William Maxwell: “He used a pause better than most of us use a paragraph.”
By Cynthia Haven
“I never felt sophisticated,” the erudite and elderly Midwesterner explained to NPR’s Terry Gross in 1995. His modesty is certainly one reason why William Maxwell remains a connoisseur’s writer, never achieving the wider recognition he deserves.
Yet Maxwell’s career was situated at the epicenter of American literature and letters: On staff at the New Yorker from 1936 to 1975, he was the editor of J.D. Salinger, Vladimir Nabokov, Eudora Welty, Frank O’Connor, John Cheever, and many other luminaries. He also contributed regularly to the magazine’s reviews and columns, and continued to do so until 1999, a year before his death.
Maxwell wrote six novels, many short stories, a memoir, two books for children, and about 40 short, whimsical pieces, which he called “improvisations.” Three volumes of letters have also been published.
His masterpiece, So Long, See You Tomorrow, will be the inaugural book for “Another Look,” a new book club launched by the English department at Stanford. On Monday, November 12, award-winning novelist and Professor of English Tobias Wolff will discuss the book with Bay Area novelist, journalist, and editor Vendela Vida and Assistant Professor of English Vaughn Rasberry, to be followed by an audience discussion. The short novel was originally published in two parts in the New Yorker in 1976.
Others have readily compensated for Maxwell’s modesty. Christopher Carduff, editor of the Library of America edition of the author’s complete works, once called him “a kind, wise, quiet voice. One of the essential American voices of our time.”
“I don’t think he tried very hard to promote himself,” said writer Benjamin Cheever, son of novelist John Cheever, in a telephone interview. “He was very, very quiet – both as a public person and as a conversationalist. He used a pause better than most of us use a paragraph.”
“He lived for art, its appreciation as well as its creation,” wrote John Updike in The New Yorker. “His shapely, lively, gently rigorous memoirs, out of the abundance of heartfelt writing he bestowed on posterity, are most like being with Bill in life, at lunch in midtown or at home in the East Eighties, as he intently listened, and listened, and then said, in his soft dry voice, exactly the right thing.”
A “company man”
The path of Maxwell’s life took few sharp turns. He was born in Lincoln, Illinois, on August 16, 1908. His professional life was almost entirely bound up with the New Yorker, where he worked for four decades – in a sense, he became the “company man” his father would have approved.
After an intensely long and lonely bachelorhood, he married the most beautiful woman he had ever met. Their marriage lasted until her death, a week before his own. He and Emily (universally called “Emmy”) had two daughters – the first born when he was 46.
His work habits were relentlessly predictable: According to his daughter Katharine Maxwell, he was consistently in bed at 10 p.m., and up at 6 a.m. He didn’t like the superficial chitchat of cocktail parties. He excused himself abruptly from dinner parties at 9.45 p.m. – he wanted to be fresh to write the next morning.
About four-fifths of his oeuvre is set in or around his hometown. Thanks to him, Lincoln has become a landmark as indelible as Hannibal, Missouri, in the annals of American literature.
“The shine went out of everything”
There was one defining peak on the otherwise rather flat landscape of Maxwell’s life: his mother’s death in the 1918 influenza epidemic, when he was 10. He never really got over it; almost all his friends and acquaintances speak about it when recalling him.
“He couldn’t speak of her without tears welling up in his eyes,” recalled his daughter, Katharine Maxwell. She said it resulted in a sort of flinty atheism, a grudge almost – “yet he said he thought God could write a better story than he could.”
Maxwell’s friend and fellow writer at the New Yorker, Alec Wilkinson, described him as “melancholy-minded.” Said Wilkinson: “His mother’s death stamped him forever with an awareness of the fragility of human happiness. It kept him away from any religions. I remember him saying that ‘no one can fail to be astonished by creation – that’s as far as I’m going to go as to a governing faculty to the universe.’”
The narrator of So Long, See You Tomorrow, a novel that seamlessly blends fiction and memoir, recounts the loss that was the watershed of Maxwell’s childhood—perhaps of his whole life. As Maxwell explained in a 1995 interview with Charlie Rose, “I felt the need to put things back the way they were before. I couldn’t do it literally, but I could put it in the pages of a book. And so I did. I put the people back, I put the places back. Often I put her back.”
“When she died, the shine went out of everything and stayed out for a long, long while,” he told Rose. “I couldn’t really manage without her, so I managed – this is in the realm of the unconscious – to incorporate her personality into my own. I have friends who think they are fond of me but really they are fond of my mother.”
Benjamin Cheever observed that what others see as melancholy runs counter to a modern society that is indefatigably upbeat. “Now, we’re increasingly inclined to think of joy and success as what’s important and what we cherish, and get back to it as fast as we can – ‘I gotta be happy today.’ But he knew the little tragedies in life are as important as the victories. It was all right to be sad. It was okay. He understood that, he never lost that sense of darkness, a sense of shadow.”
“Fierce as a blacksmith.”
When J.D. Salinger finished Catcher in the Rye, he drove to the Maxwells’ house in the country and, over the course of a single afternoon and evening, read the manuscript to them as they sat on the porch together.
That’s an indication of his stature as an editor, and how much his writers valued him. Eudora Welty wrote: “For fiction writers, he was the headquarters.” Maxwell felt that being a good editor made him a better writer.
For much of his life, he worked at the New Yorker for three days a week, and wrote at home for four. According to Wilkinson, his discipline and schedule were demanding, “but he wanted a family, too. It meant everything to him. He wanted both.”
