I love this novella and you should read it.
Lately I’ve been studying the “literary impressionism” of the great early Moderns—Henry James, Joseph Conrad, Ford Madox Ford—and Pilgrim Hawk, first published in 1940, seems to me a small, late impressionist masterpiece much in the mold of The Good Soldier. Wescott was, in fact, one of a group of American writers in Ford’s circle during the Transatlantic Review days, and so perhaps it is not surprising that he deploys what I consider to be the ur-impressionist (I know, I hated the confusing term, too, until I got the hang of the relevant sense of “impression”) narrative technique. A character of the story, who depicts himself as auxiliary or incidental to the main affair of the plot, narrates the story. The narrator reports strong impressions of the other characters, but as the story proceeds, the narrator realizes his initial impressions are erroneous or incomplete, and so he replaces them with other, more complex, impressions. But then these impressions are in turn revised, and so on. As his record of apprehension and misapprehension builds, not only does the intricacy of the cast and their affair deepen, but an impression of the narrator himself emerges, and the story he relates, or the manner in which he relates it, is subtly revealed as, at least in part, a sort of projection of the narrator’s own suppressed and terrible anxieties. The reader is left in the end with a vivid and harrowing sense of the otherwise inscrutable emotional complexity of even those who live a staid, genteel, indoor sort of life.
Here is an excerpt and a short appreciation from Michael Cunningham, who also lent an excellent introduction to the pictured NYRB edition.
Wescott was from Wisconsin, like his reticent narrator, Alwyn Tower. Pilgrim Hawk, set in France, is yet another gem of Midwestern literature.