Authors: William Maxwell

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American novelist, short-story writer, and editor

Author Works

Long Fiction:

Bright Center of Heaven, 1934

They Came Like Swallows, 1937

The Folded Leaf, 1945

Time Will Darken It, 1948

The Chateau, 1961

So Long, See You Tomorrow, 1980

Short Fiction:

Stories, 1956

The Old Man at the Railroad Crossing, and Other Tales, 1966

Over by the River, and Other Stories, 1977

Five Tales, 1988

Billie Dyer, and Other Stories, 1992

All the Days and Nights: The Collected Stories of William Maxwell, 1995


Ancestors: A Family History, 1971

The Outermost Dream: Essays and Reviews, 1989

Children’s/Young Adult Literature:

The Heavenly Tenants, 1946

Mrs. Donald’s Dog Bun and His Home Away from Home, 1995


William Keepers Maxwell, Jr., was a renowned editor at The New Yorker magazine, where he worked for forty years, publishing the work of authors such as J. D. Salinger, John Cheever, and John Updike. Although his own fiction did not receive the recognition that the writings of some of these celebrated authors enjoyed, he was also a skilled literary craftsman. Despite his many years in New York, his writing concentrated on small-town, midwestern life.{$I[A]Maxwell, William}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Maxwell, William}{$I[tim]1908;Maxwell, William}

Maxwell’s early years were spent in Lincoln, Illinois, where he was born. His father, a salesman, was often away from home, so the young Maxwell developed a strong attachment to his mother. In 1918, two days after the birth of a younger brother, the mother died of double pneumonia. The death affected him deeply and became an event that would recur in his writing.

Two years after the death, his family moved to Chicago. Maxwell had planned to attend the Chicago Art Institute after graduating from high school but decided to enroll instead at the University of Illinois at Urbana in order to help a sick friend at the university. Graduating second in his class in 1930, he won a scholarship to pursue a doctorate in English at Harvard University. A poor showing in German, required for a Ph.D. in English, caused him to lose his scholarship after earning a master’s degree in 1931, and he returned to the University of Illinois at Urbana, where he got a job teaching freshman English.

During his stay in Urbana, he learned that he wanted to write. His landlord had agreed to produce a short version of a biography of the eighteenth century English agriculturalist Thomas Coke; Maxwell helped with the work and decided that he liked writing so much that he turned to writing a novel. At first titled “Snake Feeders,” then “Thundercloud,” this first novel was published under the title Bright Center of Heaven. Maxwell began working on a second novel, They Came Like Swallows, and finished it before leaving for New York.

Maxwell moved to New York City in 1936. He needed a job, so the publisher of his first novel gave him letters of introduction to two of the major magazines in the city: The New Republic and Time. The publisher also called The New Yorker to arrange an interview for Maxwell, who went to work for that publication’s art department, meeting with artists once a week to decide whose work would be used. He afterward became an assistant to the magazine’s fiction editor and then went to work helping to assemble weekly issues.

While working for The New Yorker, Maxwell published They Came Like Swallows. Drawing on his childhood experiences, this novel told the story of the effect of a mother’s death on a middle-class Illinois family. It was accepted as a Book-of-the-Month-Club selection, giving Maxwell his first real financial success.

Maxwell became frustrated with The New Yorker when he was passed over for the position of fiction editor, and he left for New Mexico in 1942. He soon returned to New York, though, and began working for the magazine part-time while writing a novel. This became The Folded Leaf, the story of a friendship between two teenage boys. After the book was published, he went back to The New Yorker, reading unsolicited story manuscripts and eventually becoming fiction editor. Maxwell’s fourth novel, Time Will Darken It, covered his usual ground. It was the story of a how a family’s life is disturbed by the long visit of southern relatives.

Just after the time that he published The Folded Leaf, Maxwell married Emily Noyes, with whom he had two daughters. A visit to Europe by the Maxwells became the basis of his most uncharacteristic novel, The Chateau, which was nominated for the National Book Award. Moving away from the American Midwest, Maxwell told of the experiences of an American couple, Harold and Barbara Rhodes, in France.

