Reading William Maxwell by Valerie Hotchkiss

Valerie Hotchkiss is the Andrew S. G. Turyn Endowed Professor and Director of The Rare Book & Manuscript Library at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.


William Maxwell's All the Days and NightsI am currently reading a collection of short stories by William Maxwell called All the Days and Nights. I’ve become a fan of Maxwell since arriving at the University of Illinois because we house his literary archives. Maxwell served as fiction editor at The New Yorker from 1936 to 1975, where he not only edited, but also inspired some of the most prominent authors of his day, including Vladimir Nabokov, John Updike, J.D. Salinger, John Cheever, Frank O’Connor, Eudora Welty, and Isaac Bashevis Singer. Eudora Welty once said of Maxwell, “For fiction writers, he was the headquarters.” When J.D. Salinger finished Catcher in the Rye, he went straight to Maxwell with it. Not surprisingly, this amazing editor was also a pretty amazing writer. Indeed, I would argue that he is one of the greatest American authors of the twentieth century.

William Maxwell's The Folded LeafMaxwell was an Illinois native (born in Lincoln, Illinois, in 1908), who attended and taught at the U of I for a few years. I often make a gift of his novel The Folded Leaf, a heart-rending account of a young man’s experiences at the University of Illinois in the 1920s—based on Maxwell’s own life—because it is full of references to places in Urbana. I also highly recommend They Came Like Swallows, one of the few novels about the 1918 flu epidemic.

Though I prefer his novels, I am enjoying Maxwell as a short story writer in All the Days and Nights. “What Every Boy Should Know” captures the anxious and mysterious inner world of an adolescent paperboy in rural Illinois, while “Over By the River” offers an impressionist view of middle class life on the upper east side of Manhattan in a way that reminds me of Virginia Woolf’s style. My favorite piece in this collection is “Love.” Just four pages long, it is the most perfectly executed short story I have ever read. Get a copy of this book, if only to read “Love.” Or treat yourself to Tony Earley’s boyish reading of it for the New Yorker short story podcast.

If you read something by William Maxwell (I recommend The Folded Leaf or So Long, See You Tomorrow), please visit the Rare Book & Manuscript Library and I will show you the original manuscript afterwards. Seeing Maxwell’s drafts is a beautiful experience of the creative process.

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About iprh

The Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was established in 1997 to promote interdisciplinary study in the humanities, arts, and social sciences.
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