“I don’t think he tried very hard to promote himself,” said writer Benjamin Cheever, son of novelist John Cheever, in a telephone interview. “He was very, very quiet – both as a public person and as a conversationalist. He used a pause better than most of us use a paragraph.”
In preparation for Stanford’s “Another Look,” a new book club launched by the English department at Stanford, I wrote a retrospective on author William Maxwell, whose masterpiece, So Long, See You Tomorrow, will be the inaugural book for “Another Look” on Monday, November 12. The book will be discussed by award-winning author Tobias Wolff, with Bay Area novelist, journalist, and editor Vendela Vida and Stanford’s lit scholar Vaughn Rasberry, to be followed by an audience discussion. More on “Another Look” here.
Here’s a bit from my piece about Maxwell. Read the whole thing here:
“I never felt sophisticated,” the erudite and elderly Midwesterner explained to NPR’s Terry Gross in 1995. His modesty is certainly one reason why William Maxwell remains a connoisseur’s writer, never achieving the wider recognition he deserves.
Yet Maxwell’s career was situated at the epicenter of American literature and letters: On staff at the New Yorker from 1936 to 1975, he was the editor of J.D. Salinger, Vladimir Nabokov, Eudora Welty, Frank O’Connor, John Cheever, and many other luminaries. He also contributed regularly to the magazine’s reviews and columns, and continued to do so until 1999, a year before his death. …
When J.D. Salinger finished Catcher in the Rye, he drove to the Maxwells’ house in the country and, over the course of a single afternoon and evening, read the manuscript to them as they sat on the porch together.
That’s an indication of his stature as an editor, and how much his writers valued him. Eudora Welty wrote: “For fiction writers, he was the headquarters.” Maxwell felt that being a good editor made him a better writer. …
Typical of the kind of attention that writers received was this 1993 letter, which Cheever read aloud at a 2008 commemorative event:
Yes, all you have to do is work very hard. I have never known good things not to come of it, and I am all the better for work habits. I feel I’m engaged in a struggle, with whom or with what I am not sure. For your soul. If I win, as an old man you will look back kindly on your life and say to yourself, “To think, I spent all those years thinking poorly of myself. How unnecessary.”
(May I say it again? Read the rest here.)