Reading: True Midwest | Essay | Chicago Reader

Reading: True Midwest 

William Maxwell's stories balance the opposing forces of small-town life, the sweetness and the corruption.

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With small town people, every story is part of some other story. --William Maxwell, Ancestors

When critics and historians chronicle the course of American literature, they must recognize the work of writers who have taken small, midwestern towns as their subjects and settings. Early in this century, Zona Gale wrote about Friendship Village, where "togetherness" was the dominant quality, and where one of the characters can say, unabashedly, "If you want to love folks, just you get in some kind o' respectable trouble in Friendship, an' you'll see so much loveableness that the trouble'll kind o' spindle out an' leave nothin' but the love doin' business." Booth Tarkington's Plattville, the town in The Two Gentlemen From Indiana, is a place where the people seem to be "one big, jolly family."

At the other extreme are Edgar Lee Masters's Spoon River, Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, and Sinclair Lewis's Gopher Prairie. Here we find blighted lives and blasted hopes and pettiness and provinciality. As it emerges from the pages of midwestern writers, the middle-western small town is either a cradle or a bed of nails, a noose or a lifeline.

Yet after the works of the Gales and the Tarkingtons, the Masterses and the Lewises, there remained untouched veins of human emotion and painful experience. Certainly, there was togetherness in small towns--the rallying around families in trouble, the chicken casseroles when someone died. And surely there was corruption enough to fill a ten-part docudrama and enough frustration to fill an Akron or a Toledo, let alone a Winesburg, ten times over. But there was also the ordinary business of living and dying, of loving and being rejected, of being a kid and growing old, of getting married, and of being alone. There was, as in most lives, occasional happiness and frequent sorrow and a good deal of cause for melancholy. And William Maxwell, when he writes about his childhood in Lincoln, Illinois, comes as close as anyone has to depicting this world with balance and sensitivity.

That so few know of Maxwell and his impressive work is surprising, given the length and distinction of his career. Born in Lincoln in 1908, he moved with his family to Chicago when he was 15. After graduating from high school there, Maxwell attended the University of Illinois, where he also taught freshman composition for a time, after a year of graduate work at Harvard. He has published six novels over the past 50 years (the most recent being So Long, See You Tomorrow, which won the William Dean Howells award for fiction in 1980), numerous short stories, and an autobiographical memoir, Ancestors (1977), in which he traces not only his own history but that of his family. For 40 years he was an editor for the New Yorker, for which he still writes reviews and an occasional story, the most recent ones of which form a kind of sequel to So Long. And in much of his work, a thinly disguised Lincoln--sometimes called Draperville, sometimes Logan--is in the background, casting shadows and forming a backdrop to people's few joys and many tribulations.

Maxwell's Lincoln, a town of about 12,000 both in literature and life, is a place where life moves quietly, out of the glare and bustle of fame or notoriety. It was a place, says Maxwell in Ancestors, where "nothing of any historical importance had ever happened . . . , or has to this day." But it wasn't nondescript, says Maxwell. Like any town, it held a universe of diversity and strangeness, and it was full of surprises. His description of it in Ancestors suggests Maxwell's tolerance and generosity of spirit as well as the wisdom and keen sensitivity that dominate his work and set him apart from both the village boosters and the rebels:

"Lincoln was not a typical small town, because there is no such thing, any more than there is a typical human being. Every person was exceptional in some way. When I think of the Rimmerman girls, three middle-aged and unmarried sisters who never stopped talking, and of old Mrs. Hunter in her rusty black hat, and the plumber's wife who stopped my brother on the street and said, 'I dreamt about you last night, Edward, wasn't that habitual?' and the Presbyterian minister's son who had ears like a faun and induced a kind of sexual delirium in girls without even having to get off his bicycle, and the discontented dentist's wife who was straight out of Ibsen, I wonder that so small a place could hold so much character. In the same way, every street was exceptional. You could not possibly mistake Fifth Street for Eighth Street (even when I dream about them I know which street I am on) or Broadway for Pulaski Street, and no two houses were exactly alike either. Some of them were so original that they always seemed to have something to say as you walked past: perhaps no more than this, that the people who lived in them did not wish they lived in Paris or Rome or even Peoria. What would be the point of living somewhere where you did not know everybody?"

