The Washington Post
William Maxwell: A Literary Lifeby Barbara A. Burkhardt
Known as a beloved, longtime fiction editor at The New Yorker, William Maxwell worked closely with such legendary writers as Vladimir Nabokov, John Updike, Mary McCarthy, and John Cheever. His own novels include They Came Like Swallows and the American Book Award-winning So Long, See You Tomorrow, and many consider him to be one of the/i>/i>/i>
Known as a beloved, longtime fiction editor at The New Yorker, William Maxwell worked closely with such legendary writers as Vladimir Nabokov, John Updike, Mary McCarthy, and John Cheever. His own novels include They Came Like Swallows and the American Book Award-winning So Long, See You Tomorrow, and many consider him to be one of the twentieth century's most important writers. Barbara Burkhardt's William Maxwell: A Literary Life represents the first major critical study of this Illinois writer's life and work.
Writing with an economy and elegance befitting her subject, Burkhardt addresses Maxwell's highly autobiographical fiction by skillfully interweaving his biography with her own critical interpretations. She contextualizes his fiction in terms of events including his mother's early death from influenza, his marriage, and the role of his psychoanalysis under the guidance of Theodor Reik. Drawing on a wide range of previously unavailable material, Burkhardt includes letters Maxwell received from authors such as Eudora Welty and Louise Bogan, excerpts from his unpublished manuscripts and correspondence, and her own interviews with Maxwell and key figures from his life, including John Updike, Roger Angell, New Yorker fiction editor Robert Henderson, and Maxwell's family and friends.
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William MaxwellA Literary Life
By BARBARA BURKHARDT
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESSCopyright © 2005 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.
IntroductionTHE FIRST PAGE William Maxwell pulled from his typewriter at the start of our many interviews explained what compelled him to write:
I have a melancholy feeling that all human experience goes down the drain, or to put it more politely, ends in oblivion, except when somebody records some part of his own experience-which can of course be the life that goes on in his mind and imagination as well as what he had for breakfast. In a very small way I have fought this, by trying to recreate in a form that I hoped would have some degree of permanence the character and lives of people I have known and loved. Or people modeled on them. To succeed this would have to move the reader as I have been moved. This is the intricate, in and out, round and round, now direct and now indirect process that comes under the heading of literary art.
For Maxwell, this process was guided by a historical imagination, a desire to make successive inquiries into the past. He often wrote of his native Lincoln, Illinois as it was before his mother's premature death during the 1918 influenza epidemic. Yet even as he sought to preserve memories, he continually refigured and reexamined them. They became a consistentsource of material as he developed new fictional practices and challenged the bounds of the novel form.
Many American readers discovered Maxwell in the mid-1980s when Godine Press revived his work in elegant paperback editions graced by the cover art of his younger daughter, Brookie. More took notice in the 1990s when Random House reissued sixty years of his fiction and nonfiction in its Vintage International series. His death in Manhattan in July 2000, at age ninety-one, made the front pages of The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune, both of which made high claims for his place in twentieth-century literature, claims repeated in publications across the country and abroad. Readers curious about the universal praise for this quiet, underappreciated author found a collection of writing that vividly preserves the past and earns a permanent place in American letters with its powerful embrace of emotional experience and the beauty of its precise prose style.
Maxwell devoted his literary life to a dual exploration of his own history and the nature of fiction. He was first inspired by writers such as Virginia Woolf, E. M. Forster, and James Joyce, who were at the height of their powers when he came of age in the 1920s at the University of Illinois. His was a quiet yet dynamic literary path-a sustained effort to follow where his material led him. Through the decades, he experimented with narrative technique, bringing new form to his subjects as his view of them evolved over time. Early on, Woolf and company stirred him to create a distinctive form of the tradition-breaking Modernism they practiced: He brought tough subjectivity, in-depth psychological probing, and unremitting intensity to the substance of his life and Midwestern homeland. Then, in small stages over many decades, he pushed past his own practice to arrive at a distinctive form of American Postmodernism that questions and foregrounds how we come to understand the past, challenges how we can ever know what "really" happened, and candidly addresses the artist's struggle to capture the human condition. He explored and preserved his experience over decades yet found within it ever-changing possibilities. His work charts not only a journey through life but also the unfolding and deepening of artistic nature.
