Skip to main content

Janet Lewis

ISSUE:  Summer 1993

When I was at college at Chapel Hill, in the mid- and late 1940’s, no literary critic was more influential, either as champion or opponent, than Yvor Winters. When my friend, the poet Donald Justice, married another friend, the fiction writer Jean Ross, in August 1946, my wedding present to them was Winters’ trilogy In Defense of Reason. We thought Winters was the knight of literary form, the enemy of the chaos into which the romantic movement had disintegrated. Not for him the mess and imprecision of the great modernists. From his throne in Palo Alto, he emitted powerful edicts about what made literary and human sense and nonsense.

After graduation from Chapel Hill, Justice went out to study with him, and so did another Chapel Hill friend, Edgar Bowers. I received monthly bulletins from the Winters front. It was rigorous, bracing, difficult.

Among his literary exemplars, Winters singled out Janet Lewis, his wife. I read some of her fine, controlled poems, and her beautiful short novel, The Wife of Martin Guerre, the story of a Frenchman who returns after long absence in the wars to a town and a wife whose doubts about his identity constitute the novel’s tension.

Years later, after I’d come to Chicago, I found in the stacks a small book consisting of poems of the members of the Poetry Club of the University of Chicago. Among the poets were the future novelist and memoirist Glenway Wescott, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Elizabeth Madox Roberts, the future foreign correspondent Vincent Sheean, and both Winters and Lewis. When we decided to help celebrate the centennial of the University of Chicago with a book about some of the leading writers who’d gone to school here, I hoped we could locate one or more members of the Poetry Club. None could be less than 90 years of age. I telephoned Professor Gelpi at Stanford and asked if Janet Lewis were alive. “She’s giving a poetry reading here next Monday,” he said. He gave me her address and phone number. I wrote to her in Los Altos about the project, and asked if she’d agree to be interviewed. In a few days I got back a beautifully written letter giving me clear directions to her house from San Francisco, on alternate routes; it included a hand-drawn map showing the highway turnoffand the roads one took to get to the house.

I’d been to San Francisco a few times, but didn’t really know the place. My youngest son, who had just passed his bar exam in November, was working at a law firm there; his fiancee taught in one of the grim public schools of Oakland. They found a room for me in a motel on 16th and Market Streets, about a mile from where they lived. My wayward typing just inserted an “r” between the “o” and “t” of motel, as if the psychopathoiogy of everyday typing reflected the sense of doom I felt in this Castro District. I drank my morning coffee in the Baghdad Cafe—the name itself a darkness in those nervous days before the Gulf War—among tables occupied by sunken-cheeked, bleak-eyed, black-mustached men, surely in the terrible grip of the HIV virus. In the art store across the street, racks of postcards featured photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe of nude men pressing superb bodies together. (No AIDs symptoms showing here.) The other San Francisco menace, the grinding tectonic plates which, 15 months earlier, had given the city a crack across its gorgeous face, had left signs here and there: the closed ramp of the Embarcadero Bridge looked like monitory italics under the glass skyscrapers of the Christmas-lit Embarcadero Center.

I took to the road the next day with some relief. Route 280, the Junipero Serra Highway, runs between the sea and San Francisco Bay, past San Mateo and Palo Alto. The soft foothills of the peninsula were brown and bare. Now and then fog filled some of the dips in the road, but toward noon the sun came out of the clouds, and there was a crystal brightness on cars, houses, and the large gray sculpture of Fra Junipero pointing west toward the Pacific.

The wildest surmise of the 18th-century Franciscan couldn’t have predicted the replacement of the apricot, persimmon, loquat, walnut, fig, and grape orchards by the electronic plants of Silicon Valley. I’d recently read about the serpents in this semi-conductor paradise, the high rates of unemployment, homelessness, mental illness, drug abuse, and complexly fractured and extended families. Were they also the toxic waste of technological genius?