Maxwell understood well enough the oppressive prying that is so much a part of small-town life, especially as the rebels portrayed it. In So Long, See You Tomorrow, which mixes autobiography with an outsider's account of a murder-suicide that rocked Lincoln in the early years of the century, Maxwell talks of how "in a town the size of Lincoln there are no well-kept secrets. Somebody told somebody who told somebody who told somebody who told . . . " a man named Clarence about some mysterious letters with no return address that his wife Fern was dropping into the letter box by the post office every night. "It didn't even take very long for this to happen," says Maxwell, "or for Fern to find out that Clarence knew."

And in Time Will Darken It, Maxwell's 1948 novel set in Draperville, he is even more pointed in his portrayal of the gossip and small-mindedness that can sully a name or kill a reputation. "Of the literary arts," Maxwell writes, "the one most practised in Draperville was history. It was informal, and there was no reason to write it down since nothing was ever forgotten. The child born too soon after the wedding ceremony might learn to walk and to ride a bicycle; he might go to school and graduate into long pants, marry, move to Seattle, and do well for himself in the lumber business; but whenever his or his mother's name was mentioned, it was followed inexorably by some smiling reference to the date of his birth."

And the history was developed in the usual small-town ways: "Research in Draperville was carried on over the back fence, over the telephone, in kitchens and parlours and upstairs bedrooms, in the back seat of carriages, in wicker porch swings, in the bell tower of the Unitarian Church, where the Willing Workers met on Wednesdays and patiently, with their needles and thread, paid off the mortgage on the parsonage."

The nerve center of Draperville's historic research is the Friendship Club, a group of eight women who "met in rotation at one another's houses for luncheon and bridge." Maxwell's description of the club is set in the context of the central narrative line of the story. Austin King, a decent, self-doubting lawyer, has become the object of his young cousin Nora's hopeless romantic crush. The girl has even taken up the reading of law in Austin's office in order to be close to him. Austin is troubled and embarrassed by Nora's attentions, but he doesn't want to hurt her by packing her off to her home in the south. Austin's wife, Martha, knows about the situation, and while she's not thrilled by it, she understands Austin's discomfort. But the club is not inclined to look beneath the surface, and what they see on the surface is Nora spending a lot of time with Austin, talking to him at length in public, on the post office stairs. "No reputation was safe with them," says Maxwell, "and only by being present every time could they hope to preserve their own. The innocent were thrown to the wolves, the kind made fun of, the old stripped of the dignity that belonged to their years. They say was the phrase invariably used when a good name was about to be auctioned off at the block. They say that before Dr. Seymour married her she was running around with . . . They say the old lady made him promise before she died that he'd never . . . They say she has cancer of the breast . . . "

When they saw Nora on the street, the club members "stopped her and asked questions that appeared to be friendly but that were set and ready to spring like a steel trap." And Maxwell becomes uncharacteristically vehement in another passage in which he summarizes the workings of the club: "What is the chief end of Man? the historians might well have asked over the bridge tables, but they didn't. When they met as a group, they slipped all pity off under the table with their too-tight shoes, and became destroyers, enemies of society and of their neighbors, bent on finding out what went on behind the blinds that were drawn to the window-sill."

But not everyone in Lincoln/Draperville/Logan was hounded by the likes of the club. Maxwell's town is not like Carol Kenicott's Gopher Prairie, where the knowledge of watchful eyes prevents one from doing anything different; or George Willard's Winesburg, where an insistence on conformity twists everyone into grotesqueness. While Maxwell's characters are sometimes victimized by talk and nosiness, they seem less mindful of the town's opinions than a Carol or a George, more involved in simply getting by than in pleasing those around them. Maxwell himself makes an important distinction in Ancestors when he comments on the levels of tolerance in the Lincoln he remembered:

"You could be eccentric and still not be socially ostracized. You could even be dishonest. But you could not be openly immoral. The mistakes people made were not forgotten, but if you were in trouble somebody very soon found out about it and was there answering the telephone and feeding the children. Men and women alike appeared to accept with equanimity the circumstances (on the whole, commonplace and unchanging) of their lives in a way that no one seems able to do now anywhere. This is how I remember it. I am aware that Sherwood Anderson writing about a similar though smaller place saw it quite differently. I believe in Winesburg, Ohio, but I also believe in what I remember."

