William Maxwell Found the Depth in Modest Places

A.O. Scott, the co-chief film critic for The Times, and William Maxwell are guests on this week’s episode of the Book Review podcast.

Maxwell is the latest subject in Scott’s essay series The Americans, about writers who capture the complex identity of the United States. In his novels and short stories, Maxwell, as Scott puts it, “returned to the precise civilization, culture, and society that he knew growing up.”

William Maxwell Found the Depth in Modest Places


William Maxwell Found the Depth in Modest Places

According to Scott, “He was trying to sort out himself in a manner by discovering where he had come from in so many of these works.

It was available indefinitely. He revisited his family, their history, and the region where they lived, and it’s astonishing how many facets there are to that. How much depth, complexity, humour, and pathos can one expect to find in a tiny, rural town?

The show will discuss “Dirty Work,” a new book by Eyal Press that examines the lives of those who work in slaughterhouses and other unethical environments. According to Press, inequality is one of the book’s major themes.

The Book of Eli makes it clear that “the wealthy and powerful” aren’t always to fault. Most frequently, individuals at the bottom of the social ladder, those with less alternatives and possibilities, are handed “ethically challenging obligations that they undertake in our name and on behalf of society.”

This week, Alexandra Alter reports on the publishing sector, Dwight Garner and Jennifer Szalai discuss books they’ve recently reviewed, and Tina Jordan looks back at the 125-year history of the Book Review.

William Maxwell Biography

William Maxwell (born 1908; passed away 2000) was a native Illinoisan who spent his formative years in Lincoln before relocating to Chicago at the age of fourteen. He obtained his MA from Harvard in 1931 after studying for a year at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

After finishing his undergraduate degree, he went back to Urbana to teach freshman composition and take graduate classes. After relocating to the Big Apple in 1936, Maxwell spent the next four decades working at the New Yorker, initially in the art department and later as the magazine’s fiction editor.

Two daughters, Katherine Farrington and Emily Brooke, were born to Maxwell and his wife Emily Gilman Noyes, whom he wed in 1945. Fiction writers he worked with include the late John Cheever (1912–1982), Vladimir Nabokov (1899–1977), Frank O’Connor (1903–1966), the early John O’Hara (1905–1970), V. S. Pritchett (1900–1997), the late J. D. Salinger (2010), the late John Updike (2009), and the late Eudora Welty (1932–2009). (b. 1909–d. 2001).

A president of the National Institute of Arts and Letters from 1969 to 1972. Six novels, two story collections, two tale collections (one produced privately), a volume of collected stories, a family history, a volume of essays and reviews, and two books for children were published during his lifetime.

Maxwell’s mother dying during the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 was the defining moment of his life. For example, in the Godine 1985 version of The Chateau, on the very last page is a “Note about the Author” in which Maxwell talks of his mother’s death:

“It happened too quickly, with no warning, and we none of us could believe it or bear it. My dad’s face went ashy grey and stayed that way for a whole twelve months.

This nightmare seemed to go on forever. Several of his writings, notably his National Book Award– and William Dean Howells medal–winning final novel, So Long, See You Tomorrow, deal with his mother’s death in some way or another.

Final Words

In addition to these and other honours for specific works, Maxwell was honoured with other awards for lifetime achievement, such as the American Institute of Arts and Letters Gold Medal for lifetime achievement in the category of Fiction and the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction.  Thanks for reading our article William Maxwell Found the Depth in Modest Places.