Almost half a century before the silicon chip, Janet Lewis had written about ecological disaster, “the incoherent civilization emerging from the physical wilderness.” (Against a Darkening Sky. )

I took the El Monte turnoff, then drove along San Antonio Road to West Portola, near El Camino Real. A couple of hundred yards up the east side of the road were a mailbox, a garage, a grape gate and, behind that, the small, tree-shaded cottage to which Janet Lewis and Yvor Winters moved in 1934, seven years after they’d come to California. The door was opened by a tallish, straight-backed, white-haired woman wearing glasses on her strong, straight nose; the face was amiable, thoughtful, alert. The initial shock was, “This woman can’t be ninety-one years old.” In a minute, you forgot age, though Janet Lewis does move and talk with that special economy which is the product of an exceptionally long, therefore successful intercourse with the world. Perhaps because I’d read her Indian poems, I thought that there was an American Indian quality to its grace.

She led the way to a bright kitchen and offered juice, tea, or coffee. The upper half of the refrigerator was covered with color photographs of her daughter Joanna and her children, and her son Daniel, “who teaches French and Spanish and, more and more, English in a high school in Davis.” One of the pictures is of a cat, perhaps the “morsel of suavity” about whom she wrote in “Lines to a Kitten”:

Only the great, And you, can dedicate The attention so to one small thing. . . Kin of philosophers, and more, indeed. . . You by your narrowed thought, maintain your place, Pure quality of your great treacherous race.

Some of the photographs belonged to Alva Henderson, the composer for whom she’d written three libretti and several song-texts, and with whom she shares the house. Alva came in briefly to shake hands, a pleasant looking, blue-eyed man in—I’d guess—his early forties. On the wall is a poster for one of their operas, The Last of the Mohicans.

Janet and I took our mugs into the low-ceilinged, booklined living room, I set up the small tape recorder (which proved more treacherous than any cat), and sat in what she told me was her husband’s favorite chair, a wooden armchair with leather seat and back. He died in January 1968, in his 68th year. In her Poems Old and New, 1918—1978 (Chicago: Swallow Press, 1981) the dedication reads, “For Yvor Winters Now as Then.”

What was immediately clear was that though Janet’s past was rich, and richly remembered, she lives vividly, actively in the present. Though “I haven’t written any poems for a year,” there is one, “Trophy, 1914,” in a recent Threepenny Review. It’s about a cross found on the neck of a soldier dead at Verdun. “That war became vivid to me when we entered it. My brother went off to camp. Jim Gilbert, who’d been in the Poetry Club, and became a fine painter, also went off. I remember girls in the dorm wailing when they saw a friend’s name on the casualty list. Later, in 1920, when I visited Chartres, the stained-glass windows were still in storage.

“I was supposed to go to Vassar like my cousins, but I came down to the University from Oak Park to hear my father read his dedication poem at the inauguration of President Judson, and decided, “This is the place for me. ” My father had come here from the East—he was born in Westerly, Rhode Island— with a Ph. D. in Latin from Syracuse. He got another Ph. D. at the University, in English. I think he was in the first graduating class, in 1894. He taught there, and then went on to Lewis Institute, where he became dean. He loved poetry and knew reams of it by heart. I don’t think he regarded himself as a poet. He wrote occasional poems, such as the dedication for the Ryerson Laboratory, and one night, at someone’s request, he wrote the Alma Mater, which I read you’re planning to replace. He was close to President Harper and admired him greatly. I went to Lewis Institute for two years, and took chemistry and geology—wonderful geology—but I have no aptitude for mathematics, and never thought of becoming a scientist. There was never a doubt about my going to college—the University was always coeducational— unlike Pearl Sherry, whose father didn’t believe that women should be educated.”

“I’ve spoken to her,” I said. (Janet had sent me her number.) She was one of two Poetry Club survivors in Chicago. The other, Gladys Campbell, lived in Hyde Park, and I’d met her years ago. She’s 99 and recently broke her leg. Said Janet, “She’s almost immortal, but you better talk to her soon.”

