Feb/Mar 2008

Portraits of the Artist

A longtime fiction editor, William Maxwell was also a writer's writer

Peter Terzian


The detailed chronology of William Maxwell's life included in the new Library of America edition of his first four novels and early stories is an uncannily precise mirror image of the circumstances that recur throughout his fiction. Maxwell was born in 1908 in Lincoln, Illinois, a town, he later wrote, "small enough and sufficiently isolated for the people who lived there to have not only a marked individuality but also a stature that still seems to me larger than life-sized. They did not know how to be dull, and nothing that had ever happened was forgotten." The defining event of his early years was the death of his mother when the 1918 flu pandemic swept through the Midwest. Blossom Blinn Maxwell was "acutely responsive to other people's happiness or distress"; she was a closet writer, and she introduced her young son to literature. Frail and thin-skinned, he was deeply attached to her, and after she died, "the shine went out of everything." Various aunts and a grandmother stepped in to assist in raising Maxwell and his two brothers. In time, his somewhat remote father, a businessman, remarried a kind younger woman. The family moved to Chicago, where Maxwell was exposed to art and music and began to write stories and plays. But the sorrow of his mother's death didn't lift, at least not for many years. In college, he tried to cut his own throat when a male friend to whom he had become passionately attached became romantically involved with a young woman Maxwell had been seeing. Afterward, he came to believe that the poetry he had been reading had encouraged him to imagine an afterlife in which he would be reunited with this mother.

Variations on these events are retold in Maxwell's two autobiographical early novels, They Came like Swallows (1937) and The Folded Leaf (1945). Also included in the Library of America anthology is Maxwell's first novel, Bright Center of Heaven, written over four months in 1933, when he was twenty-five years old and spending the summer at an artist's colony in rural Wisconsin. With characters modeled on the eccentric creative types he knew there, it is youthful and spirited, with a high-strung lyricism inspired by ardent readings of Virginia Woolf. Still, it lacks the "breath of life" Maxwell would come to hold as the essential criterion for evaluating fiction. The author later wished to "sweep it under a rug," declining to let it be reprinted in his lifetime.

With his second novel, They Came like Swallows, Maxwell turned to his childhood loss; it would become his great subject. The first part of this short, vivid tale is narrated from the limited point of view of Bunny Morison, a stand-in for young "Billie," as Maxwell's mother called him. Elizabeth Morison and her son have a near-telepathic bond. "She seemed almost to be aware of every breath he took," another character observes. "And when they were in the same room together, he was always turning his face toward her." Bunny lives in a child's world of games and songs and imagined slights, but he is also keenly tuned in to the mysterious adult behavior around. In one passage, he recalls witnessing a custody battle between his aunt and uncle over their small daughter:

Bunny's mind stirred lightly within his shell. . . . The remembrance was cloudy and uncertain, like a dream remembered in the midst of breakfast: Uncle Boyd carrying Agnes in his arms and the door closing upon them. There was meaning to it, and possibility of explanation; only he never dared to ask. And then Irene walked past him, talking to herself. He spoke to her, but she didn't even know that he was there. At the head of the stairs she waited, as if there was something she had just that minute thought of. Then she fell down, one step at a time, bumping.

As the story unfolds—as Bunny comes down with Spanish flu, and the pregnant Elizabeth, unable to resist tending to her sick son, contracts the disease that will eventually take her life—something happens that is unique in this sort of autobiographical fiction. The perspective shifts away from the author's younger self to another character, Bunny's troubled older brother, Robert, and then another, the boys' stern and self-pitying father, James. Maxwell extends the project of re-creating the past, leaving behind the (sometimes claustrophobic) voice of the childhood self and entering the feelings of others.

It wouldn't be difficult to imagine the tender Bunny growing up to become Lymie Peters, the protagonist of Maxwell's next book, The Folded Leaf, published after the writer had moved to Manhattan and begun a four-decade career as a fiction editor at the New Yorker. Lymie is "a thin, flat-chested boy" at a Chicago high school, quick-minded but unathletic. His mother died when he was very young, he is the only child of a perpetually ill-favored businessman, and father and son live in a series of gloomy apartments. This is a book about relationships between men, about one young man's desire for and envy of a masculine role model, which Lymie finds in the person of a classmate, the strikingly fit and introverted Spud Latham. "The wish closest to Lymie's heart, if he could have had it for the asking, would have been to have a well-built body, a body as strong and as beautifully proportioned as Spud's. Then all his troubles would have been over." Women, at this point in their lives, are secondary.

