Glenway Wescott Personally

A BIOGRAPHY
By Jerry Rosco

The University of Wisconsin Press

Copyright © 2002 The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-299-17730-0


Chapter One

Wisconsin Farm Boy to Midwest Prodigy

Glenway Gordon Wescott was born in Wisconsin farm country, near Kewaskum in Washington County, at 5 P.M. on April 11, 1901. He was the oldest of six children. The others were his brother, Lloyd, who was the youngest, and four sisters: Beulah, Marjorie, Katherine, and Elizabeth. Their father, Bruce Wescott, was proud of the land. The bees in his hives were descended from those his own father had owned during the Civil War. But Bruce struggled with his hundred-acre farm, breeding pigs because he couldn't afford horses or cows, and unable to use some of his fields because of runoff from the hills. His older son was little help. While still a boy Glenway would make his way to Chicago, then as a young man to Santa Fe, New York, and Europe. But the earliest steps in his journey were the most difficult. Many years later, Wescott remembered, "I couldn't work for my father on the farm. He was so sorry for himself because he had more work than he could do, and I was sickly and irritable. Most of the time he was exhausted and had difficulty feeding us all."

Bright and precocious, Glenway was a puzzle to his parents. Even as a child he seemed determined to escape from the farm, yet he developed a love of nature and country life that would be reeflected lifelong in his writing. He attended the local one-room red schoolhouse, Orchard Grove Country School, from 1906 to 1912, but it was the weekly journey to church that gave him his first impression of an outside world. "When we went to Sunday school," he recalled, "we children would lie in the back of the wagon in the straw with a buffalo rug over us. It took us an hour to travel the six miles to the church in West Bend." Early memories of longtime residents gave him a rich sense of the previous century. There was an Indian reservation nearby, and an elderly neighbor told him a story from her youth, when she sat up all night with a rifle, anticipating an Indian attack.

Two incidents scarred his early childhood. Glenway was traumatized when he accidentally knocked his baby brother against a hot stove, although the infant wasn't seriously burned and their parents were forgiving. The other incident occurred when Bruce Wescott encouraged his son to climb a tree, in the presence of several men and boys, including a cousin Glenway admired. When a rotted branch snapped and dropped him to the hard ground, the boy believed his father knew this would happen and wanted to humiliate him. Later, when his devout Christian parents learned of his suspicion they were shocked, and his father fell to his knees in prayer.

Of the reading materials available to Glenway, the only ones that stirred his imagination were the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy in the Old Testament and serialized Hall Caine novels. He had a good soprano voice, took lessons, and earned a few dollars singing at funerals. But the rough, sometimes brutal, work on the farm upset him. Even peaceful moments could turn with the whim of wild nature. He recalled once driving a neighbor's cows in a straight line at sunset for a few hundred yards when "suddenly a nighthawk that was flying just above the backs of the cows crashed right into my face with a thump!"

At age twelve Glenway found an excuse to leave the farm. He was ready for high school and was obliged to live near the school in West Bend, although he would return home for weekends. "I was prepared to go to high school a year ahead of time," he said, "and I boarded with the Methodist clergyman. We weren't Methodists but in those days you had to go to whatever Protestant church you had in your town; there'd be a Protestant church and a Catholic one. I lived one year with this English clergyman who had a handsome wife who tyrannized over him, and they had a terrible little boy. I was so unhappy there in this churchy household with this ghastly nine-year-old boy whom, for part of my board, I was supposed to mind. So, I complained to my parents and in the second year of high school I went to live with my maternal grandparents, and that was very pleasant."

Glenway attended West Bend High School from 1913 to 1915, and in his second year he published a little essay, "King David and His Court," in the school periodical, The Tatler. Now that more books were available to him, the youngster read widely and at a pace and level far beyond his years.

In 1914, Glenway began a relationship with a fifteen-year-old boy named Earl who "relieved me of my virginity." He recalled, "My grandparents couldn't feed me and I took my meals at a boarding house run by a woman who was a second cousin to my family. And there I fell in love with Earl Rix Kuelthau. In the second year of high school I didn't eat dinner: I gave it up to deliver a newspaper route with Earl. It was terrible food anyway, as well as terrible company. And in May of that second year I lost my virginity." That first experience took place during a sleepover, in a large bed in which a third boy was fast asleep. "I always believed that set the course for the triangularity of my relationships," he said, referring to many love triangles over the decades.

