Archive for the ‘Maxwell, William (3)’ Category

Stories 1938-45, by William Maxwell

April 8, 2012

Library of America collection

This post will be in keeping with two of the 2012 objectives for the KfC blog:
1) a more disciplined approach to reading and reviewing short stories
2) finding the time to visit for the first time, or revisit, some overlooked authors who deserve broader attention.

William Maxwell certainly fits that latter category — indeed, while I have known his name for decades, my first experience reading and reviewing his work was just three years ago (Bright Center of Heaven and They Came Like Swallows). I resolved then that I would make my way through Maxwell’s work at a leisurely pace — he isn’t the kind of author who demands or rewards a sudden burst of attention but rather warrants an extended, more contemplative approach.

Swallows (1937) and So Long, See You Tomorrow (1980) are the best (perhaps “only” might be a better description) known Maxwell works — that four-decade gap from an author who produced only six novels and a modest collection of short stories is ample indication that quality, not quantity, is a Maxwell trademark. And, after all, if he took more than four decades to write them, I shouldn’t feel guilty about taking one to finally read them.

That same characteristic served him well in the post for which he is probably better-known than his publications: from 1936-75, Maxwell was fiction editor of The New Yorker. Those whom he edited (and many of these authors have publicly saluted his contribution to their work) are an A-list of the short story genre: Nabokov, Updike, Salinger, Cheever, O’Hara, Bashevis Singer and Munro, just to name a few. A good argument could be made that Maxwell as an editor made a bigger contribution to the mid-twentieth century short story form than any other individual.

All of which made delving into his own early attempts at the genre an interesting prospect. It is an indication of the way Maxwell has historically been overlooked that the five stories under consideration here never actually appeared in a single volume until the Library of America released the first of its two-book Maxwell collection in 2008 (two, in fact, had never appeared in any collection before). Four of these stories first appeared in The New Yorker — Homecoming (1938), The Actual Thing (1938), Young Francis Whitehead (1939) and The Patterns of Love (1945) — and the fifth (Haller’s Second Home (1945)) in Harper’s Bazaar.

I’ll look at a couple of the stories in modest detail, but permit me some general observations about these early works first. While my own previous Maxwell reading experience is confined to his first two novels, I can say with some confidence that these stories are probably best regarded as literary “etudes” — attempts by the author to explore and develop the ideas and forms that will serve him well in his more ambitious later novels. A couple of decades later, Canadian Mordecai Richler did the same thing with his stories as I noted in my review of The Street a few weeks ago. The result is that they come across as entirely satisfying vignettes, but it has to be admitted that much more complete examples of the short story form itself can be found from all those writers whom Maxwell edited that I listed earlier.

The dual threats of loss and change — usually set in the insitution of family and close friends — are a consistent Maxwell theme and these early short works begin his exploration of that Pandora’s Box. This quote from the early paragraphs of Homecoming is very long for a review but it is a perfect example of the way Maxwell weaves those themes into his dignified, almost painstaking prose:

He had come back to Watertown to spend Christmas with his family — with his father and mother, and his two brothers, who were both younger than he was and not quite grown. But they were not entirely the reason for his wanting to come home. Before he went away, he used to be with Tom and Ann Farrel a great deal of the time. So much, in fact, that it used to annoy his mother, and she would ask him occasionally why he didn’t pack his things and go move in with the Farrels. And there was nothing that he could say; no way that he could explain to his mother that Farrel and Ann had somehow filled out his life and balanced it. They were the first friends he had ever had. And the best, really. For that reason it would not do for him to go back to New York without seeing Farrel. He had never even meant to do that. But he had hoped to run into Farrel somewhere about town, coming or going. He had hoped that he wouldn’t have to face Farrel in his own house now that Ann was not here. Now that Ann was dead, Jordan said to himself as he turned in and made his way up to the porch. He rang the bell twice. After a time the door opened and a rather small boy looked out at him.

Note the universal themes that Maxwell introduces in that paragraph. The disquieting experience of a young adult’s first return “home”. The memories of how the idea of “family” painfully changed as a maturing son found friends. The sense that broadening experience inevitably also produces loss. And the ominous threat that serious change (“Now that Ann was dead”) occurs in absence, introducing yet more uncertainty.

Homecoming is only seven pages long, but Maxwell speaks to all those issues as it unfolds. As one who appreciates Alice Munro, I was reminded while reading it that she frequently addresses those same issues in her stories. Unlike Munro, however, who usually points to some resolution, Maxwell tends to leave them described but open-ended — you need to get to his novels to find a sense of resolution.

Maxwell was born in Lincoln, Illinois in 1908 and survived the 1918 influenza epidemic, eventually moving to New York. His mother died in that epidemic, an event that frequently influences his fiction. Critics say that much of his fiction is autobiographical — that opening quote from one of his first short stories seems a concise description of the life that will form the basis for his writing.