Maxwell remained loyal to his own terrain and sensibilities, maintaining a disciplined commitment that prevailed through literary trends and movements of the popular culture. Distinguished by its intimate, domestic focus, his work eschews the political, penetrates with raw emotion, regards people with prodigious empathy and respect, and yet assesses them astutely, with mature, distanced wisdom. Each of his works brings new form, new possibilities to his signature subjects-childhood and family life, the Midwest, the agony and acceptance of loss-while navigating the delicate balance between human will and fragility, between the concurrent tragedy and privilege of living. By the end of his career, he had spent more than fifty years exploring the interpenetration of life and art, melding the two most compellingly in his 1980 novel So Long, See You Tomorrow-the apex of his literary achievement, published when he was seventy-one.
Exploring the Past
Maxwell's life and works, like those of Joyce and Woolf, are closely entwined. Through seven decades of novels and stories, he never ceased to find new meaning in the places, people, and events that shaped him. Even after So Long, See You Tomorrow, a book that could stand as a summation of his autobiographical inquiries, he continued to uncover fresh layers, even startling revelations, in the late Billie Dyer and Other Stories (1992). Of course, authors have used personal experience as the basis for fiction throughout literary history-most obviously since Proust, as Maxwell pointed out to George Plimpton-but few have done so to such sustained effect. Roger Angell noted in 1996 that although other writers may have even stronger connections to the past, no other "shows it or uses it to such an advantage. It seems such a clear line from a writer, now in his 80s, back to the child Bill Maxwell, and the boy Bill Maxwell. And he's never tried to cover that up, or to be a contemporary person at the expense of what he has been or what his connections are, what he draws on for his fiction. It's quite remarkable. I can't think of any other writer in whom that seems to be as clear."
Although we can understand Maxwell's novels without realizing that ten-year-old Bunny in They Came Like Swallows (1937), Lymie in The Folded Leaf (1945), Harold Rhodes in The Chateau (1961), and the elderly narrator in So Long, See You Tomorrow (1980) all derive from the writer's memories of his own experience at various stages, our reading of his work is enriched by recognizing this. At least one critic has noted that They Came Like Swallows, The Folded Leaf, and The Chateau serve as a Maxwell trilogy portraying a child, adolescent, and adult in sequence. The author did not intend for his novels to create this effect. In fact, he resisted writing sequels; most "aren't as good as the original book," he wrote to his father in 1944. Yet a reader cannot help but notice that little Bunny who loses his mother in the first novel could have developed into Lymie Peters, the sensitive, motherless adolescent of the second, who, in maturity, could have resembled the introspective Harold Rhodes, the transplanted Midwesterner who travels with his wife to France after World War II in the third. In the narrator of So Long, See You Tomorrow we see their aged counterpart, the definitive Maxwell persona who, with wise and distanced retrospection, meditates on his childhood and his mother's death, the span of years that have brought him to advanced age, and what it has meant to him to be alive.
Perhaps no body of American writing so fully captures the development of one person from childhood through advanced years. The full stretch of Maxwell's works witnesses the psychological intricacies of a life that spanned most of the twentieth century-a deepening self-knowledge, a retrieving and reshaping of private experience, and breakthroughs in understanding personal history that can come only with age.
Some may consider heavy reliance on autobiographical material a weakness in fiction: Charles Shattuck, a lifelong friend and noted Shakespeare scholar, obliged Maxwell's occasional requests for literary advice and discouraged the return to autobiographical themes in his late career. The author himself told me that he admired fiction writers who do not seem dependent on their own lives for material, yet he thought that they were more dependent than they appeared. He came to believe, more and more strongly as he aged, that daily life produced patterns that could not be improved upon. Although secure in his artistic choices, he seemed resigned to the possibility that autobiographical fiction may be perceived as somehow limited in literary scope.
With Maxwell's work, however, this is not the case: Ongoing self-exploration inspired some of his most powerful literature. The act of returning over and again to the stuff of an individual life over many decades, of maintaining a consistent set of personal concerns, allowed him to explore inner life and the nature of memory. His body of fiction reflects what we all do: repeatedly revisit our past, our childhood, our emotions, the things that matter to us. Perceptions and attitudes evolve while the material of the past, the emotional core, stays constant; our minds create myriad variations on personal themes in a lifetime's course.
The strength of Maxwell's work derives in large part from his decision to stay the course with his own material through an unusually long creative life. As a writer, he saw his childhood from myriad angles over his lifespan, as if going by it on a train, while we observe from a level once removed. Through his eyes, we view his past experience from various vantage points yet also witness how he responds to his memories differently over time. His autobiographically based characters represent every stage of the human cycle and reflect how the mind deals with daily life at every phase of development: from the boy who lives intensely in each moment and sees the world through the patterns and textures of his mother's home to the seventy-year-old man who experiences the opening of memory so that the past and present meet, stretched before him like the land and sky of his Midwestern landscape.
