CONTINUAL LESSONS

The Journals of

Glenway Wescott, 1937-1955

Edited by Robert Phelps

With Jerry Rosco

Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 410 pp. $27.95

THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY of a writer stands up to the life. The private journal reveals it. Often, as in Glenway Wescott's posthumous Continual Lessons, the reader becomes the collaborator, adding it all up.

He was born in 1901, a farmboy from Wisconsin. Homosexual from the age of 13, he early on formed what would be a lifelong alliance with Monroe Wheeler, while endlessly involving himself in other love affairs and casual sex. As very young men, poor, but always able to find patrons in that art world where Wheeler would become an authority, Wescott and Wheeler were part of the 1920s migration to France, England and Germany, where older members of that dazzlingly serious art generation were easily met. At home, Wescott, working as an office boy for Poetry, publishing poems there and in the Dial, had already begun to meet "everybody" as the prodigy he was. By 1923 their international axis -- eventually to include Cocteau, Maugham, Auden, Isherwood, Wilder and Katherine Anne Porter -- was already in place.

By 1924, with the publication of The Apple of the Eye, Wescott had become a novelist. By 1925, with The Grandmothers, he had become a best-selling one. For the next 15 years -- although he published Good-bye Wisconsin (1928), stories well received; The Babe's Bed (1930), a midwestern novel in a deluxe edition of 400 by Harrison of Paris; Fear and Trembling (1932), essays inspired by a trip to Germany, badly received -- he was already struggling with what would become his life pattern: writing and abandoning successive novels and shorter works of fiction, while on the outside he maintained his social and literary celebrity.

Then, in 1940, came the electrifying novella The Pilgrim Hawk (newly reissued as a Noonday paperback, $7.95). It would flame for awhile internationally, become almost forgotten in the States, and remain to some a classic of its kind. In 1945 Apartment in Athens appeared, again a best-seller, and his last work of fiction.

After that, there was, publicly, continued honorary or paid-for activity and much letter-writing. Privately, there was a personal life combining rampantly physical and/or sentimental sex, all within an extraordinary family menage. And, there was this journal.

Continual Lessons covers the period 1937-1955. As a "diary" it has a peculiar provenance. According to the masterly preface by its editor, Robert Phelps (whose work was completed after his death by Jerry Rosco), the book originated in "ring-binders, into whose pages its author had pasted every sort of memo, newspaper clippings . . . the text offered here is a melange . . . I have chosen to simulate the conventional diary, though in substance as well as appearance it is closer to a scrapbook." The reader may read it as such, dog-earing page after page for the foxy, quotable commentary that extrudes out of the obsessions into the general world, or for descriptive passages of the first order. Only the letters to writer-aspirants, passing lovers, or even such correspondents as Maugham are dullish, weighted with writerly pomp.

Actually, the book is a narrative, brilliant, chancy, painful, self-indulgent, and self-denying, bogged in detail -- much of that gloriously attached to landscape and almost none of it boring -- in which the pretense and vanity inherent in any journalizing are outdistanced by the language, which is a joy, and by the story. Wescott, who couldn't take Kafka and side-swiped Genet, was all the same a prisoner, of himself and of his family. That their canny maidservant, Anna, considered him a happy man is not beside the point.

The menage? Lloyd, Glenway's brother, married Barbara Harrison, millionaire dilettante and publisher of those deluxe editions. They ran a working farm in western New Jersey. Stoneblossom, a second house, was given to Wescott, who was to be their resident star and, as his money dwindled, their charge. Wheeler retained the Park Avenue flat that he and Wescott had taken on after returning from France. For a while the three had a menage a` trois with the photographer George Platt Lynes at Stoneblossom. Later it became Wescott's refuge alone, both for invited lovers and the always healing power of the land.

When Harrison had a breakdown, and a Karen Horney analysis, she became intolerant of homosexuality. In return for further support, she appears to have expected to see what Wescott was writing -- a low form of humiliation. When the clan's cherished mother became an old-age problem, it was taken for granted that Wescott would assume the burden of her care, in his house.

Many sex parties also took place there. Young men, whether inmates for a time, lovers intermittently, or casuals, were avuncularly pursued, often in correspondence also, always in later memory (there Wescott never let any of them go). The sex was often a threesome, poetically described, with Wescott as voyeur. He became a friend of Alfred C. Kinsey and a contributor to and procurer for his researches, thus reinforcing the dignity of what he himself did. No one was more aware than he that his pursuits of love and of sensation were inextricably mixed -- "Venus-scarred from top to toe." Meanwhile, the menage enfolds. Lions are kept on the farm property. So is he.

All this we can recount in overview only because he himself has written it. Continual Lessons should have a long life, first as the kind of revelation that our novelists tend to reserve for fiction; second, as a lead-in to the neglected Wescott oeuvre. As one comes upon such asides as "Waterbirds ill at ease" or "There was a train going backward but in our direction . . . it reminded me of a herd of black beef cattle eating their way across their pasture," one recalls that even the first novel, otherwise an immature saga, is chockablock with the lore of a pig farmer's son. The Grandmothers, a family portrait recounted by Alwyn Tower, Wescott's surrogate, in imagery drawn from "across that great width of America which separates Wisconsin from the sea," prefigures the dual personality of the journal. He will always be going back.

Conversely, the journal's lampooning of a rich patron, in a hilarious passage about a Miss Ferragut with her peg-leg at the opera, reminds one of how socially obligated he was to that world for certain frivolities of both manner and experience -- and then of how he will use that same world for the tautly symbolic The Pilgrim Hawk. HE IS ALREADY examining what in the journal he will term "the uselessness of the man of letters" -- and quailing before the novelist's task. As the entries progress, he is slowly bowing to a fate with which others continue to engage.

As a novelist he was not a true original. Behind The Pilgrim Hawk's superbly struck absolutes, there looms Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier -- and Wescott himself as Lucy, the bound hawk? In the journal, "Alwyn Tower" will write without the novelist's veil.

He is a reporter of the non-fictive kind that our novelists were not then allowing themselves to be. In the France from which he had returned, even dreaming in French, a writer's successive works would be awaited as part of a total oeuvre, and so examined. Here each book has to make its own splash, under the hacking critique that clocks itself by decades rather than by the long pull. In these entries, sometimes sunny, never quite scabrous -- and, one suspects, expurgated -- Wescott documents himself as, intellectually and socially, never quite in the closet and, in gentlemanly compromise, never quite out of it. The past books, not publicized by fresh ones, fall into neglect.

Had he planned that these "lessons" reach us only posthumously? One way or the other, he never let go of America. Nor should we -- of him.

Hortense Calisher's books include her collected stories, the recent "Age" and the novels "False Entry" and "The New Yorkers."