Two early novels by William Maxwell (Part One)

Bright Center of Heaven, by William Maxwell

maxwellCan editors write?

That is not a rhetorical question. As someone who spent more than 25 years in the newspaper business, most of them in editor roles, I can assure you that a lot of very good editors are not very good writers (that’s part of the reason they became editors, I would presume).

And then there are those who can.

William Maxwell was fiction editor of The New Yorker from 1936 to 1975. The writers he worked with include Nabokov, Updike, O’Connor, Gallant, Singer, Welty, Munro — and I have hardly started (oh, did I mention Salinger?). After his death in 2000, a number of them contributed to A William Maxwell Portrait: Memories and Appreciations. While he is well known in writing and academic circles, many serious readers don’t know his work. I certainly did not until some authorly references to the two-volume Libarary of America collection of his work published in 2008 (the centenary of his birth) came to my attention. Even then, it sat on the shelf for several months until an interview with Jayne Anne Phillips on theMookseandtheGripes, citing him as an author of influence, brought him back to mind. I took Vol. 1, the early novels and short stories, off the shelf and am I ever glad I did. This review is the first of two from that volume, dealing with his first novel, Bright Center of Heaven (1934). I will post on his second and much better known, They Came Like Swallows (1937), tomorrow — I still have a number of stories and two more novels to go before I even start Vol. II.

In my opinion, Bright Center of Heaven may qualify as the best, least-read, novel in the American canon (that doesn’t really make sense but I am sure you get my drift). The original press run of 1,000 sold out, a second press-run languished and the book was out of print for more than 70 years until the 2008 Library of America edition pictured in this review. Maxell himself, like many authors on their first works, was not that keen on it — I think it is a wonderful piece. It will get undue attention in this post, since They Came Like Swallows, the other novel to be reviewed, has had a more illustrous hisory. Suffice to say, they are both exceptional pieces of work.

I can understand why both Maxwell and the publishing industry overlooked this novel. In one sense, it is a writing exercise based on a tricky presumption: Can an author create a piece of fiction, with numerous characters, who share only one trait — each is totally self-preoccupied and virtually uninterested in the people around him or her? By my count, there are 11 of these characters in this novel and each of them is developed. Set on an isolated farm/retreat in Wisconsin, the only memories they have of the bigger, outside world are those that feed their particular preoccupation. To this reader’s mind, given my recent reading, this novel is a fascinating prequel to Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn where the author creates a totally passive character, surrounded by people who want to help her.

I won’t attempt to background all those characters, but here are just a few. The farm is owned by the widow, Susan West — it is the start of the Great Depression and she is taking in boarders to make ends meet but her cheerful and hopelessly unbusinesslike approach to guest selection means that most of the farm residents are not paying guests. Susan at breakfast:

As Mrs. West sipped her orange juice, her eyes wandered to the patches of yellow sunlight between the trees and along the fringe of the wood which began just outside the window. The wood was cool and deep and much too quiet. She listened a moment until she heard the reassuring strife of the red-winged blackbirds down in the marsh, and knew that the world was no better and no worse that it had been the day before; that it was, indeed, very much the same.

One of the non-paying boarders is Aunt Amelia, a hypochondriac who has lived on cottage cheese and “very weak tea” for the past three years. Here is her entrance to the book — and the breakfast room:

In another part of the house a door closed. The kitchen door swayed, passing along the information to Mrs. West, who was helping herself to the toast, that Aunt Amelia was coming; that she was crossing the living room; that in a second she would stop on the threshold of the dining room to fasten the breastplate and make sure the helmet of her invulnerable gloom.

Mrs. West has two sons, Trevor aged 18 and Whitey 15, and they too get fully developed. Aunt Amelia is a guardian to Bascomb, who does deserve an excerpt:

Bascomb beamed his gratitude upon her (Mrs. West). “I woke up in a Victorian mood,” he explained, sliding into the place left vacant by Whitey, and picking up crumbs of toast. “I lay there looking at the chamber pot, and the the pitcher and the bowl on the washstand. They all had pink roses on them.” His voice was high and rather unpleasantly nasal. Mrs. West wondered vaguely why it was that Amelia should prefer this strange creature — whose madness was amiable, to be sure, but none the less mad — to her own angels. “Then I got to thinking of the Queen,” Bascomb was saying — “and all of the chamber pots, water-pitchers, wash-bowls, and shaving-mugs in Windsor Palace, each with pink roses on it.”

