So Long, See You Tomorrow was my introduction to William Maxwell. I read the novel outdoors on a warm September day in Springfield, Illinois. The narrator spoke with a striking simplicity, a combination of empathy and intellect that I found fresh and rare. And, perhaps most surprising to a Midwesterner, he did not recount a distant locale but spoke of life in Lincoln, Illinois—where he had grown up, a mere thirty miles away—and of universal truths emanating from a sensibility and landscape that I knew intimately.
A few years later, in 1991, I was presented an opportunity to interview Maxwell for a literary magazine. When my cab pulled up to Maxwell’s building on East Eighty-Sixth in Manhattan, I stood for a moment looking up at the apartments and across the street to the park on the river’s edge. Here was the home of the writer’s adulthood, his second literary territory and the neighborhood that inspired “Over by the River,” one of his finest stories. I remembered his words about the writer Colette in The Outermost Dream: how he had stood in Paris “day after day looking up at the windows of that row of houses on the north end of the garden of the Palais-Royal, wondering which window was hers, feeling a pull like that of the moon on the ocean” —a pull precipitated by a love for her writing. Now Maxwell was the one inside, and when he opened the door I knew I was in the presence of someone very much like the narrator of So Long, See You Tomorrow. His gentle yet assured manner recalled the book’s reserved wisdom; his voice echoed its natural cadence. Nattily dressed in a tweed jacket and tie, he was physically delicate, but a strength of spirit, a vitality shone from his eyes, from his open, welcoming face.
Inside, an expansive living room wall was lined with books he treasured. Some of the authors he knew personally—J.D. Salinger, John Updike, Maeve Brennan—others, such as Yeats and Tolstoy, had become his companions and inspiration through a lifetime of reading. A large-scale abstract painting hung on the wall, and a long, low bench with a needlepoint crocodile sat before the fireplace. He took me to a small back room filled with papers upon papers, odd furniture, a photo of his poet friend, Robert Fitzgerald (also a central Illinoisan whom he met at Harvard), and his daughter Brookie’s drawing of the very park and river I had seen outside—the cover art for his first story collection. Maxwell had switched from a manual to an electric typewriter only in later years and preferred answering questions on his clattering Coronamatic. “I think better on the typewriter than I do just talking,” he told me. After carefully considering each of my queries, he rolled a sheet of paper into his typewriter and composed for up to five minutes at a time. He paused occasionally, his lips moving slightly as he reread the words through tortoiseshell glasses. Once satisfied, he turned the typewriter stand around on its squeaky wheels so I could read his response. The next summer, he arrived at the Croton-Harmon railway station wearing a broad-brimmed straw hat and drove me to his country home in Yorktown Heights. There, he suspended a long extension cord through the back window and brought his typewriter outdoors, where we sat for two afternoons at a picnic table on the patio overlooking a rolling lawn, flower beds, and an art studio that belonged to his wife, Emily, who served brie, bacon, and tomato sandwiches and berries with créme fraiche. Sitting by his side allowed me to read his words as he typed them. I could ask follow-up questions immediately, which made for a smooth interchange—a true conversation. Although this interview procedure may seem unusual, communicating through the typewriter was natural, even personal for Maxwell, a man who spent his career crafting stories at the keyboard. His nimble, sinewy hands, which John Blades of the Chicago Tribune aptly likened to “tree roots photographed in slow motion,” embodied both the power and tenderness of his works.
Agilely swinging his legs over the suspended extension cord, Maxwell took me back inside to see a closet with letters stacked to the ceiling: his lifelong correspondence from friends, family, and the myriad writers whose work he edited at The New Yorker. He asked whether I would be willing to help him go through the papers, which he intended to donate to the University of Illinois. They were in fairly good order, but he wanted them organized differently. After that day, over a period of about five years, thick packages and cardboard boxes appeared on my doorstep—hundreds of letters, postcards, and notes he had received through seven decades. Among them, a 1945 letter from longtime friend Susan Deuel Shattuck tried to alleviate his concerns about the Illinois reception of his next novel, The Folded Leaf, based on his experiences at the university. Vladimir Nabokov’s letters came with signature flourish: A butterfly drawn in exuberant colors punctuated the famous lepidopterist’s “V.” Eudora Welty’s postcard from Mississippi’s Mendenhall Restaurant pictured its famous revolving tables. She thought they “would have been good in the Beulah”—the fictional hotel in her 1955 novel The Ponder Heart, which she dedicated to Maxwell. And there was mail from the three Johns: Cheever, O’Hara, and Updike. The youngest of the trio, Updike wrote in 1992 thanking Maxwell for his years of editorial guidance:
I’ve been pawing through my manuscripts at Houghton Library in Cambridge, trying to date my old poems for a collector’s edition and thought the old New Yorker letters might help, and couldn’t help rereading some of the innumerable ones from you. What a torrent of encouragement and loving advice and undeserved flattery over the years! Where would I be without it? Somewhere else, I’m sure. And the sadness of thinking that you and I, you in your office with its view of Rockefeller Center and I in my Ipswich [Massachusetts] domicile surrounded by children and dinner parties, are figures of the past, characters in a drama whose scenery is all packed up and in the van. Anyway, if I’ve never said it before, thank you for all that caring and intelligence.
