Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

"In a Thicket": Glenway Wescott's Pastoral Vision

Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

"In a Thicket": Glenway Wescott's Pastoral Vision

Article excerpt

Like Hemingway, Fitzgerald and his other expatriate contemporaries, Glenway Wescott fled to Paris in the 1920s only to return home continuously in his writing. In Goodbye Wisconsin (1928), a collection of short stories set in his native Wisconsin, Wescott explores the themes of small-town life, flight and expatriation. The collection and its introductory essay encapsulate his ambivalence toward the Midwest: the region is isolating and morally repressive; yet, simple and idyllic, it always holds a certain allure.

In "In a Thicket,"(1) the story of a 15-year-old girl's coming of age, Wescott explores this paradox of the Midwest through his use of conventions and a narrative perspective common to pastoral writing. Unlike a traditional idyll, the story does not simply glorify the life of solitary rustics; rather, it also reveals the loneliness and repression that Wescott sees as inherent in the countryside and, more specifically, the Midwest, a region that is for Wescott the pastoral landscape of America. Wescott's story, the, is not a modern recasting of traditional pastoral that still maintains an idealization of rural life. Nor is it a parody of pastoral or an "anti-pastoral" expression of unqualified preference for urban life. Rather, the nostalgia for a pastoral oasis, given the corruption of the world outside, is founded; however, pastoral simplicity carries a price.

In his article "Pastoral Narratives: A Review of Criticism," David Raphael Thuente distinguishes between a common critical approach that identifies a work as pastoral by singling out "one or two elements or themes of the pastoral genre" (usually as defined by scholars of classical or Renaissance pastoral) and an approach that focuses as well on the narrative perspective implied in the text (Thuente 248). The latter approach, he adds, tends to view pastoral as involving "a journey toward, or at least a longing for, a world remote in space and distant in time" (254-55), a circumscribed world in which happiness is possible.(2) A basic impulse behind the genre, in other words, is "the desire to retreat from the world in order to fix it, make it static in time and totally comprehensible in space" (259). Thus the narrative must be, in some way, retrospective: one must exit the pastoral oasis before one can appreciate its simplicity or innocence in relation to the world outside, and the only way one can attempt to fix pastoral moment in time and place is through imaginative recollection.

Though in this essay I will examine the story's "pastoral elements" - notably the implied contrast between rural innocence and urban corruption - I ultimately define Wescott's vision as pastoral through this second, more specific, approach. While the story undermines the pastoral ideal, it also represents Wescott's impulse to circumscribe a pastoral moment, no matter how fleeting or illusive. As he writes in his introduction to the collection, he desires to recreate imaginatively the land of his childhood:

I should like to write a book about ideal people under ideal circumstances. No sort of under-nourishment, no under-education, nothing partial or frustrated, no need of variety or luxury - in short, no lack of anything which, according to its children, Wisconsin denies. (Wescott, Goodbye Wisconsin 42-43)

Wescott's pastoral vision is self-conscious, for he always recognizes it as a means of artificial ordering. As he rides on a train through the Wisconsin farmland, he attempts to relocate the landscape in a Golden Age state before seasonal change brought harsh winters. Even when the cold air of winter intrudes on this fantasy, he tries to imagine he smells just the pure snow, as yet uncontaminated by the odors, though pleasant, of civilization:

I think of the land outside the train window as one of perpetual summer. Then the door swings open; the blown cold pounds on the nape of my neck; in spite of the coal-gas, the tobacco, the oranges, the opium-sweetness of warm bodies, I imagine that I can smell snow. …

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