- Writers Retreat
- Writers in School
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May 13, 1972
Everyone knows what a novel is, what biographies,
autobiographies and memoirs are—but what is a
journal? It is an immensity that is always (and has to be) fragmentary.
Glenway Wescott penned his journals in a substantially different tone than the formal control of his few novels, but the entries reveal a mind that was constantly gathering material and considering the potential for literary work. In addition to revealing some of his thought processes, the content of his final journals, A Heaven of Words as edited by Jerry Rosco, cements Wescott’s significant role in gay cultural history. Rather than resolve the often-asked question why he published so little during the last 40 years of his life, Rosco uses Wescott’s journals to gently argue that Wescott continued to write at a high level and that his journal was a valuable project worthy of a thoughtful writer’s ongoing effort.
Glenway Wescott was born in Wisconsin in 1901 and met his life-long partner, Monroe Wheeler, as a young man. Living with Wheeler in Europe, Wescott became known during the 1920s for his well-received novel The Grandmothers. He became friends with expatriates such as Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald while the homophobe Ernest Hemingway viciously parodied him in The Sun Also Rises. In 1930, after returning to the United States, Wescott published The Pilgrim Hawk: A Love Story, which critics and readers continue to praise as a gem-like masterpiece. He then took another 15 years to write the popular novel Apartment in Athens. While later writing some small works and producing many essays, Apartment in Athens was his last major published work.
Jerry Rosco knew Wescott and has edited his first set of journals, Continual Lessons: The Journals of Glenway Wescott, 1937-1955, and has written a detailed biography, Glenway Wescott Personally. Summarizing Wescott’s life from these two previous works and the final journals requires major name-dropping. For example, Wescott and his partner Wheeler lived in a three-way relationship with the photographer George Platt Lynes for a number of years before Lynes separated from them. (Wescott and Wheeler’s multiple relationships are documented throughout A Heaven of Words.)
While Wheeler thrived as a director at the Museum of Modern Art, Wescott expanded his cultural circle at the Academy Institute of Arts and Letters. The journals are full of references to artists and writers such as Paul Cadmus, Jean Cocteau, W. H. Auden, Marianne Moore, Truman Capote, and Katherine Ann Porter. Wescott worked with Christopher Isherwood to publish their mutual friend E. M. Forster’s Maurice posthumously. And he worked for years on Somerset Maugham’s biography at the same time that he maintained a long-term professional and personal relationship with Alfred Kinsey, while assisting in his sex research. A number of recent biographies about Samuel Steward, Lincoln Kirsten, and Leo Lerman offer additional evidence about Wescott’s artistic and literary station.
The journal offers so many references that Rosco has wisely included a 13-page list of more than 200 names and very short biographies, a veritable “Who’s Who of Modern Cultural Life in the Twentieth Century,” at the end of the book to remind us who some of these people are.
Wescott’s short entries remain eminently quotable, almost as though he is commenting on our current events, such as our fascination with reality TV, “With reference to our literary and artistic situation, I said, ‘The chief enemy of quality is quantity.’ ‘No,’ Monroe said, ‘the chief enemy of quality is novelty.'”
Another entry seems to predict the “deep captioning” that Instagram and People magazine now expressly offer:
[Re: a photo of flamboyantly-dressed heavyweight boxing champion Joe Frazier with the newspaper caption “The Day After.”]
Captions: the future role of writers (perhaps) in a picture-oriented world.
A minor theme of Wescott’s later journals appear to be his fear of death before he can finish another work of quality, “… I am inclined to think that, in the end, I shall be known not for [the Maugham biography], not for The Grandmothers or Apartment in Athens, but for my so-called journal, marginal pages or half-pages about this or that, some of them only half written.”
But he also recognized that he might no longer able to satisfy his readership, “The fiction writer’s pleasure as a rule is the feeling that he is giving pleasure to the reader.”
And ultimately, perhaps Wescott felt that he might enjoy indulging in an active intellectual and sex life (Wescott and Wheeler continued their open relationship into their final years) more than in creating a fictional world, in the journals, he states, “I live novels instead of writing them.”
Because of his familiarity with Wescott and his milieu, Rosco has been very judicious in his selection of entries for A Heaven of Words. While shorter than Continual Lessons, the later journals offer evidence of Wescott’s vast interests and ability to think critically. Rosco’s selections reveal important information about Wescott yet allow Wescott’s great ideas and minor foibles to become visible.
Finally, A Heaven of Words reminds us that it’s not important what Wescott did not write in his later years, but that he spent years working on these illuminating journals. After reading The Pilgrim Hawk (and perhaps the short story “A Visit to Priapus,” which will finally become widely available in Rosco’s upcoming collection of Wescott’s short stories), the journals offer a more complete assessment of the writer.
A Heaven of Words: Last Journals, 1956-1984
By Glenway Wescott (edited by Jerry Rosco)
University of Wisconsin Press
Paperback, 9780299294243, 272 pp.