cover image William Maxwell: A Literary Life

William Maxwell: A Literary Life

Barbara A. Burkhardt. University of Illinois Press, $36.95 (336pp) ISBN 978-0-252-03018-5

""I think better on the typewriter than I do just talking,"" William Maxwell told Burkhardt in one of their many meetings together in the nine years preceding his death, at 91, in 2000. Seated on the patio of his summer home, the novelist and former New Yorker fiction editor (who worked with such literary giants as Nabokov, Salinger and ""the three Johns"": Cheever, O'Hara and Updike) clacked out answers to her questions on his Coronamatic while Burkhardt, an assistant professor of English at the University of Illinois, read by his side. From these mechanized Q&A sessions, as well as from interviews with Maxwell's friends, family and colleagues, Burkhardt emerges with a comprehensive picture of the author's work as dominated by the recurring themes of childhood, psychoanalysis and maternal love. Maxwell lost his mother to the Spanish Flu at age 11, a defining experience that he claimed ""made a novelist out of him."" Recovering the ""lost Eden"" of his early years became his work's ""central mission,"" and Burkhardt uses these autobiographical elements to analyze Maxwell's writing and correspondence. Because Maxwell dedicated himself to covering the same thematic ground in multiple books, however, and because Burkhardt's method is doggedly biographical, her interpretations can grow somewhat repetitive. After all, there are only so many ways to attach the number of young mothers who die in Maxwell's fiction to the one he lost in real life. Burkhardt's account of Maxwell's 40-year tenure at The New Yorker also falls somewhat short. She offers a few intriguing tidbits, like how Harold Ross and other editors used knitting needles to pinpoint unsatisfactory details in covers and cartoons, but fans looking for further insight into the magazine's history may be disappointed. Nevertheless, though the New Yorker anecdotes are few and far between, Burkhardt's exhaustive study of the author's life will be required reading for any devoted Maxwell enthusiast. 8 pages of b&w photos.