Thursday, January 31, 2008

One More for the Library of America

Many writers of my generation grew up aware of and in subtle ways in awe of The New Yorker; we were familiar with the short fictions of John O'Hara and, later, John Cheever, each of whom we tried to incorporate into our own work before learning the most difficult lesson of all. 

 Imitation may be a form of flattery but it is not effective in developing what each of these two and another unheralded New Yorker writer, George A. S. Trow, so clearly had--an original voice.

It was a good time and a good way to grow up, seeing on a weekly basis such idiosyncratic and memorable fiction. After a time I became aware as writers do of such things that the fiction editor was William Maxwell, a fact born home once when a submission of mine bore a neat "sorry" and a WM. 

But I had no idea of his writing reach and skills until, one day on a chatty phone conversation to Swindell at the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram, I heard Swindell say, "I'm thinking of sending you the new Maxwell collection." Our tastes were close to being in sync, and so I said "Why not? and he said, "Well, you know, he is not to everyone's taste." I was more aware of how my old college chum had picked up a Texas twang than I was of the fact that he seemed to regard Maxwell with such reverence. "Yes," he said, "I think I will." Which gave me a few days to hit the library hard, the better to be ready.

It quickly evolved that William Maxwell was the kind of writer I wanted to be, simple in his eloquence, honest with his depiction of responses and motivation, revelatory of the segment of the human condition of which he wrote so many stories and novels. Many of his narratives were set before my birth or as a consequence of things set in motion before my birth; his landscape was a series of small towns in Illinois.

Today, I am listening to a podcast of an earlier interview he gave Terry Gross on NPR, perhaps five years before he didn't so much as die as slip out the door, unnoticed. The interview was in connection with the publication of Maxwell's work by The Library of America, a nice tribute to the literary tradition of America.

Reading Maxwell reminded me of the habit I have of checking out the contents of bathroom cabinets in houses where I am a guest, looking for clues that will help further define the inhabitats of the place, revelations of illnesses, allergies, preoccpations, preferences. 

What good, you ask, is it to know if a person prefers Colgate Total toothpaste to, say, Crest or original Pepsodent? The devil is in the details, I respond. I, who once used Ipana and Crest, could never trust a user of Pepsodent because as a callow youth, I listened to radio programs sponsored by Pepsodent where the star was Bob Hope.

Maxwell used the detail of feelings to bring forth his characters, constantly playing the dialectic between what they said and the interior life of what they felt.

I still admire and read John O'Hara and John Cheever; I revere William Maxwell, the quiet, steady observer of the small details that help define us all.


Anonymous said...

Now you have my curiosity piqued. And somehow I think that I would learn more about my own original voice in reading Maxwell's work than in that silly "Writing for Digital Media" class I finally had to drop.

And for the record - You'll find Crest in my medicine cabinet, so if you ever drop by to visit, you won't have to look. Your mention of Ipana is inextricably linked to Brandon Frasier in my mind, as "Blast From the Past" is the only place I had ever heard of such a brand before now.

lowenkopf said...

Crest works.
Your original voice really comes forth when you get into it with Tiv and Lee.

Anonymous said...

Ah yes, the wisdom and reflection these two are capable of resonate with the best in me. It's amazing how technology can help transcend distance in this regard.