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Scanning the table of contents for A Visit to Priapus (University of Wisconsin Press), I had my doubts. Don’t get me wrong. When it comes to Glenway Wescott, or any writer I love, I’m always happy to have more, and A Visit to Priapus contains both previously uncollected and previously unpublished matter. But I feared that nine short stories, dating from 1928 to 1971 wouldn’t quite add up to a satisfying whole. That’s especially because Wescott’s output can be so neatly divided into two distinct periods: a regional, purple-prose period from 1924 to 1929, and a more urbane, pared-down period after 1939, when Wescott finally overcame a decade-long spell of writer’s block. And then what about the mix of genres in A Visit to Priapus? Besides the nine aforementioned short stories, there are two essays and an “experimental story,” the latter dating from 1923, when Wescott was a mere 22.
Turns out I should have had more faith. A Visit to Priapus is, after all, edited by Jerry Rosco, the tireless scholar who edited two recent volumes of Wescott’s journals and who in 2002 gave us Glenway Wescott Personally, the only Wescott biography. Roscoe knows his subject’s work and life thoroughly; he knows that the difference between Wescott’s first-person stories and first-person essays can be paper thin. He very smartly arranged the autobiographical material in A Visit to Priapus chronologically to trace for the newcomer the arc of Wescott’s life, and in the process he also happily satisfies the Wescott lover’s taste for more quality work.
Glenway Wescott was born 1901 and grew up in rural Wisconsin. Ill-suited for farm life, Wescott was ripe for a life of the mind. At the age of 16, he snagged a scholarship to the University of Chicago and subsequently managed to meet all the right people at all the right times. One of those people was Monroe Wheeler, an entrepreneurial lover of the arts who would become a mover and shaker in the New York art world. Accompanying Wheeler to Europe, Wescott became an expatriate in the 1920s. There the lovers crossed paths with other famous expatriates, as is demonstrated by Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. In that novel, the narrator (a/k/a Hemingway) derides a group of homosexuals in a bar in Spain—and Wescott was the real-life model for one of those characters.
Wescott and Wheeler later formed a ménage a troi of sorts with the photographer George Platt Lynes. This may sound enviable, but “of sorts” is the operative phrase here; the real heat was between Wheeler and Lynes, and Wescott soon became the long-suffering third wheel. A good deal of that suffering can be found in the pages of the title story of this collection.
But first we come to the marvelous “Adolescence,” in which a small-town sissy boy, egged on and accompanied by a protective older boy, dresses up as a girl and goes to a Halloween party, just as Wescott did under the influence of a real-life childhood friend. “Soon he would be enough older,” the story concludes, “for there to be no more disguises, nor need to be taken care of, nor harm in being neglected.”
In “The Babe’s Bed” a young man who’s been living abroad returns to the farm where he grew up and finds you can’t go home again. This was a lesson Wescott himself learned on a visit home in 1929, the year he and Wheeler returned to America to live in New York City. When the young man begins to be weighed down by his poor family’s trials, his sister urges him to return to his own trouble-filled life. “For the trouble,” she says in the somewhat stilted dialogue of Wescott’s purple-prose period, “is always where the joy is.”
In “A Visit to Priapus,” Wescott’s literary alter ego, Alwyn Tower, can no longer take the frustration of being the third wheel in a relationship with two other men, and so he makes a trip through Maine to meet and sleep with a man who is reputed to be a well-hung mediocre painter. Wescott, who religiously kept journals, once confessed to a diary, “Monroe and I stopped having sex with each other about 1930”; Tower, who is also an author, narrates a similar situation: “For a long time,” he says, “I have had to live in wretched deprivation.”
If this sounds self-pitying, it is typical of much of the story. Indeed, making “A Visit to Priapus” the title story for this collection may be its only fault. Granted it’s an eye-catching title, so maybe the real mistake is making so much of the story in the front-end material. In the preface, a E.M. Forster biographer, Wendy Moffat ,claims, “The British novelist E.M. Forster would be posthumously delighted…. ‘A Visit to Priapus’ now joins Forster’s The Life to Come and Other Stories and Maurice, worthy writing on gay themes that was suppressed for decades as ‘the penalty society exacts’ for its hatred and fear of homosexuals.” Strictly speaking, this is true, but overall, besides the self-pity, which the narrator of “A Visit to Priapus” does get past, the story is weighed down by Wescott’s use of euphemisms. Wescott wrote the story in 1938, before he met the sex-researcher Alfred Kinsey and loosened up about sex and sexuality, so the story is filled with a whole mess of embarrassed and embarrassing euphemisms for (ahem) big dick—stiff language, so to speak, like “bludgeon,” like “giant concupiscence” and “ostentatious organ.” In addition, although “A Visit” is, as Rosco puts it, an “almost novella,” it is essentially a long confessional short story/essay that hardly adds up to the weight of a novel like Maurice or The Life to Come and Other Short Stories. This, however, is a minor quibble and the long and short of this review is that I can’t recommend A Visit to Priapus—the book—highly enough.
A Visit to Priapus and Other Stories
By Glenway Wescott and edited by Jerry Rosco
The University of Wisconsin Press
Paperback, 9780299296902, 208 pp.