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William Maxwell

In celebration of its 85th anniversary, The New Yorker has had a daily online feature in which it highlights some New Yorker author and a particular piece by that author that appeared in its pages. An especially noteworthy aspect of this enterprise is that the “issue containing that day’s selected piece will be made freely available in our digital archive and will remain open until the next day’s selection is posted.” Thus, a non-subscriber who has sufficient time can have a go at an entire issue from years or decades ago at no cost. But even without this bonus, the short blurbs written by current New Yorker writers about past works and their authors have been informative.

Yesterday’s featured work, discussed by Jon Michaud, was William Maxwell’s short novel So Long, See You Tomorrow, which appeared in 1976 in two parts. Maxwell is perhaps better known as the long-time New Yorker fiction editor than as a fiction writer. He edited, among others, John Cheever, Eudora Welty, and Vladimir Nabokov. On seeing Michaud’s post, I was reminded yet again that I have long wanted to read Maxwell. I considered downloading So Long, See You Tomorrow from Amazon for my Kindle, then wondered if I should instead grab it for free from the New Yorker archive. Why pay $10? But I didn’t really want to read it online, because the look of articles in the archive is not welcoming. Indecision got the best of me.

Last night I asked Joel if he had read anything by Maxwell. No. This morning I was talking to Joel when I glanced at the books on the shelves above his desk. (I should take a moment here to explain that we did a remodel last year whose last step was the installation of the built-in desk and shelves. Since I didn’t want the shelves to look empty at the end of the installation and Joel wasn’t due back from Grenoble for another week or two, I put some of my books on the shelves, books that I had read and put out of the way in piles while awaiting more shelf space, or books I hadn’t read and put out of the way to make room for newer books.) As I talked, I noticed Joshua Ferris’s 2007 novel Then We Came To The End, which I so loved, and asked if he had read it yet. No, just the first few pages, but he said he’d give it another try.

And then I realized that the book next to Ferris’s had William Maxwell’s name on the spine. My gosh, we have a William Maxwell book! Was it Joel’s? No, he assured me that it’s mine. What a puzzle.

The book is Maxwell’s All the Days and Nights: The Collected Stories. It was published in 1995. I have no idea when I got it, or how. A present, surely. Or did I buy it on remainder? That could be, given my continuing desire to read him. I felt foolish. I will start the book tonight.

In the Preface to All the Days and Nights, Maxwell has a passage that I remember reading before, perhaps in Morris Dickstein’s NYT review of Barbara Burkhardt’s 2005 biography William Maxwell: A Literary Life, which quotes it. This passage is what convinced me I must read Maxwell.

The year was 1933, and I was twenty-five. I had started to become an English professor and changed my mind, and I had written a novel, as yet unpublished. I meant to go to sea, so that I would have something to write about. . . . I had no idea 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 cast of larger-than-life-size characters — affectionate aunts, friends of the family, neighbors white and black — that I was presented with when I came into the world. The look of things. The weather. Men and women long at rest in the cemetery but vividly remembered.

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