Library Of America Honors Overshadowed Writer During 40 years as fiction editor of The New Yorker magazine, William Maxwell worked with luminaries like Vladimir Nabokov and John Cheever. His own writings were often overshadowed by his job — but now they've been reissued by the Library of America to mark the centennial of his birth. NPR's Jacki Lyden finds out more about the man and his words.

Library Of America Honors Overshadowed Writer

Library Of America Honors Overshadowed Writer

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During 40 years as fiction editor of The New Yorker magazine, William Maxwell worked with luminaries like Vladimir Nabokov and John Cheever. His own writings were often overshadowed by his job — but now they've been reissued by the Library of America to mark the centennial of his birth. NPR's Jacki Lyden finds out more about the man and his words.


Finally tonight, a look at the late author and editor William Maxwell whose works are being reissued this summer by the Library of America. Here's a passage from his novel, "They Came like Swallows."

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LYDEN: Always when he and his mother were alone, the library seemed intimate and familiar. They did not speak or even raise their eyes, except occasionally, yet around and through what they were doing, each of them was aware of the other's presence.

If his mother was not there, if she was upstairs in her room, or out in the kitchen explaining to Sophie about lunch, nothing was real to Bunny or alive. The vermillion leaves and yellow leaves, folding and unfolding upon the curtains depended utterly upon his mother. Without her, they had no movement and no color.

William Maxwell was born 100 years ago this month in Lincoln, Illinois, 165 miles from Chicago. He would grow up to become a beloved fiction editor at The New Yorker magazine, revered by the century's best writers, but in Maxwell's inner self, and in much of his fiction, he never did grow up. He was still that little boy in Lincoln who lost his mother at age 10 in the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918.

The house where he lived during and just after that loss became the wunderkammer, the chamber of wonders he would visit and revisit, in fiction, memory and psychoanalysis.

In 1995, he told NPR's Linda Wertheimer that he still visited that house in his dreams.

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Mr. WILLIAM MAXWELL (Author): I suddenly was able to remember, in detail, the house I grew up in and left when I was 12 years old, and I went from room to room, seeing things that I hadn't remembered for 70 years and more.

I saw the level of the bookcase. I saw pictures. I saw empty rooms. I saw furniture, and I could look at it as long as I wanted to. It was as if some shutter had slipped back in my mind, and I had absolute, total memory of the past.

LYDEN: Maxwell gave other writers the best of his efforts: Updike, Nabokov, Cheever, Eudora Welty. His own fiction was quieter and smaller in scope. A father and son lock arms after a mother's death and walk and walk a house's empty rooms. Clocks assume personalities and argue with each other. An eye falls upon the comforting familiarity of an umbrella stand, a glass ashtray, a porch swing. Maxwell built his story detail by detail and line by line.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER CARDUFF (Editor, Library of America): I think of him as our greatest domestic realist.

LYDEN: Christopher Carduff is an editor for the Library of America, which this fall is reissuing all of William Maxwell's work. He joined me in the studios of our New York bureau along with a close friend of Maxwell's, the poet Edward Hirsch. Christopher Carduff.

Mr. CARDUFF: He's a writer who focused on the texture of family life, especially small-town family life at the turn of the 20th century. He wrote about what it was to be a son and a brother and a father and a husband. He wrote about the texture of daily life without any of the irony or the anger or the preciousness that so many people do. He got it right.

LYDEN: He came to New York as a young man in his mid-20s, and of course he later became fiction editor at The New Yorker, but for a long, long time, he struggled to have his stories accepted there because he had a generous interpretation of the Midwest.

Mr. CARDUFF: That's partly true. Harold Ross, who ran The New Yorker, he had a very cosmopolitan sensibility, and he didn't think stories about the Midwest belonged in his jaunty magazine. He believed that the proper setting of fiction should be Hollywood, New York, Paris, the places where his readers traveled and lived.

I think Maxwell came in at a time, started writing about the Midwest at a time when only satirists wrote about it, and he had nothing but love for the place he came from. He loved The New Yorker, but it wasn't a congenial home for his own fiction.