In Young Francis Whitehead, Maxwell explores a different aspect of that life, although those same themes predominate (and Francis will make an appearance in another of these stories, Haller’s Second Home, when he returns home for the first time after being drafted into the Army). In this story, Francis has just returned from Cornell to the family home in New Hampshire for Easter weekend (note how Maxwell appreciates the way that “holidays” often bring disturbing family concerns to the surface). To provide a context, Maxwell uses a visit from an old family friend:

Miss Avery had stood by, in one capacity or another, while Francis learned to walk and to talk, to cut out strings of paper dolls, and ride a bicycle but they had seen very little of each other the last two or three years. Francis had been away at school much of the time. He was at Cornell. And Miss Avery decided, as she raised the knocker on the big front door, that he probably wouldn’t care to be reminded of the fact that she had once sewed buttons on his pantywaists. The knocker made a noise, but no one came. Miss Avery waited and waited, and finally she opened the door and walked in.

As in Homecoming, Maxwell uses the device of overlapping returns and visits to collect his characters before introducing the threatening “change” that lies at the centre of the story, in this case Francis’ decision to settle in New York after completing school — an idea that his mother simply can’t accept and that places Miss Avery in very uncomfortable circumstances. Again, there is no resolution; Maxwell is content to set the pieces in place, describe them and let the reader contemplate what the eventual outcome will be. We’ve all been there ourselves, so the reader brings his or her own resources and memories to the experience. That, too, is a consistent characteristic of Maxwell fiction, even in his longer works.

Finally, a note on the text. Generally, I am not a great fan of “collections” — they certainly offer good value for the dollar spent, but I tend to prefer self-contained volumes. For an under-appreciated (and under-published) author like Maxwell, however, the Library of America is doing readers a great favor by doing the collecting work for us. I suppose one could track down individual versions (and the popular novels are readily available) but an author who is this good deserves to be experienced in detail — the two volumes of Maxwell are an excellent resource for any serious reader of twentieth century American fiction. I am only halfway through volume one — look forward to more reviews of William Maxwell in the months and years ahead.

Two early novels by William Maxwell (Part Two)

June 21, 2009

They Came Like Swallows, by William Maxwell

So far as I can see, there is no legitimate sleight of hand involved in practicing the arts of painting, sculpture, and music. They appear to have had their origins in religion, and they are fundamentally serious. In writing — all writing, but especially in narrative writing — you are continually being taken in. The reader, skeptical, experienced, with many demands on his time, and many ways of enjoying his leisure, is asked to believe in people he knows don’t exist, to be present at scenes that never occurred, to be amused or moved or instructed just as he would be in real life, only the life exists in somebody else’s imagination. If, as Mr. T. S. Eliot says, humankind cannot bear very much reality, then that would account for their turning to the charlatans operating along the riverbank — to the fortune-teller, the phrenologist, the man selling spirit money, the storyteller. Or there may be a different explanation; it may be that what humankind cannot bear directly it can bear indirectly, from a safe distance.

maxwell 3

Extended quotes are not really my style but the one above, from a 1955 William Maxwell lecture, The Writer as Illusionist, very accurately captures what he achieves in They Came Like Swallows, his outstanding second novel. Maxwell’s own mother died in the post-Great War influenza epidemic when he was 10 — this short novel is his effort to tell us a story that we as readers can bear indirectly, from a safe distance. In a most impressive way, it succeeds; it is a gem of a book.

They Came Like Swallows is told in three “books”, which are actually more of chapter length (the entire work comes in at 121 pages). The first centres on Bunny, the Maxwell character (age 8 in the book), who doesn’t quite get along with his brother or his father, but is truly attached to his mother. A contemplative child, he finds the pressures of “getting along” with family life just too much:

Ever since that time he had been trying to make a place for his father within his own arranged existence — and always unsuccessfully. His father was not the kind of man who could be fit into anybody’s arrangement except his own. He was too big, for one thing. His voice was too loud. He was too broad in the shoulder, and he smelled of cigars.

While Bunny is trying to figure out how to deal with this (wanting all the while to hide in his mother’s embrace), there is another looming challenge — his mother has been hemming diapers and the family will soon have a new member. This upsets Bunny’s equilibrium even more, but that strain moves into the background when he becomes the first member of the Morison family to fall victim to the flu. Conflict avoidance — even serious conversation avoidance — is a family trait; becoming part of the global epidemic produces a stress for which all family members are simply not prepared.

Book two of the novel is told from the viewpoint of his brother Robert, 13, who has his own challenges, having lost part of a leg in a wagon accident. Robert is a hail-fellow-well-met type and deals just fine with that problem. His own disruption comes when he inadvertently lets his mother into Bunny’s room after strict instructions from the doctor that the expectant mother is to be allowed nowhere near her sick son.

Having set the stage of the reality that none of us want to face directly, Maxwell uses the last, most poignant part of the book to explore two very relevant themes. The first is the guilt of “what if?” What if Robert had not let his mother into Bunny’s bedroom? What if Mr. Morison had boarded his wife and himself onto the interurban with the near-empty parlor car instead of pressing on into a crowded coach, with all the risks of infection? What if, what if, what if.

Book three explores answers to those questions but also opens a new one — how do we grieve? While Bunny and Robert certainly have to face that, the father becomes the focus of this part of the book. He has been comfortable in his boring life but, like most people who must face such a sudden tragedy, he is utterly unprepared for what the world ahead will look like.

This is a very brief review, but only because this is such a powerful book. There are some things that we hope we do not have to bear directly but “can bear indirectly, from a safe distance.” That is exactly what William Maxwell has achieved in They Came Like Swallows.

Two early novels by William Maxwell (Part One)

June 20, 2009

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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