Stories 1938-45, by William Maxwell


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.

14 Responses to “Stories 1938-45, by William Maxwell”

  1. Guy Savage Says:

    I have a couple of this author’s novels sitting on the shelf unread. They’ve been there so long, I can no longer remember exactly where they came from.


  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Guy: I’m not really surprised at that. He is one of those authors whose books you come across and think “I should get to him some time”. And then you keep finding other books to read. I think once you give one a go, you will want to try more.


  3. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I will look forward to them.

    He sounds a writer who leaves room for the reader, which is no bad thing.

    How are you disciplining yourself with respect to engaging with short stories? Is it a question of making time for them in your reading diary? Do you still tend to read them all in one lump? Do you intersperse them among other reading? It’s a question I’m grappling with myself, hence the curiosity.


  4. Trevor Says:

    It doesn’t seem like that long ago that I had “William Maxwell weekends.” I did this because I didn’t like the thought of packing the LOA volumes on the train but still wanted to make my way through his works. I made it through Bright Center of Heaven this way, and I loved it. But then my weekends started mixing with my weekdays, and I’ve lost the routine somehow. This is a timely reminder to pick it up again — we are planning to rectify the weekend/weekday matter very shortly : ).

    By the way, I agree that many of his short stories seem to feel more like prep-work for his superior novels, but have you gotten to any of Maxwell’s short stories that are more like oldschool fairy tales (I think they’re called “improvisations” and I think I call them “fairy tales” only because they begin with “Once upon a time” and sometimes deal with animals)? I think they’re mostly in the second volume, so if you haven’t you have a treat in store. They are strange and unique little tidbits — like “The Man Who Had No Friends and Didn’t Want Any” — very fun yet sinister.


  5. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max, Trevor: Sorry for the delayed response — we were up in Lake Louise for a few days and the hotel WiFi was on the fritz. FYI Max, they had their snowiest summer in more than 50 years — down in the valley where the village is, it is still shoulder-high, although the melt had started when we were up there. Great spring skiing, though.

    Anyway, Maxwell. I haven’t got to the improvisations yet (they are in volume two) but remember the reviews you did of them Trevor. I thought at the time that they were an indication of his devotion to the craft aspect of writing — in many ways, I think these early stories are an indication of that as well. When I get to later stories, I’ll be interested to see if that is still the case.

    As for the 2012 KfC short story project, I’m pretty happy with my discipline so far. I’ve tried to get into a routing of having two collections on the go — usually one contemporary, one historical. I try to devote a half-hour to hour (which is usually two stories, sometimes three) three or four days a week. That works out to pretty much collections a month, since I haven’t taken on any “mammoth” ones. If I do, I think I’ll break them into parts of 10-12 stories since that seems to be the “length” of collection that suits me best. Still to come for me are more Clark Blaise and some of the Richler Montreal contemporaries — especially Hugh Hood since he was probably my favorite author when I was in my twenties.


    • Max Cairnduff Says:

      I missed this reply Kevin, and just saw it among my emails. Were I at Lake Louise with good snow, I wouldn’t need wifi.

      You have vastly more reading time than I do (half hour to an hour three to four days a week, plus presumably the longer works you’re reading) but your approach is interesting and I may try it. I’ve been (very) slowly reading a book of classic Chinese stories (it’s a huge volume, six or seven hundred pages) which I may finish in a few months but something more contemporary to dip into might fit well alongside.

      Anyway, thanks for the reply. Much to think about in terms of how I approach short stories.


  6. leroyhunter Says:

    Round my way it always seemed that The Chateau was Maxwell’s best-known book – at least it was repeated mention of that book that brought him to my attention. He’s a superb writer, and it’s only by reading blogs in latter years that I’ve come to realise his role as editor and mentor to so many American masters of the latter 20th century.

    Apart from the titles already mentioned, Time Will Darken It is well worth a look. And this post is a reminder to me that They Came Like Swallows is sitting on what is supposedly the “immediate” pile of the TBR. Like Yates, I’m glad to know I have a collection of short stories to look forward to.


  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Leroy: Since I am reading Maxwell in order of publication, The Folded Leaf is next up for me, followed by Time Will Darken It. At my current relaxed pace, that means it will probably be a couple of years before I get to The Chateau. 🙂


  8. leroyhunter Says:

    I remember being asked about The Chateau in an aghast tone of voice that suggested I was a more-then-usually uncultured Visigoth for being ignorant of the bok (and Maxwell). You live and learn…


  9. sshaver Says:

    The gap of four decades is striking.

    But, just as you say, change and loss, change and loss (a phrase I picked up from Nancy Mairs) is the mantra of the thirties.


  10. Craig D. Says:

    Re: collections

    As much as I like those beautiful, well-crafted, and pretentious Library of America and Everyman’s Library hardcover collections, they do rob me of one of the pleasures of reading a novel: being able to physically feel in your hands when you’re nearing the end of a story. It’s kind of jarring when you finish the last chapter, think there’s more, then turn the page and it’s the first chapter of the next novel.

    Or is it just me?


  11. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Craig: I too like the physical feel of finishing a book. With LoA and Everyman collections, I usually use the ribbon to mark the end of the novel or collection I’m reading.


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