In William Maxwell’s Fiction, a Vivid, Varied Tableau of Midwestern Life

THE AMERICANS

Though his novels and short stories — published over six decades, beginning in 1934 — are set in an older, more decorous America, he grapples with themes that feel shockingly contemporary.


By A.O. Scott

“OF THE LITERARY ARTS, the one most practiced in Draperville was history.”

This observation occurs roughly two-thirds of the way through “Time Will Darken It,” William Maxwell’s 1948 novel about family discord and communal scandal in early-20th-century small-town Illinois. “History” is Maxwell’s name for gossip, the brutal art of innuendo-dropping and inference-drawing practiced by the middle-class women of Draperville over sumptuous lunches (“the canned lobster or crab meat, the tuna fish baked in shells, the chicken patties, the lavish salads, the New York ice cream”) and ruthless rubbers of bridge.

The all-seeing, all-judging narrator who surveys this activity hardly condones it. When the historians gathered, he acidly notes, “they slipped all pity off under the table with their too-tight shoes and became destroyers, enemies of society and of their neighbors, bent on finding out what went on behind the blinds that were drawn to the windowsill.”

Some of the gravity in this often very funny book, a share of the darkness that shadows its radiant comedy of wayward desire and failed communication, emanates from a sober understanding of the consequences of gossip. The members of the bridge club, cataloging sins and casting stones, practice a local, predigital version of cancel culture. They deal in shame, singeing the reputations of people who, while perhaps not entirely blameless, are nowhere near as bad or as brazen as the scuttlebutt might suggest.

Specifically, they train their sights on the behavior of Austin King, a lawyer and the son of a revered judge, who has developed a suspicious closeness to Nora Potter, a younger, unmarried “foster relative” of his from Mississippi, whose family had come for an extended visit the previous summer. Austin is married, and his wife, Martha — whose dread of the Potters’ arrival opens the novel — is expecting their second child. Nora, who stayed behind in Draperville when her parents and brother went back south, has lately taken to reading the law books in Austin’s office, an unusual practice that invites intense scrutiny and disapproving speculation.

The narrator sets up the historians as his foils, though of course he shares in their motives. He too wants to know what goes on behind closed doors and curtained windows, even if his proclaimed motive is the preservation of provincial American society — or at least the memory of what it used to be — rather than its destruction. He wants to replace snap judgments with nuance, to explore the gaps between intention and action, appearance and actuality. To set the historical record straight.

Maxwell, who lived from 1908 to 2000 and whose first novel, “Bright Center of Heaven,” was published in 1934, isn’t what we usually think of as a historical novelist, the kind who dresses up his characters in the costumes and idioms of olden times. Starting his career under the influence of Virginia Woolf, he was a resolutely modern writer, attuned to the fine vibrations of individual and interpersonal psychology against the backdrop of everyday life.

He draws from memory, but also, you feel, from the available evidence — from blueprints and plat maps, from newspaper clippings, bundles of letters and the neatly cataloged documents of a county historical society.

His setting is almost always the recent past. He is rigorously specific about when his stories take place. After spending a long-delayed honeymoon in France just after World War II, Maxwell conceived a novel about the misunderstandings between an American couple and some of the French people they encounter. By the time “The Chateau” was published, in 1961, it had evolved into a time-tinted snapshot of the state of French-American relations at a specific moment, when the wounds of war were still fresh and the depredations of mass tourism had not yet begun.

More often, he casts his attention back to the years of his childhood and young manhood, to the town that served as the model for Draperville: Lincoln, Ill. On the map it lies roughly halfway between Peoria and Springfield. “If you were to draw a diagonal line down the state of Illinois from Chicago to St. Louis,” Maxwell wrote, “the halfway point would be somewhere in Logan County. The county seat is Lincoln, which prides itself on being the only place named for the Great Emancipator before he became president.”

“Time Will Darken It” takes place quite a bit later, in 1912, a moment so far out of reach for the reader that Maxwell invokes not history, but archaeology. “To arrive at some idea of the culture of a certain street in a Middle Western small town shortly before the First World War,” he reflects, is a “delicate undertaking. For one thing, there are no ruins to guide you. Though the houses are not kept up as well as they once were, they are still standing. Of certain barns and outbuildings that are gone (and with them trellises and trumpet vines) you will find no trace whatever. In every yard a dozen landmarks (here a lilac bush, there a sweet syringa) are missing. There is no telling what became of the hanging fern baskets with American flags in them or of all those red geraniums. The people who live on Elm Street now belong to a different civilization. They can tell you nothing.”

