My Mentor: A Young Man’s Friendship with William Maxwell
Alec Wilkinson
Houghton Mifflin, $22 (cloth)

In 1933, when William Maxwell was twenty-five years old and an aspiring novelist, he decided to go to sea, “so that I would have something to write about.” A letter of introduction led him to a four-masted schooner that belonged to the financier J. P. Morgan, at anchor on a bay near Coney Island. When the captain had read Maxwell’s letter he told him that the ship had been in dock for four years; Morgan could not afford to sail her, and the captain was quitting the next day.

Maxwell wrote a brief account of this, his first and probably only stab at being a man of action, in the preface to his collected stories, published in 1995, to acknowledge that “three-quarters of the material I would need for the rest of my writing life was already at my disposal.” It was to be an unusually extended writing life: Maxwell’s first novel, Bright Center of Heaven, was published in 1934, the same year as Tender Is the Night; his final book of original fiction, Billie Dyer and Other Stories, appeared in 1992, with All the Days and Nights: The Collected Stories and a volume of correspondence still to come before his death in August 2000, two weeks short of his ninety-second birthday. (His wife, Emily, whom he married at the end of World War II, had died eight days earlier, and it would seem that Maxwell, frail but not fatally ill, had simply willed himself to follow her.) Neither of these bookends to his career nor any of the four novels and numerous stories published in between say anything about the incident involving J. P. Morgan’s yacht; instead, Maxwell returns again and again to another story, the one that throughout his adult life, to reiterate his own fraction, occupied about three-quarters of the author’s thought and feeling, certainly of his imagination: the tale of a happy childhood in the Midwest prematurely disrupted by injury and death.

Maxwell’s long span as a writer was matched by a parallel life at theNew Yorker. He began in the art department of the magazine in the mid-1930s, when Harold Ross was editor, and continued to work three days a week as a fiction editor under Ross’s successor, William Shawn, until a new union rule on the age of retirement forced him out in 1976. Behind Shawn himself, Maxwell stands as the prototypical New Yorker man: dedicated to the institution, tactful about its charges, and resolute to the last in his fidelity to a particular literary standard. An early letter in Maxwell’s published correspondence with the short-story writer Frank O’Connor, dated March 12, 1948, gives voice to his gentlemanly method and suggests what a sensitive editor he was:

I think that, in general, the editing and queries [concerning the short story “The Drunkard”] are fairly restrained, sensible and self-explanatory. But if there are spots where you feel that none of these adjectives applies, I hope you’ll point them out. . . . We’d appreciate your making it clear at the outset that this story takes place in Ireland, and it occurs to us that a good place to plant the locale is in the third paragraph. You could quite easily do it by naming the newspaper—the Dublin Times, the County Cork Tribune, or some such.

Among other writers whose work Maxwell shepherded onto the page were Eudora Welty, Mavis Gallant, Harold Brodkey, and the three Johns—O’Hara, Cheever, and Updike. All were grateful for his attentions. Several of his authors dedicated books to him, as he in turn dedicated his novels to other New Yorker writers and editors.

Maxwell was born into a middle-class family in the town of Lincoln, Illinois, in 1908, with ancestry rooted in the Scottish border country and the Protestant church. He was proud of his background, though most of his traceable forebears had arrived in America before the Revolution and he never visited the “home” country. The family history-cum-memoir that he published in 1971, Ancestors, is peopled by lawyerly grandfathers and shrewd, kindly aunts, with recollections of favorite toys and houses with many rooms, each having a distinct atmosphere. He had an elder brother who lost a leg in a horse-drawn carriage accident but who was nonetheless sporty and masculine, while Maxwell was bookish and gentle, more at home in the company of his mother and aunts. At the turn of the year 1918–19, at the height of the Spanish flu epidemic, Maxwell’s mother gave birth to a third son and, within days of the delivery, died. “My childhood ended,” Maxwell wrote.

The death of Maxwell’s mother when he was ten years old is directly present in three of his novels and indirectly in at least one other, not to mention in several of his stories and Ancestors. For a snapshot of the resident characters and themes of his writings one might focus on a passage from They Came Like Swallows (1937), or alternatively from The Folded Leaf (1945), or from So Long, See You Tomorrow (1980), or indeed from Ancestors or Billie Dyer. All converge on the same central event. The short story “A Game of Chess,” published in the New Yorker in 1965, will do as well. Hugh and Amos are brothers, now grown and married; like Maxwell’s elder brother—like all the elder brothers in his fiction—Amos is missing a limb but remains the domineering figure he always was:

“Sometimes I think Mother’s death had a good deal to do with it,” Hugh said.

