Obituary: Janet Lewis

THE DEATH of the poet and novelist Janet Lewis, at the age of 99, marks the passing of the last survivor of the extraordinary generation of American literary talent which began to publish in the 1920s. She and Ernest Hemingway began their literary careers at virtually the same moment, with contributions to the same high school literary magazine. Her imagist poetry, which she continued to write throughout her long life, first saw the, light of day when William Carlos Williams and H.D. were beginning their metrical experiments.

If she was in some ways representative of her generation, the spareness and limpidity of her writing were wholly her own, and her work was never touched by the implicit anti-intellectualism and contempt for the past that tainted the writings of many of her contemporaries. Her books possess a quality of deep repose, a kind of distilled wisdom in the face of human disaster and pain, which is difficult to describe and impossible to imitate, but which, once encountered, is unforgettable.

She was born in 1899, the daughter of a professor of at the University of Chicago. She read French at the same university, and whilst an undergraduate became a member of the Chicago Poetry Club, which at that time included many who were to be among the most influential poets of the 20th century. It was during this period that she met her future husband, the poet and critic Yvor Winters; travels in Europe were followed by five years in a sanatorium in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she gradually recovered from tuberculosis.

Once cured, she and Winters were married, and moved to Palo Alto, California, in order to allow Winters to take up a position at Stanford University. They remained there until Winters's death in 1968, and Janet Lewis stayed in the same house, keeping Winters's study exactly as he had left it, until her own death.

Winters had a very forceful personality, one that sometimes overwhelmed those who came in contact with it, and it is an indication of Janet Lewis's own strength of conviction that her writings, while admired by her husband, are quite unlike his. Their published works do, however, show two shared concerns: a reverence for the natural world, and a conviction that intelligent sanity is both more difficult than unreflective complacency and more interesting than madness.

They shared, too, a consciousness that was unfashionably ahead of its time: they vigorously protested the internment of Japanese Americans in the Second World War. They were founder members of the California branch of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People); they organised the retrial of a man unjustly convicted of murder; and they were both deeply concerned with the plight and history of Native Americans.

This last preoccupation is apparent in Janet Lewis's first collection of poems, The Indians in the Woods (1922), and received its most extended treatment in her first novel, The Invasion (1932), an account of the penetration by Europeans of the area around Lake Superior. She later turned The Invasion into a libretto for an opera by Bain Murray, and she was to do the same with what is probably her most famous novel, The Wife of Martin Guerre (1941; opera 1956, with music by William Bergsman). She also turned texts by Wilde and Grimm into opera libretti, as well as Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans (opera 1976, with music by Alva Henderson).

The novel that made her name, The Wife of Martin Guerre, was a fictionalised recreation of an actual legal case from 16th-century France, and two more of her novels, The Trial of Soren Qvist (1947) and The Ghost of Monsieur Scarron (1959) were also based on real trials in which circumstantial evidence played a crucial and misleading role. Her novel Against a Darkening Sky (1943) dealt with the impact of the Depression in California. She also wrote a book of short stories (Goodbye Son, 1946).

She continued to publish poetry until almost the end of her life; apart from The Indians in the Woods, volumes include Poems (1950), The Ancient Ones (1979), Poems Old and New (1981), Last Offerings (1988), and The Dear Past (1994).

Important though her novels are, her true spirit seems most obvious in the poetry: it is here that her gift for the evocation of other lives, her paradoxically clear and gentle gaze, the immense tact and tenderness of her vision, are most apparent. Able to use both traditional metres and imagist free verse with equal dexterity, she could create extraordinary resonances with the simplest of means, and in this she was like no other poet of her time.

Those who knew her attested to how the qualities evident in her writing were also everywhere apparent in her life: meeting her one felt the presence of a rare wisdom, kindness and understanding; sharp, witty, utterly without pretension, she truly seemed to be one of the very few who, in Arnold's phrase, "saw life steadily, and saw it whole".

Dick Davis

Janet Lewis, writer and poet: born Chicago 17 August 1899; married Yvor Winters (died 1968; one son, one daughter); died Palo Alto, California 1 December 1998.

In the Egyptian Museum

Under the lucent glass,

Closed from the living air,

Clear in electric glare

That does not change nor pass,

Armlet and amulet

And woven gold are laid

Beside the turquoise braid

With coral flowers inset.

The beetle, lapis, green,

Graved with the old device

And linen brown with spice,

Long centuries unseen,

And this most gracious wealth,

Exiled from the warm hair,

Meet now the curious stare -

All talismans of death.

All that the anguished mind

Most nobly could invent,

To one devotion bent,

That death seem less unkind;

That the degraded flesh,

Grown spiritless and cold,

Be housed in beaten gold,

A rich and rigid mesh.

Such pain is garnered here

In every close-locked case,

Concentrate in this place

Year after fading year,

That, while I wait, a cry,

As from beneath the glass,

Pierces me with `Alas

That the beloved must die!'

Arts and Entertainment
Blackman: Landscape of children’s literature does not reflect the cultural diversity of young people
booksMalorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Arts and Entertainment
'Eminem's recovery from substance abuse has made him a more potent performer, with physical charisma and energy he never had before'
musicReview: Wembley Stadium ***
Arts and Entertainment
‘Dawn of Planet of the Apes’ also looks set for success in the Chinese market

film
News
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight

tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

    How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

    A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
    The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

    The evolution of Andy Serkis

    First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

    Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
    Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

    Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

    Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
    Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

    Blackest is the new black

    Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
    Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

    Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

    From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
    Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
    Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

    Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

    The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
    Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

    Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

    The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

    Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

    Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

    Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

    The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
    The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

    The Open 2014

    Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?