“I ran into her in a neighborhood restaurant, she was getting around with a cane and a companion. “It’s healing too slowly, ” she said. She also told me Professor George Sherburn had her read Henry James’ The Golden Bowl in 1916. When I mentioned this to Saul Bellow, he said, “My mother had probably changed my diapers a thousand times before she got through the first chapter of that. “”

Janet laughed. “We read Henry James then. I don’t remember Sherburn. I know Saul Bellow’s name, but I haven’t read him. We read Pound and Eliot as their poems came out.” Her first book of poems, The Indians and the Woods (1922), contains the sort of imagist poem Pound was writing and championing. “I liked Eliot until The Waste Land. That was too messy for me.” Yvor Winters had ridiculed Eliot’s shuttle between classic appearance and romantic posturing: he enjoys “both the pleasures of indulgence and the dignity of disapproval.”

Did Janet know Harriet Monroe? “Yes, she was a friend of the family, an energetic, feisty woman. I admired her a lot. My father took Poetry magazine from the beginning. I can’t remember her coming down to the University, but we went to her house. We met Sandburg and others there.

“The Poetry Club was the center of our life. We did all sorts of things together, picnics in the woods along the river, dances in dorms and Ida Noyes. I invited Jimmy Sheean to a Foster Hall dance, and we also danced at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Midway Gardens, at 60th and Cottage Grove.” I told her that almost the first thing I’d read about the University of Chicago was the first chapter of Sheean’s autobiography Personal History. “ I never read it, but he was a wonderful man. I was closer to Glenway Wescott. After Arthur, he was our best critic. They’re just issuing his memoirs, and I’ve promised to do something about them. There’s next to nothing about the University in them, though Robert Phelps, the editor, says a bit about it.”

I asked her about other members of the club. “There’s Maureen Smith, a very fine poet who’s been neglected. I wrote a little essay about her which the Chicago Review is supposed to publish. And Elizabeth Madox Roberts, a great writer.”

In Old and New Poems there are four lines “For Elizabeth Madox Roberts, Who Died March 13, 1941”:

From the confusion of estranging years, The imperfections of the changing heart, This hour leaves only tears: Tears, and my earliest love, Elizabeth, and changeless art.

How had the club started?

“A student had come to Robert Morse Lovett complaining about the absence of modern poetry in the curriculum. Lovett said he didn’t think it should be part of the curriculum, but they could hold meetings outside of class and he would act as faculty advisor. I did have a writing class with him, and another with Edith Foster Flint. They were wonderful teachers. My major was French. Myra Reynolds was a wonderful teacher; I can’t remember the name of my fine French teacher. Oh yes, Mademoiselle Pelley. When my father gave me a round-trip ticket to Europe and four hundred dollars for a graduation present in 1920, I was allowed to go because Mademoiselle Pelley was going, too. She didn’t stay in Paris long, she went off to Vienna, and I got a job with the Passport Office on Rue Tilset, behind the Arc de Triomphe. I kept it till my mother came over in December. We toured, and then I went back to Chicago with her. I worked at Redbook and taught at Lewis. Then I got tuberculosis.”

Her acceptance to the Poetry Club had been signed by its secretary, Arthur Yvor Winters, but they didn’t meet there. He got tuberculosis his freshman year and went down to Santa Fe to be cured at the Sunmount Sanitorium. “He kept in touch with us through letters. He was our best and severest critic. He kept up with what was going on, the Little Review, the Hound and Horn. I think he wrote for that. He read Rimbaud, Corbiere and Laforgue, though he didn’t know the older French poets whom I’d read in class. He was always on to anything new that counted. He discovered Allen Tate and Morley Callaghan and corresponded with them. When I got ill, I went to the sanitorium, and we met there. I was on my back for two years, and wasn’t cured for seven. You have to be cheerful or die.” Winters got his M. A. at the University of Colorado, and went off to teach French and Spanish at the University of Idaho in Moscow. They’d married in 1926, but Janet was too ill to go with him to Moscow. She did accompany him to Stanford, where he went for his doctorate. “We lived on the outskirts of Palo Alto. I felt marooned up there, and wrote a story about some neighbors. The Bookman accepted it, and I felt I was a writer again.”

I said she wasn’t the only writer born in 1899 who grew up in Oak Park.

