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William (Keepers) Maxwell Biography

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Nationality: American. Born: Lincoln, Illinois, 1908. Education: The University of Illinois, Urbana, B.A. 1930; Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, M.A. 1931. Career: Member of the Department of English, University of Illinois, 1931-33. From 1936, in the art department, then fiction editor, New Yorker; retired 1976. Awards: Friends of American Writers award, 1938; American Academy award, 1958; William Dean Howells medal, 1980; American Book Award, for paperback, 1982; Brandeis University Creative Arts Medal for Fiction, 1984; Ivan Sandrof award, National Book Critics Circle, 1994; Gold Medal for Fiction, American Academy of Arts and Letters, 1995. D. Litt.: University of Illinois, 1973. Member: Presi-dent, National Institute of Arts and Letters, 1969-72.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

Bright Center of Heaven. New York, Harper, 1934.

They Came like Swallows. New York, Harper, and London, Joseph, 1937.

The Folded Leaf. New York, Harper, 1945; London, Faber, 1946.

Time Will Darken It. New York, Harper, 1948; London, Faber, 1949.

The Chateau. New York, Knopf, 1961.

So Long, See You Tomorrow. New York, Knopf, 1980; London, Secker and Warburg, 1989.

Short Stories

Stories, with others. New York, Farrar Straus, 1956; as A Book of Stories, London, Gollancz, 1957.

The Old Man at the Railroad Crossing and Other Tales. New York, Knopf, 1966.

Over by the River and Other Stories. New York, Knopf, 1977.

Five Tales. Omaha, Nebraska, Cummington Press, 1988.

Billie Dyer and Other Stories. N.p., 1992.

All the Days and Nights: The Collected Stories of William Maxwell. New York, Knopf, 1995.

Uncollected Short Stories

"Billie Dyer," in New Yorker, 15 May 1989.

"Fable Begotten of an Echo of a Line of Verse by W.B. Yeats," in Antaeus (New York), Spring-Autumn 1990.

Other

The Heavenly Tenants (for children). New York, Harper, 1946.

The Writer as Illusionist (lecture). New York, Unitelum Press, 1955.

Ancestors. New York, Knopf, 1971.

The Outermost Dream: Essays and Reviews. New York, Knopf, 1989.

Mrs. Donald's Dog Bun and His Home Away from Home (for children), illustrated by James Stevenson. New York, Knopf, 1995.

The Happiness of Getting It Down Right: Letters of Frank O'Connor and William Maxwell, 1945-1966, edited by Michael Steinman. New York, Knopf, 1996.

Editor, The Garden and the Wilderness, by Charles Pratt. New York, Horizon Press, 1980.

Editor, The Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner. London, Chatto and Windus, 1982; New York, Viking Press, 1983.

Editor, with Susanna Pinney, Selected Stories, by Sylvia Townsend Warner. London, Chatto and Windus, 1988.

* * *

The subjects of William Maxwell's major novels vary, but the sensibility that informs them is a Midwestern one. In both They Came like Swallows and The Folded Leaf, for example, the novelist is reworking and focusing his recollections of an Illinois boyhood and college experience. The materials he draws on in these novels he thus shares with somewhat older writers like Sinclair Lewis and Sherwood Anderson. But these novelists were involved in labors of repudiation; their work was marked by what has been called the "revolt from the village," by a keen sense that the Midwestern setting was a stultifying one from which the writer, by a satirical and unflattering report, had to separate himself. This accent of mockery and dismissal is absent from Maxwell's novels, which render the texture of Midwestern life in the early decades of this century. It is an accent which is absent from Maxwell's Ancestors, a work of nonfiction which gives an attentive account of the writer's forebears.

In general, then, there is a cherishing of the provincial limitations that other writers have found galling. There is, in most of the novels, a precise if not loving recollection of the diversions and the limited esthetic taste that created upper-class, prosperous sensibility in "down-state" Illinois towns. They Came like Swallows, for example, tells of the impact of a mother's death on a decent and conventional Illinois household. Time Will Darken It is an account of a protracted visit which Southern relatives pay and the disruption that the visitors bring to what was a moderately happy family. The Folded Leaf, which the French critic Maurice Coindreau has referred to as the best novel about college experience, tells of the adolescent and college experiences of two young Midwestern men; it leaves them on the threshold of an uneasy maturity, a maturity far short of ideal, but the only maturity that is open to them under Midwestern conditions.

The clearest indications of Maxwell's attitude toward his American materials appears in two novels: The Folded Leaf and So Long, See You Tomorrow. The Folded Leaf is about the "coming of age" of two boys; the author draws explicit parallels between the boys' rather casual passage from youth to maturity and the "rites of passage" that anthropologists and students of comparative religion describe in the tradition-oriented societies they study. So Long, See You Tomorrow also deals with the friendship of two boys. It is friendship terminated by the sensational crime and death of the father of one of the boys. Here also Maxwell deals with studious attention to matters that other writers handle sensationally or ironically. Maxwell even allows us to see how he has collected his materials—old newspapers—as a first step to his imaginative reconstruction. Both novels contain controlled attention, free of animus.

The same sort of attention is offered adult experience in The Chateau. The American travelers at the center of this novel undergo contacts with an enigmatic culture—that of the French—which are a series of challenges that are neither mockingly presented, as in Sinclair Lewis's Dodsworth, nor offered as proof of American superiority, as in Booth Tarkington's The Plutocrat. Rather is Maxwell's prevailing note that of detached comprehension, the same sort of comprehension that the anthropologist offers the alien culture that he wishes to grasp. The anthropologist does not question the values of his "informants"; he reports those values. Such is also the attitude of Maxwell toward the aspirations of the characters he creates.

—Harold H. Watts

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