The historian, though, can tell you quite a lot. The reader is transported back into that lost civilization, when houseguests measured their visits in weeks, not days, when the Civil War was still a living memory for many adults, when Chatauqua Season was a fixture of the calendar and when the towns threaded along the railroad lines of America’s farming regions were prosperous and dynamic places.

Those towns were also zones of contradiction and latent conflict. The rich soil around Draperville is farmed by tenants for the profit of prominent local residents. Maxwell writes that “something like a great pane of glass, opaque from one side and transparent from the other,” separated the Black neighborhoods of Draperville from the leafy blocks where bourgeois white families make their homes. The major Black character in “Time Will Darken It” is Rachel, the Kings’ maid, an eyewitness to what the bridge players can only guess at.

Even from the detachment of the third person — until 1980, there are alter egos in his books, but no “I” — Maxwell allows notes of nostalgia for this world to flicker through his stories. His evident affection for the places of his childhood (Chicago as well as Lincoln), and his tendency to empathize with its inhabitants even at their worst, is disciplined by a belief in objectivity. He draws from memory, but also, you feel, from the available evidence — from blueprints and plat maps, from newspaper clippings, bundles of letters and the neatly cataloged documents of a county historical society.

In the later part of his career — in the stories collected in “Billie Dyer” and in the National Book Award finalist “So Long, See You Tomorrow” — this method would become explicit. The fiction grew more factual. Draperville dropped its pseudonym. Maxwell’s father, brother, mother and younger self appeared as themselves.

Gossip is living history. History is petrified gossip. The subject of both literary arts, for Maxwell, is the enlacing of human passions in the web of relationships, rules, habits and prejudices that make up what is called society.

Gossip is living history. History is petrified gossip.

The source of comedy and pathos — of the arguments, deceits and serendipitous harmonies that give Maxwell’s narratives their structure and rhythm — is the failure of any one person to comprehend fully the architecture of that web. In “Time Will Darken It,” as in three novels that preceded it (“Bright Center of Heaven,” “They Came Like Swallows” and “The Folded Leaf”), Maxwell favors a floating point of view that occasionally alights within the consciousness of a particular character, revealing how incomplete one person’s understanding can be. Sometimes the character is a child, like Abbey King, Austin and Martha’s 4-year-old daughter, preoccupied with understanding the ways of the grown-ups and her own reactions to them. But the difference between Abbey and her father, her mother, cousin Nora and the matronly neighbor Mrs. Beach is of degree rather than kind. Everyone in this world is to some degree a child, because everyone has to infer the rules in the middle of the game. And the rules are always changing.

Maxwell’s most sustained exploration of that confusion is surely “The Chateau,” in which the misunderstandings between Harold and Barbara Rhodes, their hosts and fellow guests at a palatial old pension in the Loire Valley, are almost perfect. The stakes are lower than in “Time Will Darken It,” in which the Austins’ marriage, Nora’s well-being and the delicate communal order of Draperville seem to be imperiled by the specters of adultery and shady business dealings. The French are all inscrutable, but each one is baffling in a particular way, depending on gender, class, generation and temperament. They can be warm and confiding one moment, aloof and even hostile the next. Barbara and Harold are always trying to figure out what they might have done to provoke affection or give offense.

Reasons for some of the behavior are supplied in a concluding section called “Some Explanations” that a reader at Knopf, his publisher, urged him to cut. It takes the form of a question-and-answer session between narrator and reader. “You don’t enjoy drawing your own conclusions” about why something happened, the writer asks. Yes, but then I like to know if the conclusions I have come to are the right ones. How can they not be when everything that happens happens for so many different reasons?

Part of what makes Maxwell a fictional historian — as opposed to a writer of historical fiction — is a resistance to ambiguity for its own sake. Motives may not be fully rational, and reasons may not be completely knowable, but even extreme or capricious varieties of human behavior have observable patterns and causes. Maxwell spent more than a year undergoing psychoanalysis with Theodore Reik, and while his fictions are hardly Freudian case studies, they are nonetheless profoundly analytical, propelled by a spirit of inquiry more than by the mechanics of plot, and animated by a belief in overdetermination. Everything happens for so many different reasons!

This commitment — playful but never frivolous — to fiction as a way of knowing creates a simultaneous effect of complexity and clarity. “Time Will Darken It” may be principally the story of Austin King, but he isn’t exactly the protagonist. He is, for one thing, too passive to be the center of the story. And even though his non- or quasi affair with Nora and its impact on his family’s life is the major incident in the book, it isn’t quite accurate to say that their infatuation unfolds against the backdrop of other doings in Draperville and in the King household.

There is a version of this essay that makes a case for Maxwell based on the uncanny timeliness of his fiction.