To the older boy, the relationship was one of friendship and experimentation. To thirteen-year-old Glenway, discovering his sexuality in the puritanical atmosphere of the Midwest, it meant far more. Many years later he recalled in a journal note, "My first kiss (except for my mother's kisses in infancy) took place beside a very tall and wide-spreading syringa bush in full bloom; a cool, kindly, thin-lipped, cigarette-flavored kiss, in a rocking chair swing on a lawn in the county seat of my native county in Wisconsin, in the gloaming, while the Lutheran Church choir next door practiced the following Sunday's anthems. I was thirteen years old and my then beloved, fifteen."

The secret romance with Earl, or "Carl," as Wescott would later fictionalize him in a story, lasted more than a year, and then Earl discovered girls. Afterward, Glenway painfully shut off all thoughts of affection with another male for five long years.

By his third year of high school he had yet another home-this time with his mother's brother, Will Gordon about thirty miles downstate. "My grandparents didn't really want me anymore," he said, "but my parson uncle by this time had a church in Waukesha. They had a nice house and I think he was rather lonesome because his wife was always visiting her rich mother in Chicago. I think it embarrassed him to have a wife who wouldn't stay with him. He was terribly good looking, in the most corny way in the world-you know, like all clergymen and preachers; a Greek profile with a little hair floating over his forehead, a beautiful voice, and women were mad about him. I went there to live with him and go to a better school, and stayed there two years."

Glenway's short story "The Dare" appeared in the Waukesha High School Megaphone in 1915. As he recalled, he wasn't planning to be a writer, but his creative spirit was greatly influenced by a schoolmate with a notorious reputation: "Virginia Bugbee was a very mannish girl from a distinguished family, and she was liberated, mysterious, and obscure-and smoked cigarettes! Night after night she'd drive at the speed of light out to the lakes and we would sit on steep hillsides looking out at Lake Oconomowoc. I would read aloud out of Whitman. The first thing that I ever wrote that I took any pains with were a series of love letters in the style of Walt Whitman that I wrote to her when I was fifteen or sixteen." His friendship with Virginia not only encouraged his reading and writing but also strengthened the rebelliousness and tenacity he needed to survive.

Wescott excelled in high school and earned a scholarship to the University of Chicago at sixteen. He also had earned a reputation as a great talker. In the high school yearbook, the student editors captioned his photo, "Have I said enough? Shall I say more?"

Uncle Will helped once more by asking his mother-in-law in Chicago and her two other daughters to provide Wescott with room and board. Wescott remembered, "I got a scholarship from the University of Chicago and went down there in the fall of' 17. Out of great condescension toward the dutiful, devoted, though dubious son-in-law, I was allowed to room at this home and have my evening meal there. They were on the West Side, halfway to Oak Park where Hemingway was, and it was a pretty grand red brick house on a great big tree-lined square. Naturally, it would seem grand to me anyway."

Even before he found his footing in the complex caste system of the vast university, the child-freshman had to learn the rules of the strange, provincial household of delicate ladies, various guests, and a staff of Belgian servants. As he described it:

The house was well furnished and everything was brass and shiny. The bookcases were built-in and made of curly maple, but the cases were locked! I never forgave them for that. I think it was assumed that my hands weren't clean enough. It enraged me because I was the only person in the world who wanted to read a book!

At the evening meal the food wasn't anything to brag about but the dishes and silver were absolutely fantastic. There was another poor relative who shared the attic with me, and who never spoke above a whisper. He worked at a department store.

I had an allowance from them of fifty cents a day. And I think that was the only money I had. Out of that I got my food, and my fare on the elevated train. It took almost an hour to get out to the campus-this way into the loop, and then out that way. And I had to buy my own textbooks. It doesn't seem possible: three dollars and fifty cents a week! And sometimes I went to the symphony. If I went with the relatives I sat in the third row, but if I went alone I sat way up on top.

Chicago was as alluring as it was daunting to the sixteen-year-old. He was not afraid. Poverty in Wisconsin and years of boarding had made him resilient. He felt there was no turning back to the family farm, but his first weeks at the large university were intimidating. "Looking around that campus I couldn't see how I could make contact with anyone or have any fun at all," he said. "I lived all the way on the West Side. I was small. I was bad tempered. I was homosexual. I was poor. And I had a very bad tongue, if you provoked me. I was not afraid of anybody. There were about twenty thousand people there and I didn't fit in any category. I couldn't go in for sports. I couldn't go in for girls. I couldn't go to ordinary clubs around there because I had to go on out to the West Side after classes. No one would speak with me."