“We didn’t have to be particularly quiet,” Katharine Maxwell recalled. “In fact, I practiced piano six inches away from him when he was working. He wasn’t distant. He was a gentle father most of the time.”
Gentle most of the time, but not always. “A couple times I hit the disapproval button and it was scalding,” said Wilkinson. “I didn’t do something he wanted me to do, and he burst out with a withering remark. Buddha came over and whacked you. He had a fierce temper, very, very rarely enacted. He certainly wasn’t saintly. You have got to remember that he was fierce as a blacksmith.”
Katie Maxwell recalls the same fierceness when she told him she wanted to become an opera singer. Though he loved opera, he was furious and told her he would despise her if she chose such a career – and added that she didn’t have the talent, anyway. His words left their mark.
Although he was around “more than most fathers are,” recalled his daughter, he said he had felt that he “put more effort into raising my writers than raising the children,” she said. “It was disappointing to feel we did not get that.”
Typical of the kind of attention that writers received was this 1993 letter, which Cheever read aloud at a 2008 commemorative event:
Yes, all you have to do is work very hard. I have never known good things not to come of it, and I am all the better for work habits. I feel I’m engaged in a struggle, with whom or with what I am not sure. For your soul. If I win, as an old man you will look back kindly on your life and say to yourself, “To think, I spent all those years thinking poorly of myself. How unnecessary.”
So Long, See You Tomorrow
So Long, See You Tomorrow tells the story of an adulterous affair in rural Illinois that results in a murder, and the effect of that murder on two boys – one of whom, in old age, narrates the story. Truth or fiction?
“There was a real murder, there was a real boy, and a real encounter. From there it all departs,” said Wilkinson.
Not quite. The narrator describes the death of his mother, when he was 10:
…I couldn’t understand how it had happened to us. It seemed like a mistake. And mistakes ought to be rectified, only this one couldn’t be. Between the way things used to be and the way they were now was a void that couldn’t be crossed. I had to find an explanation other than the real one, which was that we were no more immune to misfortune than anybody else …
“From my point of view, a great deal of it was autobiography,” said Katharine Maxwell. “I don’t think he invented much in that story.”
For Maxwell, the book was the first he hadn’t written on a 4/3 schedule, writing from start to finish without duties at the New Yorker. “It’s superlative writing. It exemplifies my feeling about what storytelling should be,” said Wilkinson.
“Everybody wants to write that kind of American novel – absolutely definitive of time and place with no wallpaper at all. Kind of Homeric. You can imagine a blind storyteller at the crossroads telling you So Long, See You Tomorrow.”
In a career somewhat short on public recognition, the novel was awarded the Howells Medal from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, for the best novel of the previous five years. The first paperback edition was awarded a 1982 National Book Award. It was a finalist for the Pulitzer in 1981.
“Something lifts you up.”
William Maxwell seems to have been old longer than anyone else. What fame he achieved came late, so he is remembered as an elderly sage, the grandfather everyone wishes to have on hand.
In the essay “Nearing Ninety,” he writes:
I have liked remembering almost as much as I have liked living. But now it is different, I have to be careful. I can ruin a night’s sleep by suddenly, in the dark, thinking about some particular time in my life. Before I can stop myself, it is as if I had driven a mineshaft down through layers and layers of the past and must explore, relive, remember, reconsider, until daylight delivers me.
He was epigrammatic, prone to “the kind of gnomic comments found on tombstones and bubblegum wrappers,” said Cheever. Like this one: “The only part of dying that I mind is that when you are dead you can’t read Tolstoy.” On more than one occasion, he described impending death as a long afternoon nap. So death seemed to come quietly – as his health was failing, his wife Emmy was fighting her final battle with cancer.
Friends gathered to read Tolstoy’s War and Peace aloud for him – he would not, as he had suggested, have a chance to read it later. When they finished, they wanted to continue onward to Anna Karenina, but Maxwell had had enough.
“In the end, he was waiting for her to die first. It was a final act of love, a last courtesy,” his friend, the poet Ed Hirsch, wrote. From her bed, Emmy called for champagne for her circle of friends.
“It had a kind of secular holiness to it. Two people facing death with immense courage,” said Wilkinson. “He met death fearlessly. That’s a lifetime’s work to arrive at a place like that. It doesn’t come simply.”
After his wife’s death, Maxwell’s perspective began to shift, according to his daughter Katharine. He described it with Milan Kundera’s phrase, “the unbearable lightness of being.”
The “melancholy-minded” man was melancholy no longer. “He realized something different was happening. He said, ‘I feel like the locusts who leave their skin behind and fly up the trees.’ ”
“He said that all of that stuff he learned in Sunday schools was true. It was very surprising to him – the last thing he was expecting. He said that his understanding was something wonderful. Life is not just pointless, not just about abandonment. Something lifts you up.”
He asked the people around him to sing – including the daughter he had discouraged from an opera career. “Singing is the only thing worth doing,” he told her.
He died on July 21, 2000, two weeks shy of his 92nd birthday. His reputation has grown in the years since.
What would Benjamin Cheever suggest to newcomers to his work? “Open it up and look at it. Read one paragraph a couple of times. I think it can be read like poetry.”
Cynthia Haven has written for the Times Literary Supplement, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, World Literature Today, The Kenyon Review, Quarterly Conversation, and others.