By David Streitfeld
Sunday, October 26, 1997; Page X15
Maxwell the Reader
I FOUND William Maxwell at his country place, a short distance north of New York City. We sat on the back porch, the same spot he had been trapped the day before. Workmen had been in the house doing something to the floor, and he wasn't allowed in. He realized he had forgotten to bring something to read, but calamity was averted with the discovery of some old books in the garage -- a children's anthology, a volume by the forgotten Reginald Gibbon. It wasn't much, but it was enough to get by.
Maxwell requires printed matter the way other people need oxygen. Teenagers, with their vivid capacity for emotion, sometimes feel this way about books, but it's extraordinary for someone who will be 90 next August. "My interest in literature hasn't decreased," he said. "It just gets more passionate, actually." While he no longer writes fiction himself, he still has a novelist's otherworldly air. "My wife has to tell me I haven't said anything all day. I've stopped talking, and I'm totally unaware of it."
Treasure Island, he recalled, was the first work of literature he ever got his hands on, back when he was a high school freshman. "At the last page, I turned back to the beginning. I didn't stop until I had read it five times. I've been that way ever since. I never could explain to my father what it was that I was after, not in terms he could understand."
He remembers first reading Tolstoy's story "Master and Man" in his seventies. "Remember the ending, where the sleigh overturns and the horse's mouth is full of snow? That's the best image of death I could ever think of. I wanted to go down on my knees to Tolstoy."
When he wasn't writing his own fiction, Maxwell was editing the stories of others at the New Yorker. Perhaps it's the memories that keep him going; he seemed to glow as he recited the hallowed names. "Think of the pleasure of watching Shirley Hazzard's Evening of the Holiday turn up chapter by chapter on your desk, or any of Mavis Gallant's stories."
But surely there were times when he met writers, and they proved so difficult that the experience of reading their fiction was ruined? They are, after all, famously prickly, spacy or just unpleasant. "In all my years at the New Yorker," he allowed, "a chemical dislike of a writer happened only once. I felt it the instant she walked in." He declined to give her name.
Maxwell worked at the New Yorker from 1936 to '76, a time when the magazine exerted a formidable influence on the short story and published the work of such masters as O'Hara, Nabokov, Updike and Cheever. It's hard for smaller but perhaps still worthy talents to shine against such competition, which prompted me to ask whether he thought anyone's work had been unjustly forgotten.
"Elizabeth Cullinan did lots of good things, but whether enough to create a lasting body of work, I don't know," he mused, and then added the names Julia Strachey and Penelope Mortimer. "Perhaps a body of work isn't necessary for a short story writer," he amended. "If you do one story that survives in an anthology, that's enough. One of the best stories I know, 'Journey Around My Room,' is by a poet, Louise Bogan."
This brought us naturally to the book at hand, the late Maeve Brennan's The Springs of Affection: Stories of Dublin. Brennan wrote book reviews, Talk of the Town pieces and short stories for the New Yorker during the 1950s, '60s and early '70s. Her work was collected in three books, but that was a long time ago; before Houghton Mifflin brought out the present volume, she was on track to be forgotten.
Maxwell makes a good case for her work without ever overstating it, and draws a vivid picture of the writer as both talented and troubled. Once, when a reader wrote asking for more of Brennan's stories, she wrote back under Maxwell's name saying Brennan had recently committed suicide but he had lots of live authors left: "If there is anything you would like to know about any of them, I'll be happy to oblige. Most of them have studio portraits, ready for framing, some life size, some even en famille, as we say around here in our amiable but decidedly spirited, even brisk, New Yorker Magazine Way."
Brennan's taste in men seemed not the best. In 1954, she became St. Clair McKelway's fourth wife, which should have been a tip-off right there. Writes Maxwell: "It may not have been the worst of all possible marriages but it wasn't something you could be hopeful about. He was one of the most gifted of New Yorker reporters, and if there was anyone who disliked him I never heard of it, but he was a heavy drinker and a manic depressive and subject to what he called 'blank-outs,' during which he did not always know who he was and his behavior was sometimes highly bizarre. What money he had he spent as fast as possible and it was against his principles to pay any bill. His wives were all beautiful and charming women, and his marriages tended to be brief. He courted women ardently until the vows were said and then his interest in them faded."
I'm tempted to quote the entire 15 pages of Maxwell's introduction, but instead I'll move on to The Outermost Dream, his 1989 book of essay reviews from the New Yorker that has now been reissued by Graywolf. "Reading is rapture (or if it isn't, I put the book down meaning to go on with it later, and escape out the side door)," he writes in the introduction; the authors that induce that elation here include E.B. White, Isak Dinesen, Virginia Woolf, Lord Byron and turn-of-the-century children's writer Edith Nesbit. Her piece begins: "Edith Nesbit and the journalist Hubert Bland shared a plate of strawberries at a picnic, and apparently that did it. She was seven months pregnant when she was married, and not a single member of her upper-middle-class family was present at the civil ceremony -- in all probability because none of them was invited; she does not seem to have been estranged from them."
This season brings a reprint of another Maxwell book, They Came Like Swallows. His second novel, it was published in 1937 and has now been issued in the Modern Library, an edition whose only fault is that it doesn't mention anywhere that the handsome young man on the cover is indeed the author, whose portrait was rendered by Charlotte Blass as he was working on the book.
Swallows treats in novelistic form the death of the author's mother from Spanish influenza in 1918. It's considered one of his best books, although some would give a slight edge to So Long, See You Tomorrow, which revisits the event, the key moment in Maxwell's life. It's a quiet, affecting book that is peculiarly hard to describe.
Let the author do it. He writes in a new introduction: "If you toss a small stone into a pond, it will create a ripple that expands outward, wider and wider. And if you then toss a second stone, it will again produce a widening circle inside the first one. And with the third stone there will be three expanding concentric circles before the pond recovers its stillness through the force of gravity. That is what I wanted my novel to be like. No directions came with this idea."
At the end of our conversation, we talked about the reasons that writers stop writing. Perhaps it's neither a matter of ability or desire, but of desire to use the ability. Maxwell noted that John Mosher, the New Yorker's movie critic a half-century ago, would also write very funny short stories, labeled "casuals" in the brisk New Yorker way. Then he suddenly stopped.
"Mosher," Maxwell recalled, "was in the men's room once when [New Yorker editor] Harold Ross came and stood
at the urinal next to him. 'Why haven't you submitted any casuals?' Ross asked. Mosher was nervous about conversing at the urinal, and could only reply, 'Because I lost the slight fancy that sustained me.' That seems the real reason people stop writing."
"I taught freshman composition. It was lovely when you found students who responded to things you were enthusiastic about. Teaching them to punctuate properly and to analyze the periodic sentences in Mattew Arnold's "Gregarious and Slavish Instincts in Animals" was something else again. But that wasn't what drove me away from teaching. What drove me away was a silly novel by Robert Nathan called One More Spring, about some people who went to live in a toolshed in Central Park. The gist of the book was that life is to be lived, and, well, it is, of course. Anyway, that book made me restless with my prospects. I saw myself being promoted from assistant to associate to full professor, and then to professor emeritus, and finally being carried out in a wooden box. This was 1933, and only an idiot would have thrown up a job at that point. But I did anyway. And I floundered for several years."
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Photograph by Emily Maxwell
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Updated July 1, 2001