William Maxwell and The New Yorker

Americans, the British are fond of saying, are strangers to understatement. If this notion is debatable, it is nevertheless borne out in a remark made by Renata Adler in her memoir, Gone: The Last Days of The New Yorker – published in America to coincide with that magazine’s 75th anniversary. "For more than 30 years," she says, "The New Yorker was not only the finest magazine of its time but probably the finest English-language magazine of all time." Gosh. So much, then, for The Spectator under Addison and Steele in the 18th century; forget about Cyril Connolly’s Horizon, or Scrutiny, edited by F. R. Leavis. Banish all thought that Esquire and Playboy, in their early days, had anything to recommend them: such an idea would be heresy.


Adler’s statement reveals the veneration that a certain slice of literate America accorded the humour magazine founded by Harold Ross in February of 1925. Sylvia Plath, in the mid-1950s, dreamt, quite literally, of finding acceptance within its pages; when the magazine at last bought some of her poetry in 1958 she described the event in her journals as "the realisation of ten years of hopeful wishful waits".


Writing for The New Yorker was altogether different from writing for the "slicks" – Mademoiselle, McCalls – at whom she cynically aimed her prose. Writing for The New Yorker was being a writer: it meant joining the company of J. D. Salinger, Lillian Hellman, John Cheever, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Joseph Mitchell, E. B. White, Shirley Jackson, James Thurber – the list goes on and on.


This was an ideal that has held up remarkably well throughout the magazine’s trials and tribulations – all avidly charted in the piles of books that have been published about the magazine, and which currently cover entire tables of New York branches of Barnes & Noble.

The New Yorker has had only five editors since its founding: the first two ran the show for 62 years between them. William Shawn took over the helm from Harold Ross when the latter died in 1951; Shawn held on until 1987, when he was succeeded, briefly, by Robert Gottlieb. Then came the glittering years of Tina Brown’s reign; now Eustace Tilley – the monocled dandy who graced the magazine’s first cover and who has appeared, in various guises, every February since – holds steady under the hand of Pulitzer prizewinner David Remnick.All these changes are admirably and thoroughly recorded in Ben Yagoda’s new history of the magazine, About Town: The New Yorker and the World it Made.


Of course the magazine is not what it used to be: nothing is, nor should it be. There are some, like Adler and Garrison Keillor – who left in a huff when Brown took over – who bewail this evolution. Doubtless Remnick, who has published stories by Junot Diaz, Zadie Smith and Martin Amis, has never begun a letter as Harold Ross did, to a fellow magazine editor in 1933: "The use of daring words is one of our most serious problems, or at any rate, one of my most serious concerns. Especially do we hedge on ‘Christ’ used an expletive. Usually, we use ‘Jeez’. Sometimes in fiction stories and where the writer is entitled to considerable privilege, we let ‘Christ’ go through; ‘bitch’ probably yes; ‘bastard’ I would shrink at. I have argued three or four ‘bastards’ out of print in the last three or four months."


There is no denying the charm of those vanished days. Yet they are not quite, as Adler has it, gone: for one thing, William Maxwell is with us still. Maxwell, now 92, was The New Yorker’s fiction editor from the time he joined the magazine in 1937 to his retirement in 1976. It was he who was responsible for encouraging John Updike to give up cartooning in favour of writing; under his care the work of Frank O’Connor, John Cheever, Sylvia Townsend Warner and Mavis Gallant blossomed. "A good editor is one who encourages a writer to write his best, and that was Bill," Updike has remarked of his mentor. "He was not an editor with a lot of possessive ideas of his own; he was a writer in his own right. So he didn’t have to achieve success through your writing." Maxwell is the author of five novels, a volume of collected stories and Ancestors, a book of family history. His work is being made available in Britain by Harvill Press – who know a good thing when they see one. This month they release his haunting 1961 tale of Americans abroad in postwar Europe, The Chateau. Like many of his characters – and like Maxwell himself – Harold and Barbara Rhodes are Midwesterners, and they are, in some senses, innocents abroad. They come from a land to some extent untouched (certainly physically unscathed) by conflict to France in 1948: where bullet holes still riddle the stones of Tours, and the memories of their hosts are filled with the fears and compromises of the Occupation, just four years past.It is a subtle, enthralling work, romantic and filled with longing. Over the course of their four-month sojourn, the Rhodeses catch glimpses of understanding; but still the country they quickly come to love remains hidden behind a screen, its inhabitants elegant, elusive, mysterious.


Maxwell was born in 1908 in Lincoln, Illinois; the family moved to Chicago when he was a teenager. The central event of his life – to this day – was the death of his mother in the great influenza pandemic of 1918: it fuels his remarkable 1937 novel, They Came Like Swallows. Sitting very straight on a sofa in his apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, he is dapper in tweed and an elegant tie. He is unfailingly courtly and modest ("forgive all this autobiography", is a frequent refrain of his throughout the morning) and it swiftly becomes apparent that while the years have slowed his body, they have made no mark on his mind. Recalling his beginnings as a writer he says: "When I first came to New York, a writer I very much wanted to meet was Willa Cather; very few people had. And I spoke to a Wisconsin writer who had met her and asked him, ‘What do you think made her a writer?’ And he said, ‘Well, deprivation I suppose.’ And I think in some sense that’s what makes all writers write. It isn’t that I have lived a deprived life, I’ve lived a very fortunate life; but serious deprivation in childhood will colour your life. Returning to tragic events over and over again is, I suppose, a kind of exorcism." Speaking of the writing of The Chateau he says simply: "What I wanted was to write nothing more dramatic than a novel about misunderstandings and hurt feelings." His slight smile indicates the magnitude of that easily-stated task. The genesis of this book, too, was autobiographical (that is the place for autobiography, clearly; in fiction, not interviews) – his own 1948 venture abroad.


"We went to France, my wife and I – I loved it. I wanted to be a Frenchman. It was a lucky time, there was no gasoline – and any European country where there is no gasoline is paradise, for a brief time. We were there four months, and when I got home I just sat down at my typewriter and started writing and kept at it for ten years, until the novel was finally published." Those ten years weren’t easy.


He filled a packing crate with material that to him seemed formless, unsatisfying. Finally, in 1958, he sent a draft, with great trepidation, to Frank O’Connor, reversing their usual writer-editor roles. He expressed some doubt to O’Connor that what he’d written was a novel at all. O’Connor, having read it, swiftly replied: "Of course it’s not a novel! Novels were written exclusively by Jane Austen and Turgenev, and the secret died with them, but the substitutes have a lot to be said for them." From then on, Maxwell says, he could proceed quite happily. Turgenev and Tolstoy are on high pedestals in his pantheon of heroes – the link between the Russians and Maxwell is perhaps one of landscape. Most of his work has remained firmly set in America’s vast interior spaces; the Midwest clearly remains his spirit’s home. "Do you know the Midwest?" he asks me. No, I say.


"Well, it’s like that table. You can see 360 degrees in all directions. And if you grow up in that, the sky’s more important than the land. In a sense it puts you in your place. Somehow it encourages simplicity." The only space that seems comparable is Russia’s vast steppe. In this great, flat plain the contours of emotion stand in sharp relief. Without doubt, Maxwell influenced the shape of American letters in his time at The New Yorker, though he no longer reads the magazine – the only periodical he makes time for now is the TLS.


But equally important is his own contribution to that tradition. One might be forgiven for thinking that in a noisy world Maxwell’s quiet – and yes, understated – voice could be drowned out; but as the voices of Austen, Turgenev and Tolstoy have survived, so will Maxwell’s. There aren’t many truly great writers among us. William Maxwell is one of them.