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
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
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.

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

    ... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
    Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

    Europe's biggest steampunk convention

    Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

    The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor
    She's dark, sarcastic, and bashes life in Nowheresville ... so how did Kacey Musgraves become country music's hottest new star?

    Kacey Musgraves: Nashville's hottest new star

    The singer has two Grammys for her first album under her belt and her celebrity fans include Willie Nelson, Ryan Adams and Katy Perry
    American soldier-poet Brian Turner reveals the enduring turmoil that inspired his memoir

    Soldier-poet Brian Turner on his new memoir

    James Kidd meets the prize-winning writer, whose new memoir takes him back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
    Aston Villa vs Hull match preview: Villa were not surprised that Ron Vlaar was a World Cup star

    Villa were not surprised that Vlaar was a World Cup star

    Andi Weimann reveals just how good his Dutch teammate really is
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef ekes out his holiday in Italy with divine, simple salads

    Bill Granger's simple Italian salads

    Our chef presents his own version of Italian dishes, taking in the flavours and produce that inspired him while he was in the country
    The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

    The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

    If supporters begin to close bank accounts, switch broadband suppliers or shun satellite sales, their voices will be heard. It’s time for revolution