The air we breathe

Handing down stories.

What’s the last book you read by an alum? Was it by someone you knew, or are only one or two degrees of separation from? The book on my nightstand now, and the one queued up after it, are by alumna Janet Lewis, PhB’20. She’s not too well remembered today, and even I first learned of her as the wife of Yvor Winters, EX’21, the poet and critic who became best known as a teacher of poets.

Lewis herself began as a poet before turning to historical fiction, which she wrote while raising children and keeping a household that served as a sometime home to many of Winters’s students. She wanted to take up fiction but felt she lacked a story to tell, so she turned to historical figures including Martin Guerre and John Johnston.

The Irish Johnston, whose life events sparked her 1932 novel The Invasion: A Narrative of Events Concerning the Johnston Family of St. Mary’s, came to Lake Superior in 1790 to make his fortune and married into an Ojibwa chief’s family. Lewis, who grew up in Oak Park, Illinois, spent long summers in northern Michigan and heard stories of Johnston and his wife, the Woman of the Glade, from their descendants, to whom she dedicated the book.

Much as Lewis learned about Johnston through a chain of family members who’d carefully tended the stories handed down to them, so the UChicago writers’ community Lewis belonged to is connected from the institution’s beginnings to today. Classmates of mine studied fiction writing with the late Richard Stern, who in 1991 drove from San Francisco to Los Altos, California, to visit Lewis, then 91. He spent a whole day at her home hearing about UChicago in the 1910s, her Poetry Club friends there, and the rest of her life, and recorded it all in a 2003 Virginia Quarterly Review essay.

How sharply happy I was to find Stern’s essay online. It wouldn’t have existed but for him having run across a book in the Regenstein poetry stacks, and but for Lewis’s long life and long memory—a lucky thing it was.

Much of the joy of editing the Magazine is in helping hand down what UChicagoans remember. This issue is no exception. Former president Hanna Holborn Gray’s new memoir An Academic Life, the subject of “The Long View,” deepens the well of stories that make up our history as a University. One letter writer shares a melancholy story about Enrico Fermi, vouchsafed to him by his alumnus father, Fermi’s physician; another relates his own tale of being gently hazed by Robert Maynard Hutchins himself.

We at the Magazine, and your fellow readers, treasure your stories and need them like air. Please keep sending them.