“It was hard on me, too,” Amos said.

The house was like a shell, and the food tasted of tears. And he and Amos undressed in the same room and got into their beds, and he never spoke to Amos under the cover of the dark about the terror that gripped him. . . . “But I was all right,” Hugh continued, “until I was twenty-five.”

“You were nineteen when you tried to commit suicide.”

“That was part of it,” Hugh admitted.

The attempted suicide is also drawn from life. It provides the climacteric to Maxwell’s third novel, The Folded Leaf. The reader who approaches his work in chronological order is likely to be surprised to find the same events and consequences, even the same incidental details, recurring time after time. A “new ten-dollar bill” remembered fifty years after it was withdrawn from his father’s wallet, in Ancestors, is extracted again twenty years later in “The Front and Back Parts of the House,” from Billie Dyer. Maxwell never denied that the boy who stumbles bemusedly, unhappily through the fiction, eventually in sight of a redemption conditioned by love, was a pen-and-ink version of the man sitting at the desk, urging him on his way. Of The Folded Leaf, which turns on an intimate—and, to a reader in the age of “queer studies,” startlingly physical—relationship between two students, Lymie and Spud, he said, “the whole of my youth is in it.” Writing to O’Connor in 1959 about the preparation of a new edition of They Came Like Swallows, the novel which treats the events of his early life most directly, Maxwell said: “I was moved helplessly by the material, which will only cease to move me when I am dead, I suppose.” In the introduction to yet another edition forty years later he took up the theme: “Much of the time I walked the floor . . . brushing the tears away with my hand so I could see the typewriter keys. I was weeping, I think, both for what happened—for I could not write about my mother’s death without reliving it—and for events that took place only in my imagination. I don’t suppose that I was entirely sane.” Maxwell’s blend of fiction and fact can be seen as the ultimate outcome of the New Yorker’s disinclination under Shawn to observe any distinction between the two categories, on the contents page or elsewhere.

After his attempt to kill himself, and a first failed effort to make a living in New York (life was “like trying to climb a glass mountain,” he wrote), Maxwell began going every week day to see the psychoanalyst Theodor Reik, who had studied with Freud. By then Maxwell had published two novels, the second of them a modest success, but so powerful was Reik’s influence that he appears to have directed the ending for Maxwell’s work-in-progress, The Folded Leaf. Questioned by the Paris Review in 1982, Maxwell conceded that Reik wanted the book to have a “positive” resolution, as if by making things better for his mild young hero, Lymie, following his overwrought relationship with Spud, a boxer, the author might bring into being a better future for himself. When the book was republished by Vintage ten years later, Maxwell rewrote the parts influenced by Reik to accord with his original instincts. For subsequent reissues, however, he reverted to the 1945 edition, the “Reik version.” Reik himself enters a story called “The Holy Terror,” one of those from Billie Dyer that has more the tone of memoir than fiction; he suggests to the narrator, clearly Maxwell with no disguise, that he had made himself “a more tractable, more even-tempered, milder person than it was [his] true nature to be.”

To those who met Maxwell and experienced firsthand his old-fashioned courtesy and personal kindness (I did, in 1995, and corresponded with him sporadically until his death), or to anyone aware of his public image, the presence of an overbearing psychoanalyst in his life is at a single glance surprising. He was a man whose outward appearance suggested an inner neatness. Few people are liked by all who encounter them, but Maxwell’s benevolence and propriety commanded an unusually high esteem. A friend who knew Maxwell far better than I did, an émigrée who was helped by him selflessly when in difficulty in New York, recalls his “infinite empathy, and uncanny understanding of an alien predicament.” In a letter written just over a month before he died Maxwell told me that War and Peace was now his “only reading matter.” An acquaintance came to his Upper East Side apartment every afternoon to read aloud to him: “Even though I knew it was coming, we barely lived through the amputation of Anatole’s leg. And to think that Tolstoy lived through all of it over and over.”

There are, not surprisingly, variant readings of his character among those who were closest to him. John Cheever, one of his authors at the New Yorker, wrote to a friend about a visit by Maxwell:

Bill, as you must have gathered, is terribly fastidious. He once called to say that he was coming for tea. Mary went wild and cleaned, waxed, arranged flowers, etc. When he arrived everything seemed in order. Mary poured the tea. The scene was a triumph of decorum, until Harmon, an enormous cat, entered the room, carrying a dead goldfish. It seemed to be our relationship in a nutshell.