You could just as well say the opposite: that Nora’s romantic anguish and Austin and Martha’s alienation from each other form the background against which a vivid and varied tableau of pre-World War I Midwestern life emerges. That too understates Maxwell’s artistry. The shifting currents of desire, jealousy, frustration and decency that define the Austin-Nora-Martha triangle flow through a complicated circuitry that encompasses the extended King family, the neighborhood, the town and even the nation. You don’t have to read between the lines to find inklings of sectional conflict, racial inequality, class stratification and cultural resentment in these pages. All of that is right there, in front of the narrator’s eye. What holds it all together isn’t his omniscience so much as his curiosity, his historian’s hunger to figure out why what happened happened.

There is a version of this essay that makes a case for Maxwell based on the uncanny timeliness of his fiction. Much as the setting may be an older, more decorous America, its people and the problems they face can feel almost shockingly contemporary.

Maxwell’s debut novel, “Bright Center of Heaven,” which he declined to reprint during his lifetime (it can be found in the first volume of the Library of America edition published in 2008), is set at a Meadowland, Wis., estate that serves as a guesthouse and impromptu artists’ colony for a motley collection of creative and intellectual types. Their messy ways of mixing up sex, emotion, politics and work — the self-involvement, the idealism, the hypocrisy — are likely to seem familiar, and Maxwell’s satirical view of the limits of what we might now call wokeness has hardly dated. The hectic plot, laid out over the course of a single day, spins toward the arrival of Jefferson Carter, a Black writer and traveling lecturer. His presence brings out the worst in everyone, proceeding through a welter of microaggressions toward a climactic shouting match that is both hilarious and sad. “If they weren’t all mad,” Jefferson thinks as the evening unravels, “then their conduct was inexcusable.”

And they are all mad in their way. The racial neurosis of white people — not fragility so much as a defensive, anxious need to brush aside problems and talk about something else — is something Maxwell returns to, notably in “The Chateau,” in which his alter ego, Harold Rhodes, challenges the reflexive racism of some French acquaintances. “They are a wonderful people,” he says of Black Americans. “They have the virtues — the sensibility, the patience, the emotional richness — we lack. And if the distinction between the two races becomes blurred, as it has in Martinique, and they become one race, then America will be saved.”

The inadequacies of this kind of liberalism interest Maxwell, and so do its graces. The story “Billie Dyer,” about a real-life resident of Lincoln a generation older than Maxwell — the son of a laundress who fought in World War I and became a prominent doctor — is a chronicle of Black upward mobility and white civic benevolence set at a time of discrimination, violence and segregation.

If it’s something of an exaggeration to claim a spot for “Bright Center of Heaven” on a syllabus devoted to race in American literature, it’s less of a stretch to inscribe Maxwell’s third book, “The Folded Leaf,” into the pre-Stonewall history of the queer American novel. Published in 1945, three years before Gore Vidal’s “The City and the Pillar” (often cited, not least by Vidal himself, as the first modern gay novel), “The Folded Leaf” follows the romantic friendship of Lymie and Spud through high school and the first part of college. Lymie is slight of build, shy and bookish, while Spud is athletic, outgoing and unacademic. They meet in a swimming class and become inseparable, sharing confidences, meals and, once they move to campus, a bed in a rooming house full of undergraduate men.

The most timely of Maxwell’s books at the moment is surely ‘They Came Like Swallows,’ about the influenza epidemic of 1918-20.

Their bond is not explicitly sexual, and both pursue romances with girls, but it has an unmistakable — and, for Lymie, an overwhelming — erotic intensity. The world, in the shape of Spud’s busy family and Lymie’s morose, widowed father, accepts the relationship without quite acknowledging what it means, and the narrator is both candid and circumspect. As in “Time Will Darken It,” sexuality is less a matter of secrecy, shame and silence than of implication and indirection. What goes on between the two young men is both obvious and mysterious, and Maxwell’s treatment of it shows a sophistication and sensitivity that 21st-century writers might envy and learn from.

The most timely of Maxwell’s books at the moment is surely “They Came Like Swallows,” one of a handful of enduring literary works about the influenza epidemic of 1918-20. Maxwell was 10 when his mother, Blossom, died of the flu, a trauma that he reconstructed 18 years later with devastating precision. The disease creeps into the story via newspaper headlines and local gossip, a tiny detail among the routines of Midwestern, middle-class family life.

As he does in most of his novels, Maxwell favors portraiture over plot, generating a sense of momentum by shifting among distinctive points of view, in this case the mother-attached younger son, Bunny; his self-confident older brother, Robert; and their father, a dutiful, slightly stiff businessman. The males flutter around their wife and mother, who is pregnant and whose loving, witty presence infuses the family circle (which also includes aunts, in-laws, grandparents and close friends). And then she’s gone, leaving the world in a state of permanent imbalance.

