Posted by: Gary Niebuhr
Goodbye, Wisconsin by Glenway Wescott. Borderland Books Edition, 2008.
For many years, in the back of my mind, there lurked a book with a title that intrigued me and angered me at the same time: Glenway Wescott’s Goodbye, Wisconsin. What is wrong with us and why is everyone always trying to leave, I wondered but never bothered to read this book to find out.
Wescott found success early with a book called The Grandmothers and then the collection reviewed here. Expatriated in Paris, his companions included Ernest Hemingway (who modeled a character after him), Gertrude Stein and Isadora Duncan. While living abroad, he continued to write about his home state, never kindly. After success in the forties, he then went into a long drought, fell from fame and never really achieved the kind of status that other writers of his period, like F. Scott Fitzgerald, did.
The opening essay that gives this book its title is a challenge to read today. Why is it that past generations always seem better educated than I am? Don’t answer that one.
Imbued with a sense of superiority, the essay tackles issues at a level that requires a classical education to understand. There is no doubt that the essay is a bitter attack on the Middle West, including the people who live there. Typical is this slap at a Wisconsin denominational college wherein Wescott believed that “the better part of genius, if any turned up here, would be discretion.”
He states that the Middle West is “a state of mind of people born where they do not like to live.” As to why he would have fled, Wescott makes it clear “how much sweeter to come and go than to stay, that by way of judgment upon Wisconsin.”
Undaunted, I was still determined to read the short stories in this collection for more clues as to what was (is) wrong with my home state.
In this collection, published at the height of his popularity and critical acclaim, are some challenging short stories. Each has well crafted characters, a strength that seems to be a Wescott hallmark. However, what becomes evident in each story is that Wescott was interested in the failings of our residents, not in their achievements.
Clues to Wescott’s own restlessness can be found in stories like “Adolescence” in which a young farm boy feels even more isolated when his friend talks him into dressing as a woman for a masquerade party. The message comes when the boy hopes for a day when there would “be no more disguises, nor need to be taken care of, nor harm in being neglected.” This story is the one most overtly dealing with Wescott’s sexual orientation and the challenges it caused.
In “The Runaways,” a man and wife try to escape Wisconsin only to recreate their despair in a new setting, learning “that romance is for those who see, never for those who do, and underpaid as a profession.” Other escapees do not fair much better. In “The Sailor,” using a character from a previously published short story called “Prohibition” wherein the boy Terrie is denied his right to escape by joining the Navy, Terrie returns from his naval service on the coast of France, none the better for the effort. His failure to find true love in the French woman he befriends is recounted to his Wisconsin farm brothers to no avail and now he is cast adrift with “no desire to stay there on the farm with a brother who did not know enough about life to understand what he was talking about.”
Part of that misunderstanding may extend both to Wescott as a human being and to his contemporary readers. That is fine because it is that controversy that would make this a great book for a book discussion. A reader group would be challenged to find the meaning in the predestination story “Like a Lover” or in the nature of the threat in the story “In a Thicket?”
The pathos shown in the ultimate fate of a composer forced to return from Paris in “The Whistling Swan” closes the collection. Here, the character resigns himself to a life in Wisconsin, symbolized by the death of a swan, and it is made to feel like the sealing of his fate.
Certainly, the nearer you are to Wisconsin or the Middle West, the more the meaning to this book. But I believe the trauma suffered by these characters is universal and this collection, newly published by Borderland Books, would be a challenge to any discussion group.