Early Novels and Stories: Bright Center of Heaven / They Came Like Swallows / The Folded Leaf / Time Will Darken It / Stories 1938-1956 by William MaxwellIn 1934, at age 26, William Maxwell left small-town Illinois for New York City, convinced that life and literature were elsewhere. “I had no idea then,” he later wrote, “that three-quarters of the material I would need for the rest of my writing life was already at my disposal. My father and mother. My brothers. The look of things. The Natural History of home . . . All there, waiting for me to learn my trade and recognize instinctively what would make a story.”
With his second book, They Came Like Swallows (1937), Maxwell found his signature subject matter—the fragility of human happiness—as well as his voice, a quiet, cadenced Midwestern voice that John Updike has called one of the wisest and kindest in American fiction. Set against the background of the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918, this short novel presents the loving character of Elizabeth Morison, a devoted wife and mother, through the eyes of those whom she is fated to leave decades before her time.
Edmund Wilson described The Folded Leaf (1945) as “a quite unconventional study of adolescent relationships—between two boys, with a girl in the offing—in Chicago and in a Middle Western college: very much lived and very much seen.” He praised this “drama of the immature” for the compassion Maxwell brings to his male protagonists, whose intensely felt, unarticulated bond is beyond their inchoate ability to understand.
Time Will Darken It (1948) is a drama of the mature: a good man’s struggle to keep duty before desire and his family’s needs before his own. It paints a portrait of Draperville, Illinois, in 1912, a proud and isolated community governed by gossip, where an ambitious young woman must not overreach the limits society has placed on her sex, and an older, married gentleman must not encourage her should she dare.
Together with these major works, this Library of America edition of Maxwell’s early fiction collects his lighthearted first novel, Bright Center of Heaven (1934), out of print for nearly 70 years, and nine masterly short stories. It concludes with “The Writer as Illusionist” (1955), Maxwell’s fullest statement on the art of fiction as he practiced it.
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William Maxwell : Early Novels and Stories. In , at age 26, William Maxwell left small-town Illinois for New York City, convinced that life and literature were elsewhere. My father and mother. My brothers. The look of things. The Natural History of home.
Allied with the magazine from until his death in at the age of 91, Maxwell served under both Harold Ross and William Shawn, refining the prose of such luminaries as Vladimir Nabokov, John Updike, V. Pritchett, J. Salinger, and John Cheever. But Maxwell — a famously gentle, modest man — was himself a fiction writer of note, producing six novels and numerous short stories that perfectly captured the essence of small-town midwestern America in the early 20th century. I have no other choice, really. Other places do not have the same hold on my imagination. It was a subject he would treat elsewhere, both in novels and short stories, but this early telling is the most direct and the most moving.
To those who knew him, William Maxwell as a person—soft-spoken yet incisive, moist-eyed yet dry-voiced, witty yet infallibly tactful—threatened to overshadow Maxwell as a writer. We aspiring authors who enjoyed his unstinting editorial attention and gracious company tended to forget that, for four days of the week, he stayed at home and wrote, reporting to the typewriter straight from breakfast, often clad in bathrobe and slippers. He had finished two novels, the second of them a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, before finding, in , employment at The New Yorker , where he remained, with a few interruptions, as an editor until ; he continued as a contributor until , when he was ninety-one years old and in his last year of life. For the year , for instance, we read:. In , when his new publisher, Alfred A. Meadowland was based upon Bonnie Oaks, a hospitable farm near Portage, Wisconsin, where Maxwell spent a number of summer months and one winter. Brightness is everywhere, indoors and out, in his first novel.
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In , when William Maxwell was 25 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 sitting at anchor in a bay near Coney Island, which belonged to the financier JP Morgan. 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; 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 , his cue 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 , the same year as Tender Is the Night; his final book of original fiction, Billie Dyer and Other Stories, appeared in , with the Collected Stories and a volume of correspondence still to come before his death in August , two weeks short of his 92nd birthday. His wife Emily, whom he married at the end of the second world war, had died eight days earlier, and it would seem that Maxwell, frail but not fatally ill, had simply willed himself to follow her.