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Janet Lewis and the Untranslatable Heart

November 03, 1985|TIMOTHY STEELE | Steele's latest collection of poems will be published next year by Random House ; his "Sciences of Sentiment: Meter, Free Verse and Modern Poetry" is forthcoming from the Stanford University Press.

Gently objecting to the notion that writers should be sheltered from and supported by society, Janet Lewis once told an interviewer: "The poet should be immersed in living, which is not always easy. If he's too much set aside and taken care of, possibly he may miss something. What comes out of a rich and normally lived life is what is probably most valuable to other people. Poetry's a byproduct."

This observation illuminates Lewis' own remarkable verse and prose. The excellence of her work results partly from the simple fact that she writes very well, hers being a style that combines clear speech with distinctive and personal inflection and perception. Lewis' achievement, however, involves not merely stylistic properties, but sympathies that issue from a life richly and thoughtfully experienced. To read her is to read someone who has been a child, sibling, friend, spouse and parent, and who has clearly cared as deeply about these aspects of her life as she has about those aspects connected with her art.

Lewis' biography may be briefly summarized. Born outside Chicago in 1899, she grew up in the Chicago area. She attended high school in the suburb of Oak Park, where one of her fellow students was Ernest Hemingway. Her father, who was an English professor, encouraged her early interest in literature and writing, and after enrolling in the University of Chicago in 1918, she joined the university's Poetry Club. Through her membership in the Poetry Club, she met other young writers, among them Glenway Wescott and Elizabeth Madox Roberts and the poet and critic Yvor Winters, whom she married in 1926.

After a brief period of working for the American Consulate in Paris and a stint of teaching in Chicago, Lewis was in 1922 diagnosed as having tuberculosis. She spent much of the next five years in a sanitarium in New Mexico. This difficult time was not without benefit; during her long convalescence in the Southwest, she became interested in the culture of the pueblos, about which she was later to write memorable poems. This interest in turn reinforced an already longstanding concern with native American societies, a concern that had developed during the summers of her youth when she and her family vacationed in Ojibway country in upper Michigan. Indeed, Lewis' first novel, "The Invasion" (1932), is a vivid account of the coming of white settlers to the Old Northwest Territory in the late 18th and early 19th Century; and the book records, at times in heartbreaking terms, the attempts of the Indians and the various "invaders"--French, English and American--to understand and live in peace with each other.

Having married while still at the sanitarium, Lewis moved with her husband in 1927 to Palo Alto, where he became a graduate student and later a professor of English at Stanford University. The move proved lasting. Lewis and Winters settled permanently in the Bay Area, rearing their two children and working and writing their books. After Winters died in 1968, Lewis edited and guided to publication his "Collected Poems," while at the same time continuing with her own work.

About that work, one should perhaps first note its variety. In addition to the novels and poems for which she is best known, Lewis has written short stories, books for children and opera librettos. Yet it is the novels and verse that compose her major achievement. The novels are five in number. As well as "The Invasion," she has published "The Wife of Martin Guerre" (1941), "Against a Darkening Sky" (1943), "The Trial of Soren Qvist" (1947) and "The Ghost of Monsieur Scarron" (1959). Lewis' several collections of verse have been gathered together in "Poems Old and New" (1981). All these books, it may be added, are in print and available from Swallow/Ohio University Press.

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