To this family, add the paying boarders. Nigel, a young actress (her father really, really wanted a son, hence her name) who is tranfixed by thinking she is pregnant by Paul, a former college teacher who quit seven months ago and is still searching for his future (farmer, fruit shop co-owner and writer are all possibilities); Josefa, a not-very talented pianist, who is preparing for a fall concert with the Boston Symphony and Cynthia, an artist hard at work at exploring the relationship on canvas between a pair of oranges (not quite spherical) and an oil can in a painting that does seem to presage Andy Warhol. Throw in a cook who wants to go back to Bavaria to her ailing mother and a farmhand with a bad knee and you have the entire crew. All, I might say, in 166 pages in this edition.

What is so charming about this book is that none of these characters are selfish in the judgmental sense, they are just so pre-occupied with their particuar dilemma that they can’t engage with each other on any significant level. A summary from Paul, the ex-teacher:

It seemed to Paul that a really high-class insane asylum must not be so very different from this. Not so out-of-the-way, perhaps, and without the pleasant landscape. But the inmates could not be much farther from sober sanity than most of the people here. Doubtless in a nuthouse there was less going on, and the inmates were probably allowed to retire from time to time and be free from interruption in their padded cells.

I have gone on at too great length with this bunch, but for a reason. In my life — and I suspect yours — I have run into a version of every one of these characters and the frustration that knowing them produces. In conclusion, I can only hint at the unifying event that pulls this all together: Mrs. West, in her cheerful wisdom, has offered refuge to a black activist (remember, this is the mid-1930s) and his arrival makes this exercise a very real book. Jefferson Carter introduces the real world to the Wisconsin farm asylum and self pre-occupation finds itself threatened — it would be a spoiler to say which wins.

William Maxwell went on to write some very well-regarded novels, one of which I will write about tomorrow. For me, it is wonderful to have discovered him. I know many readers find historical collections such as this Library of America version daunting — in this case, they have brought a very talented writer back to attention. I look forward to reading the rest of his work.

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17 Responses to “Two early novels by William Maxwell (Part One)”

  1. Trevor Says:

    Ever since John reviewed The Ch√Ęteau I’ve been getting ever closer to reading something by Maxwell. Everything said seems to suggest I’d love his work. I’m a little saddened that Bright Center of Heaven seems to be available only in this Library of America edition. I haven’t bought any of their editions, and buying one means I’d have to start buying others to keep it looking nice on a shelf.

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Maxwell is one of those authors (like Sherwood Anderson) who I think need to be read because of all the other authors that he influenced. I’m happy that he also has turned out — so far — to be a very satisfying read. I’d say contemplative, rather than active, with an emphasis on character.

    Even with my bias for hardcover books, I don’t have a lot of Library of America books (these two, a couple of Sinclair Lewis, Dos Passos and early Roth and Bellow). Like others (including John Self), I’m not that keen on their dust covers — so I just take them off and the cloth covers are quite suitable. I think if I was American, I’d seriously consider subscribing and getting some of the slipcovered editions (same book but with a slipcover instead of a dust jacket).

  3. Teresa Says:

    William Maxwell’s name is only vaguely familiar to me, and your review certainly inspires me to seek out some of his work. I enjoy character-driven novels, and this one sounds wonderful.

  4. Trevor Says:

    Hmmm, slipcover books? I didn’t see that. I also don’t like the hardcover’s dust jacket. If Everyman had Maxwell’s books in any form, I’d be there already. I’ll have to check out the slipjackets to see if they’d be a bit more suitable.

  5. KevinfromCanada Says:

    It is kind of hidden on the website — check subscriptions at the bottom of the page. Doesn’t look like a bad deal, but the international shipping charges bump it up a bit. Then again, the Roth series might appeal to you.

  6. deucekindred Says:

    Thanks for this in depth review(and this is just the first part!) – I read How late it was, how late and absolutely loved it but was a bit wary on what to pursue next.

    I’ll check these out in the near future.

  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    DK: An intriguing response. How Late It Was, How Late is a Booker-winning novel by James Kelman, which is about as different from Maxwell’s work as you can get. The Kelman is gritty, virtually written in dialect — Maxwell is paced, with carefully chosen language. Still, I find it interesting to consider the two in the same post. Good examples of how different novelists can be. And it does relate to the opening quote from Maxwell that will show up in my next post. Cheers, Kevin

  8. deucekindred Says:

    Oh dear I meant ‘so long, see you tomorrow’

    Now how did I mix the two books up??? – thanks for pointing this out for me :)

  9. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Aha!!!! We can both contemplate what was going on in your subconscious. I haven’t read So Long, See You Tomorrow yet, so I can’t really offer an opinion until I do.

