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Friends pay rich tribute to a New Yorker editor

A William Maxwell Portrait: Memories and Appreciations; Edited by Charles Baxter, Michael Collier and Edward Hirsch; W.W. Norton: 234 pp. $23.95

August 25, 2004|Merle Rubin | Special to The Times

A William Maxwell Portrait

Memories and Appreciations

Edited by Charles Baxter, Michael Collier and Edward Hirsch

W.W. Norton: 234 pp. $23.95

*

In the course of a long life that spanned all but the first eight years of the 20th century, William Maxwell came to occupy a special place on the American literary scene and in the hearts of those who knew him. As a fiction editor at the New Yorker under the reigns of Harold Ross and William Shawn, he worked with a wide range of illustrious authors, including Vladimir Nabokov, John Cheever, J.D. Salinger, John Updike, Mavis Gallant, Frank O'Connor and Sylvia Townsend Warner. The close ties he formed with writers are richly evident in two recently published volumes of his correspondence -- with O'Connor, "The Happiness of Getting It Down Right" (1996), and with Warner, "The Element of Lavishness" (2001).

But it was not just as a trusted editor, engaging correspondent and cherished friend that Maxwell made his mark. He was also a gifted writer whose sensitive novels -- six in all, published between 1934 and 1980 -- were constructed with a painstaking skill all the more impressive for its unobtrusiveness.

Appearing four years after his death, "A William Maxwell Portrait" pays tribute to the man and his work. It contains essays by 14 of his friends, some (like Shirley Hazzard) who knew him well, others (like Paula Fox) whose contact with him was limited in frequency but who can attest to his uniquely intense quality. The volume concludes with a talk Maxwell delivered at Smith College in 1955.

There are difficulties inherent in any commemorative project. One of this book's editors, Edward Hirsch, cites Maxwell's own words on the difficulty of writing about one's friends: "If you write too fondly it comes out mush, and if you aren't careful they become a character in a story." The essays in this volume manage to avoid these pitfalls. One way they do so is by focusing on Maxwell's novels. Alice Munro offers a brisk, to-the-point appreciation of his artistry. Anthony Hecht shines a light on the subtle irony and compassionate wisdom of Maxwell's 1948 novel, "Time Will Darken It." Charles Baxter's discussion of Maxwell's last novel, "So Long, See You Tomorrow," singles out the generosity informing his work: "One of the curiosities of this masterpiece ... is that after setting himself on the stage ... for a chapter or two, and having created his own self-portrait, William Maxwell then proceeds to take himself off that stage ... so that the dramas of his childhood friend -- Cletus Smith -- and Cletus' father and mother, even his dog ... can be heard and seen and understood."

What nearly everyone seems to remember most was Maxwell's extraordinary emotional openness and vulnerability. The Illinois-born writer lived in New York for most of his adult life yet never felt like a New Yorker. Even in old age, he displayed an eager interest in other people's lives that struck some of his friends as almost uncanny.

Much of his fiction seems to have originated in the wound he suffered as a child, when his mother died in the dreadful influenza epidemic that killed more people than the world war preceding it. Novelist Richard Bausch recalls:

"I mentioned that I had just finished reading 'They Came Like Swallows,' and that the book -- which draws heavily on the death of his mother in 1918, when he was ten years old -- took me apart and then put me back together again. He glanced at me and his eyes had welled.... 'It was written in tears,' he said. I thought about how a man could still hurt over something that had happened seventy-five years earlier, and my heart raced. There was something almost exhilarating about it.... "

Some of the essays, naturally, are better than others. Donna Tartt's, though pleasant enough, borders on coyness, while Benjamin Cheever's reveals more about his own anxieties and neuroses than it does about Maxwell. John Updike contributes a poem; Alec Wilkinson, a thoughtful overview of Maxwell's life, career and profoundly happy marriage. Of considerable interest are Michael Collier's perceptive piece on Maxwell's correspondence, Hirsch's "Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man" and Annabel Davis-Goff's account of reading Maxwell's beloved "War and Peace" aloud to him when he grew too weak to hold the book for himself.

Several essays show Maxwell and his wife, Emmy, approaching death with clear-eyed courage. She seems to have had some hope of an afterlife; he seemingly less, if any. "In one of the last interviews he gave," recalls Collier, "Maxwell said the only thing he would regret about no longer being alive was that he would no longer be able to read -- no Chekhov, no Turgenev, no Tolstoy, no Keats."

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