At a time of intense frustration over his dealings with the magazine, Cheever also wrote that his editor “was someone who mistook power for love. If you don’t grow and change he baits you; if you do grow and change he baits you cruelly.” In more affectionate mood, however, Cheever dedicated The Wapshot Scandal to Maxwell.

• • •

Alec Wilkinson, in his long friendship with Maxwell, saw nothing of this, or if he did he isn’t saying. The two men met when Wilkinson was a child. Wilkinson senior was the art editor of Woman’s Daymagazine. The Maxwells were their neighbors when they lived in Yorktown Heights, and the two men drove to the station together on days when Maxwell worked at the New Yorker. Alec Wilkinson later became a New Yorker writer himself, but if Maxwell had a hand in steering him there he does not mention it. His brief memoir of Maxwell, My Mentor, is rich in feeling but correspondingly short on circumstantial detail. It is an account of how the author found in Maxwell “the attentive and affectionate father figure my father felt reluctant to be.” Maxwell said all sorts of flattering things about Wilkinson’s father, which Wilkinson repeats without being able to endorse them. His neighbor was everything his father was not, down to size and manner: “My father was robust and Maxwell’s frame was slight. . . . My father was charming and blasphemous and subversive. . . . Maxwell’s nature was sedentary.” The Wilkinson family home was in a constant state of emotional turmoil owing mainly to the father’s adulteries, whereas Maxwell’s devotion to his wife, and his desire to rekindle in his New York hearth the lost warmth of his childhood home, was unwavering and plain to all who knew them.

My Mentor jumps around in a disjointed way and lacks a dramatic center, though it is hardly Wilkinson’s fault if his relationship with Maxwell was not shaped by torrid reversals. It never occurs to him to wonder if, perhaps at a level deeper than his own understanding, Maxwell “mistook power for love.” The book is made of bland devotion. It leads the author towards some odd assertions and pretty corny speechifying: “If we live long enough, our lives make some sort of sensible pattern”—a curious remark in a book about a man whose life was dominated by an absurdity of fate. “Most people are hardly remembered five years after they die,” writes Wilkinson, “but I will remember him—his writing, his character, his example, his advice—as long as I live.”

The second half of My Mentor is largely devoted to Maxwell’s decline and death, and to the courage with which his wife faced her fatal illness. Maxwell first met Emily Noyes when she came to theNew Yorker in search of a job in the mid-1940s. She was not hired, but after a year or more of prevarication Maxwell found her and invited her on a date. His determination was provoked again by Theodor Reik. Maxwell saw himself as living in a prison cell, a self-inflicted punishment for having “killed” his mother (he blamed himself for passing on the flu virus). “So I was a murderer,” Wilkinson reports him saying in the course of one of their conversations. “And what do you do with murderers? You put them in a cell—no wife, no family. I was in a prison cell, and there was Reik saying, You’re in a prison cell, but the door’s not locked.” His other family was, of course, the New Yorker itself.

The sound made by Maxwell’s delicate stories is not often heard amid the din of modern American fiction. His novels sometimes float along on a sea of impressions and are apt to turn gooey when love is in the air. The love at the center of The Folded Leaf is for another youth, and while it is not quite established as the first postwar gay novel in American literature, as far as I know the textual evidence is persuasive. Shower scenes in which Spud and Lymie soap each other, hand-holding, even kissing on the mouth might be explained by the customs of a different era; but what degree of innocence produced this scene, in which Spud, having moved out of the room he shared with Lymie, turns up unannounced one night to sleep beside his friend? Lymie at first keeps his eyes shut:

Lymie waited. He felt the covers being raised, and then the bed sinking down on the other side, exactly as he had imagined it. Then, lifted on a great wave of happiness, he turned suddenly and found Spud there beside him.

Spud was in his underwear and he was shivering. “My God, it’s cold,” he said. He pushed the pillow aside, and dug his chin in Lymie’s shoulder. . . . It was enough that Spud was here, whether for good or just for this once; that it was Spud’s arm he felt now across his chest. Lymie lay back on the wave of happiness and was supported by it. . . . All that he had ever wanted, he had now. All that was lost had come back to him.

