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William Maxwell

By Shirley Hazzard

This was a man of great quality. William Maxwell’s life, in outline, might seem quite divided—the early decades of irreparable loss and excruciating loneliness; the burden, as he felt it, of an incapacitating sensibility; followed by a profound, reciprocated love, by the ripening of his gift, the birth of his daughters, the affection of troops of friends, and ultimately by world-wide homage to his work and his character. Such a rescue, however, does not come about quite abruptly. There had first been the rescue by language and literature, and the exercise of talent. Maxwell was never an intellectual. He was an artist; among the most intelligent literary figures of his era. His intelligence was, above all, humane intelligence: so true a response to life as to appear simplicity itself. His integrity and candor, as a man and a writer, were a distillation of ardent interior experience and the intensity of quiet observation. I don’t seek, here, to explain: only to give impressions from an unclouded friendship of forty years. My husband, Francis Steegmuller, knew Bill from their youth at the infant New Yorker, between the world wars.

One could not “like” William Maxwell. One loved him.

Singularity was intrinsic to him. His views were open and firm, and free of mere self-assertion. He made no authoritative pronouncements and offered no psycho-sociological ready-mades. Each human encounter came fresh to him. He knew that virtue is, like sin, original. That imagination, talent, love, suffering are original. He knew that vulnerability is not mocked. He came to know the world deeply, but remained vulnerable to it. That he kept faith with his cataclysmic early knowledge helped him to become a happy man. Unguardedness was at the heart of his work and life. When a novelist comes to regard vulnerability as a professional asset, the Muse is not impressed. Bill was incapable of any such act of ironclad calculation.

He would have felt, I believe, the validity of Graham Greene’s observation that the novelist conserves a splinter of ice in the heart. That is, he well knew the necessity to defend the secret writing mind and the ever-beleaguered need for time and silence to write, to dream, and to ponder language.

The rescue that came to him in the middle of his life, through his meeting and marriage with Emily Noyes, was partly nurtured also, I think, by the eccentric climate of The New Yorker, where he worked for forty years. Harold Ross, the first editor of the magazine, was himself a curiosity, with a feeling for oddballs. Oddballs, then, had not been taught to regard themselves as case histories. After Ross came William Shawn, a rare bird, an unprecedented and unreproducible, and irreducible, figure in the cultural story of this or any other city. In late years, Maxwell had his differences with Shawn. But the decades when they worked closely and cordially together were a period of literary achievement that, I imagine, no prominent magazine will ever enjoy again. The genius and generosity that distinguish Maxwell’s own work, he brought to the reading and considering of the work of others. He loved fiction, and loved the stories of our lives. He valued the accidental quality of our existence, the inscrutable element of chance and destiny. Maxwell’s relations, of trust and tact, with authors are wonderfully attested in his published correspondence with Frank O’Connor.

In his own fiction, Bill Maxwell illumined the dramas of dailiness. It was this clarity of artistic vision that George Eliot had in mind when she wrote, of her art: “I turn from sybils and heroes to an old woman bending over her flower pot or eating her solitary dinner.” Maxwell knew that quiet desperation can’t be counted on to stay quiet, that heartbreak can grow irrepressible. In youth, he had attempted suicide – as does the central character in his novel, The Folded Leaf. In that beautiful book, the boy Lymie, convalescing from the failed attempt to take his own life, reflects that “some acts, particularly acts of violence, are not possible to certain people.” That extreme and most solitary experience must always be set, by survivors, as a measure against subsequent distress. I sometimes thought it a spectral presence in Bill’s equilibrium and in his greatest pleasures. Photographs of Bill and Emmy when their daughters were small have the radiance of a reprieve—as though Bill marveled, like George Herbert,

It cannot be
That I am he
On whom Thy tempests fell all night.

Our existence is a story, but not a fairy tale. The sea-change that convulsed civilized life in the late 1960s and early ’70s bringing, along with certain favourable transitions, a denaturing indifference, a tide of mindless violence, and the reckless overthrow of Humanism, did not spare the Maxwells. Their riding out of that storm ultimately gave new power to their work, visible in Emmy’s paintings and in Bill’s marvelous novel, So Long, See You Tomorrow. A saving sense of absurdity, and of self-absurdity, was strong in both Maxwells, and flickered through Bill’s view of others’ lives and his own. Good laughter was a presence in their rooms. I remember Bill’s delight in recounting an apocalyptic evening at the John Cheevers’ in the 1960s or 1970s, when Bill and john having exchanged angry words—the Maxwells precipitately left the Cheever dinner table and the house. Outside, in the cold night, they found that their car would not start, and had sheepishly to ask to be let in again. The President of the Immortals was having his sport with them; and William Maxwell was exactly the man to appreciate it.

Bill did not set himself up to be a sage. Kindred spirits came like swallows to that household, for animation and repose. There were times when he could be privately impatient with his friends’ reliance; and these appear as sudden salutary shocks in his writing.

In his eighties, Bill told me, “I love being old.” He was blessed in his marriage, in his love for his daughters, and in the grandson who so resembles him. He had recurrent bodily infirmities, but mind and spirit were perhaps at their highest power. The difficulty of being had long since lost its terrors: “Fear no more the heat of the sun.” In his last year of life, when he was ninety-one, Bill re-read War and Peace. His pleasure in the book was thrilling. He said, “It is so comforting.” We rejoiced together over certain scenes, he with his silent tears—such tears as are shed in later life, less for grief than for a gesture of common humanity or some moment of transcendent beauty. When the book became too heavy for him to hold, a friend, Annabel Davis-Goff, came each afternoon to read it to him.

Throughout those months of the year two thousand, Emily Maxwell was slowly dying, with a grace, a philosophy—I would say, with a beauty—that remain indescribable. The last weeks, which were last weeks for them both, were passed in their own rooms, in the company of their daughters and of their closest friends, and of nurses who had entered gently into these lives. Their daughter Kate came to live with and care for them. Five days before Emmy’s death, the Maxwells, in wheelchairs, went to the Chardin exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum. Two days before Emmy’s death, and eight days before his own, Bill finished reading Tolstoy’s novel. Bill said that he did not fear death, but that he would miss reading novels. He regretted that he would die without having heard the song of a nightingale. He would miss a radiance of existence to which, as we know, he contributed an essential particle. In Maxwell’s novel, The Chateau, the American protagonist spends his last day in Paris passing, in autumnal light, through streets and public gardens: “I cannot leave! he cried out silently to the old buildings and the brightness in the air, to the yellow leaves on the trees. I cannot bear that all this will be here and I will not be.”

Read at the Academy Dinner Meeting on April 3, 2001.

© 2021 American Academy of Arts and Letters