“Yes, Hemingway. I didn’t really know him. He was around, but he dropped out for a year to do newspaper work, then graduated the year after I did. I was in class with his sister Marcelline for three years.”

I thought of pursuing the comparison of their short stories about northern Michigan—hers are low key and a bit rambling next to his—but she took that up in another way. “I became a writer in the country, during summer vacations on Neebish and St. Joseph’s Islands. I had a close friend, Molly Johnston, who was part Indian. Her brother Howard was a wonderful storyteller. I wanted to preserve his stories about the family. I went at it in the wrong way, embroidering a sketch about Molly. It didn’t make sense unless you went back and told the stories in back of the stories. These went back to the 18th century, to their Ojibway grandmother Neengay and her Irish husband John Johnston.” Out of research came The Invasion: A Narrative of Events concerning the Johnston family of St. Mary’s (New York: HarcourtBrace, 1932), her first important prose book.

Of Janet Lewis’s four other novels, three, like The Invasion, spring from actual events. “I have this affinity for the circumstantial case. I like to get at the intimate obliquely. Perhaps I’d have been more successful if I’d been more personal. Though my contemporary book, which is more personal, is rather shapeless.” This is Against a Darkening Sky (Doubleday: 1943), the story of the violent accidents and unhappy love affairs which pound the quiet life of a house-wife living in a Santa Clara County orchard. “Some of these accidents happened to our neighbors.”

It’s Janet Lewis’s historical fiction which has been highly praised, especially her second novel, The Wife of Martin Guerre (1941). Albert Guerard Jr., the teacher under whom I read it in 1948, called it “one of the greatest short novels in American literature.” Like the others, The Trial of Soren Qvist (1947) and The Ghost of Monsieur Scarron (1959), the book revolves around the misinterpretation of evidence. The critic Donald Stanford relates this theme to the murder conviction of a friend of the Winters, David Lamson, sales manager of the Stanford University Press, who was accused, indicted, tried, and sentenced for the murder of his wife. The Winters were active in his exoneration; Yvor Winters helped with the defense brief and co-authored a book on the case.

Lewis’s reliance on circumstantiated cases as the basis of fiction may be related to her poetic reliance on meter and rhyme: the need for an unwavering, authoritative center. In her later poetry, written when she’d stopped writing fiction, meter gives way to free verse, and the pure imagistic presentation is mixed with commentary and exclamation, as if, at last, a self drives through modesty.

As for her narrative bent, it was being satisfied by writing librettos. (Music is another form of authority, though perhaps a less demanding one than history.) Her first libretto, based on The Wife of Martin Guerre, to music by William Bergsma, was reviewed by Richard Goldman in 1956 as “probably the most distinguished libretto in the annals of American opera.” I did not ask Janet if these aesthetic changes related to the death of Yvor Winters. In his lifetime, she, too, had championed poetry as the controlled expression of a rational judgement of experience, real or imagined. The poem was a public—so a publishable—celebration of the intimate. “It’s an Augustan conception,” I suggested. “Out there, public, formal.”

“I’ll go along with formalizing,” she said.

Her friend, the English poet and critic Donald Davie, has written that her novels center about dutiful women who, from under the protection of authoritative figures—Martin Guerre, Sr., Soren Qvist, Jean Larcher—enter passionate relationships which threaten the authoritarian order. Much of Lewis’s invention in these historical “reconstructions” deals with these passionate women. In the forward to The Wife of Martin Guerre, she wrote,

The rules of evidence may vary from century to century and country to country, and the morality which compels many of the actions of men and women varies also, but the capacities of the human soul for suffering and for joy remain very much the same.

Now she said, “I had to imagine the feelings of these people in these situations. I also had to imagine what things looked like to them.” Research didn’t scuttle the imagination; it stimulated it. For The Ghost of Monsieur Scarron, she studied huge maps of 17th-century Paris. “When I got to Paris, I knew the Paris of 1690 better than the Paris of 1951. I guess I’d been thinking of 17th-century France since I’d done a paper on Mme. de Maintenon at the University.”