LYDEN: Once editor Harold Ross died in the 1950s, images of Maxwell's Lincoln, Illinois began to appear in The New Yorker's pages.

Mr. CARDUFF: It was his earthly paradise. He was born into a loving family, and for the first 10 years of his life, everything was perfect. I think he once said that it was Eden when the apple was still hypothetical.

LYDEN: Poet Edward Hirsch was exceptionally close to William Maxwell and his wife in the last decade of the writer's life.

Mr. EDWARD HIRSCH (Poet): I think he's a writer who's heartbroken and very grief-stricken, and I think that this grief over the loss of his mother was something that he never got over, and the reason he had such a good memory is he kept trying to return to the moment of that trauma, to that place.

The poignancy with which he describes it is because it's a world that he can't quite ever return to again. It's very Proustian. He's holding on to it to make it last as long as it can because for him it's gone, and he keeps returning in his imagination to it to keep it alive a little longer, and I mean, the remarkable thing about his fiction and him as a person was that someone who suffered such a primary loss could turn out to be someone who could love other people so openly because often when people suffer great losses, they become stunted, and their capacity to love actually becomes regressive and retarded, but in fact Bill's somehow opened up into an embrace of other people.

LYDEN: A few weeks ago, Hirsch, Carduff and several other writers who had known and loved William Maxwell gathered in the late afternoon sunlight of Manhattan's Madison Square Park to celebrate his life and work.

Unidentified Man: This evening has been conceived as a kind of attempt to bring the man back to us for just a moment through anecdote and reminiscence.

LYDEN: In the audience that day were Maxwell's grown daughters, Brookie and Kate, women now middle-aged, born to their father late in his life. They listened thoughtfully as the panelists talked about how encouraging and supportive Maxwell had been of their writing.

I asked the sisters if the man being lionized on the stage was the one they remembered as their father, and their answer was more nuanced and more painful. Here's Kate Maxwell.

Ms. KATE MAXWELL: I think he was more complicated than people usually describe him as, and perhaps more complicated to family than he was to people who knew his teaching, who were writers.

You know, he wasn't always supportive, for example, to his own family. He was totally charming but sometimes could be judgmental. He grew up with a distant, judgmental father himself, and he admitted that, so when I brought certain things to his attention, he said sometimes my father speaks through me, and he was quite embarrassed about it.

He said, you know, I think I probably spent more time raising my writers than I did raising my children, and I'm sorry. My experience was that we were never told you can be anything you want to be. We were never told to believe in ourselves unconditionally. We were told sometimes quite the opposite.

Thank you for asking the question, since nobody seems to - no one has wanted to know, in all this time.

LYDEN: If you weren't told that you could be anything that you wanted to be then - which is a great gift that a parent gives to a child, what were you told?

Ms. MAXWELL: He said I want you to stay home and take care of me. I want you not to get married, and if you try to get married, I will try to undercut it so it doesn't work. And the thing is, I also love my father. I mean, as a human being, I love him. I don't worship him, because I think he was a very complicated man. If he wasn't human, I couldn't love him.

LYDEN: It's said that in these families, in any family, certain between my own family, each child has a very different relationship, is in a different family almost, than the next sibling down. Maybe that's true for you, too, I don't know.

Ms. BROOKIE MAXWELL: Well, I've never heard her say the things that she just said, and I'm really quite impressed and proud of her, I must say. That's really - you know, I have to bow to her greater courage and her honesty and her truth, which is what he was interested in.

I had the pleasure once of working with him seriously on a short story because I wrote something when I was 20 and really angry with him. I wrote a frightening story about what I was doing with my week and gave it to him, and he said I think it's really good, and we should submit it to The New Yorker, and instead of, you know, addressing with me the activities, he edited it, which is - that makes a lot of sense.

LYDEN: Brookie and Kate Maxwell, waiting all their lives to be asked about their father, William Maxwell. What a parallel for a writer who wrote about the fragility of happiness. His own life was not unlike one of his stories: light thrown into the hallway from an open door, but down the hall in another room, an empty chair.

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LYDEN: The Library of America has brought out the first volume of William Maxwell's earlier novels. The second volume is due out September 4.

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LYDEN: That's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

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