William Maxwell: Early Novels and Stories

William Maxwell is probably best known as one of The New Yorker‘s stable of thoroughbred editors. Allied with the magazine from 1936 until his death in 2000 at the age of 91, Maxwell served under both Harold Ross and William Shawn, refining the prose of such luminaries as Vladimir Nabokov, John Updike, V. S. Pritchett, J. D. Salinger, and John Cheever. But Maxwell — a famously gentle, modest man — was himself a fiction writer of note, producing six novels and numerous short stories that perfectly captured the essence of small-town midwestern America in the early 20th century. “Maxwell’s voice,” Updike reflected, “is one of the wisest in American fiction; it is, as well, one of the kindest.”

Late in life, Maxwell found himself bemused by his chosen material. “Though I have lived in New York City for nearly forty years, when I sit down at the typewriter and begin to write, it is nearly always of Illinois. I have no other choice, really. Other places do not have the same hold on my imagination.” This fixation on the setting of his early life was galvanized by the tragic death of his mother in the influenza pandemic of 1918-19. “My childhood came to an end in that moment,” he recalled, though he continued to go through the motions in “that sad house, where nothing ever changed, where life had come to a standstill.” Maxwell’s first novel, Bright Center of Heaven (1934), was a light tale set in an artist’s colony, but with his second, They Came Like Swallows (1937), he returned to his home territory of Lincoln, Illinois, and relived his mother’s death. It was a subject he would treat elsewhere, both in novels and short stories, but this early telling is the most direct and the most moving. Maxwell’s use of three different points of view provides a rich, kaleidoscopic perspective. “I tried telling the story in the first person and in the third,” he later wrote. “Neither one worked. The omniscient author knew too much and at the same time too little.”

His next novel, The Folded Leaf (1945), also dealt with a painful period of his youth. The author’s stand-in, Lymie Peters, is a cerebral boy, the quintessential 98-pound weakling, who forms an unlikely alliance with the handsome, athletic Spud Latham. The development of the friendship, the strains it undergoes when Spud falls in love with an attractive coed at college, and Lymie’s attempted suicide and subsequent emotional rebirth are told with an excruciating honesty that feels almost voyeuristic. In her biography of the author, Barbara A. Burkhardt said that Maxwell — a devoted family man with two daughters — took issue with The Folded Leaf‘s being taken as a gay novel; but it assuredly is that and has become a minor classic of the genre.

With Time Will Darken It, Maxwell returned to small-town Illinois. Austin King, his protagonist, is a decent man tortured by a new love that threatens his stable family life. In writing from Austin’s point of view, Maxwell gives a vision of despair that would recur throughout his oeuvre: You don’t have to have water to drown in. All it requires is that your normal vision be narrowed down to a single point and continue long enough on that point until you begin to remember and to achieve a state of being which is identical with the broadest vision of human life. You can drown in a desert, in mountain air, in an open car at night with the undersides of the leafy branches washing over you, mile after midnight mile. All you need is a single idea, a point of intense pain, a pinprick of light growing larger and steadier and more persuasive until the mind and the desire to live are both shattered in starry sensation, leading inevitably toward no sensation whatever?.

The intellectual and emotional claustrophobia of a town like Lincoln (Draperville in the novel) are chillingly rendered, but Maxwell’s love for the territory trumps any residual hostility. He was aware, too, that the small town offers to a sensitive observer a microcosm of the human race that is unavailable in a city, where social life is stratified and compartmentalized to the point where people tend only to know others like themselves. Lincoln, with its population of about 11,000, was “small enough and sufficiently isolated for the people who lived there to have not only a marked individuality but also a stature that still seems to me larger than life-sized. They did not know how to be dull, and nothing that had ever happened was forgotten.” Maxwell’s hick burgs, observed ruthlessly but with affection, can best be compared with the fictional Wharton, Texas, of playwright Horton Foote, or with the southern hamlets of Eudora Welty (whose great novel The Optimist’s Daughter bears some resemblance to Time Will Darken It). These authors were all writing to some extent in opposition to the sinister portrait of provincial America that had been popularized by the hugely influential books of their youth, Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street and Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. “I believe in Sherwood Anderson,” Maxwell said, “but I also believe in what I remember.”

Maxwell’s subject matter decidedly did not conform with what Harold Ross thought New Yorker fiction ought to be about. “Harold Ross edited a cosmopolitan magazine, and had a map of acceptable settings for fiction” which included the East Coast, Paris, and Hollywood “but not the Middle West, which rather tied my hands,” Maxwell commented. During the Ross years, the author produced a number of stories written to Ross’s specifications under the name of “Jonathan Harrington,” but editor Christopher Carduff has chosen not to include these tales — which he deems “formula fiction” — in the Library of America volume, retaining only five stories from the 1930s and ’40s.

Early Novels and Stories is soon to be followed by a second volume comprising Maxwell’s last two novels, The Ch?teau and So Long, See You Tomorrow, along with many stories he wrote under the more sympathetic aegis of Ross’s successor, William Shawn. The two volumes will surely cement Maxwell’s reputation as a fine domestic realist, a worthy disciple of his great forbears Turgenev, Chekhov, and Woolf. While Maxwell produced no autobiography, this collection clearly demonstrates that his best fiction grew directly out of real events. “Life is the most extraordinary storyteller of all,” he insisted, “and the fewer changes you make the better, provided you get to the heart of the matter.”