And, like Draperville's communal memory, Maxwell's is also sharp and long. Although he left Lincoln after his freshman year in high school, he has mined his memories of small-town life for over 50 years. Lincoln, like many central and southern Illinois towns, was settled largely by southerners who had migrated from Virginia and Kentucky. In Ancestors, Maxwell describes the arduous lives his forebears led as they trekked across the continent, "in movement in a new country":

"In the mountains of Virginia they listened thoughtfully to tales of how easy life was in Kentucky, and from Kentucky, when they had to sell out, or were sold out, to pay their debts, they moved on into Illinois. With their minds always on some promised land, like the Old Testament figures they so much resembled, they did not bother to record or even remember the place of their origin."

And these southerners brought with them values and qualities that have put their stamp on countless midwestern towns. Some of them brought a fierce religious faith, which frowned on frivolity of any sort. In a series of statements from a church quarterly of 1864, Maxwell recognizes "the intellectual climate of my Aunt Maybel's house on Union Street," a house, he says, that "knew the Bible backwards and forwards, and could quote chapter and verse to prove that dancing was wrong, in itself and because of what it led to. So was playing cards for money. And swearing. And drinking anything stronger than grape juice or lemonade. And spending Sunday in any other way than going to church and coming home and eating a big dinner afterward." A quotation from the church quarterly suggests the prevailing chill of this climate: "Let every preacher resolve never to enter a meetinghouse of our brethren in which an organ stands. Let no one who takes a letter from church ever unite with another using an organ. Rather let him live out of a church than go into such a den. Let all who oppose the organ withdraw from the church if one is brought in."

By Maxwell's time, and in Maxwell's novels, the specific religious forces have waned considerably--there are no churches or churchgoing to speak of in any of the novels or stories--but there is a severity to the lives that has its roots in those southern settlers. And there are other values, too, that Maxwell recalls from the "dense Tolstoian family life" he experienced during his first ten years or so, before the traumatic death of his mother, which finds a form in nearly everything he wrote.

"The values and assumptions of that household I took in without knowing when or how it happened, and I have them to this day: The pleasure of sharing pleasure. The belief that it is only proper to help lame dogs to get over stiles and young men to put one foot on the bottom rung of the ladder. An impatient disregard for small sums of money. The belief that it is a sin against Nature to put sugar in one's tea. The preference for being home over being anywhere else. The belief that generous impulses should be acted on, whether you can afford to do this or not. The trust in premonitions and the knowledge of what is in wrapped packages. The willingness to go to any amount of trouble to make yourself comfortable. The tendency to take refuge in absolutes. The belief that you don't have to apologize for tears; that consoling words should never be withheld; that what somebody wants very much they should, if possible, have."

Maxwell isn't sure how many of these values and attitudes came from his Kentucky grandmother, but "the prevailing atmosphere of her house and of ours," he thinks, "was Southern. . . . "

As these values and assumptions suggest, there were noble ideals and sentiments in this strand of middle-western settler. But there was a broad streak of materialism, too--the kind of thing that Graham Hutton and Lewis Atherton have remarked on in their studies of midwestern life--which surprised and disillusioned Maxwell when he discovered it in one of his father's anecdotes about his grandfather. The older man's advice, Maxwell's father had reported, was that if he could set aside a thousand dollars, he would have a hedge against disaster, a rainy-day reservoir that would ensure his success. When did the idealism get replaced by money? Maxwell asks:

"At what point, I have often asked myself, did money . . . become so real to them all? And why? And was it true of other Middle Western families as well? Was it the period? Or was it the inevitable consequence of my grandparents' moving to town? I think of John England [the brother of Maxwell's great-great-grandfather], who fell asleep the minute people began to talk about money. To him it was an object of no value. You couldn't plant it. The rain didn't rain on it. You couldn't harvest it or watch it ripen. It was a dead thing and what interested him was life. Eternal life. I find it a terribly strange--and terrible--fact that the only words of my grandfather which my father ever quoted to me--his testament, so to speak--were not about faith or honor or truthfulness or compassion for other human beings but about saving money."