On a broader level, the series of Maxwell's autobiographically based characters offers a view of one American's trip through the twentieth century: A child of World War I, devastated by the Spanish influenza epidemic, faces social changes that displace the gentler, small-town world he knew. An adolescent struggles to find his way in a Midwestern college in the late 1920s. A native Midwesterner travels to France for the first time shortly after World War II. A New Yorker raises his two daughters on the Upper East Side at midcentury or relives his past on an analyst's couch. An elderly man finds clarity and comfort in memory as the next millennium approaches. Although Maxwell sustains his focus on inner experience and everyday nuances, his novels and stories render much of the texture of the twentieth century; we see how historical, cultural, and intellectual movements play out in the minds of his characters. Through each succeeding inquiry, he arrives at further insights that satisfy far more than a quest for self-knowledge. With intelligence and deceptive simplicity, he lays bare the tragedies, joys, and truths of a broad range of human experience.
Exploring the Art of Fiction
Maxwell's quest to preserve his childhood past, indeed to preserve all pasts from the ravages of time, led him to examine the nature of his life's work: the art of fiction. He began his career writing novels focused exclusively through his characters' perspectives without a narrator's commentary. Bright Center of Heaven (1934) shifts quickly between different characters' minds; They Came Like Swallows (1937) restricts each section to a single perspective. The purely introspective concentration illumines characters through both their understanding of the world and the limitations of that understanding. In both novels, action unfolds chronologically and in the second work is formally segmented, with no sign of the fluid movement of time found in his late fiction. Influenced by Modernists who were writing when he came of age, he composed this earliest work-particularly Bright Center of Heaven-in a more lyrical, less streamlined style.
The Folded Leaf (1945) introduces an intervening narrator, a sensitive yet objective voice Maxwell uses to universalize characters and situations through anthropological and classical allusions. In Time Will Darken It (1948), he expands these meditations by expounding on observations and ideas of importance to him, by using the narrator to state expressly the fundamental themes of his fiction. Time flows chronologically, yet these works are somewhat less structured: The narrator freely interjects his commentaries, and in the second novel conversations dictate progression, resulting in a freer, more relaxed pace.
In his work of the 1960s and 1970s, Maxwell makes the transition to first-person narration and drops the chronological timeline in favor of a new fluidity between past and present. Throughout most of The Chateau (1961), the only novel of this period, he continues with the style of narration found in his two previous works. Indeed, the narrator of The Folded Leaf or Time Will Darken It seems to have left the early-century Midwest to oversee a couple's postwar European adventure. However, the novel's brief epilogue makes the quick but essential switch that points his work in a new direction. Leaving behind the limitations of his characters' perceptions, he introduces a first-person narrator, an authorial figure who steps from behind the facade of fiction to reveal what really happened, what the French were really like. Although the Americans try to learn about their French hosts by examining the evidence, answers ultimately lie in the narrator's fictionalizing. For the first time, Maxwell lays bare the nature of his art, a method fully realized in So Long, See You Tomorrow and his late short fiction.
In 1963, two years after The Chateau appeared, Maxwell published "The Value of Money," his first work told completely from a first-person perspective and in a voice similar to that of the late Maxwell narrator. However, it is in the nonfiction Ancestors, a blend of family chronicle and autobiography, that he more fully develops the familiar narrator who shares both his history and his sensibility. After earlier aborted attempts at first-person storytelling, he was finally satisfied with a narrator who unifies generations of family stories while including his own, who explains his artistic focus on the minute details of human interaction and suggests a relationship between writing and history. The ancestral material also prompted Maxwell to free himself from chronology for the first time, to transition smoothly back and forth between past generations, between their times and his own.
So Long, See You Tomorrow represents the culmination of Maxwell's evolving literary technique and his final point of departure from Modernist methods. Here, he masters the first-person perspective and refines the voice of his wise narrator, one of his most vivid characters.
Excerpted from William Maxwell by BARBARA BURKHARDT Copyright © 2005 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Barbara Burkhardt is an associate professor of English and a University Scholar at the University of Illinois at Springfield. A close acquaintance of William Maxwell, she organized his correspondence for the Maxwell archives at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
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