers who are prolific, whose output was not stunted by their emotional or economic circumstances, good or bad; even Porter managed to produce the voluminous Ship of Fools, on which she had laboured so long, achieving in her last years great wealth and international celebrity.

These authors are images of truths, perhaps, because each indicate a truth Wescott himself wished and failed to realise. More revealing than what writers say about their own works is what they say about the works of others: writers, generally, are always only ever talking about themselves.

The latter half of Wescott’s life, even in Rosco’s clement and detailed biography, still provides evidence that he was as Leddick, White, Burroughs and others have characterised him, but, unlike them, Rosco sees that Wescott’s impulse was always to be kind, to be, at heart, loving, and that he wished to be brave, but was unable: his failings are human failings, and he knew of them, too.

Privileged though he was in many ways, he was born, perhaps, out of time. If he had been born ten or twenty years later, he might have been able to speak and write more freely. The times in which you are born do determine how easily one can unclamp the hand that stifles your words—
even when, as today, that hand can very often be your own.

Wescott died in 1987. With Isherwood, he helped Forster’s Maurice to publication, but, in the last decades, although not close-mouthed, he remained timid, afraid of his own garrulity: if he ever did talk, he feared he would say too much. After all, Isherwood’s Christopher and his Kind might have found favour, but consider the scandal caused by Truman Capote’s “Unspoiled Monsters”, the excerpt from Answered Prayers in Harper’s that precipitated Capote’s social death, if not his actual one. And Wescott’s journals, while not satirical or mean-spirited, are more frank and more detailed than Capote’s unfinished novel.

It was with his journals he thought he had his best chance of immortality. And they are frank, witty, fascinatingly detailed, sincere and ultimately sad. There are wonderful anecdotes about a lecture by Helen Keller; fulsome remembrances of Cocteau and Maugham; a very great deal about his work for and fascination with Kinsey; an account of the bewildering sexual mathematics of his friends and enemies; heartfelt pleas and declarations about his own love life and his work, and always, always, his debt to Wheeler who may, lovingly, have undone him, but who also helped him become the man and writer he managed to be.

So far, only the first volume of the journal has appeared: a franker edition and a sequel might one day be possible, and I hope that someone has sympathetic as Rosco helms the project.
The Pilgrim Hawk and Apartment in Athens were re-published with introductions by Michael Cunningham and David Leavitt, and it is clear now that Wescott preceded them in theme and in style; that, recognised or not, he has heirs. He even prefigures Edmund White. There is the same balance and decorum in the prose, an interplay between fact and fiction, a love of Europe, particularly Paris, a knowledge about how duplicitous honesty can be, as well as the same generous and peculiarly personal take on the literary essay.

Gore Vidal, discussing Dawn Powell, (in whose novel, The Tenth Moon, Wescott appears as Star Donnell21), implied that Wescott was a no more than a ‘glamorous one shot novelist’, but a more generous estimate of him is both deserved and accurate: his other fiction repays attention, and his journal has much to say about the nature and condition of Twentieth Century male homosexuality. And even if Wescott were only a one-shot novelist, in that one instance, his aim was true.Susan Sontag called The Pilgrim Hawk “this great American novel”,22 and so it is.

Whatever happened to Glenway Wescott—and the reasons writers fall silent are, as Cunningham observes in his introduction, as various and mysterious as the reasons they begin writing in the first place—it is The Pilgrim Hawk that makes one ask the question, makes one desirous to know more. Wescott’s journals and Rosco’s quiet, respectful but honest biography supplies some of, but not all of the answer: for that, we require another book as perfect in construction and effect as The Pilgrim Hawk, and Wescott never wrote it.



1. Intimate Companions: a Triography of George Platt Lynes, Paul Cadmus, Lincoln Kirstein, and their Circle, David Leddick, Stonewall Inn Edition, St Martin’s Press 2001, 103. back

2.Intimate Companions, 104. back

3. The Pilgrim Hawk: a Love Story, Glenway Wescott, Introduction by Michael Cunningham, New York Review Books, 2001, 21-2. back

4.Intimate Companions: a Triography of George Platt Lynes, Paul Cadmus, Lincoln Kirstein, and their Circle, David Leddick, Stonewall Inn Edition, St Martin’s Press 2001, 103. back

5. Glenway Wescott Personally: a Biography, Jerry Rosco, The University of Wisconsin Press, 2002, 32. back

6. He appears, uncharitably, in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, and it is the first of several occasions when Wescott features in the novels of others—usually less than sympathetically. While skeptical of Hemingway’s art, Wescott was often generous and astute in his estimation of his then great rival. back

8. When We Were Three: the Travel Albums of George Platt Lynes, Monroe Wheeler and Glenway Wescott 1925-35, with texts by Anatole Pohorilenko and James Crump, Arena 1998 New York. back

9. Glenway Wescott Personally, 56. back

10. The New Penguin Book of Gay Short Stories, edited by David Leavitt and Mark Mitchell, Penguin 2003. back

11. The Pilgrim Hawk: a Love Story, Glenway Wescott, Introduction by Michael Cunningham, New York Review Books 2001, 1. back

12.Glenway Wescott Personally, 63. back

13. The Pilgrim Hawk: a Love Story, Glenway Wescott, Introduction by Michael Cunningham, New York Review Books, 2001, 17-18. back

14. Apartment in Athens, Glenway Wescott, Introduction by David Leavitt, New York Review Books, 2004. back

15. Continual Lessons: the Journals of Glenway Wescott, 1937-55, edited by Robert Phelps with Jerry Rosco, Farrar Strauss Giroux, 1990; quoted in Glenway Wescott Personally, 172. back

16. Glenway Wescott Personally, 173. back

17. Continual Lessons; quoted in Glenway Wescott Personally, 171. back

18. Continual Lesson, 251-66, et passim. back

19. Glenway Wescott Personally, 138. back

20. Last Words, New York  William Burroughs Grove, 2000, 61-65. back

22. “Where the Stress Falls”, from Where the Stress Falls, Susan Sontag, Jonathan Cape 2002; 10. back



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