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Janet Lewis's moral tales enjoy a resurgence

By Bruce AllenSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / May 1, 1985

Many consider Janet Lewis one of America's finest prose stylists. The unpretentious clarity seen in her prose also distinguishes a small but solid body of verse entitling her to the stature of a really exquisite (if minor) poet. Much of her work seems certain to outlive us all. Ms. Lewis's reputation seems suddenly resurgent, thanks to the recent French film ``The Return of Martin Guerre'' and the reflected light that work has thrown on Lewis's 1941 book, ``The Wife of Martin Guerre,'' which has long been praised as one of the best short novels in English (and which, like her other major fiction, has been kept continuously in print by the Ohio University Press).

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This July, Ohio University Press will reissue her 1943 novel ``Against a Darkening Sky,'' a cautionary story of California farm life in the years shadowed by the approach of World War II. It's a book that has much to say to a present generation that often sees itself threatened by cataclysmic change.

In October there will be a new edition of Lewis's ``Good-Bye Son and Other Stories,'' which originally appeared in 1946. This is also an unaccountably neglected book, a collection of linked short stories which explore the apprehension and experiencing of death, and the consolatory power inherent in understanding one's place and part in the natural cycle of birth, death, and rebirth.

I recently spoke by telephone with Lewis at her home in northern California -- about her life and career, the composition of her various works and the way she views them now, and what she sees as the prospects for herself and for all of us. We talked about her feelings of rootedness and kinship with the northern Midwestern territory where she grew up, and also with the Western and Southwestern areas where she later lived. We discussed her successful and friendly relationships with small-press publishers and her current interest in poetry and in the writing of opera libretti (a form she's taken up relatively recently and found especially congenial).

She seemed a remarkably outgoing and gracious woman, much too modest to agree with claims her admirers make for her.

Janet Lewis was born in 1899 in Chicago and remembers best from her early life the summers she and her family spent in the Lake Superior-Lake Huron region of northern Michigan. There, she immersed herself in stories about the area's original white settlers and the tales and legends of its indigenous Ojibway Indians -- particularly the matriarch Neengay. The latter is the subject of a current Lewis libretto ``The Legend of Neengay,'' and the totality of material she absorbed then and there would become the stuff of her fine historical novel, ``The Invasion'' (1932).

Lewis attended the University of Chicago, where she majored in French and was part of an energetic circle of young writers, which included the novelist-to-be Elizabeth Madox Roberts (Lewis speaks admiringly of her once famous but now largely forgotten novels ``The Time of Man'' and ``The Great Meadow''). She also met there the poet and critic Yvor Winters, to whom she was married from 1926 until his death in 1968. After graduation from Chicago, Lewis went to Paris in 1920, worked briefly for the American consulate, and developed a feel for the city and its people that proved crucial in her later imaginative journeys into unfamiliar territories. (For those who may ask the question, Lewis returned to the United States shortly before Gertrude Stein and Hemingway and their companions occupied Paris and assembled the Lost Generation.)

Like her husband-to-be, Yvor Winters, an illness caused her to be sent to a New Mexico sanitorium, where she became acquainted with the nearby Indian people. In 1927, she and Winters, newly married, moved to Los Altos, Calif., where he began his teaching career at Stanford University. During these years Lewis was writing and publishing poetry and had begun producing short stories. She says she was intimidated, but also challenged, by the complaint of her friend, the novelist Glenway Wescott: ``Your poems are very swift. Why is your prose so slow?'' A busy wife and mother, and still slowly recovering from her illness, Lewis wrote with increasing facility and confidence, and her slow, steady poetic output gradually broadened and included the long prose works for which she is today best known.