Luckily, he met Arthur Yvor Winters, a talented student and a rebel of a different sort who would become a central figure among the Imagist poets of the late teens and twenties. The meeting came about when Wescott "noticed on the bulletin board that something called the Poetry Club was having a competition to fill two or three vacancies. The first poems I ever wrote were two I sent in. I don't have them. They weren't very good. One was about Cleopatra and the asp, and I can't remember the other one at all. It was just a trick. I'd never done anything like it before. I never had any notion to be a writer. I wanted to be a singer. Then I wanted to be an actor. And then in high school, to buck up my homosexual love for a bisexual girl who wouldn't let me touch her, I wrote those letters." Nevertheless, the poems impressed the Poetry Club members-which included Winters-and Wescott quickly joined this exceptional group. It was the practical and generous Yvor Winters who helped Wescott get on as a student and an artist, led him to other creative young people, and opened the way to literature.

"Yvor, who had a rich stockbroker for a father," said Wescott, "was a socialist and vowed that he would take not one cent more from his father than was absolutely necessary. So he budgeted himself and found a place where we could lunch for fifteen cents a day. And that's where my education began with a vengeance. Because Yvor decided that I was bright as a whip and could be taught anything. And he decided to teach me to be a poet."

Winters himself recalled the Poetry Club of the late teens: "This was a very intelligent group, worth more than most courses in literature; among the new members were Glenway Wescott, a year younger than myself, who, like myself, had discovered most of the unknown moderns in high school, and Elizabeth Madox Roberts, about twenty years our elder." Like Wescott, Roberts went on to make her reputation as a novelist, as did another member of the Poetry Club, Janet Lewis, who eventually married Winters. The club met in a small first-floor room near the main entrance of Ida Noyes Hall on the university campus. Wescott, the best reader, became its president, yet the real leader was Winters, whose precise, elegant poems set an example for the others.

Although illness and circumstances would limit Wescott to a year and a half at the university, the experience of the Chicago poetry crowd and his vast self-education made the matter of a degree secondary. At sixteen, he was not aware that his literary skills were far beyond those of most graduate students. His memory of his freshman year is illustrative:

You had to consult your instructor and make a plan and write something rather important which would take you a couple of months. I said I'd thought about it and would like to write a piece tracing the dramatic technique of Maurice Maeterlinck in the thirty-seven plays he'd written to that date. And the professor said, "My God, my poor young man. You're not going to have time to read thirty-seven plays, much less write about them! What ails you?"

And I said, "Oh, I read them year before last." I had a passion for contemporary drama; I'd read all the playwrights. I'd read Johan Strindberg and Leonid Andreyev and Anton Chekov, of course, and Henrik Ibsen and all the rest. All of them-I forget what I didn't read! I even read Harley Granville-Barker, Jean Giraudoux, Lottie Blair Parker, people like that. And I was crazy about Maeterlinck. The professor said, "In that case, we'll just excuse you from it."

So, then I applied for Mrs. Edith Foster Flint's creative writing class. She was a celebrity out there. She was a woman of extraordinary beauty, as tall as a door, just about as wide as a door-she was sort of a giantess-sparkling eyes, lovely laughter. She was a first cousin of the playwright Edward Sheldon. And her son became a grand professor at Yale.

While he was learning to master the precise, rigid form of Imagist poetry, Wescott's greater talent as a prose writer was coming to life. For an assignment in Edith Foster Flint's class, he chose as his subject a tragic young woman he had known in Wisconsin, a woman shunned by the townspeople but kindly received by Wescott's mother, Josephine. He said, "Mrs. Flint asked me to write a remembrance of my youth, a little character sketch. I chose this woman who had had a disastrous love affair, and later broken her hip, the way it is in the novel. I think I wrote a short story about her. Mrs. Flint wrote in red ink up the side of it with the highest praise you can imagine. I don't think she called me a genius, but she used the word somehow, saying, 'I suppose it's really ridiculous to call somebody a genius at your age, but you write like one.'" Later he would develop the story into his first novel.

More of his prose of that time appeared in a hodgepodge journal, a notebook that he called his earliest sequential writing aside from letters and poems. "On such a night one can feel the distance between the stars," the sixteen-year-old wrote on the first page. In several Wisconsin sketches, he described an Indian campground near the schoolhouse and a lynching in West Bend. He included several first drafts of poems with mid-western themes. Like the schoolboy notebook of F. Scott Fitzgerald's fictional character Gatsby, Wescott's reveals early evidence of ambition, such as the studied development of his strikingly beautiful handwriting and a Gatsby-esque list of words-to-learn, many of them beyond the vocabulary of most adults.

(Continues...)



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