Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Janet Lewis: Novelist and Poet, Wife and Mother

Janet Loxley Lewis

I am enjoying The Wife of Martin Guerre by Janet Lewis (1899-1998), a novel based on a true story that shook the French village of Artigues in the middle of the 16th century.

The wife of the poet, professor, and poetic critic Yvor Winters, Janet Lewis was an author in her own right--writing poems and novels over the course of decades in a crystalline clear style. A native of Chicago and daughter of an English professor, Lewis started writing at an early age--"I don't pay as much attention, when I'm not writing, to living in general," she said in an interview--and contributed to the same high school magazine in Oak Park, Illinois, as her contemporary Ernest Hemingway. Later, studying at the University of Chicago, she met Yvor Winters. Throughout first his and then her own convalescence from tuberculosis, the two carried on a literary and romantic correspondence that culminated in their marriage in 1926.

The two shared a passion for poetry and writing and founded and co-produced the literary magazine The Gyroscope from 1929 to 1931. When Winters died in 1968, she kept his writing shed as is and his name on the mailbox of their home in Los Altos, California, where they made their home upon their marriage and where Lewis lived a total of 62 years. Many of her husband's students and literary friends came to visit the Winters, including famous writers, as her obituary in the New York Times reports: "You may have to close your eyes to conjure up the sight, but there they are forever, two 1899 contemporaries standing side by side at the kitchen sink, Janet Lewis washing, Vladimir Nabokov drying."

Her Times obituary also notes that
over the course of a a career in which she wrote hundreds of poems, a single collection of short stories, a couple of children's books, a handful of novels, the words to five operas and one acclaimed masterpiece, Miss Lewis pursued a literary life in which the focus was on the life and the life was one of such placid equilibrium and domestic bliss that she had to reach deep down in her psyche -- and far back in the annals of criminal law -- to find the wellspring of tension that produced some of the 20th century's most vividly imagined and finely wrought literature.

She also had to find the time.

As she once observed, women of prodigious literary output, like Willa Cather and Edith Wharton, tended not to have children. As the mother of two, Miss Lewis willingly put her work aside when her children were young and cheerfully accepted other duties as well. ''It's a question of what you want to do with your life,'' she once said. ''You might also want to take care of your husband.''

In an interview in Women Writers of the West Coast: Speaking of Their Lives and Careers, Lewis herself stated her priorities: "Being a writer has meant nearly everything to me beyond my marriage and children."

Lewis had a life-long interest in American Indians and her first book of poetry was Indians in the Woods. Indians also feature prominently in her novel, The Invasion, A Narrative of Events Concerning the Johnston Family of St. Mary's, about a pioneering Scots-Irish family in 18th-century Michigan. She and her husband were also active in the civil rights movement.

Here are two of Lewis' poems.

Girl Help

Mild and slow and young,
She moves about the room,
And stirs the summer dust
With her wide broom.
In the warm, lofted air,
Soft lips together pressed,
Soft wispy hair,
She stops to rest,
And stops to breathe,
Amid the summer hum,
The great white lilac bloom
Scented with days to come.

A Lullaby

Lulle, lullay
I could not love thee more
If thou wast Christ the King.
Now tell me, how did Mary know
That in her womb should sleep and grow
The Lord of everything?

Lullee, lullay
An angel stood with her
Who said: "That which doth stir
Like summer in thy side
Shall save the world from sin
Then stable, hall, and inn
Shall cherish Christmas-tide."

Lullee, lullay
And so it was that Day.
And did she love Him more
Because an angel came
To prophesy His name?
Ah no, not so,
She could not love Him more,
But loved Him just the same.

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