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We live in an age of great literary biographies. Over the past few years Blake Bailey has given us his one-two punch of A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates and Cheever: A Biography; Brad Gooch published his affectionate Flannery, a long overdue life of Flannery O’Connor; and Carol Sklenicka wrote the majestic Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life.
No less majestic, in its own way, is Jerry Rosco’s Glenway Wescott Personally: A Biography. First published in 2002, the book has just been released in paperback, and belongs on the bookshelves of every bibliophile. It provides a rich reading experience, not least because Wescott knew so many cultural figures of the twentieth century. Among his friends he counted Jean Cocteau, George Platt Lynes, W. Somerset Maugham, Marianne Moore, Kathryn Anne Porter, Joseph Campbell, and Dr. Alfred Kinsey—and those were just close friends. His acquaintances and correspondents included virtually every literary figure one can think of, from Robert Frost to Auden to Wescott’s fellow expatriate writers in France in the 1920’s.
Rosco was close to Westcott during his later years, and recorded many hours of interviews with his friend. Thanks to those interviews, and quotations from Wescott’s extensive journals, we get the author’s “voice” throughout the book, and a chance to know him intimately.
Despite his aristocratic-sounding name, Wescott came from a poor farming background in Wisconsin. He made his way to Chicago for college, which soon led him into a world of literature, art, and society. His open relationship with Monroe Wheeler, who made his name as a curator for the Museum of Modern Art, lasted for more than five decades, even as it allowed each partner to take on lovers over the years, sometimes on a long-term basis; yet the love between Wheeler and Wescott was never in doubt.
Wescott had the gift of friendship, but in this, too, he went his own way. That he became less well known than his fellow expatriates may partly be due to the fact that he avoided them, preferring to bond with the locals. “I knew a lot of Americans,” he said of his time in Paris, “but Hemingway despised me, Fitzgerald was a drinker with a miserable wife, and the Americans who hung around the cafes bored me to death.”
Another reason why Wescott did not achieve the level of fame of Hemingway or Fitzgerald was his literary output. Three novels and a novella (The Pilgrim Hawk, still and always a classic), a handful of short stories, some art and literary criticism, some early poems…he was aware of never “producing” the body of work that was expected of him, and that is what makes the Wescott of this book such a sympathetic character: he had talent, but he also had self-doubt and the fear of failure; he struggled in the way of all artists.
Wescott was known far and wide as a speaker and raconteur. His voice and commanding looks often made him the center of attention, even when he preferred not to be. In his role as president of the American Institute of Arts and Letters he worked for writer’s rights and recognition, and expanded his literary acquaintanceship still further. He never forgot his family, though, remaining especially close to his brother Lloyd and his parents; he was primary caregiver to his mother during her difficult last months. One of the most moving aspects of Glenway Wescott Personally is that it introduces us not only to a great writer but also a great man.
It’s particularly apt to remember Wescott during Gay Pride Month. He was an important figure in the lives of many gay artists, and was instrumental in getting E. M. Forster’s novel Maurice published, after Forster’s death. Wescott’s first novel, The Apple of the Eye, contained a gay theme—unusual for a book published in 1924. His friend Marianne Moore even urged him not to publish it, fearing it might harm his career. But in this, as in so many things, Wescott went his own way. He was openly gay his entire adult life, never hesitating to appear in public with his partner; the work he did for the Kinsey Institute was invaluable to a modern understanding of homosexuality.
After Wescott’s death, Jerry Rosco went to work editing his journals, a volume of which was published in 1990 under the title Continual Lessons. More of Rosco’s critical writing can be found in the recent book The Lost Library: Gay Fiction Rediscovered, edited by Tom Cardamone, in which Rosco presents a cogent argument for bringing Wescott’s first novel, The Apple of the Eye, back into print. It’s not likely, given the efforts of Rosco and other friends and admirers, that Wescott and his work will ever be forgotten; we can be grateful for that.
Reviewed by Wayne Courtois