But the power of Maxwell's fiction comes not from his judgments and portraits of the town he recalled so clearly. His power lies in his ability to render the texture of his characters' lives, to show their suffering and their essential decency. A passage from So Long, See You Tomorrow suggests the vein he has mined for nearly 50 years, from They Came Like Swallows (1938) to "The Holy Terror," a New Yorker story of 1986:

"Very few families escape disasters of one kind or another, but in the years between 1909 and 1919 my mother's family had more than its share of them. My grandfather, spending the night in a farmhouse, was bitten on the ear by a rat or a ferret and died three months later of blood poisoning. My mother's only brother was in an automobile accident and lost his right arm. My mother's younger sister poured kerosene on a grate fire that wouldn't burn and set fire to her clothing and bore scars of this all the rest of her life. My older brother, when he was five years old, got his foot caught in a turning carriage wheel [and his leg was amputated several inches above the knee]."

And if all that wasn't bad enough, the narrator's (and Maxwell's) younger brother was born on New Year's Day of 1918, at the height of an influenza epidemic. His mother--and Maxwell's--died two days later, of double pneumonia, and thereby cast a permanent shadow of grief: "After that, there were no more disasters," the narrator says. "The worst that could happen had happened, and the shine went out of everything."

The effect of Maxwell's telling and retelling, his reexamination of these melancholy events, is to create a fictional universe that has the feel of the very town that Maxwell evokes. In nearly all his novels, he uses multiple points of view, moving smoothly from one perspective to another to give the reader a sense of how events affect different people. Eventually, the events become familiar, like the topics of small-town discussions, as we move from Maxwell's earliest work to his recent New Yorker stories.

In They Came Like Swallows (1938), Maxwell assumes three points of view to tell the story of a mother's death during an influenza epidemic. The first part is told from the point of view of Bunny, a sensitive, thoughtful boy of eight who isn't cut out for life on the playgrounds and whose mother dotes over him. The second section is told from the point of view of Robert, Bunny's older brother, who lost his leg in a carriage accident but who refuses to give up the sports and mischief he loves so much. The third section is told from the father's point of view, suggesting the depression and helplessness he feels after the death of his wife. The basic elements of the story are almost completely autobiographical, like much of Maxwell's later work, but the play of his imagination and his ability to bring a variety of viewpoints to life give the story a quality that a mere report could not produce.

In Time Will Darken It (1948), Maxwell incorporates other elements from the disasters of his family. The novel opens with a visit by some southern relatives to Austin King's Draperville home. It deftly contrasts the southerners' apparent gentility and their willingness to bend certain rules with the awkward but principled behavior of the midwesterners, especially Austin. It traces the growing infatuation of Nora Potter with Austin; of Nora's helping to start a Montessori school with two old maids; and of Nora's terrible accident, when she burns herself badly while trying to start a fire at the school. Time also sketches the living conditions for blacks in Draperville, which, like Maxwell's real-life Lincoln, includes a black section where the homes stand in striking contrast to the stately houses on the Kings' Elm Street. And the novel even contains an account of the Sudden Change, a legendary 1836 incident in central Illinois when the temperature dropped so low so precipitously that travelers and workers were, reportedly, frozen in their tracks.

Four of the stories in Maxwell's 1977 collection of short stories entitled Over by the River are also set in Draperville, enriching our sense of the texture of life there. In "The Trojan Women," a married woman has run away--not for the first time--to a summer cottage on the lake, where she can escape the oppressiveness of her marriage, but not the gossip of the town. In "What Every Boy Should Know," a young boy's father, like Maxwell's own, teaches him the value of money through some lessons involving a paper route, a new bicycle, and an aborted strike by the delivery boys. In "A Final Report," a narrator ruminates on the meaning of his aunt Maud's life, in the wake of her death. He tallies her possessions in the context of her will, revealing a "past unillumined by memory or love"--a past that includes a carriage accident in which the narrator's older brother loses a leg.