One of the outstanding qualities of Maxwell’s best fiction is its sense of rhythm. The realization of the importance of music in his life—Wilkinson tells us that in middle age Maxwell studied with a concert pianist—makes his insistence on rhythm as a structural element all the more apparent. A good example is “Over by the River” (1974), a story of some 16,000 words composed in fugal form with which Maxwell chose to lead off his Collected Stories. As one motif overlaps another—a child’s fright at seeing a tiger slipping into the bedroom air-conditioning, a woman seen at a high window, a junkie lurking in the doorway, the malfunctioning of the air-conditioning, the suicide of the woman, a theft from the doorway—a ballad of domestic life, precariously situated between security and uncertainty, unfolds.

The rhythm of Maxwell’s novel The Chateau is mesmerizing in a different way. No plot, nor even firm storyline, holds the action together. A young couple in France after World War II —based on the newly wed Maxwells and not far removed from the parents in “Over by the River”—are hustled here and there by one misunderstanding and muddle after another. The reluctance of the author to intrude with reasonable outcomes to mundane situations creates a web of feeling and impression that is both humdrum and memorable.

There is a view that Maxwell’s reputation ought to be higher than it is, but it is a view held mainly by other members of the family to which both he and Wilkinson belong. The jacket of My Mentor is peppered with quotes from New Yorker writers, as Maxwell’s own books and those of other old-school New Yorker writers often are. “Only a saint could have borne with complete equanimity the inadequate recognition he had for years to endure,” the writer Shirley Hazzard (herself a Maxwell charge at the New Yorker) wrote to Wilkinson after Maxwell’s death. But it is hard to agree that Maxwell has been neglected. He received awards and medals and was made president of the National Institute of Arts and Letters. Two of his novels—They Came Like Swallows and The Folded Leaf—were Book-of-the-Month Club selections. His books have been kept in print faithfully by a number of publishers; Wilkinson says that They Came Like Swallows has never been out-of-print since its original publication in 1937, which is indeed remarkable when you consider that most of the works of Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner were deleted in the interim. Moreover, Maxwell was not prolific: between his fourth novel, Time Will Darken It, and his fifth, The Chateau, was a thirteen-year gap; between The Chateau and So Long, See You Tomorrow, an interval of almost twenty years. Rare is the author whom readers and critics will pursue through silence.

The view that Maxwell was unjustly neglected is probably shaped by the kind of literary life he led and by the narrow focus of his fiction. His activity seldom led him far from the New Yorker orbit and his friendships tended to be with writers connected to the magazine. The two volumes of correspondence published so far—to and from O’Connor and Sylvia Townsend Warner, yet another of his New Yorker authors—contain between them barely anything by way of comment on the work of contemporary writers, particularly of writers unconnected to the magazine. If one were asked to judge by the evidence of those books—The Happiness of Getting It Down Right and The Element of Lavishness—the social and accompanying literary changes of the 1950s and 1960s would seem hardly to have touched Maxwell and the Maxwell family. On the Beat Generation, the civil-rights campaign and the writers who responded to it, the antiwar movement and the sexual revolutions—no comment. Writers who for better or worse raised their voices in the public forum—Baldwin, Wright, Mailer, Ginsberg, Vidal—held little attraction for the New Yorker (Baldwin’s essay “Letter from a Region in My Mind,” published in the magazine in 1962 and later made into The Fire Next Time, is an exception) or, apparently, for Maxwell. In The Chateau, set in Paris in 1948, a time when one of the twentieth century’s most talented clusters of writers congregated on the Left Bank, the somewhat affectless hero Harold Rhodes and his wife, Barbara, keep “fastidiously” to the more proper Right Bank. Not a footfall, not a stream of cigarette smoke, not a whisper of an idea reaches them from the cafés across the river. The unwished-for hospitality of a tiresome old lady, on the other hand, must be repayed dutifully several times over. “I know now but I didn’t know then,” Maxwell wrote in Ancestors in 1971, “that the less people have to do with history the better.”

There was not a shred of bohemianism in Maxwell (there was, perhaps, a little more in his wife, who was a painter and, Wilkinson notes, a fan of William Burroughs), and yet as a writer he perched on the brink of confessionalism. What he appeared always to be close to confessing was that the orderly behavior he showed to the world, the rigid dress code he imposed on everyday life, were as necessary to him as alcohol and wayward sex were to Cheever. Beneath them lay a fissure so deep that it threatened to swallow him up. Decorum became a way of life. It was his peculiar literary strategy, the very thing that enabled him to keep in sight “the terror” that lay “under the cover of the dark.”