Updike’s tender tone is not unusual among the New Yorker contributors who worked with Maxwell. The correspondence reveals the close personal bonds the editor developed with his talented fold: As a well-regarded author himself, he felt an affinity for writers that they recognized and appreciated. Yet despite his genuine concern for their personal and artistic welfare, he maintained objectivity that guided them toward what he called their “essential quality.” As Roger Angell, Maxwell’s own New Yorker editor, recalled, “I think he was closer to the writers than anyone else [at the magazine]. He seemed to have intimate connections, intimate friendships, with almost all his writers.” These relations constituted half of his dual life in letters and strengthened his resolve to write increasingly streamlined prose himself. By the time he published So Long in 1980, all he wanted was to say exactly what he meant “in the only exact way of saying it.” Indeed, caring so deeply about the language of other writers helped him to refine his own. By the end of his life, Maxwell had corresponded for more than forty years with Updike, who accepted my invitation to participate in ceremonies honoring his editor’s gift of papers and correspondence to the University of Illinois in 1997. “Will we be anywhere near Lincoln?” Updike asked me. “On to Lincoln!” On a crisp April morning, Maxwell’s cousin, Dr. Robert Perry, shepherded us through the ordinary streets and houses, the farms, fields, and cemeteries Maxwell molded into a literary place uniquely his own.
* * *
When I saw Mr. Maxwell in his country house in 1994, he told me that it might be our last visit. He was getting older—he thought he had five years or so left—and must conserve his energy to finish the things he still wanted to do. That night I stayed up until three in the morning writing down every detail I could remember: helping Mrs. Maxwell carry in the groceries, the sausages she fixed us, his undiminished vitality. Yet it wasn’t the last visit. To my great fortune, he continued to see me once or twice a year—the last time in December 1999, six months before his death.
In December 1995, Maxwell received the PEN/Malamud award for achievement in short fiction, and I flew to Washington, D.C., for the ceremony. He shared the honor that year with a much younger Chicagoan, Stuart Dybek, whose work had also appeared in The New Yorker. In the richly paneled, baroque auditorium of the Folger Shakespeare Library, the two sat on a bare stage prepared to read to the capacity crowd. Dybek was introduced first. The picture of an up-and-coming man of letters with a shock of brown hair and a tweed jacket, he delivered a graphic, gripping monologue from the perspective of a young man contemplating dating and sex in the 1990s. Ebullient and animated, he performed his story, controlling the stage as an actor behind the lectern, turning first to one side of the audience, then to the other. His voice rose and fell dramatically as he punched out explicit details of his narrator’s love life, interjecting raw yet humorous language that would have been rejected by The New Yorker’s censors ten years earlier. Maxwell’s face betrayed neither delight nor disgust. The audience roared with laughter repeatedly and gasped at the story’s tragic turn. Dybek was a great success and received enthusiastic applause; he was indeed a fresh talent—a new New Yorker writer.
William Maxwell approached the podium slowly and adjusted his glasses. A literary patriarch nearing ninety, he had chosen “The French Scarecrow,” a 1956 story about the comfortable yet not quite contented lives of upstate New York neighbors who garden in the country and lie on an analyst’s couch in the city. He read modestly and softly, sometimes haltingly as shadows fell on his pages. The audience was hushed. The story’s tension coursed beneath his words, beneath the gently muffled voice that one could imagine when reading So Long, See You Tomorrow. He offered no dramatic twists, no gesticulations—just words that evinced a commanding literary efficacy, a perfect emotional pitch tuned to the core of his characters’ lives. The crowd acknowledged him warmly, as one would an erudite grandfather, and afterward he was greeted by a long line of readers bearing books for his signature.
It seemed that the past and future of The New Yorker, perhaps that of American short fiction generally, had met on stage that night. The evening was filled with appreciation for two superb writers whose work, though poles apart on many fronts, preserves part of our shared American experience. Yet although many were invigorated by Dybek’s story, others may have winced a bit, longing for the days when Harold Ross, the magazine’s first editor, published the essays of E. B. White. Clearly, Maxwell embodied The New Yorker’s legendary golden years. His forty-year tenure there began a mere decade after its founding, and he edited fiction by its principal luminaries. Even so, he was no relic: His work was conspicuously relevant to the many young people queued to meet him after the program that night. Standing among the Washingtonians and New Yorkers waiting their turn, I sensed their reverence for the novels they carried with them, for stories born in the heartland at the turn of the twentieth century that mattered even as the new millennium approached. They, too, were drawn to the quiet voice in the cavernous hall—to a voice that, through a long life of literary pursuit, echoed truths that were their own.
Barbara A. Burkhardt, an assistant professor of English at the University of Illinois at Springfield, was a close acquaintance of William Maxwell. She received her Ph.D. from Maxwell's alma mater, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she organized his correspondence for the Maxwell archives. During the last ten years of Maxwell's life, she conducted extensive interviews with him on regular visits to his homes in New York City and Westchester County, New York. Since Maxwell liked to answer questions on his clattering Coronamatic, he carefully considered her queries, rolled a sheet of paper into the typewriter and composed.
This excerpt is from William Maxwell: A Literary Life. Copyright 2005 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Used with permission of the University of Illinois Press. This work is protected under the U.S. copyright laws. It may not be reproduced, reprinted, reused, or altered without the expressed written permission of the Board of Trustees for the University of Illinois.