N E W Y O R K, Aug. 1, 2000 -- William Maxwell, the revered editor of such NewYorker writers as J.D. Salinger and John Cheever, and himself anaccomplished man of letters, died at his home on Monday. He was 91.
Hired in 1937 by The New Yorker’s Katharine White, a foundingeditor and the wife of E.B. White, Maxwell was on staff for 40years and worked with some of the magazine’s most celebratedauthors, including Salinger, Cheever, John O’Hara, John Updike andHarold Brodkey.
In About Town, a history of The New Yorker published thisyear, author Ben Yagoda noted that Maxwell’s correspondence withwriters “exudes a palpable empathy.” For many, Maxwell was theideal editor, a man of civilized temperament and compassionaterigor.
Advice for Cheever
Cheever, with whom he had an especially close, intenserelationship, once praised him for “the advice he gave me and theadvice he didn’t give me.” Cheever and Brodkey were among thosewho dedicated books to Maxwell.
“As a writer I don’t very much enjoy being edited. As an editorI tried to work so slightly on the manuscript that 10 years laterthe writer would read his story and not be aware that anybody wasinvolved but him,” Maxwell once commented.
“This involves listening and watching the writer’s face forsigns of dissatisfaction. Again, it is a simple matter of love.”
In person, the slightly built Maxwell was the very image of thevintage New Yorker staffer: learned, but self-effacing; gracious,but not effusive; dignified, but not stuffy — the kind of man whowould laugh out loud at a Marx Brothers movie.
Maxwell’s career as an author preceded his time at The NewYorker. His first novel, Bright Center of Heaven, was publishedin 1934. Subsequent books included the story collections BillieDyer and Over by the River, and the 1980 novel, So Long,See You Tomorrow, which won the American Book Award.
Conflicts of the Mind
His works demonstrated what a sensitive man could do with aseemingly limited number of experiences. Maxwell’s life hardlyranked with Hemingway’s for manly adventure, but in his mind heendured conflicts as challenging as any bullfight.
The author was born Aug. 16, 1908, and lived his early years inLincoln, Ill., a quiet town complete with tree-shaded streets and acourthouse square.
This world seemed incapable of changing, but it did, with littlewarning. When Maxwell was 10, his mother became sick with the fluand died. His father remarried, sold the house and moved the familyto Chicago. Again and again, the author relived those events in hisbooks.
Maxwell’s was the fiction of disruption. The seemingly peacefulsettings — a Midwestern town, Manhattan’s Upper East Side, theFrench countryside — are haunted by death, betrayal, a child’sdreams. Even a damaged bicycle becomes a symbol for lost innocence,something that can never “be made shining and whole again.”
He was the purest of writers, and remained so in interviews.Like Vladimir Nabokov, Maxwell preferred giving his answers inwriting, tapping them out on an old electric typewriter, pausing toallow the reporter to read his response and patiently waiting forthe next question.
In 1945, Maxwell married Emily Gilman Noyes, who died July 23.They had two daughters, Katharine and Emily.