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.