My Mentor: A Young Man's Friendship with William Maxwell

My Mentor: A Young Man's Friendship with William Maxwell

by Alec Wilkinson

At twenty-four, Alec Wilkinson decided that he wanted to write, so his father asked for the help of his closest friend, William Maxwell, widely regarded as one of the twentieth century's great American writers and an editor of fiction for forty years at The New Yorker. MY MENTOR is the story of a young man's education at the hands of a master and a heartbreaking


At twenty-four, Alec Wilkinson decided that he wanted to write, so his father asked for the help of his closest friend, William Maxwell, widely regarded as one of the twentieth century's great American writers and an editor of fiction for forty years at The New Yorker. MY MENTOR is the story of a young man's education at the hands of a master and a heartbreaking meditation on the brave, graceful end of Maxwell's long and happy life - he died at ninety-one, in July 2000. Making use of biography, memoir, and essay, and writing in a lapidary but intimate voice, Wilkinson explores the deeply resonant friendship between the old man and the young one. His experience with Maxwell over the course of twenty-five years he takes as the occasion for a profound and moving reflection on writing, wisdom, fatherhood, love, courage, dignity, and the end that awaits us all.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A loving, vivid memoir of a lovely man, whose spirit still touches those who knew him, and those who read him."—John Updike

" [My Mentor is] an immersion in the virtues of wit, decency, justice, profound imagination and the mysteries of love and loyalty."—Reynolds Price

"[B]eautiful, exact, significant prose . . . a permanent meditation on fathers and sons, on apprenticeship, and , above all, on loss."—Adam Gopnik

"Elegant, engrossing, and soulful. Alec Wilkinson writes with more intensity and dedication than just about anyone."—Ian Frazier

"[MY MENTOR is a] brilliant and affecting masterwork.  I can't think of another memoir to match its selfless candor and lyric grace."—Patricia Hampl

"An instance of human trust and connection, of enduring wisdom generously offered and gratefully received."—Robert Coles

Publishers Weekly
The literary gods must have smiled on future New Yorker writer Wilkinson (Violent Act), for he lived the dream of aspiring writers everywhere: to have for decades the ear (and eye) of a giant, the late William Maxwell, acclaimed novelist and legendary New Yorker editor. Wilkinson became a part of the aging Maxwell's life at the tender age of 24, introduced by his father, who had befriended his longtime neighbor. Not only did Wilkinson learn the craft, but embedded in Maxwell's simple, irrefutable lessons were important life philosophies, and Wilkinson came to see Maxwell in profound and paternal terms, until his death in the summer of 2000, at 91. This is a brief but heartfelt book, the prose unadorned, the structure loose yet only occasionally meandering. While Maxwell's writing periodically overshadows his mentee's, Wilkinson delivers several poignant, even Maxwellesque, moments, as when noting his mentor's physical deterioration: "his wrist hardly filled his shirt cuff any longer." Aside from Maxwell's early life and writings, Wilkinson provides glimpses into a bygone era at the New Yorker, the significant personalities, the office idiosyncrasies and Maxwell's ascendancy. The book's drawbacks: the unhappy relations between Wilkinson and his father remain vague, undercutting the significance of his tutelage, and Maxwell, at times, comes off as two-dimensional in his near-saintliness. The volume's main strength is Wilkinson's tender rendering of the lion-spirited Maxwell's almost sublime acceptance of his coming death, and the sadness and sense of unmooring felt by those around him. But for Wilkinson, Maxwell's presence was a once-in-a-lifetime gift. (Apr. 4) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
In elegant and straightforward prose, Wilkinson (Midnights) assembles a portrait of William Maxwell, a writer and one of the last century's greatest editors of short fiction, best known for his work at The New Yorker. Maxwell was Wilkinson's writing mentor from the time he decided to become a writer until the end of Maxwell's life. Tracing the 25-year relationship between the emerging writer and the well-established literary master, Wilkinson reflects on the nature of his teacher's private, social, and public life. Using an intimate tone, he balances the perceived "flinty" nature and privacy of the enterprising individual against the social and professional decorum of a 20th-century literary/publishing figure's life. In a book that is part biography, part memoir, and part essay, Wilkinson sheds much light on the human capacity for sympathy, a mature relationship to self-interest, and the enterprise of writing. Highly recommended. Scott Hightower, Fordham Univ., New York Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
At age 24, when Wilkinson embarked on what has become a successful career as a writer, he was offered help from family friend Maxwell (1908-2000), writer and editor at . Here he combines biography, memoir, and essay to convey their close relationship. He includes no bibliography or index. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
Kirkus Reviews
A lovely tribute to novelist and New Yorker editor William Maxwell (1908-2000), who was for many years a mentor to Wilkinson (A Violent Act, 1993, etc.), as well as a neighbor, a father figure, and a friend. "I derived my identity from Maxwell," states Wilkinson, though he admits later that he also was shaped by his father, a man of many foibles with whom he failed to make the elementary connection that he had with Maxwell. There is a wonderful clear-headedness here, despite all the emotions swarming about. The older man would have appreciated Wilkinson's uncluttered exposition of their relationship, for Maxwell was a writer of enormous elegance in work charged with feeling: "A writer should hold nothing back. Everything you have is never more than enough for the purpose at hand," he believed. He was also a skillful editor: Wilkinson depicts Maxwell bringing imagination, receptivity, and sympathy, as well as intimacy with the technical possibilities, to the job of "understanding what a writer is trying to say and helping him say it if he needs the help." Employing long quotes, Wilkinson draws a noble portrait of Maxwell and his wife, Emmy. He creates an enduring testimony to their long friendship, down to the last days when his affection for Maxwell was "worn like a garment over a sadness that was part loneliness and part despair and anger at being deprived of the one man I loved." The element of catharsis is never gratuitous, but used to further the reader's appreciation of Maxwell and of a relationship between two men that rings of Maxwell's words: "You don't thank people for being your friend, you thank God for your good fortune in having them as a friend." Wilkinson learned well fromhis mentor and brings that emotive, sympathetic bearing, beautiful and melancholy, with great immediacy to this homage.

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Read an Excerpt


William Maxwell and his wife, Emily, lived down the road from my
parents, and Maxwell was my father's closest friend. My father was
the art director of the magazine Woman's Day. Three days a week,
Maxwell edited fiction at The New Yorker, and on the other four days
he wrote novels and stories. My father drove to the train station by
the Hudson River in a jeep he bought for twenty-five dollars from a
dealer in Army surplus. On the mornings when Maxwell also took the
train,my father stopped at the end of Maxwell's driveway and pressed
on the horn. They were so comfortable with each other that if they
spoke at all during the ride it was about the furnace not working
properly, or the poison ivy taking over a stone wall, or how to keep
a water pipe in the basement from freezing, or whether a woman who
lived up the road was as pretty as my father insisted she was. Their
intimacy was of the kind that excluded other people; a man who
sometimes rode with them once said dismissively, "They're like an old
married couple." When my father's first wife sat up late sewing a
ruffle around the edge of the bed my father was trying to sleep in,
Maxwell used it in a story, and when my mother, standing in his
flower garden, remarked, "Children and roses reflect their care," he
used that, too.

My father was an amateur photographer, and he took the
portrait of Maxwell on the dust jacket of a novel he published in the
nineteen-forties. He read Maxwell's books and was proud of their
inscriptions to him and my mother on the flyleafs, and he clipped
theirreviews and stuck them between the books' pages, but he wasn't
literary. He was impatient and earthy and impulsive. He was
indifferent to social conventions, and his opinions were bluntly
expressed--I doubt whether Maxwell ever said anything pointed without
considering its effect on the feelings of the person he was talking
to. My father was also unhesitating in his friendship. If the phone
rang and it was Maxwell saying that a storm had blown a tree across
his driveway or that his car wouldn't start, my father would stop
what he was doing, find a saw or a gas can, and head down the hill to
the Maxwells' house. I was aware of Maxwell among my father's
friends; he was quieter than the rest of them and his face tended to
give away his feelings.
Maxwell and my father were introduced by a neighbor on a
commuter train platform, before Maxwell was married and had a family.
He lived by himself in a cottage that had been delivered to its acre
of ground on a flatbed truck, and he grew roses, and my father and
his first wife lived up the hill, in a house with a horse barn and
horses. My father understood anything he could put his hands on. In
his barn he had a room full of tools, and he was an accomplished
carpenter. I can imagine him and Maxwell in a scene that Maxwell
described to me. It is evening, and darkness has already fallen.
Maxwell stands beside my father while he cuts on his jigsaw the
façade for the dollhouse that Maxwell is building for his daughters
at Christmas.
My father was robust, and Maxwell's frame was slight. My
father spent hours on the weekends in the fields and the barn
attending to chores, while Maxwell sat at his typewriter. He liked to
write in his pajamas and bathrobe and not shave or put on his clothes
until he was done for the day, usually around lunchtime, or whenever
he thought that his judgment was no longer reliable. He felt unable
to write when he was tired. If he accepted an invitation from a
neighbor to dinner, he rose from the table in time to be in bed by
ten-thirty, with the hostess sternly observing him.
My father was charming and blasphemous and subversive by
nature, and Maxwell took pleasure in the way that he embraced life.
Whereas Maxwell's emotions tended to show on his face, my father had
a tendency to say whatever was on his mind. If the company he was
among disappointed him, he looked for new company. Maxwell's nature
was sedentary. He disliked change. He didn't especially care for new
experiences or all that much for travel, which is unusual in a
writer, but Maxwell was a profoundly original writer. Except when he
was a young man and had the idea that he might find something to
write about if he went to sea, he didn't feel obliged to look around
in the world for material. He drew almost entirely for his writing on
his childhood in a small town in central Illinois--the sky, the
farmhouses, the shaded streets, the flat prairie land; his relatives
and neighbors, including the ones in the cemetery he only heard
talked about; the subjects he listened to the adults dispose of as he
lay on the couch and pretended to be asleep.
Maxwell's dependence on my father was practical, and my
father's dependence on Maxwell was emotional. He knew no one else
like Maxwell--so receptive, so kind, so quick to respond to gestures
of friendship. Maxwell's company was a comfort to him, and my father
was affectionate with Maxwell in a way that I never saw him be with
another man. On the other hand, I know of no other of his friends who
offered the opportunity. It was possible with Maxwell because Maxwell
was unafraid of emotion. What people felt is what drew his interest,
and he was deeply sympathetic. The gentleness my father expressed in
Maxwell's company was balanced, I think, by a feeling that he bore
some responsibility for Maxwell's well-being as a householder, the
way one farmer might feel toward another the kind of masculine
affection that involves a deep acceptance of the other's nature while
also being concerned that his friend didn't know enough to come in
out of the rain.

