Maxwell–Early Novels and Stories
Edited by Christopher Carduff
William Maxwell

The Library of America
Hardcover/997 pages
ISBN: 159853016X
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". . . a dramatic historical perspective on America’s middle class . . ."

An ambitious read is the Library of America’s nearly thousand page volume, Maxwell. It’s a collection of American author William Maxwell’s dark and dense novellas, novels and short stories published between 1930 and 1948. Maxwell died at the age of 91 and was best known as an editor at the New Yorker Magazine where he worked for 40 years.

This volume offers a dramatic historical perspective on America’s middle class during the early 1900s with vivid and detailed descriptions of places and people’s deepest emotions. In a 1955 speech included in the collection, “The Writer as Illusionist,” Maxwell says that narrative writers “are people who perform tricks.” The writer, he says, must introduce mystery and intrigue to keep readers from putting the book down until they discover their assumptions are correct. Maxwell accomplishes his tricks with rich poetic language, drawing an exquisite word picture of the smallest detail such as a drop of water on a leaf. In a 1995 National Public Radio interview, Maxwell describes himself as a storyteller with a vivid memory and not a philosopher exploring the “exterior and interior” of life.

At the age of 26, he wrote his first novella, Bright Center of Earth. His characters are not well developed and his plot is vague in this story about an odd collection of tenants, mostly struggling artists, living in a rooming house owned by a warmed-hearted and liberal widow, Mrs. West. She is accused of doing “outlandish things” such as inviting Jefferson Carter, an educated black man, to rent one of the rooms. In this “sociological experiment” we experience the conflicts among the characters and their own personal attitudes toward the arrival of the new guest.

His second novella is a biographical fiction, They Came Like Swallows. Maxwell, in an introduction also included in this volume, says his mother’s death from Spanish influenza “so scarred my soul” that he had to ultimately write about it. In this story we witness the deep sadness that descends upon a family when their wife and mother dies. Divided into three parts, we meet Bunny, a young sensitive boy who sees himself as his “mother’s angel child,” the older brother Robert who blames himself for his mother’s death, and James, their father.

In the novel, The Folded Leaf, we again meet a character much like Bunny, a weak and sensitive older boy named Lymie whose mother is dead. He lives a sad and lonely life with his father in Chicago until he meets his muscular friend Spud. The story evolves around the strong friendship between these two very different and unhappy boys growing up. Their friendship breaks apart when Spud falls in love with Lymie’s friend and college classmate. Lymie’s attempted suicide mirrors Maxwell’s attempt to cut his throat and wrist with a straight-edge razor when his friend Jack Scully fell in love with his girlfriend. As in his other works, Maxwell’s offers his philosophic view of the moment: “The truth is that Lymie had never wanted to die… It masquerades in inversions and paradoxes, is easier to get at in a lie than in an honest statement.”

His second novel, Time Will Darken It is a montage of characters living in “comfortable houses on the hill” in Draperville. The main character, Austin King, a lawyer, is chastised by his pregnant wife, Martha, for allowing distant relatives, the Potter family, to visit for an extended period. The story is rich with dialogue and suspense as Mr. Potter swindles Austin’s friends while his daughter Nora falls in love with Austin, fueling community gossip.

Of the nine short stories, my favorite is “The Pilgrimage” about a couple touring France. So focused on finding a restaurant recommended by an American friend, they miss the real magic in the small village.

The volume also includes two introductions written by Maxwell in 1992 and 1997 that offer valuable background and insight about the themes he pursues throughout the pieces in this volume as well as a chronology and notes on the text. This volume and a second volume, Later Novels and Stories, set for release in the fall of 2008 to mark Maxwell’s centenary, are the effort of the Library of America to preserve the works of America’s best authors.

Reviewer: Kate Padilla