Contemporary readers might be startled by the intense physical intimacy between Lymie and Spud, who hold hands as they walk across campus and sleep in the same bed, curled up against each other. In one scene, Lymie and Spud spend the evening in an apartment that some friends have rented and turned into a quasi-fraternity house. Spud strips down to his underwear and begins reading a copy of Balzac's Droll Stories. Lymie stares at his friend's body. He reads over Spud's shoulder a risqué passage ("Woman is thy wealth; have but one woman, dress, undress, and fondle that woman"). In what can only strike the reader as a fit of jealous fury, he seizes the book and throws it into the fireplace. According to one reading of The Folded Leaf—one that Maxwell discouraged—Lymie is coming to terms with homosexual feelings. But Maxwell was doing something more daring, expanding the boundaries of what was emotionally possible in a heterosexual friendship. The book, he told his biographer, Barbara Burkhardt, was about love, not sex. (Anyone who has looked at one of the recent books of formal photographs taken in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries of male friends embracing and sharing affectionate glances might understand that the boundaries for nonsexual physical contact were much wider at the time.)

Maxwell's narrative voice hews closely to Lymie's feelings and actions as a series of misunderstandings drives the two boys apart and drives Lymie to desperation. But The Folded Leaf introduces a new, essayistic element into Maxwell's storytelling, a reflective narrator who can draw sweeping correspondences between, say, the fraternity hazing of a group of midwestern students and aboriginal ritual:

The earth is wonderfully large and capable of infinite repetition. At no time is it necessary to restrict the eye in search of truth to one particular scene. Torture is to be found in many places besides the Hotel Balmoral, and if it is the rites of puberty that you are interested in, you can watch the same thing (or better) in New Guinea or New South Wales. . . . [Y]ou will learn what it feels like to be in the belly of . . . that Being who swallows young boys and after the period of digestion is completed restores them to life, sometimes with a tooth missing, and always minus their foreskin. . . . This primitive ritual of torture is more painful, perhaps, but no more cruel than the humor of high school boys.

Time Will Darken It (1948), written a few years into Maxwell's long and happy marriage to Emily Noyes, a painter, is the least autobiographical of his novels. It's set in 1912 in the fictional Draperville, modeled after Lincoln. Austin King is a hardworking and honest small-town lawyer, and his wife, Martha, is "a beautiful woman who could not believe in her own beauty or accept love without casting every conceivable doubt upon it." The kindly Austin, out of a misplaced sense of familial obligation, allows a troupe of distant southern relations to visit for a summer; his impressionable young cousin Nora falls in love with him. The residents of Draperville begin to talk, and the distance between Austin and Martha, who are expecting their second child, grows nearly impossible to bridge.

Maxwell's narration here is fearless, swooping in and out of the consciousnesses of nearly two dozen characters—Austin and Martha's four-year-old daughter; their next-door neighbors, a pair of spinsters who have spent their lives under the thumb of a domineering mother; the Kings' vulnerable black servant; her abusive husband; a near-deaf eccentric who finds love late in life with a homely woman; a lonely young girl who falls in vain for a narcissistic man. Time Will Darken It is, among other things, a natural history of a community. Everywhere, Maxwell's deep empathy is in evidence—the most initially disagreeable characters are understood and forgiven. In one heartbreaking scene, the unctuous Mrs. Potter, Austin's visiting relative, lets down her mask of gentility and reveals to Martha an early infidelity (again, a child listens in). She had been unhappy in her marriage and ran off with a man with "a very fine mind," but the relationship didn't work out. When she returned home—"Mr. Potter never reproached me"—she confided in Nora and pushed her daughter away. The confession finished, Maxwell shifts, with gentle irony, to the eavesdropping child: "In those moments when life is a play and not merely a backstage rehearsal, children are the true audience. . . . Although children are not always equipped to understand all that they see and overhear, they know as a rule which character is supposed to represent Good and which Evil, and they appreciate genuine repentance. By all rights, when the play is finished, the actors should turn and bow to them, and ask for their applause."

Maxwell returned to autobiographical fiction in his next book, The Château (1961), based on four months he and Emily had spent traveling through Europe, and revisited his childhood in his family memoir, Ancestors (1972). There, for the first time, he began to use first-person narration. With his last, masterful novel, So Long, See You Tomorrow (1980), and his final story collection, Billie Dyer (1992), the line between fiction and autobiography had all but vanished. (A second Library of America volume, due in September, will collect his later novels and stories.) "I wrote about my life in less and less disguise as I grew older," Maxwell told an interviewer shortly before his death in 2000, "and finally with no disguiseexcept the disguise we create for ourselves, which is self-deception. . . . I came to believe that life itself is such a sublime storyteller."

Peter Terzian is a writer who lives in Brooklyn.

Advertisement