And in "The Value of Money," the narrator returns to visit Draperville and his father, and finds himself actually enjoying the company of old friends and relatives. In the glow of his visit, he even grows tolerant toward the boosterism that is so often so obnoxious in small-town conversations, which Sinclair Lewis satirized so broadly. Once again, Maxwell's touch is gentler, more sympathetic:

"With several drinks under his belt, Edward looked around the noisy dining room. The faces he saw were full of character, as small-town faces tend to be, he thought, and lined with humor, and time had dealt gently with them. By virtue of having been born in this totally unremarkable place and of having lived out their lives here, they had something people elsewhere didn't have. . . . This opinion every person in the room agreed with, he knew, and no doubt it had been put into his mind when he was a child. For it was something that he never failed to be struck by--those sweeping statements in praise of Draperville that were almost an article of religious faith. They spoke about each other in much the same way. 'There isn't a finer man anywhere on this earth,' they would say in a tone of absolute conviction, sometimes about somebody who was indeed admirable, but just as often it would be some local skinflint, some banker or lawyer who made a specialty of robbing widows and orphans and was just barely a member of the human race. A moment later, opposed to this falsehood and in fact utterly contradicting it, there was a more realistic appraisal, which to his surprise they did not hesitate to express. But it would be wrong to assume that the second statement represented their true opinion; it was just their other one."

With So Long, See You Tomorrow, William Maxwell received more popular regard, to complement the high esteem in which writers such as Jean Stafford, John Cheever, and Frank O'Connor had held him. As I've suggested, So Long blends some of the details of Maxwell's own life--his mother's death, his father's grief, their move to Chicago--with an account of the murder-suicide that left another young boy, Cletus Smith, friendless for a while. The narrator befriends Cletus briefly, until both move away, and the story is told, ostensibly, to expiate the narrator's guilt for not having acknowledged Cletus several years later, in the halls of a bustling Chicago high school. Once again, the old themes are there, the old situations--a mother's death, a boy's guilt and sorrow, a family's grief and trouble.

But the strands of So Long and of Maxwell's ongoing account of his memories of Lincoln continue to weave their narrative spell in the pages of the New Yorker. In November of 1984, "The Man in the Moon" appeared, giving a fuller account of the unfortunate uncle who had lost his arm in the car wreck. In January of 1985 came "My Father's Friends," a reminiscence about his father's death in 1958 and of some mixed reactions to that death by men who'd known his father. And in March of 1986, "The Holy Terror" appeared, perhaps the most poignant work in Maxwell's long career. It is another retelling of the terrible accident his brother Hap had suffered, when he lost his leg at the age of five. The story recounts the details of the accident as they had been passed down by the family, and it pays tribute to the brother's remarkable strength and courage. He had lived a full and active life, winning tennis matches, riding a bicycle, playing football despite his injury, and becoming a successful lawyer, like the grandfather he admired so.

But "The Holy Terror," like some shocking family legend, goes on to make a startling revelation: that Hap's leg had been mistreated by a doddering local doctor; that the injury was fairly routine; and that, according to a younger, more professional doctor called in after gangrene had set in, the leg could have been saved if it had been treated correctly. Hap had never been told about this, and the narrator had kept the secret until his brother's death had made it possible to disclose the terrible truth.

So William Maxwell continues his journey backward, to the leafy streets of Lincoln and to the recesses of his family's history. The tight-knit web of characters and memories, like the town that Maxwell evokes, is both constricting and comforting, tolerant and judgmental. It is, like Thackeray's world, "more melancholy than mirthful." But it has the feel and texture of real life, really lived in that area between Gopher Prairie and Friendship Village, not far from Winesburg, and just down the road from Lake Wobegon.

The following books by William Maxwell are in print, all in paperback:

So Long, See You Tomorrow, Ballantine, $2.95.

Ancestors, Godine, $9.95.

Over by the River, Godine, $8.95.

Time Will Darken It, Godine, $10.95.

Chateau, Godine, $10.95.

The Folded Leaf, Godine, $8.95.

The Old Man at the Railroad Crossing, Godine, $10.95.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/John Figler.

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