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

Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade

Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?