In William Maxwell’s fiction, a vivid and varied picture of Midwestern life
Maxwell’s first novel, “Bright Center of Heaven”, which he refused to reprint during his lifetime (it is found in the first volume of the Library of America edition published in 2008), is set in an estate in Meadowland , Wis. serves as a guesthouse and impromptu artist colony for a motley collection of creative and intellectual types. Their haphazard ways of mixing sex, emotions, politics and work – personal involvement, idealism, hypocrisy – are likely to seem familiar, and Maxwell’s satirical view of the limits of what we could now call awakening is undated. The eventful plot, spread over a single day, revolves around the arrival of Jefferson Carter, a black writer and traveling lecturer. His presence brings out the worst in everyone, proceeding through a host of micro-aggressions into a climactic screaming match that is both hilarious and sad. “If they weren’t all mad,” Jefferson thinks as the evening unfolds, “then their conduct was inexcusable.”
And they’re all crazy in their own way. White people’s racial neurosis — not so much frailty as a defensive, anxious need to push issues aside and talk about other things — is something Maxwell returns to, notably in “The Chateau,” in which his alter ego , Harold Rhodes, challenges the reflexive racism of certain French acquaintances. “They’re a wonderful people,” he says of black Americans. “They have the virtues – sensitivity, patience, emotional richness – that we lack. And if the distinction between the two races fades, as is the case in Martinique, and they become one and the same race, then America will be saved.
The inadequacies of this type of liberalism interest Maxwell, as well as its graces. The story “Billie Dyer,” about an actual Lincoln resident 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. at a time of discrimination, violence and segregation.
If it’s a bit of a stretch to claim a place for “Bright Center of Heaven” on a program devoted to race in American literature, it’s less of a stretch to put Maxwell’s third book, “The Folded Leaf,” in pre-Stonewall history. of the American queer novel. Published in 1945, three years before Gore Vidal’s ‘The Town and the Pillar’ (often cited, notably by Vidal himself, as the first modern gay novel), ‘The Folded Leaf’ follows the romantic friendship of Lymie and Spud in high school. and the first part of college. Lymie is lighthearted, shy, and bookish, while Spud is athletic, outgoing, and unacademic. They meet at a swimming lesson and become inseparable, sharing secrets, meals, and, once on campus, a bed in a rooming house full of undergrad men.
Perhaps the most current of Maxwell’s books is “They Came Like Swallows”, on the flu epidemic of 1918-1920.
Their bond isn’t explicitly sexual, and both pursue romances with girls, but it has an unmistakable erotic intensity — and, for Lymie, overwhelming. The world, in the form of Spud’s busy family and Lymie’s moody, widowed father, accepts the relationship without quite recognizing what it means, and the narrator is both candid and circumspect. As in “Time Will Darken It”, sexuality is less about secrecy, shame and silence than about involvement and indirection. What happens between the two young men is both obvious and mysterious, and Maxwell’s treatment of it exhibits a sophistication and sensitivity that 21st-century writers could envy and learn from.
Surely the most current of Maxwell’s books is “They Came Like Swallows”, one of the few enduring works of literature on the 1918-20 flu epidemic. Maxwell was 10 when his mother, Blossom, died of the flu, a trauma he reconstructed 18 years later with devastating accuracy. The disease slips into history via newspaper headlines and local gossip, a small detail among the routines of middle-class Midwestern family life.
As he does in most of his novels, Maxwell favors portraiture over plot, generating a sense of momentum as he moves from one distinctive viewpoint to another, in this case the younger son attached to the mother, Bunny; her confident older brother, Robert; and their father, a devoted and somewhat stiff businessman. Males twirl around their wives and mothers, who are pregnant and whose loving, spirited presence pervades the family circle (which also includes aunts, in-laws, grandparents and close friends). And then she left, leaving the world in a state of permanent imbalance.