I grew up with an awareness of Maxwell, his kindness, his eyes which
were expressive of emotion and calm and love, the figure he cut,
polished and unhurried and attractive. When he asked me a question he
was interested in the answer and wasn't made impatient by the
repetitions and false starts children specialize in. The dependence
that he and my father shared was eventually passed on to me. When I
was twenty-four I decided that I would try to become a writer,
because it was clear to me that my hopes of being a rock-and-roll
star weren't going to fly. I thought that by being a writer I could
make a lot of money without working very hard; then I could go back
to being a musician. What I planned to write about was the year I
spent as one of nine policemen in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, on Cape
I had become a policeman partly because I regarded myself as
a failure, and when I read the advertisement for the position it
occurred to me that I might still manage a future for myself if I was
a policeman for a year and then went to law school. Also, in the
manner of many young men, I thought that I was in need of an
experience that was solemn and rigorous and maybe a little bit
dangerous, too. I wanted to be in the company of men who knew when it
was proper to speak and what to say, and when it was better to say
nothing at all. Who carried themselves with an offhand physical well-
being that I could only impersonate. Lady-killers. I meant to add
myself to them and pay close attention.
In the winter of 1970, while I was in my first year of
college, my father quit his job in New York, and he and my mother
moved to the house in Wellfleet they had built twenty years earlier.
They bought an art gallery, where my father showed his paintings and
those of artists he knew, and my mother kept the books. Because I
left college for a while to go to California and be a musician, I
graduated in December of 1974. A few months later, I read on a sheet
of the town's stationery, tacked to the bulletin board on Main
Street, the announcement of the policeman's job. In those days, a
person reached the police department, above the fire department
garage, by means of a long outdoor staircase. When I went through the
door with my résumé, one policeman was talking to another. He knew I
was there, but he did not break off from his story.
"Guy had this gigantic house," he said. "He was probably, oh,
seventy-five, seventy-six. Easily two hundred and fifty pounds. And
stubby, not that tall. A fireplug. He knew he was going to die, had a
bad heart, wasn't a secret, doctor had told him. He must have had a
feeling about it, because what he does is, just before he dies, he
decides to go upstairs, and he finds the smallest room he could find--
just a cot, a window, and a bureau--and he sits down, takes off his
shoes, opens the window, says his prayers, crosses himself, and keels
"It's the afternoon now and we get the call. Maid found him,
or somebody. Go get him. It took us an hour and fifteen minutes to
get him out of there. We pushed, we pulled, we tugged, we lifted. And
there's three of us in there, mind you, plus the guy makes four, so
you could barely stand, let alone move. August, and I ain't caught my
breath lately. And right across the hall was a big master bedroom. He
could have gone in there. Very thoughtless."
He turned to me then and said, "What can I do for you?"
I handed him my résumé and said that I wanted to be a
policeman. Then I didn't know what else to do, so I held out my hand
and he shook it and I left.
At my interview with the town's selectmen, I met the Chief.
He was six feet tall, his face was fleshy and high-colored, and with
his uniform he wore his policeman's hat. When he shifted in his
chair, I could hear his holster creaking. One of the selectmen
said, "This is Alec Wilkinson. He has a degree in music."
The Chief said, "Music, huh? That'll be a big help. You ought
to fit right in on the department."
A few months later, I asked him why he had hired me, and he
said, "Well, it happened like this: there was another fellow, and he
was more similar to my way of thinking, but he was committed to a job
somewhere else. That left you and another fellow, and he was
I went to work for the first time on a Saturday night at the
end of May. The sergeant was waiting for me, with a patrolman named
Paul Francis. We went into the Chief's office, which the sergeant
used at night. In one of the drawers of the desk, he found a pair of
pistols. He weighed them in his hands, then gave me one of them. It
had a small patch of rust on the barrel. "I think this one jams," he
said of the gun he held on to. Then, "Maybe it's that one. Let me
see." He examined them again, then gave me the one he originally held
back. It didn't occur to me to ask what kind of gun it was, but I
eventually learned it was a .38. I asked another officer, because I
noticed that everyone else's gun was much bigger than mine was and
also shot flames.
The sergeant asked if I had ever fired such a gun before, and
I said that I hadn't. Paul said he would take me out to the firing
range, but I guess he forgot.
"Where's the safety?" I asked.
"No safety," the sergeant said.
"You mean it could just go off ?"
"No," he said, giving me an estimating look. "I mean, if you
drop it, I suppose it could go off."
I said I wouldn't drop it, and he said that would be a good
In a closet he found a gun belt for me and a holster and some
bullets. Then he said, "All right, you're all set."
Paul and I went out to the police car. I was very excited. We
drove along the inlet in back of the station and when we came to a
stop sign, Paul turned his head to watch a car going past. "I'm
always observing a vehicle going by," he said soberly. "You keep a
mental notebook--the license plate, the color, the year, the
condition, the type, the driver, the passengers, where it's heading,
or where it's just come from. Anyone along the side of the road. You
never know when you'll use it. Down in Provincetown they got murders.
By Jesus, the guys that did it drove through this town sure as hell.
They could have done it right here and taken them to P-town, for all
we know." He began moving the car slowly forward. "So murder could
have happened here," he said, "and we don't know about it."
All but one of the other policemen were a few years older
than I was. Most of them had been soldiers, and one or two had been
to a war. Most of them were raising children. When I tried imitating
the assurance they carried themselves with, I felt certain the effort
was apparent. Twenty-five years later, I see them for what they were--
intelligent and honorable young men at the beginning of lives that
changed so substantially that some of them might be said to have
collapsed. Several of their marriages dissolved. The Chief was
unjustly fired and became a long-haul trucker and was changing a flat
tire one night by the side of the road in Florida when he was struck
by a car and killed. Another of them took a job with the post office.
Another worked twenty years and retired; another drew disability
payments because he had high blood pressure and a tendency to
overexcitement, and now he drives a school bus. He also drove the
school bus the year I was a policeman. One Saturday afternoon in the
middle of the winter he walked down the aisle of the Catholic church,
in the center of town, with a girl who had been on his route. I
happened to pass by in the police car as the church doors opened and
they came out and stood on the steps, having their picture taken.
About being a policeman he liked to announce, "Your business is our
business, and our business is none of your goddam business." Another
was a fundamentalist Christian who ran his own trucking and hauling
business. He would work from midnight to eight and go home and have
breakfast and then haul brush or construction trash all day. His
favorite maxim was "It's a great life if you don't weaken," which I
didn't think much of at the time, but over the years it has struck me
as more and more apt. Paul, someone told me, went over to the
religious side of life. He had always been interested in Zen Buddhism
and read whatever he could find on the subject. He thought that if he
were in a state of enlightenment, he would probably be a better
policeman. One night in the police car he told me that if his
marriage ever broke up (it did), he would go to Japan and live in a
monastery. "I'd hate like hell to do it," he said. "I mean my ego
would. I'd think, How are you going to live without all the material
things that seem so important to you, but I know you can." The others
I have lost touch with.
I realize now that I became a writer partly from a love of
music, partly from a sense of deprivation and the impulse to recover
things I felt I had lost or never had, partly because it seemed to
offer a means of finding order in the world, partly because a
solitary childhood had accustomed me to observation and to isolation
as a habit of work, and partly because I had something to write
about. Driving around Wellfleet in the middle of the night and seeing
whose lights were on because they couldn't sleep, or who walked the
floors of their houses from night fears and anxiety. Picking up
drunks on their way home in winter after the bars had closed and
delivering them to their doors and having them fail to recognize me
the next day when I stood behind them in line at the post office.
Observing who waited until their husbands were away dragging nets on
boats whose lights you could sometimes find at night on the horizon
before bringing their lovers home. Arriving at someone's house after
a child had called because his mother and father were arguing and he
was afraid that one of them might reach for a kitchen knife or the
shotgun or the pistol in the closet. Standing beside the old man or
woman who had died while watching television for comfort in the
middle of the night and been found in the morning by a neighbor.
Cutting down the beautiful young woman who had hanged herself from
the rafter of her cottage on Christmas Eve. Watching the fishing
fleet leave the harbor in a procession toward the horizon at dawn, or
the snow fall into the ocean. Firing a shotgun for the first time, to
see what it was like, into the sand on the beach in the darkness of a
slack moon and having everything go blue around me. Sharing the
company of eight other young men I looked up to who couldn't have
been more different from me.
During the summer for several hours a night I walked up and
down Main Street. This was a job that usually fell to the specials--
the local men who were carpenters or members of the town highway crew
or just friends of the Chief and were hired part-time to expand the
department. The Chief decided that it would be a broadening
experience for me, though. "You'll get knocked down a few times up
there, I guess," is what he said. "One guy I remember, a special, had
a terrible time. He was just about your size, maybe a little bigger.
I guess a little bigger. Anyway, the kids walked all over him. Every
time he came down on them--told them to move or something--they threw
him in the bushes. They told us this; the guy never did. To this day
I can't figure out why he kept coming back. I guess he just liked to
walk up and down the street with the uniform on."
Every evening a group of teenagers in two or three cars
pulled into the town's parking lot and took seats on the bench in
front of town hall, like a sullen little flock coming to roost. They
found people to buy them beer and hard liquor, which they drank from
bottles in paper bags. One of them, a small, defiant, and cherubic
boy with curly blond hair, used to wear blue jeans and a black T-
shirt that had an obscenity printed on it in white letters and,
beneath it, "I am not a tourist. I live here and I don't answer
questions." The oldest ones were hands in the fishing fleet and were
bigger than I was, and they could see that it made me uneasy to
confront them. They delighted in taunting me. Once, after midnight, I
was at one end of the street when I heard a car stop, a few hundred
feet behind me. In a moment several high-pitched voices
called, "Officer. Oh, Officer," and then the car took off. I ran up
the street, and when I arrived in front of the two-cash-register
grocery store I saw something that was like a vision. The kids had
sprayed the picture window with lighter fluid and set a match to it,
and what I saw were flames that appeared to be floating several feet
above the ground, as if nothing were on fire but the air. In a few
more seconds they were gone.
Because I was new and awkward and unreliable and had never
been properly trained, I usually worked from midnight until eight in
the morning. Over the winter I worked by myself from two o'clock on.
Before the other patrolman went home, we parked the newer of the
cruisers outside the trailer where the Chief and his wife lived, in
the woods above the highway, so that he could drive it to work in the
morning. From Paul and another officer, named Joe Hogan, I learned to
occupy myself when I was working with someone else by playing
spotlight tag: one cruiser hid and one was it, and you were tagged
when the other driver shined his spotlight on you. I learned that
when enough snow had fallen, I could race the police car nearly the
length of the parking lot at Newcomb Hollow and then apply the brakes
and spin the wheel and turn the car in circles. I learned to wait by
the Cumberland Farms for Clem Silva, who drove the Provincetown
ambulance. When he made a night run to the hospital in Hyannis, he
would stop afterward at the donut store and fill the back of the
ambulance with the leftover donuts and distribute them to the
policemen along his way home. I learned that sometimes I could drive
the length of Route 6, the state road through town, seven miles, on
the wrong side of the yellow line and not meet anyone. One night on
the police radio I heard a dispatcher in another town call his
cruiser and say, "Uh, EZ-7, you want to check a report of a car on
its roof on Route 137."
The policeman in EZ-7 said, "Yeah, would that be an accident,
or what?"
And the dispatcher said, "Unless he drives it that way, it
I loved driving the police car. I loved the sense of
privilege it gave me, knowing that I could go anywhere I wanted to--
down any private road, up any driveway, past any No Trespassing sign--
and no one could tell me not to. I loved knowing my way around the
interior--which switch turned on the roof lights and which disengaged
the shotgun from its bracket. I loved having the lights and the siren
going and driving as fast as I could and having people need to get
out of my way. I loved being in it late at night when the town was
quiet and peaceful and I felt like a big fish finning its way along
the bottom of its home river. It was the only part of being a
policeman that I never grew tired of, but I never got any good at it,
either. Driving down a back road on my first night alone, I lost
control of the car heading into a turn and torpedoed into the woods.
Another time, on a sand road out by the ocean, I tried to drive under
a tree limb and broke the lights on the roof. Another time, going
faster than I should have down a different sand road, I hit an
exposed root with one of the front wheels and cracked the ball joint,
and the wheel caved in and the car would go forward only in a circle.
Another time, in the parking lot of the post office, I was engaged in
a reverie and I drove slowly into a cement retaining wall. For a long
time the Chief forbade me to drive a car unless no one else was
During the winter from midnight to eight there wasn't really
much for me to do. Turn the doorknobs on the town's businesses to
make sure they were locked. Arrest drunk drivers. Accompany the
school bus in the morning. When I couldn't think of anything else to
occupy me, I sometimes found a place in the woods or down by the
ocean and turned the radio all the way up so that I would hear the
dispatcher if she called, and closed my eyes. The way the light came
into the sky in the morning made me think of sediment settling in
water until the water slowly turns clear again.

I did not read many books as a child, and I read only three or four
in college. One of them was The Godfather, which I read because I had
seen the movie. Another was Look Homeward, Angel, by Thomas Wolfe,
from which I retained only the sentence "The night was a cool bowl of
lilac darkness." I thought that if such an observation was writing, I
couldn't be a writer. One regarded the world poetically, or one
I considered writing a book because when I told people the
things that were happening to me as a policeman, they usually
said, "You should write a book." I bought a tape recorder then, and
every night by myself in the police car, when I should have been
working, I tried to describe what was happening to me, which was that
I was sitting in the police car talking into a tape recorder. I now
think it's strange that it didn't occur to me to write down the
things that were happening, but it didn't. When the year was over, I
sat at my typewriter. Nothing I wrote sounded genuine or convincing
or even as if it had happened. I bought a ticket to Europe and stayed
six months making money as a musician, and one night I stayed at a
house in Paris, and from a shelf in the guest bedroom I took down a
copy of Across the River and Into the Trees, by Ernest Hemingway.
When I got to the end, I thought, I can do that. What gave me
confidence was that Ernest Hemingway wrote very short sentences
without flowery images, and he performed no pirouettes on the page. I
didn't know there was more to writing than that. I also didn't know
that the book is probably Hemingway's worst novel. I went home to
Wellfleet with the plan of visiting my family at Thanksgiving and
collecting the wardrobe I would need to write with pencils in
notebooks in cafés in Paris, preferably at night, or maybe late in
the afternoon, when the light would be perfect. For my picture on the
dust jacket I was pretty sure I would wear a beret. I also thought I
would include a preface, which I would sign, AW, Paris, France.
I don't remember why I gave up the idea of going back to
Paris, but I did. I sat down in a room again and resolved to get to
work. When I had completed two chapters, I sent them to a writer my
parents knew. He showed them to the editor who published his books,
and she wrote back, saying, "I cannot encourage this young man enough
to abandon this project."
I persevered by thinking that I was the only young person in
America writing a book. At least I didn't know anyone else who was
writing a book. Anyway, I was the only one writing a book about being
a small-town policeman.

It was my father's idea that I show what I was writing to Maxwell. I
wouldn't have thought of it on my own. I didn't know the regard that
serious writers had for Maxwell's work and his opinions. I saw his
name on the spines of his books on my parents' bookshelves, but I
hadn't read the books. I read books quickly and promiscuously then
and without much appreciation for what the writer was up to. I was
protected by my innocence from feeling self-conscious about the
writing that I was showing to Maxwell, and he was not the sort of
person who felt the need to impress people, to have an audience or
acolytes; there was nothing in him of the self-inflater. A few years
earlier he had retired from The New Yorker, after forty years, and
was devoting himself to writing, and except occasionally, when a
friend showed him a draft of a novel, no one was asking for his help.
The writers who sometimes dedicated their books to him and who had
relied on his judgment--Salinger, Nabokov, Cheever,Welty, Updike,
John O'Hara, Frank O'Connor, Shirley Hazzard, Sylvia Townsend Warner,
Mavis Gallant, Larry Woiwode, Allan Gurganus, and Harold Brodkey
among them--sent him what they had written in the hope that he would
buy it, not that he would show them how to make it into something
they might publish.
I'm sure that he never before saw writing as naïve as mine,
unless it was during the period in his twenties when he taught
writing to college freshmen. At The New Yorker a story in so
unpromising a state wouldn't have come to his attention; someone
would have seen it first and rejected it. What he saw that made him
encourage me, I don't know. All he said was that I learned quickly,
which must at least have made him feel that he wasn't wasting his
time. Undoubtedly he was helping me because of his feelings for my

For the last ten years of Maxwell's life--he was ninety-one when he
died, in the summer of 2000--I tried to hold in mind the awareness
that he wouldn't be here forever. He came close to dying on two
occasions, from pneumonia, the old person's friend. The first time he
got it, he misunderstood a doctor in the emergency room who asked
whether he wished to have extraordinary measures taken to keep him
alive. What he thought the doctor was asking was whether he wanted
his life maintained by a machine if he had a collapse, and he didn't.
The next morning he gave an account of things that had gone on in the
intensive care ward during the night that couldn't possibly have
happened, but in a few weeks he came home to his apartment on the
Upper East Side and picked up his life again; that is to say, had
people to tea, walked along the river, read, wrote.
His wife, whom he loved dearly, began a course of
chemotherapy. In addition, a form of cancer he had suffered almost
twenty years earlier appeared to be returning. He began to decline. I
read his books again. I read letters I'd got from him. I talked to
him almost every day on the phone, and I saw him as often as I could.
He and his wife were no longer able to use the house in the country,
the one on the road where I had grown up, and my wife and son and I
went to it nearly every weekend. I worked at his desk. I watered the
geraniums on the sill in his study. I wore his down jacket when I
went for a walk. I wrote a piece about him for The New Yorker, and
after it was published I decided that I wanted to write something
more. Before I began, Mrs. Maxwell died, at seventy-eight, on July
23, 2000. Maxwell died eight days later. I wrote something to read at
the memorial service Mrs. Maxwell planned with her daughters.
Sometimes while I wrote, I felt tears prick the backs of my eyes and
had to stop and brush them away. I was aware that Maxwell had wept
while writing one of his novels that dealt with the death of his
mother, and it made me feel as if I were imitating him, but I missed
him so much that I didn't seem able to stop. Furthermore, I didn't
care if I was imitating him. What difference would it make if I were.
The service was held on a mild afternoon in the fall at the
Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Hundreds of people came. Afterward,
as Mrs. Maxwell had specified, there was a horse to take the children
on rides and ice cream for everyone. Even so, I found it a difficult
experience. The formality of the occasion and its somber purpose
insisted that I accept that they were gone, and I wasn't prepared to.
I had expected that when the memorial passed, I would return
to writing about Maxwell. No other subject meant anything to me. To
my surprise, I found I could write nothing about him except
generalities. Years ago I had shown Maxwell a draft of a story I was
trying to write about my mother that had come to a dead end. He read
it and said, "Is that all you have to say about your mother?" I knew
that there was a lot more that I wanted to say about Maxwell, but
when I tried to write, I felt as if I couldn't remember what it was,
or, when I could, that it didn't amount to much after all. It was as
if I hadn't known him as well as I thought I had. I was grateful for
Maxwell's friendship and influence. I knew that he didn't care to be
grieved over, and that he had lived a long and happy life. "Who ever
would have thought," he once said, "that the fragile little boy from
Lincoln would have had such a time of it." And I knew that he had
accomplished something very few writers in his century had: he had
written books that lasted. But even so I felt an immobility that kept
me from doing what I wanted to do.
I decided that it was one thing to write about Maxwell when
he was alive, and, by writing, not only hope superstitiously to keep
him alive but also to declare my feelings for him, and that it would
be another to write about him if he had been dead for several years
and I had had time to become reconciled. It was different, though, to
write about him while I felt so bereft. It was probably not possible.
I could not, apparently, make the portion of me that was resistant
take part if it wasn't inclined to.
A few weeks after the service, I was awake in the middle of
the night. After the Second World War, the Maxwells spent four months
traveling in France, where Mrs. Maxwell had been as a child and
Maxwell had never been. They intended to look for two things she
remembered: a church at the end of a streetcar line, and a chateau
with a green lawn in front of it. At the sight of the coastline
through the porthole of their cabin, Maxwell felt a stirring in his
heart that was wholly unexpected. Every town they saw, every street,
every experience, even the weather and the brightness of the air,
made an impression on him. They stayed until their money ran out. As
I lay awake, I remembered his saying that when he walked in the door
of the house in the country, before he took off his coat or his hat,
he rolled a piece of paper into his typewriter and wrote down all the
things that he hoped to include in a novel about an American couple
making a tour of France. The Chateau took him more than ten years to
write. It was his way, he said, of not coming home, of creating a
facsimile of France in his imagination and inhabiting it. As I
thought of this, something within me relaxed its grip, and I knew
that when I sat down to work the next morning, I would be able to
To console, on the occasion of the death of her mother, the
daughter of a young woman who had grown up with Mrs. Maxwell, Maxwell
wrote to her, near the end of his life, "I see no reason to doubt
that people have souls, and animals too, and what happens when the
soul and the body part company, if they do, is anybody's guess, but
over our hearts, death has no dominance."
This account of my friend and what he taught me is my means
of refuting his death.

Having my most intimate friend be nearly twice my age did not seem
unusual to me, partly because I am no longer captivated by things
that younger people are concerned with. I attribute this to having
been the youngest by far in a family of four brothers. Every
privilege, every opportunity, every excitement and pleasure appeared
to be reserved for people older than I was. When I arrived at a
landmark I had seen on the horizon, my brothers had given it up for
another that was just as remote. What was behind me didn't seem
valuable. I also don't much care what younger people are interested
in because I was young, and I remember what it was like. I have no
desire to have the same experiences, or to reenact them at second
hand through the experiences of people who now are young. Popular
culture tirelessly celebrates excess, outrage, and adolescent beauty,
none of which appeals to me anymore. To have too close an interest in
the lives of young people at this point in my life would amount
nearly to a perversion. Furthermore, it seems unnatural to me to be
unwilling to get older. It takes courage, of course, but the
pleasures only deepen, and the most fortunate of us achieve some sort
of wisdom.
A few years ago, Knopf published a volume of letters
exchanged by Maxwell and Frank O'Connor, the Irish writer whose real
name was Michael O'Donovan. It is called The Happiness of Getting It
Down Right. Maxwell describes being awakened at night by his
daughters when they were little, or the difficulty he is having
making a piece of writing come out, or a trip to his in-laws on the
Oregon coast, and I read the letters closely because, except for the
material about his childhood that appears in his books or that he
described in interviews, I knew hardly anything about his life when
he was young. He was a figure from my childhood, and whatever
daydreams I had then didn't include imagining what older people were
doing when I didn't see them or who they might have been when they
didn't look exactly as I was accustomed to having them look.
It is not my plan to write a literary biography. Someone else
will do that; I haven't got either the objectivity or the critical
equipment the project requires. If I am to persuade you, though, of
why Maxwell meant so much to me, I have first to give an account of
what he was like and a suggestion of what made him that way. Style is
character. Over time we cannot help revealing ourselves to anyone who
is paying close attention. It doesn't even require from them much in
the way of a talent for awareness. What depth we might have, the
complexity of our natures, our capacities for sympathy, and a mature
relation to self-interest. Whether or not we can be trusted, not only
with secrets but to regard another person's existence with the same
importance we view our own with.
As briefly as I can, then, and before I take up the education
he gave me, I would like to tell what I know of Maxwell's past and to
describe him. When we are young, the world seems full of great men
and women, and as we grow older we lose them. He was the greatest man
I ever knew, and there will be, I hope, if I manage it accurately,
some benefit--something sustaining and inspiring--in recalling him.
The worst I can be, after all, is wrong.
Maxwell was an elderly man when his older brother died, and
he realized, he told me, that "no one any longer remembers the things
that I do," meaning the house in Lincoln, Illinois, where they lived
with their mother and father, and which they left for an apartment in
Chicago when their younger brother was two. Toward the end of his
life it was borne in on me that if I didn't ask him about his past,
there would be no one to enlighten me once he was gone.
He was born on August 16, 1908. As a child he heard horses
pulling wagons up the street past his parents' house. Twelve thousand
people lived in Lincoln, many of them farmers or coal miners or the
descendants of such people. Maxwell's father was the species of
traveling businessman called a drummer--someone whose responsibility,
that is, was to drum up work for his company. He loved nothing more
than being home. Here are some sentences about him from Maxwell's
story "The Front and Back Parts of the House," written when he was in
his eighties and his father had been dead for thirty years:
"Though it took me a while to realize it, I had a good
father. He left the house early Tuesday morning carrying his leather
grip, which was heavy with printed forms, and walked downtown to the
railroad station. As the Illinois state agent for a small fire and
windstorm insurance company he was expected to make his underwriting
experience available to local agents in Freeport, Carbondale, Alton,
Carthage, Dixon, Quincy, and so on, and to cultivate their friendship
in the hope that they would give more business to his company. I
believe he was well liked. Three nights out of every week he slept in
godforsaken commercial hotels that overlooked the railroad tracks and
when he turned over in the dark he heard the sound of the ceiling fan
and railway cars being shunted. He knew the state of Illinois the way
I knew our house and yard."
Maxwell's attachment to his mother was such that when some
instinct told him that she was no longer in the room, he would often
pick himself up and go looking for her. These sentences are from his
novel So Long, See You Tomorrow, published in 1980:
"My younger brother was born on New Year's Day, at the height
of the influenza epidemic of 1918. My mother died two days later of
double pneumonia. The worst that could happen had happened, and the
shine went out of everything. Disbelieving, we endured the wreath on
the door, and the undertaker coming and going, the influx of food,
the overpowering odor of white flowers, and all the rest of it,
including the first of a series of housekeepers, who took care of the
baby and sat in my mother's place at mealtime."
And: "My mother's sisters and my father's sisters and my
grandmother all watched over us. If they hadn't, I don't know what
would have become of us, in that sad house, where nothing ever
changed, where life had come to a standstill. My father was all but
undone by my mother's death. In the evening after supper he walked
the floor and I walked with him, with my arm around his waist. I was
ten years old. He would walk from the living room into the front
hall, then, turning, past the grandfather's clock and on into the
library, and from the library into the living room. Or he would walk
from the library into the dining room and then into the living room
by another doorway, and back to the front hall. Because he didn't say
anything, I didn't either. I only tried to sense, as he was about to
turn, which room he was going to next so we wouldn't bump into each
other. His eyes were focused on things not in those rooms, and his
face was the color of ashes."

Maxwell's father was handsome and fond of the company of women. He
had three small children to take care of, and no one expected he
would live out his life as a widower. Having observed a period of
mourning that lasted several years, he remarried, and two years after
that was promoted to a position that required him to move to Chicago.
Maxwell wrote poetry in high school, and to illustrate posters for
the drama society made pen-and-ink drawings in the style of Aubrey
Beardsley. Answering a questionnaire for an academic when he was
eighty-nine, Maxwell wrote that he didn't really think that he could
say what were the most exciting moments of his career, there had been
so many. Looking through a porthole at the age of forty and seeing
the coast of France, the day his wife agreed to marry him, the days
on which his two daughters were born, reading Tolstoy's Master and
Man for the first time. "Perhaps," he also wrote, "it was my meeting
with the Wisconsin novelist Zona Gale when I was seventeen."
Maxwell had gone to Wisconsin for the summer with a friend
who had talked a man there into giving him and Maxwell jobs at a lake
near Portage. "The man who gave us the job had got drunk and agreed
to it with my friend," Maxwell told me, "and when I showed up, I
weighed a hundred and twelve pounds and was frail. They were
dismayed, but I was stronger than I looked. My friend became a
lifeguard, and I worked on cleaning out a basement, but there wasn't
enough for me to do. There was a woman in the town named Mrs. Green,
who was of an enthusiastic nature and took crushes on people, and she
gave me a job on her farm, and the day I arrived, her older daughter
said, 'I have some strawberries to give to Mr. Gale.' She took me
with her, and while she was talking to Mr. Gale, who sat in a chair
on the porch with a blanket over his knees, Zona showed me around the
house. She was more than thirty years older than I was and soft-
spoken, and we talked only about me, which at that age was something.
She treated me as her intellectual equal, and I was by no means that.
I had just finished my junior year of high school.
"The next day I was pulling weeds in the vegetable garden
when I heard the phone ringing. A few minutes later Mrs. Green came
out on the porch and said, 'That was Miss Gale. She said come to
dinner Wednesday and bring the little Maxwell.' She was not quite of
her time; she was a mistake. No one much reads her now or even knows
who she is, but in those days there was a good chance that if you
picked up a magazine you might find a story of hers in it, and her
play Miss Lulu Bett won the Pulitzer Prize. She wrote for ladies'
magazines for money and then she wrote serious books, and sometimes
the two got mixed up, especially toward the end of her life. She was
absolutely angelic to me. She once wrote me a letter from Japan to
say that after a dinner at which she had been the guest of honor,
four hundred fireflies had been let loose in the garden for their
amusement. Which was what any adolescent would like to hear, that
life was not flat."
Maxwell planned to study painting at the Chicago Art
Institute. What happened instead is that the friend he had gone to
Wisconsin with came down with pleurisy while working as a lifeguard.
The boy's parents thought his health wasn't good enough to allow him
to attend the University of Illinois at Urbana, but Maxwell said he
would help him do what was necessary, and his parents agreed. Maxwell
liked the campus and enrolled. "If my friend hadn't got pleurisy," he
said, "I would have enrolled, as I'd planned to do, in the Chicago
Art Institute and perhaps not have been a writer at all but some hack
artist, for I wasn't all that talented."
Maxwell graduated second in a class of twelve hundred. Among
the honors he collected was a scholarship to graduate school offered
by the Harvard Club of Chicago. In those days, a doctorate in English
required a reading knowledge of German. Maxwell had taken two years
of German as an undergraduate, but something happened to him over the
summer so that when he got to Harvard all German words looked alike,
including the prefixes and suffixes. Since he had had no trouble in
college with Latin, French, Greek, or Italian, he assumed the
difficulty was the result of the political cartoons he had seen as a
boy in the pages of the Lincoln Evening Herald--Huns with babies
spitted on their bayonets and Belgian women with their hands cut off.
He thought that the textbooks' being printed in Gothic letters may
have contributed to the problem.
To overcome his deficiency, Maxwell enrolled at Harvard in an
advanced undergraduate course on the works of Goethe, which he
memorized in English so that when they appeared on his graduate exams
he could recognize them and remember what they were about. Day after
day he set his alarm clock for five in the morning in order to have
more hours to study. By February he was so tired that one morning
when the alarm went off, he couldn't get out of bed. He lay in the
dark with tears running down his face. Finally he summoned the memory
of his father's father, who as a young man walked from Ohio to
Illinois looking for a job teaching school. He died before Maxwell
was born, but Maxwell asked for his help and felt that he got it. He
ended up with a B in the course when a C would have been failing.
With so undistinguished a showing, he couldn't expect further
In the fall he went back to the University of Illinois and
for two years taught writing to freshmen and graded papers for a
course on Tennyson. That without a reading knowledge of German he
would be unable to get a Ph.D. at Urbana or anywhere else and become
a professor of English or even be allowed to go on indefinitely
grading freshman papers was a fact that he somehow concealed from
As is common in university towns, people with big old houses
rented rooms to students. Maxwell lived in the house of a retired
banker whose daughter, Garreta Busey, was a member of the English
department. She had been on the staff of the New York Herald Tribune
weekly book section. The paper sent her books to review and once,
when there was a death in the Busey family, she turned the job over
to Maxwell. After that, the paper sent books to both of
them. "Garreta was several years older than I was," Maxwell told
me, "and I have never had a better friend. She was strikingly
beautiful, with her dark hair, braided, worn in a crown around her
head. She was highly intelligent, humorous, witty, generous, and with
literary aspirations of her own. She published a novel, The
Windbreak, about Illinois farm life, and a volume of her poetry was
published after she died."
A professor at Yale asked Busey to turn a two-volume life of
Thomas Coke of Holkham into forty pages. Coke was an agriculturist of
the late eighteenth century. Busey wrote about his farming
innovations and gave Maxwell the parts that dealt with his social
life, the parties and balls, and especially his aunt, Lady Mary Coke,
who refused to live with her husband, who was boorish, dressed her
servants in pea-green and silver, fished in her ornamental goldfish
pond when she was melancholy, corresponded with Horace Walpole,
suffered from the delusion that the Empress Maria Theresa was trying
to hire away her servants, and in old age slept in a dresser drawer.
"All this gave me such delight," Maxwell said, "that when the
job was done, I turned to and wrote a novel, so I could go on making
sentences. Up to that time I had written poetry exclusively, but I
was not actually a poet. Anyway, it didn't end there. I had a vision
of the course of my life, through the various stages of advancement
until I became a professor emeritus and was carried out in a wooden
box. I didn't want to know what my life was like before I led it, so
one day I went into the office of the chairman of the English
department and resigned. In the year 1933, the worst period of the
Depression, it would be hard to think of anything more foolhardy."
To finish his novel, which he first called Snake-Feeders,
then Thundercloud, and finally Bright Center of Heaven, Maxwell moved
to Mrs. Green's farm in Wisconsin and did work around the place in
exchange for meals and a place to sleep. This is from a story,
written when he was nearly ninety, called "The Room Outside":
"When I was in my middle twenties, I spent a winter on a farm
in southern Wisconsin. There it was much colder than it was in
Illinois, where, with the wind coming down from Lake Michigan, God
knows it is cold enough. Bales of hay were banked all around the
foundations of the farmhouse, which was heated by two sheet-iron wood-
burning stoves, one upstairs and one downstairs in the room next to
my small bedroom. And, of course, the cookstove in the kitchen. In
the morning when I woke I sometimes saw a broad band of yellow light
in the sky that I have never seen anywhere else, and before I could
wash my face I often had to break a thin glaze of ice in the water
pitcher on my dresser. The window had to be propped open, by a wooden
spool in ordinary weather, a smaller spool if the temperature was
twenty below, and if it was colder than that I didn't open the window
at all. It was up to me to see that the woodbox in the kitchen was
never empty and fill the reservoir on the side of the stove. The air
was usually so dry you could run out of the house in your
shirtsleeves and fill a bucket of water at the pump but you couldn't
touch the pump handle with your bare hands. I also had to keep a
patch of ground bare and sprinkled with corn for the quail. If it
rained when the temperature was hovering around thirty-two degrees
their feathers froze and they couldn't fly into the shelter of the
"Eventually there was so much snow on the roads that the
snowplow couldn't get through and we were snowbound. One evening
after supper the telephone rang, and it was a neighbor saying that
the mailman had got as far as the Four Corners, where our mailbox
was. I put on extra-heavy underwear and, bundled to the eyes in
sweaters and woolen scarves, I started to ski to the Four Corners.
The snowdrifts were higher than the horse-and-rider fences,
obliterating the divisions between the fields, and I saw what nobody
in the family and none of the neighboring farmers had ever seen: a
pack of wild dogs running in a circle in the bright moonlight."
When the book was done, he took it to Zona Gale and asked her
not whether it was any good, but whether it was a novel. She said
that it was. In late 1933, before it had been accepted by a
publisher, Maxwell went to New York. On the dust jackets of the
period the author had commonly been to sea, and Maxwell hoped that if
he found a ship in the harbor that would take him aboard, it would
give him something to write about. He was twenty-five years old. At a
party he met a man who wrote popular sea stories and who gave him a
letter of introduction to the captain of a four-masted schooner that
belonged to J. P. Morgan and was anchored in Gravesend Bay, off
Staten Island. Maxwell hired a rowboat to take him out to the ship,
where he found that the man his letter was addressed to had left the
day before. The only member of the crew was a sailor chipping rust,
with a police dog beside him. The new captain read Maxwell's letter
and then explained that the ship had not left anchor in four years
and was not likely to. A family friend had also arranged an interview
for Maxwell at B. Altman's, a department store, where there was an
opening for an elevator boy, but the personnel manager decided he was
too well educated. "After a week," he said, "you'd be insulting the
Maxwell was living in the Railroad Men's YMCA on Lexington
Avenue at Forty-ninth Street, and in their library he came on a book
by Lafcadio Hearn about the beautiful city of St. Pierre, Martinique.
He decided to go there but discovered that it had been destroyed by a
volcanic eruption in 1902. Even so, he thought, there must be
vestiges of it still, and he booked passage on a small, dingy
freighter, in February. The decks were covered with temporary stables
to accommodate a cargo of Missouri mules. There were six passengers
in the dining salon. One was a British novelist who dressed for
dinner as if she were on the Mauritania. Two Y-shaped scars on her
cheeks suggested an inept face-lift. She said she was a countess, and
the crew were seen everywhere reading copies of her books. Maxwell
was reading War and Peace, and she asked him if he was traveling
incognito. In the end she overcame his snobbish resistance, and they
became friends. He got off the boat at Trinidad and stayed there
several days. On one of them he went to the races. In the evening,
when they were over, immigrants from India set up card tables all
around the track and gambled by candlelight.
From Trinidad he took a boat to Martinique, where the next
morning there was a double rainbow over the harbor at Fort-de-France,
and the purser gave him the name of a good pension. In an effort to
gather material he wandered through the streets. The women wore the
costume Hearn had described--a madras turban and a dress with a small
bustle--but nothing else was recognizable. It was carnival time, and
he was sometimes accosted by two or three towering young black men
dressed in baby clothes, who demanded small sums of money. And there
was a man with a lion's mane with little bells in it who roamed the
streets with fifty little boys following him chanting antiphonally.
The movies in the theaters he had already seen. The gray volcanic
sand made the beaches uninviting. At nine o'clock the light went on
in the kitchen of the pension, and at ten food began to appear on his
table, in an open courtyard. It was better food than he had ever had
anywhere. At midnight he drew the mosquito netting around him as he
fell into bed, drunk from the wine in his carafe. In the crotches of
the trees orchids bloomed, and sewage ran down the gutters. He
sometimes stood in the door of a dance hall. The music consisted of a
single phrase repeated endlessly. The dancers, without moving their
feet, ground their pelvises together. The book he had hoped to write
eluded him. He sat on a bluff looking out to sea. For the first time
in his life he was homesick. A month in Martinique, where he went
days at a time without speaking to anyone, seemed like a year in
America. One night when he sat down to dinner he found a letter
telling him that Harper and Brothers was seriously considering
publishing his novel, and he went back on the same freighter he had
arrived on.
When the novel appeared, Maxwell was hoping the newspapers
would carry large ads. On the day of publication, the publicity
director took him to lunch and said, "Now we must pray." The reviews
said "promising," and the first edition of a thousand copies sold
out, the second didn't, and it is now a collector's item. The central
character is a flighty woman who, in the incessant pursuit of order,
induces disorder instead. She is reduced to taking paying guests, and
when she invites a distinguished black man for the weekend it is more
than the social fabric can bear, and there is a partly comic and
unmanageable situation. Maxwell never allowed it to be republished.

From photographs kept in a cabinet in the study of the Maxwells'
house in the country, I know that as a boy his features were so
finely drawn that he looked almost like a girl. As a young man he had
a narrow face, full lips, and a wide, thin mouth. He had brown hair,
and his eyes were dark and watery and expressive to the point of
radiance, and they remained so all his life. At parties, which he
wasn't especially fond of, he tended to find one person whom he could
talk to. His voice was whispery, and in order to be heard he
sometimes drew a breath and paused or hunched his shoulders and
leaned forward. The remarks he made in a tone of voice slightly
clearer than his usual one were things you knew he felt strongly
about. His posture was slightly stooped from years of sitting at the
typewriter. He was about five feet eight inches tall and so slender
as to be nearly delicate. His skin toward the end of his life was
like paper. His health was always robust, and he had surprising
strength, but he was never an athlete.
When you looked into his eyes you felt you were looking into
the eyes of someone who understood and accepted you. And didn't
require from you something more than you could provide. Or that you
be anyone but yourself. Unlike my father's, his attention was not
restless. His acceptance made you feel valued. His friends often felt
that no matter what they did, he was unlikely to view their behavior
judgmentally. It is not that he was without opinions concerning right
conduct, or that his moral standards were elastic; it is that once he
regarded someone as a friend, he was likely to consider his or her
actions sympathetically, as a response to the complications of life
or as understandable within the context. He was aware that people
don't always act in their best interests, and often make choices that
appear to work against them. Self-destructive behavior has its allure
and is not easily resisted. When he was in college and distraught
over the loss of his closest friend, he cut his wrists with a razor;
the event is the climax of The Folded Leaf. So far as I know, it is
the only act of violence he ever committed.
In his thirties he lived in the country with an elderly
French housekeeper. When a neighbor asked about him she said, "He
reads, he writes. He writes, he reads." Something in her tone
conveyed a mild disapproval. He had read everything worth reading and
knew the value of it, and was unmoved by the accepted wisdom or
pieties. He was fiercely literate and yet never made a show about it--
he had none of the complacency of the academic, and nothing of the
critic. That is, he did not try to understand writing by means of the
history of the writer, or from what other people said about the
writer, or the circumstances of the writer's social life, or whether
he had honored certain conventions, or the impression he made at a
dinner party, or his appearance in photographs; he knew instead
whether the writer had managed what he was attempting in a manner
that was dramatic and consistent with the weight of his material and
was brilliant or not, or was overwritten, or thought into being
rather than felt. Writing that is brought into being by means of
thought--that is, writing that draws on what a writer has read and
absorbed and has not changed or affected him but made him feel he has
capital to spend on advancing himself, that is done without the
engagement of the emotions, or in imitation of writing that has been
done before, or that is secondhand, or that observes customs--left
him unmoved, no matter how popular it might be. The w riter's name on
a story, known or not, had no influence on his opinion. The writing
engaged him or it didn't. His judgment was acute and penetrating.
This is from a letter written when he was in middle age, during the
sixties: "Perhaps if I read the poems that are being published in The
New Yorker just now more conscientiously I would enjoy them, but I
tend not to, and I have just begun to see why. They seem as often to
be concerned with unconscious rather than conscious feelings, and
unconscious feelings can only be expressed, it would appear, by a
display of virtuosity in arranging objects and disconnected glimpses
of experience." Far better writers than I thought his estimation was
unfailingly reliable.
He was sometimes difficult to talk to, because he had no
interest in facile or socially polite conversation, lunch party talk.
His conversation was about things that mattered to him, and he was
not made uncomfortable by hesitations or breaks in an exchange. His
silences appeared to be measuring and sometimes made me anxious. It
was years before I understood that his habit was to brood until he
felt moved to respond. No one's conversation was more literate or
informed or compressed. His remarks had the candor and perception and
quality of profound thought. Often he said no more than a sentence.
In general, as people get older they talk more and become
insensitive. As Maxwell got older he talked less and listened more, a
form of kindness and an expression of his never-ending interest in
the world.
Many of his observations were succinct and subtle and
inherently dramatic. As an elderly man, he was driving once in a
heavy rain. The turn he made--near the top of a hill, across a lane
of traffic onto a road that led to the one where he and his wife
lived--was tricky, even in good weather. The car whose path he turned
into he never saw. At eighty-seven he walked away from a head-on car
crash. The other driver turned out to be a fortune hunter. Deposing
Maxwell, the driver's lawyer asked, "How long did the accident take?"
Maxwell said, "I thought to myself, you must accept whatever
happens." The lawyer complained that it was pointless talking to
Maxwell; he clearly didn't understand the questions. His mind was not
elegant enough to apprehend that Maxwell had given him a literal
He was essentially shy. He said that you never lose people
you love when they die, because you incorporate parts of their
personalities into your own as a means of keeping them alive. It was
in his mother's nature to be interested socially in the lives of
other people, and when he found himself taking pleasure in talking to
strangers at parties, he was aware that the impulse could be traced
to her.
He had been mindful since childhood of his differences from
other people--his sensitivity, his social awkwardness, his preference
for reading over being outdoors, his slight frame, his partiality for
solitude, his love of classical music and especially opera, the way
that having lost his mother left him with a mark that seemed visible
to other people. The couple in The Chateau, Harold and Barbara
Rhodes, resemble the Maxwells. Of Harold Rhodes, Maxwell wrote, "He
was thin, flat-chested, narrow-faced, pale from lack of sleep, and
tense in his movements. A whole generation of loud, confident Middle-
Western voices saying: Harold, sit up straight . . . Harold, hold
your shoulders back . . . Harold, you need a haircut, you look like a
violinist had had no effect whatever. Confidence had slipped through
his fingers. He had failed to be like other people."
It is hard to be an original person, an individual. No one
cares for it, really. Very few people will congratulate you on the
accomplishment. At close hand a truly original person is almost
always disturbing. Indulgent and self-consciously outrageous
behavior, show business boy and girl behavior--attitudes and
mannerisms summoned in the attempt to bring notice to a negligible
personality--is not the same as being original, because it is
necessarily in response to something. A reaction to someone else's
point of view. Someone's standards have to be outraged, and once you
figure out what they consist of, it's simple to come up with a means
of insulting them. It's a tactic for drawing notice, of not being
overlooked, and the people who engage in it generally have little of
what is required to hold one's attention once they have it. Anyone
who is truly original is likely to be taunted, made fun of, his point
of view being so divergent from the ordinary, the accepted. An easy
mark for torment. He is likely to be to one side or the other of your
awareness, not directly in front of anyone's gaze, unless he wasn't
able to move out of the way quickly enough. His appearance probably
does not matter much to him. His mind is too preoccupied to care
about his clothes or whether his haircut is fashionable. He is not
likely to care for having people know too much about him, preferring
to operate as a subversive. His intentions surely undermine those of
the common grain. They don't embrace the rule, the popular or the
conventional, and he only feels the restraints such considerations
Maxwell never made a gesture to bring himself or his writing
to anyone's notice, and he didn't allow any to be made on his behalf.
Such behavior would have pained him.
From his daughters, I know that Maxwell had a temper, but I
never saw it. Somewhere he says that it was of the annihilating kind,
and that in his heart he knew he was capable of murder. When he was a
boy, he grabbed a golf iron and ran after his older brother who had
teased him one time too many, and was intercepted before he could lay
him out. If he said no, you knew the decision was final, and that it
was worthless to try to dissuade him. He did not waste anyone's time
and did not like having his wasted, although he was tolerant and so
considerate of another person's feelings that he often ended up doing
something he didn't want to in order to avoid causing someone
discomfort or unhappiness.

Maxwell wrote his second novel, They Came Like Swallows, in several
places: Mrs. Green's farm in Wisconsin, the MacDowell Colony, and in
an upstairs bedroom of the Buseys' house in Urbana, where he graded
papers in exchange for room and board. He finished the book when he
was twenty-eight and then went back to New York, in 1936, to look for
a job.
"My father had given me a hundred dollars, and I had another
hundred I didn't tell him about," he said. "I went to a friend of
his, the president of an insurance company, to get the check cashed.
He had always before been friendly and fatherly to me, and this time
he surprised me by being harsh and telling me I had no business
trying to get a job in New York, that I wouldn't make it here, and
had better get back to my long-haired friends in Wisconsin. About
whom he actually knew nothing. From someone at MacDowell I had been
given letters of introduction to The New Republic and to Time, and my
editor at Harper had called Katharine White at The New Yorker and
asked if she would see me. I went first to The New Republic, and it
took them only a few minutes to realize that I didn't have a
political thought in my head. And it took three weeks to receive an
appointment with the personnel office at Time. Meanwhile, my father's
friend had made me so furious that I talked myself into a job reading
novels for Paramount Pictures. The first book they gave me was called
Lady Cynthia Candon's Husband. It was seven hundred pages, and they
wanted my account to be five pages long--single- or doublespaced I
don't remember--with five carbons. It took me two days to read the
book and another day to summarize the action, and then I took it to
be typed, since there was very little time left, which cost five
dollars. Because it was a long book they gave me a special price of
seven-fifty, leaving two-fifty in the clear for three days' work.
Then they gave me a second book, which I remember nothing about, and
then I went for an interview with Katharine White.
"Wolcott Gibbs, an editor involved with both writers and
artists, had grown weary of part of his job, and they were looking
for somebody to take his place in the art meeting and convey to the
artists, who came in the next day, that their covers and drawings and
spots had been bought--which meant usually that there were
suggestions for the picture or the caption and sometimes meant that
the drawings had to be done over because of some detail that could
not be corrected otherwise. Or that they were rejected. And this,
nobody needed to tell me, had to be done in such a way that they were
not unduly discouraged.
"I hadn't been reading The New Yorker at all. The fact that I
had published a novel and had another ready to be published and had
had a story in The Atlantic must have worked in my favor. I was
twenty-eight and straight out of the Middle West. I don't really
remember how I conducted myself; I was interested, leaned forward in
my chair, what you do in interviews. Instinct made me keep silent
about a significant part of my past; teaching school, I somehow knew,
would not be a mark in my favor. At the end of the interview, Mrs.
White asked how much I would want in the way of a salary. I had been
told by a knowledgeable friend that I must ask for thirty-five
dollars, that they wouldn't respect me unless I did. So I took a deep
breath and said thirty-five dollars, and she smiled and said, 'I
expect you could live on less.' I could have lived nicely on fifteen.
I couldn't make out whether the interview had been favorable or not.
The thought of reading manuscripts for the movies didn't make me
cheerful. I was living on the top floor of a brownstone rooming house
on Lexington and Thirty-sixth Street, or thereabouts. I remember the
mattress was lumpy, and there were bedbugs. I went down to the
Village and wandered around and decided to eat dinner at a Chinese
restaurant on Eighth Street, and though there were empty tables, they
made me sit with another person. In a bottomless depression I said to
myself, there is no place for me anywhere in the world. And after
dinner came home and under my door was a telegram from Mrs. White
that read, 'Come to work on Monday at the price agreed upon.'"

The New Yorker was eleven years old and had got itself out of
financial difficulties and was one of the few places in New York that
were untouched by the Depression. "There was a shortage of office
space at the time," Maxwell said, "and my desk, in a corner of the
rather large outer office where Mrs. White's secretary cracked the
whip on a couple of unfortunate stenographers, was right next to Mrs.
White's door, which remained open until she had a visitor, in which
case she would rise from her desk and, while talking, release the
catch. There were quite a number of visitors, and between the arrival
of the visitor and the closing of the door my education into the
workings of the magazine advanced at an interesting pace."
On Mondays there was nothing for Maxwell to do. He sat at his
desk and looked at a self-portrait by James Thurber drawn in pencil
on the wall in front of him. Thurber's drawings were all over the
premises. By a water cooler in a corner of a hallway was a drawing of
a man walking along in a carefree way and around the corner was a
woman waiting for him with a baseball bat held above her head.
"On Tuesdays," Maxwell told me, "the artists--as they were
called; actually they were cartoonists--brought their work in, and
Tuesday afternoon the art meeting took place, in a room large enough
to hold a big table and four chairs. The drawings were propped up so
that they could be seen, and everybody had knitting needles, of
plastic, to point to details of the drawings. I had one, but didn't
use it. Harold Ross was in charge. By common agreement 'roughs,' that
is, drawings that indicated what the picture would be like but were
only sketches, were rejected or approved--if approved, the artist
would make a finished drawing and submit it the following week.
Though it was still the best period of New Yorker cartoonists, more
often than not the ideas were forced. Since they were one-line jokes,
Ross was concerned that the speaker be immediately identifiable.
Sometimes the captions were changed. Or if there was a good drawing
with a bad caption, it was sent to E. B. White, who was responsible
for some of the most famous lines. Most of the ideas were so forced
that I found the meeting deadly. Also, I suffered from insomnia and
was afraid if I didn't sleep the night before the art meeting I
wouldn't know whether something was funny or not. I would look into
the mirror at home while I shaved and say, I hope I will recognize
what's funny. There're two kinds of humor, the spontaneous, which I
am able to get, and the manufactured kind, Perelman, which does
nothing for me."
On Wednesdays Maxwell sat beside Rea Irvin, the art editor,
while he looked at the spot drawings. "If I liked a drawing," Maxwell
said, "he good-naturedly put it in the yes pile." On Thursdays the
artists retrieved their drawings, and Maxwell spent the day with one
after another of them. "What was odd was that the artists all put
themselves in their pictures, so that when they arrived for the first
time I was perfectly familiar with them."
Since Maxwell's job took only a day and a half, mercy
suggested that a way be found to keep him busy. Mrs. White told him
to read the magazine's scrapbooks, and not long after that he was
given some manuscripts to read and express his opinions about. "Then
I was told I could write some letters of rejection, which I was to
leave with Mrs. White's secretary. The next day she called me into
her office and closed the door and said, indicating the letters of
rejection, 'Mr. Maxwell, did you ever teach school?' Without
realizing I was doing it, I had betrayed my secret. I had to confess
that for two years I taught freshman composition at the University of
Illinois while working toward a Ph.D. that I never got. Very kindly
she explained there was a difference between writers, good or bad,
and students, and I must not seem, in my letters, to be telling
writers how to write."

Mrs. White also encouraged him to submit stories to the magazine.
Being on the inside and seeing the opinion sheets accompanying the
manuscripts sent to Ross, Maxwell felt he fairly well understood the
sort of material the magazine was looking for and was able to give
them what they wanted--"Valentines that arrived on the wrong day,
that sort of thing," he said. When he was happy for the check but
felt that the story seemed slight or involved people who might
recognize themselves when he didn't want them to, he published the
story as Jonathan Harrington or as Gifford Brown.
For a while Maxwell worked under Gibbs, preparing authors'
proofs, getting rid of what copy editors had added when they were
being too pedantic, and removing some of the less sensible
queries. "Ross was perceptive about fiction," he said, "and his few
comments on a given manuscript were usually to the point. But when he
read the story again in galleys, it was quite a different matter.
Having the whole magazine to read, he read too fast, misread, or
misremembered details and then tried to make things consistent with
what the author hadn't, in fact, written. His proofs usually had
fifty or sixty queries, of which four were inspired, and the rest
were a waste of time. The proofreader's pedantries would have
outraged the authors, if they had been permitted to see them, so I
was given the job of screening the proofs to save Mrs. White and
Gibbs from having to deal with the authors, and by observing how they
dealt with the queries, I began to learn what editing was.
"The pieces given to me to edit were usually slight
entertaining ones for the back of the book--the kind of thing people
liked to read before falling asleep. The writers were seldom
accomplished. The most prolific was Joseph Wechsberg, who was
European and had been a ship's violinist and had a seemingly endless
background to draw on, but his understanding of English syntax was
imperfect, and turning his sentences into acceptable prose was
backbreaking work."
Gibbs's mind worked quickly, and Maxwell hardly ever finished
a question before Gibbs had already answered it. "He was always
patient with me," Maxwell said, "and flared up only once, over a
detail about a cocktail. I said I didn't know anything about such
drinks, and he took it, for a second, as a criticism of him until he
realized it was only the simple truth.
"Anyway, when I began dealing with galley proofs, they gave
me an office at last. Somewhere along in the first three months I
felt I was going to be fine, and sent back my father's hundred
dollars. When he got it, my stepmother said, he wept. He was a
businessman. The concept of literature was outside his experience and
beyond his understanding, so he had no idea really what I was up to.
It had been the great fear of his life that I would be financially
irresponsible and sponge off other people."

After Maxwell had been at The New Yorker for a year or so, he went to
dinner at the Plaza Hotel with a cousin from the Midwest who was two
years older than he was. The cousin was married and had a twelve-year-
old daughter and was a stockbroker--that is, his life was very
different from Maxwell's. They knew each other only slightly. The
cousin asked questions that Maxwell answered politely but
sententiously, leaving the cousin to choose between asking another
question or having the two of them eat in silence. Maxwell was under
the impression that the cousin had invited him to dinner because he
felt that he ought to, "whereas in fact," Maxwell writes in
Ancestors, his family history, "it was because something--that I was
a misfit introverted child, that he was fond of my mother and father,
that I represented the younger brother he wished he had had--made him
interested in me. All I know for sure, and I wish I had known it on
that occasion, is that he was immensely pleased and proud of me
because I had published a couple of novels."
Ancestors was written twenty-five years later, and in it
Maxwell describes the dinner with his cousin and allows himself to
say what he might have if he hadn't held himself back.
"I was living in a rooming house on Lexington Avenue and I
had dinner with somebody from the office who said there was a vacant
apartment in the building where he lived, so I went home with him,
and the door was unlocked but there weren't any light bulbs, and I
took it because I liked the way it felt in the dark. The rent is
thirty-five dollars a month. You go past an iron gate into a
courtyard with gas streetlamps. It was built during the Civil War, I
think. Anyway, it's very old. And my apartment is on the third floor,
looking out on a different courtyard, with trees in it. Ailanthus
trees. I like having something green to look at. Technically it's a
room and a half. The half is a bedroom just big enough for a single
bed, and I never sleep there because it's too like lying in a coffin.
I sleep on a studio couch in the living room. The fireplace works.
And once when I had done something I was terribly ashamed of, I went
and put my forehead on the mantelpiece. It was just the right height.
"The kitchen is tiny, but it has a skylight that opens. And
by putting one foot on the edge of the sink and the other on top of
the icebox I can pull myself up onto the roof, and I sit there
sometimes looking at the moon and the stars. In the morning, when I'm
shaving, I hear the prostitutes being brought to the women's prison.
Shouting and screaming. Though I'm on a courtyard, it's never really
quiet in New York the way it is in the country. Just as I'm drifting
off at night I hear a taxi horn. Or I hear the Sixth Avenue El, and
try to fall asleep before the next one comes. The building directly
across from my windows is some kind of a factory, and in the daytime
when the workmen come out and stand on the fire escape talking, and
when the doors are open, I can hear the clicking of the machinery. At
night there is a cat that sits on the fire escape and makes hideous
sounds like a baby having its throat cut, until I get up and throw
beer bottles at it. If I don't get any sleep I'm no good at my job.
It's an interesting job and I like it and I'm lucky to have it, but I
have to deal with so many people all day long that when night comes I
don't want to see anybody. When the telephone rings, which isn't very
often, I don't answer it. I let it ring and ring and finally it
stops, and the silence then is so beautiful. I read, or I walk the
streets until I'm dead tired and come home hoping to fall asleep. At
the far end of the courtyard there's an intern from St. Vincent's
Hospital who never pulls his shades. I see his light go on about
eleven. He has a girl--she is so nice--she brought him a balloon when
he was sick. But there is another girl she doesn't know about who
sleeps with him too. Next to the factory, on the second floor, there
is a young married couple. In the morning when I'm drinking my coffee
by the window, the sunlight reaches far enough into their apartment
for me to see the shapes of their bodies under the bedclothes.
Sometimes she comes to the window in her nightgown or her slip and
stands brushing her hair. You can tell they're in love because their
movements are so heavy. As if they were drugged. And once I saw him
sitting in his undershorts putting on his socks. Everything they do
is like a painting.
"I tried to get a job in New York once before, in 1933,
before my first book was published, and couldn't. It was like trying
to climb a glass mountain. The book had two favorable reviews, but it
didn't cause any commercial excitement whatever, so I went home and
started another novel, and when that petered out, I started another,
and made my savings stretch as far as possible, and took help from my
friends. Not money. Room and board, in exchange for doing things for
them that they were perfectly able to do for themselves. This was so
I wouldn't feel obligated. When I finished the second book I came
back here and this time I managed to stay. But my job takes up so
much of my energy that I write less and less. I can do stories, but
that's all. And not many of them.
"I've fallen in love three times in my life, and each time it
was with someone who wasn't in love with me, and now I can't do it
any more. I have friends. There's a place uptown where I can go when
I feel like being with people, and the door is never locked; you just
walk in and go through the apartment till you find somebody, and they
set an extra place at the dinner table for me without asking, and so
I don't feel nobody cares if I live or die. But I can't sleep at
night because when I put out my hands there isn't anybody in the bed
beside me, and it's as if I'd exchanged one glass mountain for
another, and I don't know what to do . . ."

Gibbs withdrew more and more from his editing job into profile
writing and also from the art meeting and insofar as Maxwell was able
to he took his place. "With a raise," Maxwell said. "Every time I was
promoted I would go to him and ask how much I should ask for, and he
always told me the right answer. When I went to Bermuda for my
vacation and came back wearing loafers and a sport jacket I bought
and with dark glasses on, he passed me in the hall and said, not
unkindly, 'The shoes or the jacket but not both.' The people who made
the magazine were half a generation older than I was, and they came
of age in the twenties. And I came of age in the thirties, it was a
much more serious period, so though I was not uncomfortable with
them, I didn't belong to them. I was extremely naïve, and they all
seemed so sophisticated. They all talked about Noël Coward openings
every night at seven-thirty. It was not that they were more
sophisticated; I just didn't share their interests.
"Somewhere along about my second year I had a telephone call
from my editor at Harper saying that They Came Like Swallows had been
chosen as a dual selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club, and the
initial payment was eight thousand dollars. It was so much money, in
1937, I had to lean against the wall for support. I went and told
Gibbs. And then I invited the Whites to dinner and the theater. I
asked Gibbs where to take them, and he told me. It was small and the
most elegant restaurant by far that I had ever been in. I took what
was the most imaginable cash to pay for it--thirty-five dollars and
that's exactly what it came to."
Around that time Maxwell was taken out of the fiction
department and made A-issue editor, which meant that he worked with
Ross on assembling each week's issue. "I loved working with him,"
Maxwell said. "He was very funny and not the bore that he is
sometimes made out to be. I had been told that in a fit of temper he
once threw a telephone at Mrs. White, but he never even raised his
voice at me. Once I told him something that I thought was correct
only to find, when I left his office, that I should have given him
the exact contrary advice. I remember leaning against the door and
thinking I can't go in and tell him my answer was wrong. Then my
upbringing asserted itself and I went in and told him I had given him
the wrong information, and he didn't turn a hair. He wasn't
interested in my mistake, only in the right answer."
Gibbs was made the magazine's theater critic, which meant
that his job working with Mrs. White in the fiction department was
open, and Maxwell took it, which allowed him to return to editing
manuscripts. "Then Andy White began to be restless and went to live
in Maine," Maxwell said, "which meant that Katharine had to leave the
job she had created and was very happy in. The New Yorker hired a
friend of Andy's, Gus Lobrano, who was working on Town and Country,
and I took him into my office to break him in, and we became friends.
I suppose this was around 1942. I assumed I would replace Mrs. White
as fiction editor, which was pure foolishness on my part, because the
job was just as much a matter of dealing with humorists, perhaps more
so, than fiction writers. When my uncle died, in Illinois, and I went
to the funeral, I came back to find that Lobrano had been moved into
Mrs. White's office, which meant he was slated to become her
successor. I thought, The hell with them, I will become a writer if
that's the way things are. So I asked for an appointment with Ross to
tell him I was resigning, and he invited me, for the first time, to
lunch at the Algonquin. We sat down to a table and I told him I
wanted to leave, and he said, 'I was going to offer you the job of
second-in-command of the magazine.' Which rocked me a little, but he
didn't urge me to reconsider, and if I had it would have meant that
very soon I wouldn't have been working for the magazine at all,
because the second-in-command always got blamed for whatever went
wrong and sooner or later was fired."

When Maxwell quit The New Yorker, he went to New Mexico with a
friend, Morris Birge, who had taken a house for the summer in Sante
Fe. Birge was engaged to a woman there and was very social, but
Maxwell asked not to be introduced to anyone, and over the course of
the summer he recovered himself.
As to how he passed the time, one day he sat down at the
typewriter and wrote:
"Almost no sleep last night, though I didn't mind. I lay on
one side and then the other and eventually, as I thought I might,
dreamt of home. The Rio Grande flows through the front yard but it is
smaller than the creek where we used to go fishing, when I was a
child. The geography books didn't say it would be like that, hemmed
in by mesas, and likely before the summer comes to be even
smaller . . .
"Yesterday morning the Spanish-American gardener cleaned out
the winter's dust and rotting leaves from the fishpond, and while
Morris and I sat on our haunches, watching him catch the big gold
fish and the five little ones that had no color, in a white granite
pan, I thought what a good beginning page for a book. I still think
in beginnings, like a man forever putting on his hat. To think of the
end instead of the beginning has been for a long time--I don't know
how long, twenty years perhaps--to think of death. And because I
don't want to think of it, or write of it, not through fear but now,
I think, merely from choice, my direction is toward the beginnings of
things. But it is an obvious kind of nearsightedness, and there must
obviously be exercises to correct it. When I raised my eyes a minute
ago I saw a windmill a hundred yards away, and it was revolving
steadily in the sunlight, without any beginning and probably, for
years to come, without any end. The air is never quite still here,
and the windmill may slow up--is now--but I don't think it will stop.
But how to do that? How to write a book that will go round and round,
faster or slower, without a beginning or an end, but only night and
day and night and day. The windmill is absolutely still. Now it is
going quite fast again, proving that an end which is followed
immediately by a beginning is neither end nor beginning but a
continuity of a different kind, a rhythm that is more accurate, as an
analogy, to living, than continuous revolving, which can only have a
single meaning.
"Realized yesterday, watching through binoculars a gardener
mowing grass that the reality we accept through the senses is almost
never perceived by one sense alone. A man mowing grass should be
accompanied by the sound of a lawnmower, to be believed. Because the
air is thin and clear, and because of the binoculars one can separate
the sense of sight and the sense of hearing from their usual union.
And then merely by closing one's eyes the man mowing the lawn becomes
an idea only, and one has to look to the mind for confirmation of his
actuality, not to the senses. Which may account for the inward look
on the faces of the blind, and the strained expression of the deaf.
With the failure of sight and hearing to confirm one another, both
the blind and the deaf must depend upon general knowledge, must go
continually to the mind for evidence, rather than for the meaning of
the evidence they have received through sensory perception. And the
boundary between the natural and the supernatural (which is mostly
suspected by the fact that the senses don't jibe) must be far less,
though to a different degree, the blind falling back upon the sense
of touch, the deaf making the eyes do the work of both seeing and
hearing. To both a great many things cannot exist.
"And in one way or another, for large sections of all time,
we are either blind or deaf, sometimes both. A man passed the house
this morning, and I saw him out of the bathroom window; saw him
returning with a little girl in blue overalls. And even so I failed
to perceive that his wife had died this morning. A blind man might
have heard it in his step, a deaf person in the way he turned his
face to the sun. But all I saw was a man getting older and heavier
before it was time for him to get old and heavy."

When Maxwell got back to New York, Lobrano called and said it was
lonely at the office without him and could he send some manuscripts
to him for his opinion. After about a month of this arrangement,
Maxwell decided it would be easier to go to the office to read them,
so he began working there three days a week.

If we live long enough, our lives make some sort of sensible pattern.
For much of his life, Maxwell had friendships with older women, such
as Zona Gale, Garreta Busey, and Sylvia Townsend Warner, which gave
him a steadying guidance. The poet Louise Bogan was The New Yorker's
poetry critic and dealt with Mrs. White. When she expressed
admiration for one of Maxwell's stories, Mrs. White introduced them.
Bogan was fifteen years older than Maxwell and had stopped writing
poetry after a severe mental breakdown. Maxwell admired her
immensely. He went to see her in her apartment, and she played songs
of Mahler and Hugo Wolf, music he didn't know, and they talked about
Yeats and Rilke. Maxwell showed her the manuscript of a story about
some boys in a high school swimming pool, and she said that he should
continue with it--that it was a novel. It became The Folded Leaf, and
the story became the novel's first chapter. He did four versions,
which he sent, chapter by chapter, to Bogan, and she made very few
criticisms but simply wrote back, "Keep on."
The notes he made in New Mexico found a place in the novel's

Maxwell's years on the Wisconsin farm left him with a love of country
living. A friend visiting his apartment noticed the geraniums on the
windowsill and suggested that Maxwell find himself a house. He had a
chance to rent an 1840 saltbox house on the quiet road in northern
Westchester where my father lived, and he gave up his apartment, on
Patchin Place, and commuted to the office. The house had been rented
by a Southern family whose habits of housekeeping were so slovenly
that the insurance on the house had been canceled and they were
evicted. To move out, they placed open suitcases on the lawn and
threw shoes and clothes out the second-floor window into them.
Maxwell painted the trim and began planting flowerbeds, and the house
was sold out from under him. Then he bought the house down the road
from the house my parents lived in.
When he was nearly through The Folded Leaf, he was
drafted. "I didn't want to go to war," he said. "I was a pacifist,
and I didn't want to get shot. The Army didn't recognize pacifism
unless it was attached to some church. So I went to a psychiatrist
and got a letter. What the letter said was that I had an anxiety
neurosis. I waited around and nobody read it. I got on the boat to
Governors Island and went to the induction center. I went through
every step except the psychiatrist. Finally, when I was all but
inducted, someone was willing to read my letter. He was a European
and he said, '"Sweet are the uses of adversity." Who said that?' and
I said, 'Shakespeare, but I don't know where,' and he said, 'As You
Like It,' and stamped my papers, and that was that."

One day in early 1945 Lobrano came into Maxwell's office and told him
that Ross had heard that Maxwell was halfway through a novel he had
been working on for several years and was having difficulty
finishing, with all that was expected of him at the office, so Ross
was sending him home for six months on full pay. Ross was in the
habit of doing kind things and then disclaiming them. Maxwell
eventually asked why he had done him such a favor, and Ross said that
he played poker with another writer who was always talking about
never having the time to finish anything, and he had merely been
thinking of that.
Once the book had been handed in to the publisher, Maxwell
returned to the office. Ross asked whether he would read unsolicited
manuscripts, the slush pile, and though it was a wearing job, Maxwell
felt he could hardly say no. He usually found one story a month that
the magazine could print.

A year or so before Maxwell died, I said to him, "You seem so
untroubled," and he said, "I am now." In his early thirties, unhappy
at having such a solitary life, he went, on the advice of a friend,
to see the psychoanalyst Theodor Reik, who had studied with Freud. "I
had too great a sense of my own difference from other people," he
said. "After about a year of talking to Reik five days a week, and
hearing his voice occasionally respond from behind my shoulder, the
whole first part of my life fell away, and I had a sense of
everyone's similarities. I had a feeling of starting again. Instead
of being recessive and introverted, I suddenly had a clue to what
other people are like. Given the situation, you can pretty much
figure out what they're going through, and it's usually something
that involves sympathy and understanding. You can't possibly have a
sense of understanding somebody without feeling sympathetic.
"After I stopped talking to him and felt the need for it, I
sat down for two days at the typewriter, and what came out was very
strange. I decided that I was so angry at my parents for having
another child--why aren't they satisfied with me--that I thought they
should die and then be brought back. I damn near accomplished it with
my father, who also got the flu, but I lost my mother. So I was a
murderer. And what do you do with murderers? You put them in a cell.
I was in a cell--no wife, no family. I was in a prison cell, and
there was Reik saying, You're in a prison cell, but the door's not
Lying awake one night in the house in Westchester, Maxwell
remembered a young woman who had come to his office a year and a half
earlier, looking for a position in the poetry department. "She wore
her hair piled on top of her head," he said, "and she had a hat with
a fur piece--it was winter, I suppose--and I thought I had never seen
anyone so beautiful, but I did nothing about it. It was as if I was
in a deep sleep."
The next day he looked for her name--Emily Noyes--in the
phone book, and it wasn't there, but she had left her number with the
magazine's personnel office, and on the disingenuous pretext of
wanting to talk to her about her poetry, he asked her for a drink at
the Algonquin. She was from a prosperous family in Portland, Oregon;
she was teaching two-year-olds at a nursery school on the Upper East
Side; and she lived in a room on the top floor of the building.
Maxwell was thirty-six, and she was twenty-three, tall and thin, with
black hair and a wide face and dark eyes so lively that people often
took her and Maxwell for sister and brother. It was the fall, and he
invited her to a party at the house of a friend, and they talked all
evening, and when he took her home he asked her to marry him. He
hadn't planned on saying it; the words simply came out of his mouth.
She said that she didn't want to get married and that she wouldn't be
able to see him again until after the first of the year, but he could
telephone her at the nursery school between four-fifteen and four-
thirty. After that she would be dealing with parents.
At four-fifteen Maxwell closed the door of his office and
began dialing. More often than not the school line was busy, but
sometimes he got through to her. In January he closed his house and
rented a one-room apartment that had been converted from a doctor's
office, and began courting her. They were married in May of 1945, in
the chapel of the Presbyterian Church at Fifth Avenue and Twelfth
When Maxwell brought her home to Illinois so that his father
and stepmother could meet her, his father took him aside after a few
days and said, "There has been no one like her in our family for
Someone with her radiance is what he meant. Also, her
graceful and unassuming way of conducting herself. Also, her fine
carriage, which I think of as having been molded in childhood by
holding herself upright on horseback. As a child she rode a horse to
She was nearly always the most beautiful woman of any age in
a room of other women, although I am not aware that she ever made any
effort to be. Her face was suffused with an illumination that seemed
to concentrate itself in her eyes. I am reminded of the labels at the
Frick Museum that mention the illusion that Rembrandt's portraits
appear to be lit from within.
With his wife in mind, Maxwell wrote of Barbara Rhodes in The
Chateau: "Because she came of a family that seemed to produce
handsomeness no matter what hereditary strains it was crossed with,
the turn of the forehead, the coloring, the carving of the eyelids,
the fine bones, the beautiful carriage could all be accounted for by
people with long memories. But it was the eyes that you noticed. They
were dark brown, and widely spaced, and very large, and full of
light, the way children's eyes are, the eyebrows naturally arched,
the upper eyelids wide but not heavy, not weighted, the whites a blue
white. If all her other features had been bad, she still would have
seemed beautiful because of them. They were the eyes of someone of
another Age, their expression now gentle and direct, now remote, so
far from calculating, and yet intelligent, perceptive, pessimistic,
without guile, and without coquetry."
And: "As a rule, the men who turned to stare at Barbara
Rhodes in public places were generally of a romantic disposition or
else old enough to be her father. Even more than her appearance, her
voice attracted and disturbed them, reminding them of what they
themselves had been like at her age, or throwing them headlong into
an imaginary conversation with her, or making them wonder whether in
giving the whole of their affection to one woman they had settled for
less than they might have got if they had had the courage and the
patience to go on looking. But this was not true here. In the eyes
that were turned toward her, there was no recognition of who she was
but only of the one simple use that she could be put to."
I never heard from my father that Maxwell had stood over
another man's chair at a dinner party and said, "Will you leave now?"
but there must have been occasions when other men stared too fixedly
at her or kept her on the dance floor longer than was polite.
I can imagine two empty chairs at a table set for dinner and
someone's asking, "Who else are we waiting for?" and the hostess
replying, "The Maxwells. He's a writer, and an editor at The New
Yorker, and their daughters are at school with Jessica (or, We were
introduced to them this summer on the Vineyard; or, Emmy goes to the
Art Students League with Rachel), and I've wanted you to meet them."
And the Maxwells arriving, with apologies for being late (the
difficulty of getting a taxi in the East Eighties at the hour when
everyone is heading to the theater), and the men, having been
impatient and distracted, sitting suddenly straighter in their chairs.
She was long-limbed and lean and girlish. Seated on a couch,
she had a way of pulling her knees up beneath her and gathering her
skirt around them that was like the gesture of an adolescent.
I have photographs of her, taken by my father, at parties on
the road where the Maxwells and my parents lived, when she was
perhaps twenty-four, just married, and smoking a cigarette and
leaning back on the couch, wearing a sweater and a skirt to just
below her knees--New Year's, I think it was, or someone's birthday.
She is wearing a particular high-heeled black shoe that has a strap
around her ankle, and her hair is black and her eyes are shining, and
I think, There would be a problem taking her out in public. Men would
want to steal her away, might even resolve to. Everyone else in the
photographs is older, and much as she liked them, I also imagine she
was a little restless in their company. She had a great enthusiasm
for fun and was of an age to embrace it. She once told my wife that
she spent a lot of her first year married alone in the house in the
country while Maxwell was at his office in the city, and that she
taught herself to cook by reading cookbooks to pass the time. It was
not likely the life she had come East for. The photographs of her in
scrapbooks from her childhood show her as a girl surrounded by boys
with strong jaws and physiques that I associate with the phrase
physical culture. The sort of boys who came home in the 1940s wearing
soldiers' outfits.
For a while before she met Maxwell, she was involved with the
writer James Agee. Smoking cigarettes and drinking whiskey and
talking late into the night is how I imagine them, his eyes falling
on her and him finding it difficult to believe his luck.
Because she ran the household, and because she loved reading,
especially poetry--Rilke and Neruda and Roethke above all--going to
museums and movies, and conversation, the dance classes she took at
her ladies club, and the company of her family and friends, it was
difficult for her to spend as many hours in her studio as she wanted
to. She began drawing as a young woman, and when her daughters were
grown she turned seriously to painting. She matured quickly, and in
the last years had a breakthrough. She favored a dark and luxurious
palette. Her attention was meticulous. A still life depicting a hand
of solitaire, interrupted; the phone rang, or the person playing
heard his name called. Or lost interest. Something took him away,
anyhow, and the painting records the way things looked in the
interval before he returned, when they were suspended, like a chord
in music waiting to be resolved.
The one I am most drawn to is an oil crayon drawing of an old
fish that was too crafty to be caught, remembered, I think, from her
childhood, a legendary trout. Under the river, with the trees on the
banks and the water flowing around him, and him flipping his tail
exuberantly. It was, I think, a study for a painting that was never
She once said that she planned to spend her old age having
two drinks at lunch at the Cosmopolitan Club and falling asleep
afterward in one of the club's chairs, with her mouth open. She had a
spiritual side, and Maxwell didn't believe in God. She wanted to work
for the Partisan Review, and she liked William Burroughs--The Naked
Lunch, anyway. She loved the faux cowboy song "Don't Fence Me In."
She used to play it on the jukeboxes in Third Avenue saloons where
Maxwell followed her when they were courting. Dropping coins into the
slots, she must have wondered why this man with his own beautiful
eyes pursued her so ardently, as if his life depended on it. I don't
think he ever felt truly happy until he married her.
They loved each other in a way that most of us cannot
appreciate at first hand--that is, a marriage of fifty-five years as
intimate as theirs was is not something most people will experience.
They were like two trees whose roots have grown together.
Maxwell once dreamed that he flew to Paris in a box, and when
he saw how beautiful Paris was he flew back to get her.
Years ago, to my father, Maxwell wrote: "Emmy's father had a
slight stroke, complicated or rather followed by pneumonia and
pleurisy, which is surely enough, with emphysema and a not too good
heart, to do any ordinary man of almost 92 in, but he isn't ordinary,
and has recovered from worse. Anyway, she went off to Oregon this
morning . . . She left at 9:15 and it is
now 3:25 p.m. and you can hear a pin drop. Only there is nobody to
drop it. Ordinarily I am home alone all day and never feel that the
apartment is queer or empty because I know Emmy will be home from the
Art Students League at six o'clock. But because she is somewhere in
the air over I suppose Montana this place is uninhabitable."
On his desk in the country Maxwell kept a small painted box,
a present from her on his ninetieth birthday. On the cover of the box
she painted a lion lounging in the branches of a tree. On the bottom
of the box she wrote, "Each day I am as glad to see you as I am to
see the sun rise in the morning and the moon cross the sky at night."
Saintly is what I sometimes thought they were, but they
weren't, of course. Maxwell occasionally affected a saintly manner to
deflect attention he wasn't interested in. What was so admirable to
me about the manner in which they conducted their lives--the courtesy
to others, the care for other people's difficulties, and their belief
that we should do what we can to help each other--was that the way
they acted, the gestures they made, were choices and decisions
arrived at in an atmosphere of distractions and social considerations
and awareness of consequences and opportunities passed on and perhaps
lost. When a choice was to be made, it seemed to me, so far as I
knew, that the Maxwells always made one that demonstrated character
and judgment and the restraint of self-interest, and that was likely
to have been influenced by a concern for someone else's feelings. Out
of a desire to protect them, I often urged them to be more cold-
blooded, but they wouldn't be.
They were everything that ordinary life is not. Not envious.
Not resentful, not trivial, not obstructive of other people's
happiness. Not shrill in their enthusiasms. Not strident, mean, or
coarse in their sentiments. Not indifferent to suffering. Their lives
had no fewer difficulties than anyone else's, and yet they gave the
appearance that everything came effortlessly to them. No gesture they
made was performed for effect. They had no personas. They were not
calculating. Neither of them had an impulse toward self-inflation.
They had no social ambitions beyond the company of people they
admired and cared for. They were handsome but not vain. They loved
expressions of enthusiasm. Although they were prosperous, they
weren't materialistic, and they were always mindful of how money
might ease a difficulty in someone's life or bring them some
happiness. Checks now and then left the household in amounts that
substantially changed the circumstances of the people who cashed
them. Once, in the manner of Elvis Presley, Maxwell gave one of my
brothers a car.

In 1947, Maxwell sent to Cyril Connolly, the British critic and
editor of the magazine Horizon, a story he had written about a family
of Southerners who paid a visit during the summer of 1912 to their
Northern relatives. Connolly wrote to him: "Dear Maxwell: After
considerable thought I returned your ms. to your agent here because I
decided the story you sent me was really a very exciting beginning to
a novel, especially as the period was 1912, and you simply couldn't
leave things where they were. One wants another thirty chapters, and
I hope you will do it that way.
"It was the Emperor Augustus whose last words were something
like 'Do you think I have played out the comedy correctly?' I can't
quote the Latin, which you will find in Suetonius' life of Augustus.
"Please understand that I mean exactly what I say about the
story, and I am not being polite. It is too good a situation to leave
in the air. Continue!
My regards to your beautiful wife . . ."
A few months later, Maxwell wrote to his father-in-law: "I
took an important step yesterday that I want to tell you about. For
the last six months I have been straining against the burden of a
double life, of working at a somewhat demanding job and trying to
write a novel. It is never easy to give half your heart to one thing
and half to another, and after a good deal of thought I have told The
New Yorker that I want to leave, the first of May . . .
"We have put aside a sum of money for emergencies, and we
ought to be able to live essentially as we do now, on the money I
make from writing. If not, I can always go back to The New Yorker,
where I am useful both as an editor and as a writer. During the last
two years I have made as much from writing as I have from my
job . . ."
He stayed away less than a year. "I had thought I would write
more and better if I did nothing but write," he told me, "and I was
selling enough stories to live on, and I had some savings, and I
thought we could skid by, and the first thing that happened was we
needed a new refrigerator, and the second thing that happened is that
the stories I wrote weren't being taken. It helped to know what the
magazine wanted, but not infallibly. Even though I saw what they
wanted, I didn't necessarily want to give it to them. I had more
serious things on my mind. But then I looked at my fortieth birthday
approaching and I thought I ought to insinuate myself back onto the
The academic who asked Maxwell about the most exciting
moments of his career also asked what moment was the most
disappointing. Maxwell answered, "Pass." I never heard him express
envy for the sales or prizes of another writer. The Chateau was
nominated for the National Book Award, which was won by Walker Percy,
for The Moviegoer. Maxwell attended the reception after the ceremony,
and Percy endeared himself to him by saying, when they met, "My wife
has been reading me passages from your novel all afternoon in our
hotel room."
Because Maxwell lived so long, he continued into what might
partly have been his posterity, so he got to see the wide and
widening appreciation of his work, but if his books had been less
admired, he might have been forced to face their oblivion. Maxwell's
success was more literary than commercial, and the two don't often
intersect. In The Enemies of Promise, Cyril Connolly wrote that a
classic is a book that remains in print for ten years. They Came Like
Swallows has been more than sixty years in print. After Maxwell died,
I had a letter from the novelist Shirley Hazzard in which she
mentioned the disparity between his literary standing and his
commercial accomplishments. "Only a saint could have borne with
complete equanimity the inadequate recognition he had for years to
endure," she wrote. "He knew it was incommensurate, unjust. He stayed
with the truth that was in him, developing it throughout his life."
It would only have been natural for him to have felt
discouraged by The New Yorker's not buying the stories he hoped that
they would. The story Connolly admired became Time Will Darken It. A
few years later, in 1955, Maxwell went through what I think was the
only period of resignation he experienced; at least he never told me
about another. "It was when Kate"--his older daughter--"was a baby,"
he said. "I thought, I might just as well stop writing and be a full-
time editor. I guess I hadn't any novel on hand that interested me,
and I did fewer and fewer stories. It looked as if I was running dry,
but I wasn't. I needed a little public encouragement.
"I had set my heart a few years before on the Pulitzer Prize
for Time Will Darken It, and the National Book Award, if there was
such a thing then, or its equivalent. I wanted to clear the deck and
sweep everything before me, but it wasn't like that. I wanted to be
appreciated as a major novelist, and the book was respected, but not
embraced. This was all because of Reik. He was Germanic, and had
convinced me that I should be a person of stature in the world, and
he was thinking of Europe, where it was possible to have that kind of
career, but in America, if you insist on having it your own way, it
takes a lot longer."
Around this time Maxwell accepted an invitation from Smith
College to take part in a seminar on writing that included Saul
Bellow and Ralph Ellison. Having decided to give up writing, he went
to Pennsylvania Station and took a seat on the train to Northampton,
Massachusetts, and began making notes for a speech he had agreed to
The speech begins with Maxwell's description of a Chinese
scroll in the possession of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The
scroll depicts the spring festival on the river, a standard motif of
Chinese painting. "It has three themes woven together:" he said, "the
river, which comes down from the upper right, and the road along the
river, and the people on the riverbanks. As the scroll unwinds, there
is, first, some boys who cannot go to the May Day festival because
they have to watch their goats. Then there is a country house, and
several people starting out for the city, and a farmer letting water
into a field by means of a water wheel, and then more people and
buildings--all kinds of people all going toward the city for the
festival. And along the riverbank there are various entertainers--a
magician, a female tightrope walker, several fortunetellers, a
phrenologist, a man selling spirit money, a man selling patent
medicine, a storyteller."
As a writer, Maxwell said, he felt that he belonged
among "the shoddy entertainers earning their living on the riverbank
on May Day," because "writers--especially narrative writers--are
people who perform tricks."
He described several versions of what he was talking
about: "Before I came up here, I took various books down from their
shelf and picked out some examples of the kind of thing I mean. Here
is one:
'I have just returned this morning from a visit to my
landlord--the solitary neighbor that I shall be troubled with . . .'
"One of two things--there will be more neighbors turning up
than the narrator expects, or else he will very much wish that they
had. And the reader is caught; he cannot go away until he finds out
which of his two guesses is correct. This is, of course, a trick . . .
"Here is another trick: 'Call me Ishmael . . .' A pair of
eyes looking into your eyes. A face. A voice. You have entered into a
personal relationship with a stranger, who will perhaps make demands
on you, extraordinary personal demands; who will perhaps insist that
you love him; who perhaps will love you in a way that is upsetting
and uncomfortable . . ."
He suggested a pattern for a story: "It would help if you
would give what I am now about to read to you only half your
attention. It doesn't require any more than that, and if you listen
only now and then, you will see better what I am driving at. Begin
with breakfast and the tipping problem. Begin with the stealing of
the marmalade dish and the breakfast tray still there. The marmalade
dish, shaped like a shell, is put on the cabin-class breakfast tray
by mistake, this once. It belongs in first class. Begin with the gate
between first and second class . . ."
He discussed the working habits of a specimen writer and the
complications and obstacles and setbacks and victories of his working
"But what, seriously, was accomplished by these writers or
can the abstract dummy novelist I have been describing hope to
accomplish? Not life, of course; not the real thing; not children and
roses; but only a facsimile that is called literature. To achieve
this facsimile the writer has, more or less, to renounce his
birthright to reality, and few people have a better idea of what it < BR>is--of its rewards and satisfactions, or of what to do with a whole
long day. What's in it for him? The hope of immortality? The chances
are not good enough to interest a sensible person. Money? Well, money
is not money anymore. Fame? For the young, who are in danger always
of being ignored, of being overlooked at the party, perhaps, but no
one over the age of forty who is in his right mind would want to be
famous. It would interfere with his work, with his family life. Why
then should the successful manipulation of illusions be everything to
a writer? Why does he bother to make up stories and novels? If you
ask him, you will probably get any number of answers, none of them
straightforward. You might as well ask a sailor why it is that he has
chosen to spend his life at sea."

Some time before the train arrived, he realized that he loved writing
so much that he could never give it up.

Copyright © 2002 by Alec Wilkinson. Reprinted by permission of
Houghton Mifflin Company.

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