The Grandmothers

by Glenway Wescott. New York: Harper & Bros. 1927. 12mo. xiii+388 pp. $2.50.
ABOUT Mr. Glenway Wescott’s book. The Grandmothers, to which Harper has awarded its prize for 1927, there is a leisureliness at once reassuring and captivating. Too few novelists of these latter days, especially among those of our own soil, give evidence of thoughtful leisure, or suggest in their work that they, like Pater, conceive of life as ‘a kind of listening.’ Hence, when a novel like Miss Roberts’s The Time of Man and this new story of Mr. Wescott’s come among us, we are reassured anil delighted. Perhaps, we say, there may be something after all besides a desire to entertain or to startle, to convince or to shock, in this making of many books.
The Grandmothers, in its slow, careful workmanship, which proceeds with little motivation other than the author’s vision of his finished and completed product, is a book for the slow and the perceptive reader. Here is minute attention to concrete detail —a couch in the Wisconsin house, ‘upholstered in rows of yellow tapestry biscuits,’ pictures of Mr. Longfellow and Mr. Whittier, ‘equally complacent and almost equally muffled by untidy beards,’ ‘sunshine flashing on the tines of pitchforks,’ ‘cattle of all colors under the hickories.’ Here is a wealth of portraiture combined with a wealth of method
— grandmothers, aunts, uncles, cousins, presented enduringly by epithet, anecdote, incident, contrast, comment. Here is a rare sensitiveness to adjectives, a beautiful, even tender, use of them. Who can soon forget the ‘little, agitated ghosts’ which the sheets of old paper enfold, the ‘fragrant, restless atmosphere of a new marriage,’ the ‘mean amenities, the lack of mystery, the vast, somewhat emasculate, primitive power’ of Western Protestantism? Here are obviously favorite words — ‘mystery’ with its derivatives is one of them — which, like bright, recurring colors in a tapestry, add atmosphere and unity to the whole. Anil here, above all else, are figures
— unusual, startling, lovely figures — which perform their mysterious and beneficent work. For as the mind thus compares and relates, traveling in an illumined, never-ending line, horizons become illimitable. The horizons of Mr. Wescott’s book are illimitable; it has no beginning and no end; and it would be unjust and careless, indeed, to disregard or to fail to perceive this effect which his similes do so much to secure.
One is distressed with what must be the distress of the author himself over the inadequacy of the jacket advertising — always short of truth, Loo often merely silly. We read on gilt paper that The Grandmothers is a ‘segment of American life, a span of human experience stretching from the pioneers and the Civil War down to the present time.’ One needs but to read one third of the story, catching on every page the undercurrent of wistful, eternal questioning, to know that it is Egyptian and Trojan as well as American and that it may antedate by thousands of years the pioneers and the Civil War. Its time, place, and circumstances are mere conveniences. The fever of inquisitiveness which the boy Alwyn cannot escape; the nagging pride of his grandfather, Henry Tower; the restless yearning of his greataunt, Mary Harris; the tight and tenacious hold of his unde Leander, the sufferings of whose heart, broken in youth, encircle the book with great, sad chords; the futile, pathetic, thwarted desires of them all — these are of all time and of every place. More than all else, to one reader at least, the story recalls the ‘Sunt lacrimæ rerum’ of Virgil — ‘There are tears over fortune’; or as Pater, of whom the book is constantly reminiscent, so beautifully expresses it in Marius: ‘There is a certain grief in things as they are . . . over and above those griefs of circumstance which are in a measure removable.’
Tins review is not a panegyric. Mr. Wescott is at times tedious and vague, especially in Ids Conclusion; there are now and then overstrained figures, some of them almost absurd; there is an occasional sentence annoying in its obscure construction. One could wish they had been avoided in so large and beautiful a work. And yet in spite of them The Grandmothers stands out as a book which has been conceived in deep and quiet perceptions and born in pride, care, and patience.