Maxwell never received wide popular recognition, but over the course of his long life he became widely admired, as an editor and a writer, within the literary world. From 1969 to 1972 he served as president of the National Institute of Arts and Letters. In 1976 he retired from The New Yorker. At the age of seventy-one, he published So Long, See You Tomorrow, which looked back at his past. The book retold the story of the death of his mother and of his family’s move to Chicago, and it recalled small-town tragedies in Lincoln. In 1982 Maxwell received the American Book Award for this last work of long fiction.

His collections of short stories and his collection of essays, The Outermost Dream, were highly regarded. Having used the story of his family so much in fiction, he finally turned to a factual account of the family background in Ancestors. During his final years, he was showered with honors. In 1995 alone, he received the Chicago Tribune Heartland Award, the PEN/Malamud Award for the Short Story, the Mark Twain Award, the Gold Medal for Fiction of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Ivan Sandrof Award for Lifetime Achievement in Publishing of the National Book Critics Circle.

BibliographyBaxter, Charles, Michael Collier, and Edward Hirsch, eds. A William Maxwell Portrait: Memories and Appreciations. New York: W. W. Norton, 2004. A collection of essays, analyses of Maxwell’s works and biographical sketches, forming more of a celebration of Maxwell than a critical study.Burkhardt, Barbara A. William Maxwell: A Literary Life. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2005. This book is both biography and literary criticism based on the author’s interviews with Maxwell and access to Maxwell’s writings and correspondence.Eakin, John Paul. “The Referential Aesthetic in Autobiography.” Studies in the Literary Imagination, Fall, 1990, 129-144. An academic study of the use of autobiography for fiction by Maxwell and other writers.Maxfield, James F. “The Child, the Adolescent, and the Adult: Stages of Consciousness in Three Early Novels of William Maxwell.” Midwest Quarterly 24 (1983): 315-335. Using primarily a psychoanalytic approach, Maxfield examines They Came like Swallows, The Folded Leaf, and Time Will Darken It as forming a trilogy that reflects the maturing of Maxwell as he confronts the loss of his mother and his father’s remarriage. Chronologically, the three early novels represent the wish fulfillment of the author at three stages of life.Maxfield, James F. “Memory and Imagination in William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow.” Critique 24 (1982): 21-37. Maxfield argues that in So Long, See You Tomorrow Maxwell combines factual and imagined elements to reconstruct the past in order to assuage his guilt for snubbing his friend Cletus and also to work out Oedipal conflicts with his father.Maxwell, William. Interview. Publishers Weekly 216 (December 10, 1979): 8-9. In this interview published shortly before the release of So Long, See You Tomorrow, Maxwell discusses his career as fiction editor for The New Yorker and describes his own writing process. He explains that he is a slow writer and patient reviser, carefully cutting unnecessary detail and working hard to make the work appear effortless. Maxwell also discusses the importance of his Midwestern heritage in his writing.Menaker, Daniel. “Paper Trail.” The New Yorker 70 (June 27, 1994): 177-179. A short biographical article on Maxwell that contains letters and memos he exchanged with authors.Shereikis, Richard. “William Maxwell’s Lincoln, Illinois.” Midamerica: The Yearbook of the Society for the Study of Midwestern Literature 14 (1987): 101-112. Contrasting Maxwell to other Midwestern writers such as Sherwood Anderson and Edgar Lee Masters, Shereikis praises Maxwell’s shunning extremes and portraying realistically the balance between the intolerance and generosity of the inhabitants of small Midwestern towns as well as Maxwell’s ability to depict vividly this small, constricted world and still give it universal significance.Wilkinson, Alec. My Mentor: A Young Man’s Friendship with William Maxwell. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2002. A memoir by a younger writer, a son of one of Maxwell’s friends, whom Maxwell taught about the craft of writing.
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