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!'

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Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


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