Variations on this family, both before and after the mother’s death, reappear throughout Maxwell’s fiction. The other defining event of his childhood seems to have been an accident involving his older brother, Hap, and a wagon that led to the amputation of one of Hap’s legs. The manly, capable, wounded older brother — sometimes missing an arm rather than a leg — is a recurring character, often contrasted with a more introverted, psychologically fragile younger sibling. The stoical widower, the satellite relatives, the shadowy ancestors passing silent judgment on the present — these are fixtures of Maxwell’s imagined world, plucked from the stream of his own experience.

It takes little effort to unearth the autobiographical sources of Maxwell’s writing. The detailed chronology at the back of the Library of America editions, compiled by Christopher Carduff, offers a thorough and insightful key to the author’s life. Those sources would become more explicit in the later phase of his career — in “So Long, See You Tomorrow,” the stories in “Billie Dyer” and in “Ancestors,” the only official memoir in Maxwell’s corpus. He calls people mostly by their own names and presents their situations with what seems like minimal embellishment. “So Long, See You Tomorrow” tells the story of a homicide sparked by sexual jealousy, but its achievement is to render the crime in as unsensational a way as possible, to emphasize its profound ordinariness.

He pays his own life the tribute of finding it interesting.

This plain-spoken fidelity to fact makes Maxwell an unacknowledged forerunner of autofiction, that much-argued-over postmodern style of almost-autobiographical, self-ventriloquizing prose. Maxwell’s later writing certainly anticipates some of the advantages of autofiction — specificity, modesty, candor — while avoiding some of the pitfalls of solipsism and passive-aggressive self-consciousness. He pays his own life the tribute of finding it interesting.

But just as it’s possible to assemble an argument for why Maxwell matters now, it’s also tempting to make a case for him based on his untimeliness, his embodiment of old-fashioned literary virtues. Attention to nuances of character. Relative indifference to ideology and identity. Prose that is lucid and elegant but not too fancy.

Certainly, you can read Maxwell through a double-glazed, rose-tinted pane of antiquarianism. His own gaze is characteristically backward, to the early days of the automobile, college life before the higher-ed boom, France before American travelers spoiled it. At the same time, a 21st-century reader will be aware, perhaps even more acutely, of Maxwell’s place in an almost mythical literary cosmos. Midwestern though he may have been by birth and temperament, Maxwell was by choice and professional commitment a New Yorker. A “New Yorker” New Yorker, employed at that magazine through much of its midcentury golden age.

Even if he had never published a sentence under his own name, Maxwell could claim an honorable place in the history of American writing. As a fiction editor, he handled the copy of J.D. Salinger, Mary McCarthy, John Updike and many others. Three volumes of his correspondence have been published, one with Sylvia Townsend-Warner, another with Eudora Welty and a third with Frank O’Connor, whose names perhaps now ring bells as faint as Maxwell’s. The books are repositories of mild gossip, practical wisdom, family news and playful ribbing. For a certain kind of obsessive magazine nerd, each one is spell book or codex, a key to the deep grammar of the craft.

Big books, big personalities, big swinging ideas. Sex, manhood, history, modernity, America.

They are also windows into the peculiar relationship between editor and writer, a relationship that is formal, practical and decorous and also unnervingly intimate. The editor tiptoes into the writer’s head, measuring the dimensions of the space, straightening the pictures and rearranging pieces of furniture, hoping to slip away unnoticed. He must be sympathetic, discreet, unflinchingly honest, judgmental without being pushy, loving but impersonal.

All of which might describe Maxwell’s practice as a writer, a pursuit he kept apart from his New Yorker job. In both incarnations, he strikes the reader as, above all, a gentleman, in a particularly American, nonaristocratic sense of the word. He holds the door, refreshes the drinks, makes sure the conversation gets around to everyone, listens and observes without imposing his own views or needs — a restraint that makes his occasional assertions of will all the more authoritative.

Moderation is an ambiguous gift for a writer. Fortune — or at least a literary culture attuned to grand ambitions and turned on by gestures of transgression — favors the bold. The dominant style, particularly among male novelists of the middle and later decades of the 20th century, has been melodramatic self-display. Big books, big personalities, big swinging ideas. Sex, manhood, history, modernity, America.

Maxwell writes about all those things, but without the narcissistic presumption that he belongs at the center of the story. He is always in the story, of course. He’s the watchful, sensitive second child; the diffident husband; the attentive father; the awkward but devoted friend. The reliable narrator.

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