I praised the beauty of the Danish setting in Soren Qvist. “I’ve never been to Denmark, but I had a friend, an engineer at Stanford, who was from Jutland. He told me about the seasons, the way things looked. I’ve been accused of plagiarizing Blieke, one of my sources. Twain used the same source. Of course it’s all the way you use it.”

The modesty of her excursions from the actual seems to me related to the modesty and surety of her prose (and, perhaps, her being). It is clear, concise, precise, and quietly lyrical.

As Davie sees it, the novels exhibit “the dynamics of historical change from one form of society to another.” So, in The Wife of Martin Guerre, Bertrande’s love of the impostor who claims to be her returned husband is love for “a new psychological type,” whose charm and decency may add the sweetness of deception to their erotic life but “disgraces the honorable family” and the social order on which it rests. My own guess is that Lewis’s imagination took fire here and, in that way, she is on Bertrande’s side, as—according to Blake— Milton was on Satan’s. The passionate intrigues are the core of narrative power in all her novels, which doesn’t mean that she doesn’t dread the “incoherence” and “moral violence” which they engender. Her empathy only makes their danger more real. The tension between imaginative and, say, moral energy is what makes her a narrator rather than a social critic.

The third component may be her life as an educated, relatively independent woman who, most of her life, has been a responsible housewife and mother. “Battle, murder, and sudden death, she thought, still did not prevent one from having to do the dishes.” Against this dangerous sky, there is the relief of duty; and then there’s the relief from relief.

Indeed Janet seemed relieved in the second hour of our interview when the doorbell rang. The postman brought a large package. She fetched a pair of scissors to strip it open (brushing off my offer to do it) and removed an amaryllis bulb, examined it closely and remarked on its condition. A few minutes later, the doorbell rang again, and again she sprang up with relief to introduce me to a lively looking woman with frizzy hair, who left after a brief exchange. “She leads our local dance group. Three years younger than I and she can stand on one leg for twenty minutes.”

Before lunch, which Alva was preparing in the kitchen, she brought me books of poems by Gladys Campbell, Pearl Sherry, and Helen Trimpi, the poet who wrote the forward to Old and New Poems and with whom she was having dinner that night.

In the kitchen, we sat down to macaroni and cheese. Janet said, “Bless Stouffer’s.”

I exclaimed over the delicious cold persimmon from her fruit tree. She said, “Most people can’t bear the texture.” The twinkle made this suggestive, a joke.

She and Alva talked about driving up to San Francisco a few months ago to see Monteverdi’s The Return of Ulysses. They described the sets, the singing, the singers’ gestures and the music. I asked Alva how a composer, even one like himself, who had had two operas performed by the time he was 30, made a living. He pointed to Janet and there was a fine exchange about which one helped the other most. He said he’d taught a bit, but he couldn’t compose when he taught. He was writing an opera about Tess of the D’Urber-villes, doing the libretto himself. Janet, too, had taught occasionally. “I taught Narrative 5 at Stanford.”

“Why 5?”

“We skipped 1, 2, 3 and 4.”

How about music? “It always meant a great deal, but I don’t play anything. My parents sang, hymns mostly. My grandfather was a Seventh Day Baptist minister. I’d have had two Sundays, but I didn’t take to it.”

“Are you a believer? I’d guess so from the poems.”

“I don’t go to church much, but I am sort of Christian. Christ without the Church.”

“How about your husband?”

“I guess Arthur was an agnostic. The most religious statement I ever heard him make was, “I don’t think the universe can be an accident. “”

We talked a few minutes more, but it was time to leave. She did not seem weary as she shook hands goodby.

As I drove back, the light on the hills was beautiful, and I thought of a line from one of her Indian poems, “The sunlight pours unbroken through the wind.”

“Land of Dreams and Disaster: Post-Industrial Living in the Silicon Valley, ” Brave New Families, by Judith Stacey, Basic Books, 1990.

Yvor Winters, On Modern Poetry (NY: 1959), p. 71.

It was published in the Winter 1991 issue.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading