The Element of Lavishness: Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner and William Maxwell 1938-1978by William Maxwell, Michael Steinman (Editor)
For forty years, until her death in 1978, Sylvia Townsend Warner (poet, novelist, and short-story writer) and her New Yorker editor William Maxwell (himself a fiction writer of great distinction) exchanged more than 1,300 letters. Their formal relationship quickly grew into a real, unshakable love, and their letters back and forth became the most significant and longest-lasting correspondence of their lives. As Maxwell told the editor of these letters, "Sylvia needed to write for an audience, a specific person, in order to bring out her pleasure in enchanting," and Maxwell was that person, both as editor and as correspondent. Warner brought out the best in Maxwell too. "I suspect that of all the writers I edited, I was most influenced by Sylvia...I think that what you are infinitely charmed by you can't help unconsciously imitating." In these letters they wrote about everything that amused, moved, and perplexed themthe physical world, personal relationships, the New York City blackout, the Cuban missile crisis, their ceaseless reading, the coming of old age. Gratitude and love are on every page. Not to mention pleasure and delight.
About the Author:
Michael Steinman is the editor the Happiness of Getting it Down Right: Letters of William Maxwell and Frank O'Connor. He lives in Melville, New York.
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Maxwell to Warner, July 18, 1938:
A long time ago I read a narrative poem of yours about a woman who had a green thumb [Rebecca Random of Opus 7]. I was suddenly reminded of it today when Miss Louise Bogan, who, as perhaps you know, is a poet who does critical articles about poetry for The New Yorker, sent me your poem about the man walking through the apple tree ["The Man in the Tree"]. Miss Bogan thinks it's a fine poem, and so do I. And what I want to know is, would there be any chance of The New Yorker's getting some verse from you?
Warner to Maxwell, February 4, 1939:
I hope very much that I shall be coming to New York for the Writers' Congress in May. I look forward to meeting The New Yorker if I do.
Maxwell to Warner, June 13, 1939:
I should like very much to have lunch with you and talk about possible pieces for The New Yorker.
Warner to Maxwell, June 27, 1939:
Here is the piece about my mother, and the poem about the wolves.
Thank you very much for sending on your letter and the ms which I forgot to take.
I promise to leave my hat next time.
Maxwell to Warner July 14, 1939:
I'm sorry you're leaving New York for various reasons. Your mere proximity was a pleasure. In any case, we hope to have poetry, casuals, sculpture and Gregorian chants turning up in our mail.
Warner to Maxwell, August 30, 1939:
I have been in a hundred minds about whether or no to go back to Europe. Now it looks as though Mr Chamberlain were having some more fun with nettles, so I feel less inclined to hurry back. This means that if you like to leave the matter of the auctioneer poem for a couple of weeks I could then come and work it out in the office. I would rather do this myself.
Warner to Maxwell, September 2, 1939:
My address, so I am told by my host, will be Celo, North Carolina. But I can't believe this is enough, so please ring up the Viking Press for it. I am sending them the exact address tomorrow, when I can get it from my host. I shall be there for a fortnight. After that I make no plansthough I would rather stay in U.S. if my soul will let me.
Maxwell to Warner, September 5, 1939:
If your soul shows signs of becoming self-sacrificial or even patriotic, catch the first train to New York and I'll drop everything to argue you out of it.
Maxwell to Warner, September 29, 1939:
It was as I suspected: Mr. Ross thinks the revisions are fine, and a check is enclosed. Two checks do not make a flood, I suppose, but they certainly indicate rising waters, so please give up worrying about plumbing and other matters in that house in England.
Warner to Maxwell, September 30, 1939:
I really must tell you what a delightful day I had yesterday. In the morning I got a cheque for 285 dollars from The New Yorker. In the evening I dined at Giovanni's, saw Katharine Cornell act and met her afterwards; and when I came home I found a cheque for 54 dollars from The New Yorker. I feel that this is one of my best lyrics.
After this no type is sufficiently small and cringing, no ribbon faded enough, to add that I am sailing for England on the Manhattan, Oct. 4th. It seems that in the depths of my being I am an unappeasable idiot. I have the profoundest doubts about this war. I don't feel that it is being fought against Nazidom, and while Chamberlain is around I doubt it will be. And I can't suppose that going back will better it or me. But for all that I feel that my responsibilities are there, not here, and an unacted responsibility is worse than nettlerash.
But even if you think me an idiot, please don't think me ungrateful. I am extremely grateful for the kindness of The New Yorker, and for your kindness. And I hope I shall go on sending you contributions, to do that would be a real mitigation of the sort of regrets I shall undoubtedly feel when I'm back.
Warner to Maxwell, October 24, 1939:
And exactly as I expected, my evacuees welcomed me with cries of Thank God you're safe at last! So far, they are perfectly right and justified. I could not be safer in the Metropolitan Museum. Everything here looks unreally green and peaceful. It is rather like being in that section of hell where Dante met Moses and Plato and Lucan, and all that lot.
Warner to Maxwell, October 29, 1939:
You see I keep my promises, and here is a possible story for The New Yorker ["A Viking Strain"]. As it has its eye on Christmas, if you do decide to do it, will you please deal with any questions and revisions in proof for me? I know I shall always be at ease with any alterations you make.
The luminous dogs are true.
I'm sorry to send the typescript without a shirt-front, but one is thrifty with paper.
Maxwell to Warner, December 8, 1939:
I have a kind of an egg-shell (snow-white) that I put over my head and that makes it possible for me to dictate rejection letters without getting too low in my mind, but this time it didn't work. There may be a crack in it, but I have looked at "A Viking Strain" (which we have all read and like and would have thought perfectly usable had it come in late in September) steadily for two weeks trying to get up enough gimp to send it back to you. Because it's so charming, and because I don't quite know how to explain to you what you must never have noticed, probably, and that is, you are the founder of a school of fiction. The stories about your mother began it, I think, and now there are a number of English writers who approach contemporary problems through the eyes of the tiny English village that you brought to life. It's become the established way of writing about England's problems, and (strangely) even creeps into the London Letter, now that Miss Flanner is on this side of the water. It's still a good way of dealing with England's problems, of course, but while you were turning around three times before settling down in Dorset with your evacuees and your New Zealand (not New England) spinach, we've been flooded by stories like "A Viking Strain," the only difference being that they were not half so well done.
If it were a substantial and at least partially rounded narrative, it would have done, no doubt, but the interest of course lies chiefly in the country point of view toward the war, and the country perpetrator, both of which are familiar to us (we are so dreadfully informed, as you know, and can tell at least three days ahead of the actual moment of invasion when any European nation is going to be invaded) now.
I'm sending the ms. back by boat and trust that it won't be damp when it reaches you. And I hope and trust that I've not permanently confused you by my remarks on the state of contemporary English letters. The thing is if you do a rounded story, you're safe from the journalistic boys and girls, who seize upon things like the luminous dogs, and with that and very little else make a just possible story for The New Yorker. When you really square off (as with "Plutarco Roo") nobody can touch you or anticipate so much as a word, or a semicolon.
P.S. Shirt-fronts aren't in the least necessary, and I hope you are parsimonious with paper from inclination and not from necessity. But if paper is scarce over there, for one war reason or another, it certainly isn't here, and we'd be enchanted to send you a box. Just say the word.
Maxwell to Warner, December 29, 1939:
After the first of March you will probably be hearing from Mr. [Gustave S.] Lobrano instead of me. Before I came to work here three years ago I used to do a little writing and I'm going now and do some more. One of the utter pleasures of working on The New Yorker has been writing and seeing and talking to you. Though shyness prevented my saying so while you were here, as long as I can remember I've loved your books, especially The True Heart, and so many things out of them have become part and parcel of my life. For example, only the other night the angelic mother of one of my friends was fiercely defending the Standard Oil Company, and inevitably and for the hundredth time I thought of your little girl who realized that nobody ever felt sorry for wolves.
When you come again to Carthage, will you drop me a note, care of The New Yorker? I shall more than likely be in New York and it would be such a pleasure to see you.
Warner to Maxwell, January 31, 1940:
I am extremely sorry to hear that you are not staying with The New Yorker. If it were not that I so much sympathise with your reason for going I should find myself looking on your departure as a personal tragedy and nothing else. First I lose Mrs White, then you. I shall feel that The New Yorker is staffed with gazelles. I suppose that when I have learned to love Mr Lobranoperhaps it would be more befitting to say when I have taught Mr Lobrano to love mehe too will be snatched away. Ora thought equally gloomyMr Lobrano and I may not transcend the ordinary relations of editor and contributor.
But subduing my baser naturejust as I did about that farm in Maine that Mrs White went off toI do very sincerely hope that you will have a lovely time writing. If it goes well there's no pleasure on earth to compare with it, and even when it doesn't it is an enthralling dissatisfaction; and I think you are doing just right.
It is very pleasant to have you saying such nice things about my writing, when you have been a writer as long as I have you will know how very reviving it is to hear such things. It is not merely one's pride and vanity that is eased, but a queer sort of sense of responsibility, like finding that some tree one planted and cared for and quitted is getting its proper pruning from a new owner. Being a writer makes one a ghost before one's timethe kind of ghost that likes a libation. Waror rather a state of things that antedates warmakes one feel more ghostly still; and so your words were doubly welcome.
I hope I shall come again to Carthage, I certainly intend to. Be sure I will let you know if and when I do, for I should like another meeting very much. If you ever feel inclined to write letters I should like to know where you are, and what the view from your window is, and how you are doing. And please let me know when you have a book out.
Maxwell to Warner, March 15, 1940:
I have all but one foot out of the office, but continue to work a little each day on manuscripts, and will for another month and a half, with the mornings free to work out my own salvation. Your last letter couldn't have pleased me more if it had been printed on Joseph Smith's golden plates instead of grey stationery. But you must not grow anxious about The New Yorker. I've been eating out of Mr. Lobrano's hand for years, and always with pleasure. I'm sure you have nothing to worry about.
The view you asked about, the view from my window, consists of treetops, ailanthus tree-tops, a courtyard, and a six-story box factory with fire escapes that descend in alternating musical scales, and with windows that I know the way I know my own face. There is also a drain that all the alley cats in the neighborhood pass in and out of, sooner or later. My apartment is cheerful and bright as a birdcage, and seems a good enough place to write in, with no dogs, no friends, no relations, no refugees. Only a straggling pot of ivy to worry over.
I wrote slowly and it may be years before there's a new book to send you and so I'm shipping under separate cover an old one [They Came Like Swallows]. It was published in England but for some strange reason they put the first line of every chapter in caps, big ones, so that chapters begin: "THE GRASS UNDER THEIR FEET WAS trampled ..." I'm sending you the American edition. If you find it hard going don't chew on it. Life is too short to read books you don't like.
Warner to Maxwell, April 3, 1940:
How very kind of you to send me your book. Sometimes book-sending is a miscarrying kindness, for it is very painful to receive the gift of some one's spiritual child and then to be forced to say one doesn't think much of it; but your present is an unqualified kindness, for I like the book very much indeed.
I do admire you so much for being able to write as a grown-up person about children. Too many people jump that problem by writing about children childishly; sometimes it's not too bad but it's never satisfying, one smells the expedient all the time like an oniony knife. At first I thought: Well, this Bunny is the achievement; but Robert is even better, especially Robert on the roof. And the slightly abrupt perspective of the grown-up characters, seen as one used to see grown-ups, is admirable.
Indeed I congratulate you; both on this book and on the others you will write. As for the Spanish influenza, you have added (and really I did not think it was possible) another cubit to the stature of my horror of pestilence. You must have had fun with that, the first creaking ominous orchestration of that theme.
Warner to Maxwell, November 4, 1946:
It was extremely kind of you to have Faber send me your book [The Folded Leaf], thank you very much for it.
It has impressed me a great deal. I think it is beautifully done and more than that I think it is seriously and formidably done. Certainly when I saw a number of well-established gentlemen of all sizes and demeanours all with their shirts hanging down over their trousers appearing as confidently as the stars in the foyer of the Yale theatre I sensedafter my first wild rush to the assumption that they would come on somehow in the second actthat there was more to it than, for instance, to Eton's Pop; but your book has made me understand the well-established gentlemen have every reason to look confidentif lineage is a reason for confidence as well as for fear.
It is always dangerous to tell authors that one book is better than another; but I will take the risk, and say that I think that this is a great advance on the Swallows. I am glad it has been so well appreciated in your country, and I hope it will do as well with readers here.
Maxwell to Warner, May 26, 1947:
You never complain about shortages that must make your life difficult, and I sometimes wonder if there is something like bath soap or canned tomatoes that we could send you to brighten the corner where you are. If there is, will you tell me?
P.S. Also, there is something that you ought to know about the gentleman named A. B. [a literary agent] which I am not professionally free to tell you until July first, at which time I will be very happy to. On that date I am leaving The New Yorker once more (presumably for good although the last time the cat came back) in order to retire into the country and finish another novel. So, much as I'd enjoy having you under my wing, emotionally and actually, I won't be able to. But let us not depend on publishers' announcements for news of one another.
Warner to Maxwell, May 30, 1947:
If you had heard the cry of distress that broke from me when I read that you are leaving The New Yorker on July 1 you would have begun to know what a good editor you are. If it were not that you were going to finish another novel I don't think I could be magnanimous enough to send you my best wishes for a happy retirement. As it is I ache in every limb with the strain of being so selfless. Indeed and seriously, I am sorrier than I can say.
Maxwell to Warner, June 13, 1947:
And now, lest you forget that the relationship between editor and writer can be as wearing as anything in the Old Testament, I have to tell you that the decision is against "The Finches of Abracadabra." As you know, Mr. Ross loves the Finch stories, but this one seemed a little too allusive for the readers of this magazine, many of whom, I'm afraid, are under the impression that English literature began with Scott Fitzgerald and reached its peak with Thomas Wolfe.
I'm glad you think I am a good editor even though a still small voice tells me that there is no such thing for writers of quality and that they should be left strictly to their own devices. I'm glad also that life in England is not as Spartan as the papers would lead us to believe. I would have been perfectly miserable in Sparta, and I can't help suspecting that the Spartans were also. Otherwise they would have left the Athenians alone.
Maxwell to Warner, May 16, 1948:
Anyone who was weaned, as I was, on your stories will not be surprised to have the police suddenly break in and arrest a nice young man ["Under New Management"].
Staying at home the last eight months I've finished another novel [Time Will Darken It] which I suspect to be far from crystal clear and I suppose that is one of the charms of the form, that one can be vague as to one's intentions and collect royalties from all the people one has left floundering. Before I die I hope to convince Mr. Ross that the way to handle all such matters in The New Yorker is to print the stories as they are written and simply run footnotes disposing of all knotty questions.
Warner to Maxwell, May 16, 1948:
Last May, I think, it was Mr Lobrano's break-down which fetched you back. This year, it is Mrs. White's operation. I am sure I wish her a comfortable unhurried recoveryit is always a mistake to scamper through a convalescence: sooner or later one won't have a convalescence, and then how one will regret having slighted those one did havebut if I had the evil eye it would be very wrong of you to give me such provocation to swivel it round to West 43rd Street whenever I chanced to yearn for a little variety and a breath of old times.
Do you like having finished a novel? It would be a very philanthropic state of mind on your part, since you write good ones; but I shall not congratulate you on your condition until I have your word for it that you would not prefer my condolences.
For my part, you can send me as many black-edged wreaths as you like. I finished one months ago [The Corner That Held Them], and can't quite forgive myself for having been such a damned improvident maniac. Nobody really wanted it but me, and now I've gone and parted with it.
Warner to Maxwell, December 3, 1948:
Your book [Time Will Darken It] came, and I certainly did not think of it as a boomerang. I began to read it, and soon saw that it was the kind of a book I like (how grateful I was to you for that calm openingthere is nothing I dislike more than opening pages that give me the feeling I have arrived, late and alone, at a party where everybody is rather drunk); but by the time I'd finished it I had the admiring sensation that something had hit mea very well contained and well delivered blow.
I hope you realise what an extremely powerful book it is. It will be a long time before I get Oedipus Austin King out of my mind; and by that time I shall want to re-read it. It is full of admirable things: Nora Potter is exquisitely right, especially her mashed departure, which is a stroke of genius; and Randolph's major domo demeanour in calamity, and Ab, who is really supernaturally true, and the shift of colour and smell from the King's house to the Danforths' house; and the many small polished cat-clawings, such as old Mr. Ellis knowing a surprising amount about the boll weevil; and that hallowed passage on visits that last over four days; but the thing I really praise you for is the management of form and pace, and the decorum with which you conduct these people into their torments. A sheepdog could not have done it better!
I do indeed praise and admire you for this book. Instead of remarking that I wish more people wrote like this I shall be candid enough to say I'm thankful they don't. I would hate to smudge the smallest parcel of my pleasure in your writing.
Warner to Maxwell, April 29, 1950:
At the moment I am feeling quite reconciled to the rest of the human race (with the usual exceptions, of course) and I shall look forward to hearing from Miss Busey. Even if I were in a state of the blackest misanthropy I should like to meet the person who first introduced you to my books, since that was a preliminary oil to being introduced to you myselfby myself, as I remember; and then I have never yet met anyone called Garetta, and yet further I have never to my knowledge met a Bahai. I used to see them in the past, going rather barefootedly towards a meeting-hall in Kensington that bore a placard saying
Bahai Breathings 5.30 Wednesdays and Saturdays.
I frequently wondered just how one breathed in that way, but I never had the enterprise, or the intrepidity, to walk in and find out for myself. Now that you have told me that they are sweet-tempered and Persian and religious I think that the lady in the green chemise who was also tending towards the Breathings must have been a priestess of the sect. It was in the middle of the season, at a season when green chemises are even more striking than they would be in mid-winter, when one wears anything that comes handy. It was semi-transparent, came halfway down her shins, and was accompanied by sandals and a string bag, and beneathno, inside it, was the lady. She was strolling along very tranquilly and no one was paying her the slightest attention. All that was in the twenties, when London really was a metropolis, and just about the date when my wine-merchant remarked to me that if anyone liked to build a high wall round Bayswater (the quarter where the wine-merchant and I were living) he would have the finest lunatic asylum in Europe.
I have an earlier letter of yours on my deska very kind onethat has waited a long time to be answered. I meant to answer it from Paris, where you read the reviews of Time Will Darken It and realised that nobody had understood your beautiful bookin Paris, of all places. Buy no reviewers ever understand one's books; and if they praise them, they understand them even less. Praising reviewers are like those shopwomen who thrust a hat on one's head, a hat that is like the opening of the Judgement scroll in which all one's sins are briefly and dispassionately entered, and then stand back and say that it is exactly the hat that Modom needs to bring out her face. I have never yet had a praising review that did not send me slinking and howling under my breath to kneel in some dark corner and pray that the Horn would sound for me and the Worms come for me, that very same night. The horn doesn't and the worms don't, and somehow one recovers one's natural powers of oblivion, and goes on writing.
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