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William Maxwell; Nurtured Top Authors

TIMES STAFF WRITER

William Maxwell, a revered editor at the New Yorker who nurtured some of the past century’s greatest literary talents while producing his own widely admired, though not commercially robust, novels and short stories, has died.

He was 91 and died in Manhattan on Monday, a week after the death of his wife, Emily, to whom he had been married for 55 years.

Maxwell joined the New Yorker in 1936 and stayed for four decades. During that time he was editor to such celebrated writers as J.D. Salinger, Eudora Welty, Frank O’Connor and the three Johns--O’Hara, Cheever and Updike.

His writers treasured him because he never tried to impose his own views or taste but, as Updike once explained, strived always to “draw out of you the best writer you could be.”

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This unobtrusive style was influenced by his own life as a writer, Maxwell observed.

“As a writer I don’t very much enjoy being edited. As an editor I tried to work so slightly on the manuscript that 10 years later the writer would read his story and not be aware that anybody was involved but him,” he told an interviewer last year.

“This involves listening and watching the writer’s face for signs of dissatisfaction. Again, it is a simple matter of love.”

Maxwell’s own works included six novels and three collections of short stories, which drew heavily on his memories of growing up in the small town of Lincoln, Ill.

He once named Hemingway as a major influence, along with the great Russian novelists Turgenev and Tolstoy. Maxwell wrote fiction that sprang from ordinary life--the suicide of a cook, a mother’s death, the struggles of a black child in a white small town.

The central event of his early life was the death of his mother from influenza when Maxwell was 10. His grief informed most of his subsequent fiction, but particularly his second novel, “They Came Like Swallows,” published in 1937.

Maxwell briefly taught English at the University of Illinois after earning his bachelor’s degree there in 1930 and a master’s degree from Harvard in 1931. His first novel, “Bright Center of Heaven,” was published in 1934. He arrived in New York two years later, with $200 in his pocket and letters of reference from his publisher to three major magazines: the New Republic, Time and the New Yorker.

“I was unsuited for the New Republic because I was politically uninformed,” he recalled some years ago. “I don’t know if I was unsuited to Time as well; I got to the New Yorker before I got to Time, and they hired me, and that was that.”

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He was placed in the art department, his main function being to inform artists whether their drawings would be published and what changes would be required. It was Maxwell who encouraged Updike to trade cartooning for writing.

Maxwell later became an assistant to Katharine White, the esteemed head of the fiction department. Eventually, he became a fiction and poetry editor.

He wanted to concentrate on fiction, though, which led him one day to interview a woman named Emily Gilman Noyes for the poetry job. She was not hired, but, Maxwell noted with characteristic brevity, “She was very attractive, and I pursued the matter.” Married in 1945, they had two children, Emily Brooke and Katharine, both of New York City, who survive him. Emily Maxwell died on July 23.

Eventually Maxwell worked only three days a week at the New Yorker, leaving time for a 20-minute lunch and a short nap. The other days were devoted to his own writing.

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Critics praised not only the economy and grace of his work, but its directness, a trait Maxwell attributed to his Midwestern upbringing.

“When I was a child,” he said, “the people around me said exactly what they meant, in a simple language. What I long to do is find the simple, natural way of saying exactly what I mean.”

The writer Joyce Carol Oates praised this gift when she reviewed his 1977 collection, “Over the River, and Other Stories.” What guided his action, she observed, was “not Fate but the inevitable working-out of character, never melodramatic, never pointedly ‘symbolic.’ ”

He earned some long overdue recognition in 1995 when Knopf published “All the Days and Nights,” a collection of short stories spanning six decades. His novels include “The Folded Leaf” in 1945 and “So Long, See You Tomorrow” in 1980. Among his collected stories is “The Old Man at the Railroad Crossing and Other Tales” in 1966.

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His honors include the Gold Medal for fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the Ivan Sandrof Award of the National Book Critics Circle.

As an editor, Maxwell usually resisted questions about the writers he was most instrumental in shaping. But he thought Updike was “our only first-class writer, on any scale of magnitude.” He called Cheever “simply a wonderful writer” but “much too complicated to go into.” And O’Hara? “A changed man when he stopped drinking” who had “a rare tenderness for women in his fiction.”

Maxwell personified the old New Yorker: He was tweedy, gracious, urbane. Cheever once portrayed him as “kind of Fred Astairish, slight but graceful.” But Maxwell was never stuffy; the laughter often emanating from his office was so bothersome to New Yorker Editor William Shawn that he had Maxwell moved.

When he was interviewed, Maxwell often preferred to type out his replies on an ancient Smith-Corona, even if the questioner was sitting across from him in his book-lined Upper East Side apartment.

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Once, for instance, he pounded out this answer to a question from a Chicago Tribune reporter about why his fiction relied so heavily on personal history.

“I came to believe that life itself, untampered with, always has a profound meaning and interest,” Maxwell wrote, his wispy-haired head bowed over his clacking machine, “and the less you rearrange the details the better, but unfortunately unanswered questions abound, and sometimes they are not questions that the writer has a right to avoid answering, artistically that is, and it has driven me to fall back on my imagination.”


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