  10. john h. Says:

    this is my first time responding here, Kevin. I come to your site via John Self’s page. I like your comment above about Maxwell influencing other writers. Alice Munro is very high on him as I’m sure many others are. For me, his best book is “So long, see you tomorrow.” I’ve read few novels that have made me feel as he did in that book what an act of imagination writing is.

    His books are all good. “The Folded Leaf” I thought was quite powerful but it seemed a little dated to me.

    Maxwell shares some similarities with the American writer Peter Taylor, particularly in Taylor’s novel “A Summons to Memphis”.

  11. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks for dropping by and commenting John. I am going to take my time with further Maxwell reading — I can see where his quiet style and attention to detail would become weating if I tried too many of his works too quickly (not unlike Munro in that way).

  12. William Rycroft Says:

    A mixture of enjoyment and envy reading this Kevin. Maxwell is a writer I really rate and whose novels I have read all of…apart from this one (as you mention it is the LOA who have brought it back into print and the only original I managed to track down was hundreds of pounds). I will eventually get hold of this edition, especially after reading such a positive review. My own, all too brief thoughts on him are here.

    Having just begun Alistair MacLeod’s collection of stories ‘Island’ that you recommended I was struck by a similarity in their writing, or at least the feeling I had when reading it: the unique calm that comes from reading the work of someone mature and in control of their writing.

    I’m off to read part two of your post now…

  13. KevinfromCanada Says:

    The LOA volume does have nine short stories, if you haven’t read them. I’m going to be trying them next (slowly, I hope — reader discipline with short stories is not one of my strengths) before any more novels. I am quite intrigued at how an editor so many outstanding story writers does himself. And the speech that I quote from in the opening of Part Two on Maxwell is also well worth reading.

    I think your comparison with MacLeod is spot on (and even more with Alice Munro, who Maxwell edited — I don’t think he edited MacLeod, but may have to check that further). All three explore in substantial depth and detail parts of North America that don’t get much attention in fiction. The maturity and control that you mention is complemented by both a joy and understanding of the part of the country that they write about.

    Another thing that I think all three authors share is a need for readers that are new to work to allow some time between volumes. The “sameness” that some people criticize I think comes from trying to read too much of any one of the three too quickly — they all require some contemplative time.

  14. Brookner Says:

    Wonderful, Kevin. I’m now looking forward to reading a novel by Maxwell.

  15. Trevor Says:

    I notice in my first comment above that I was wary of the LOA volumes, both because I don’t like the dust jackets and because I knew that if I bought one I’d eventually have to buy several. I’ve caved.

    Well, I still don’t particularly like the dust covers and take them off. They are stunning in their cloth binding all lined in a row — yes, a row, as I now have several of the volumes, including the two Maxwells. I like them so much, in fact, that I don’t read them. Since I read primarily on my commute, that means nice books like these that I am too afraid will get sullied in transit sit at home on the shelf. However, I’ve decided to start dedicating my weekend reading to the Maxwell volumes and started Bright Center of Heaven last night. At first I was concerned, it being sort of discounted and then out of print for 70 years . . . But I’m really impressed. What a great writer from such an early age.

    I have supplemented the weekend (which will turn into three or four or five weekends) with an interview he did with Terry Gross of NPR’s Fresh Air in 1995 and by reading Updike’s tributes to him (the Talk of the Town obituarty and a poem) in The New Yorker. I hope I can find more tidbits here and there.

    I hope that as time goes on more and more people recognize Maxwell for the tremendous writer and influence he is. And I’m really looking forward to the next several weekends when I’ll be trying to make my way through these two volumes in full.

  16. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I can understand why you save the hardcovers for special occasions — but they do make very good weekend reading. And even if you don’t like the dustcovers, LOA volumes are very attractive both on the shelf and on the lap.

    I am interested enough in Maxwell that, even though I don’t read a lot of biographies or criticism, I will be ordering (soon) William Maxwell Portrait ed. Charles Baxter, a tribute volume that features contributions from a number of the author whom he edited. We don’t see a lot of observations about editors (beyond hapless authors complaining how they ruin the work) that I am looking forward to it.

    I’m deliberately stringing Maxwell out — next up are some early short stories which I hope to get to in about two months. Can’t wait.

  17. Trevor Says:

    I put that William Maxwell Portrait in my queue for a future order today and persused a bit of it online, primarily reading Alice Munro’s excerpt — at least, what I could on Amazon’s search this book feature. I’m looking forward to reading it myself.

    As for stringing Maxwell out, I have been doing that, and now that I’m reading to give it my all it will still be strung out thanks to the children. I’m not going to make it through these two volumes very quickly by focusing on them only on the weekends, but I think a strung out though dedicated reading schedule will be just the thing.

    Looking forward to it and to your thoughts as you go through the volumes too.

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