Janet Lewis's moral tales enjoy a resurgence

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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).

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.

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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.

``The Invasion,'' painstakingly researched and written under the (acknowledged) influence of Elizabeth Madox Roberts's historical novels, seemed to establish a pattern for Lewis's future fiction. But the next book she wrote (though it would be the third novel she published), ``Against a Darkening Sky,'' skillfully mingled a strong sense of history and tradition with a prophetic comprehension of the nature of contemporary experience. It is a vision of an Eden under siege, a coherent story filled with graphic, disturbing, and meaningful images, and it remains Lewis's favorite among her books.

At about this time there occurred the event that determined the direction of Lewis's three most well-known novels. A murder on the Stanford campus and the indictment of a colleague in whose innocence she and her husband believed led -- in a roundabout way -- to Lewis's perusal of an old anthology, Samuel M. Phillips's ``Famous Cases of Circumstantial Evidence.'' In it, she found the story of a 16th-century French peasant family abandoned by the father, overjoyed by his return eight years later, then unsettled again by the return of ``the real'' Martin Guerre, proving that his predecessor was an impostor.

``The Wife of Martin Guerre'' unforgettably probes the emotions of the woman who ``chooses'' the wrong man, then accepts the truth, knowing it will destroy her life.

A parallel moral conflict dominates ``The Trial of Soren Qvist'' (1947), the next book Lewis drew from Phillips's anthology. ``The Trial'' tells the story of a 17th-century Danish pastor wrongfully accused of murder, contentedly accepting his guilt and a sentence of death rather than believe in a universe without moral meaning. It is a perfect balancing act of a book, and Lewis conceded it is probably her best novel.

Lewis's last and longest novel, ``The Ghost of Monsieur Scarron'' (1959) -- also drawn from Phillips's cases -- is an ambitious panorama of 17th-century Paris that tells the story of a bookbinder falsely convicted for printing seditious pamphlets. It resembles its two predecessors in Lewis's stringent analysis of the moral crisis undergone by the bookbinder's faithless wife, and it contains an intuitive, oddly sympathetic characterization of King Louis XIV that may be the best thing Lewis has ever done.

In recent years, she has concentrated on poetry (her most recent volume, ``The Ancient Ones,'' appeared in 1979) and has taught and lectured frequently at Stanford and other nearby colleges.

It's interesting to watch the imagistic spareness of her early picture-poems (often on Indian themes) expand into the (usually rhymed) statements of her later work, which includes poems on historical, musical, and literary subjects; elegies and cradle songs; lyrics that have an almost medieval musical simplicity; and philosophical reflections linking the here-and-now with images of past times and people.

When asked if she had ever felt that family duties limited her ability to write or lessened her output, Ms. Lewis replied that she wouldn't -- indeed, couldn't -- have lived her life any other way. She confessed to some impatience with Tillie Olsen's argument that women create less than men because women's energies are swallowed up by domestic demands. She clearly prizes the full life she's had, and knows how much it has contributed to her work.

Asked if she considers herself an unfairly neglected writer, Lewis delivered a good-humored small lecture on the gratitude she feels toward the small-press publishers (particularly the late Alan Swallow) for their receptivity over the years, and for the services they continue to provide on behalf of young writers bypassed by major commercial publishers.

Clearly, this is a part of our literary experience with which Lewis will always identify herself.

Does the anticipatory dread that fueled ``Against a Darkening Sky'' more than 40 years ago still possess Lewis's imagination? Does she think we'll blow ourselves up? She was apprehensive, but hopeful. After expressing reservations about the direction of the current US administration, she added that one cannot write, as one cannot live, ``in hate and protest and indignation.'' We must hope enough people are willing to live and work responsibly, and try to influence by example, so that, in her words, ``somehow we'll muddle through.''

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