Now well and truly down a rabbit hole prompted by Allen Ellenzweig’s GEORGE PLATT LYNES. I’ve just finished Jerry Rosco’s book on Glenway Wescott, the often odd-man-out in the Lynes-Wheeler-Wescott trio. It’s a rich book, benefitting from hours of reminiscences Westcott recorded towards the end of his life, almost a lifetime of diaries, and a well-documented life. Wescott, only vaguely known to me until now, was famous before Hemingway (and the cruel butt of his homophobia. He is ostensibly the model for Robert Prentiss in THE SUN ALSO RISES, of which, according to Wiki, after meeting Prentiss, Jack Barnes, the narrator, says, ‘I just thought perhaps I was going to throw up’); wrote two best-sellers (THE GRANDMOTHERS, 1927; APARTMENT IN ATHENS, 1945) and received quite extraordinary critical praise for THE PILGRIM HAWK, including a two-part appreciation from Susan Sontag in The New Yorker in 2001, where she deemed it, ‘among the treasures of twentieth-century American literature’.
His life is an illustration of a particularly American kind of re-invention. The son of Wisconsin farmers, himself farmed out to relatives when the family didn’t have enough to eat, who went on to become a celebrity, peer of Hemingway and Fitzgerald in Paris, then firmly entrench himself in the upper classes without himself having a penny to his name or indeed working on anything but his writing. He brings to mind Truman Capote but without the dizziness of that particular kind of success, the self-destructiveness, a better internalisation of Carnegie’s How to Make Friends and Influence People, and an innate niceness and cheer. In ‘The Loves of the Falcon’a lovely essay on his work in the New York Review of Books, Edmund White writes: ‘He was a confidant who also confided in others (intimacy is not always a two-way street, which egotistical friends don’t notice at first but come to resent in the long run)’
In many ways he is the ideal clubman. Had he not been queer and a writer, he might have made an excellent Elk or Rotary. As he dined with Pauline Rothchild, he also contributed greatly to the Kinsey Institute, not just by being a subject or through donations but by actually working towards the organisation of the archive. He directed many of the writers’ associations of the day; and amongst other ‘contributions to literature’ that don’t have to do strictly with writing, he and Christopher Isherwood arranged for the publication of E.M. Forster’s Maurice.
What interested me most in the book and in his life, what interests me most about biography, is the insight it offers to how people live, the choices they make, how they manage their life. Wescott’s circumstances were inherently difficult, though nothing in this book makes it seems so: people were queer and they dealt with it. On the edges of the book, however, one deduces other stories; handsome, gifted people who intersected with these lives and didn’t manage so well; drugs, alcohol, despair, oppression, suicide, all having an effect that Wescott’s cheery disposition and strong support network circumvented, though they do appear here. As well as being nice to others, Wescott was very honest with himself, particularly in relation to questions of sex…and of love. He was never confused as to which was which and when they coincided; and he was a very loving person, maybe a reason why he was able to maintain such a rich network of relationships right to the end.
The book, a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award, might have been improved by sharpening the narrative and eliminating ‘doings’ that don’t much enhance our understanding of the man – the post sixties chapters suffer from too much listing of events and activities . I woud have liked more on psychology. Perhaps what surprised me more in the book was that someone so clearly good looking though of himself as physically unattractive, and this despite being regularly in sexual demand through much of his life. I would have liked to have understood this better — Edmund’s White’s explanation that he thought he had a small penis and that a youthful illness resulted in the removal of a testicle are surely a contributing factor but don’t quite fully convince: it’s undoubtedly true Westcott felt this, but why, when, for how long, did this often intermingle with a knowledge of his own sexual pull; how did he he rationalise this with the constant stream of long relationships with much younger lovers as well as with Wheeler throughout and right to the end of his life? I would have liked a fuller account of this.
The book leaves one uncertain of Wescott’s place in 20th Century American Letters but convinced that he is a major figure in a history of twentieth century queer cultures in the West.