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One of the finest American short novels

May 5, 2009

The Pilgrim HawkGlenway Wescott’s The Pilgrim Hawk: A Love Story frequently, if not always, is described in the upper echelons of praise. If you haven’t read it, you’ve got a hole in your Life List of great books, and you’re not alone – Edmund White referred to The Pilgrim Hawk in the February 12, 2009 New York Review of Books as “one of the neglected masterpieces of twentieth-century American literature.” 

I read The Pilgrim Hawk several years ago. I’d come across one of those laudatory descriptions and, realizing I had not just neglected it but failed to even see it, swooped in for the accomplishment.  I may be able to say I’ve read it, but I’ve reached a point in my life where I realize some books need to be read a second time to fully appreciate them, let alone understand the depths of their meaning. The Pilgrim Hawk is one of them.

Michael Cunningham, author of The Hours, writes in an introduction to the book:

“We may consider Glenway Wescott’s The Pilgrim Hawk to be a short novel or a long novella, but whatever we choose to cSix Great Modern Short Novelsall it, it is exactly as long as it needs to be. It is murderously precise and succinct. It contains, in its 108 pages, more levels and layers of experience than many books five times its length.”

A 1954 vintage paperback found its way to me the other day with the title Six Great Modern Short Novels.  Not surprising, Wescott’s is one of the six that are gathered together because “all share that one element – the unmistakable ring of human truth – that marks each of them as a masterpiece…”

Here are the other five, to check against that Life List. Happy reading.

  • The Dead by James Joyce
  • Billy Budd, Foretopman by Herman Melville
  • Noon Wine by Katherine Anne Porter
  • The Overcoat by Nikolay Gogal
  • The Bear by William Faulkner

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