Lincoln, Illinois

William Fiennes

  • All the Days and Nights: The Collected Stories by William Maxwell
    Harvill, 415 pp, £10.99, January 1997, ISBN 1 86046 308 8
  • So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell
    Harvill, 135 pp, £8.99, January 1997, ISBN 1 86046 307 X

In America, William Maxwell is something of a Grand Old Man. He has been president of the National Institute of Arts and Letters. He has won the American Book Award and the PEN/Malamud Award. For forty years, as a fiction editor on the New Yorker, he advised and goaded Nabokov, Eudora Welty, John Cheever and John Updike. Now, at nearly ninety, Maxwell’s face has a prairie gauntness, as if hollowed out by exposure to those bracing talents. But in Britain his name is almost unknown.

He was born in 1908 in Lincoln, Illinois, the small town which would become his version of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesberg, Ohio: – a closed set to whose characters and ambience the writer can endlessly return, and his novels and stories rarely stray from the terrain of his own biography. His characters are at home where he has been at home. ‘Write what you know’ is the advice given to writers at the start of their careers and Maxwell has made a song of it.

Some of that personal history is recounted in Ancestors (1971), Maxwell’s idiosyncratic nod to the American mania for genealogy. He watches his own ancestors make their way from the Lowlands of Scotland to Ireland, to Pennsylvania, to Virginia, Kentucky and Illinois. He draws on the letters, portraits and photographs in his family’s possession, so that the book is in part a detailed inventory of his home. But he has also done the research of a social historian. He refers to Nathaniel Haynes’s History of the Disciples of Christ in Illinois (Cincinnati, 1915). And he may be the only 20th-century reader of The Biography of Elder Brown Warren Stone written by himself, with Additions and Reflections by Elder John Rogers (Cincinnati, 1847). He describes the way you could make out the shape of his uncle’s toes through the leather of his shoes. He evokes the prosperous farming community of Lincoln where, on hot August nights, people would sit out on the swings on their porches and mutter about ‘corn-growing weather’. We learn that he was brought up a strict Presbyterian and attended Sunday school every week.

Maxwell likes to blur the distinction between memoir and fiction. Ancestors reveals that his mother died during the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918, only three days after giving birth to another boy. In They Came like Swallows (1937), he describes the death of a mother during the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918. That loss is the presiding fact of his fiction. In a short story called ‘The Value of Money’ (1964), we are told that the childhood of Edward Gellert ‘was separated sharply from his adolescence by his mother’s death, which occurred when he was ten.’ In Maxwell’s novel The Folded Leaf (1945), the teenager Lymie Peters has already lost his mother. The narrator of So Long, See You Tomorrow (1980) tells us: ‘My younger brother was born on New Year’s Day, at the height of the influenza epidemic of 1918. My mother died two days later of double pneumonia.’ In ‘The Front and Back Parts of the House’ (1991), the narrator describes how ‘my brother and I struggled against the iron fact that my mother wasn’t there any more.’

The mother’s death is not the only event that echoes through Maxwell’s work. In another story, ‘The Holy Terror’ (1986), he writes: ‘I remembered that my mother’s only brother lost an arm in an automobile accident.’ In So Long, See You Tomorrow, Maxwell’s narrator says: ‘My mother’s only brother was in an automobile accident and lost his right arm.’ In a story called ‘A Game of Chess’ (1965), two brothers, Hugh and Amos, meet for dinner in Chicago. Amos, too, has lost an arm: ‘His left arm, ending in a gloved hand, hung motionless at his side. He had lost his arm as the result of an accident with a shotgun.’

He draws again and again on the same store of memories. Most of his characters have really existed. You imagine that they can still be seen in photographs propped on Lincoln mantelpieces or standing above their own, vague reflections on the lacquered lids of grand pianos. ‘The Man in the Moon’ (1984), ‘With Reference to an Incident at a Bridge’ (1984), ‘My Father’s Friends’ (1984), ‘The Holy Terror’ (1986), ‘The Front and Back Parts of the House’ (1991) – these stories are autobiographical essays, footnotes to the non-fiction of Ancestors. We are back in Lincoln, Illinois: Grandfather Blinn, Aunt Annette, Aunt Edith; Sunday school; porch swings. The narrator writes: ‘When my mother died during the influenza epidemic of 1918-19 ...’ We hear about his brother, Hap, a ‘natural athlete’ whose ‘left leg was amputated well above the knee’. That, too, is familiar. In They Came like Swallows, the older boy, Robert, is a natural athlete, but one of his legs has been amputated and he wears a false limb. And in So Long, See You Tomorrow, the narrator describes how, when his brother undressed at night, ‘he left his artificial leg leaning against a chair.’

In that novel Maxwell calls memory ‘a form of storytelling’. And in ‘The Front and the Back Parts of the House’, he drops the guise of narrator to address that question of form:

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