A curious thing: the New York literary world is smaller than the London literary world. It also has a strange feeling of being more old-fashioned. I was edited there by the legendary Joe Fox. I don’t think he liked me, but we would have dinner at a hotel restaurant, the last place where he could smoke in New York, and talk about great writers, including William Maxwell. Joe Fox died at his desk in Random House behind a huge pile of copies of the New York Times, cigarette on his lips.
William Maxwell himself was one of this relatively small but influential group of New York literary figures. Because of his very long life and his great influence as literary editor of The New Yorker, he knew almost every writer who passed through the city. When Maxwell died two years ago, at the age of 91, John Updike wrote in his tribute to him in The New Yorker:
He accepted with his customary grace and humor his own contrary fate of living on and on . . . He was himself so large-minded, so selflessly in love with the best the world could offer, that he enlarged and relaxed those who knew him. His was a rare, brave spirit, early annealed in terrible loss. He had a gift for affection, and another – or was it the same gift? – for paying attention. With both he graced this magazine.
Maxwell’s great loss, to which Updike refers, was the death of his mother when he was a boy out in Illinois during the ’flu epidemic of 1918 (in which my own grandmother died, leaving my mother bereft). This loss, and the consequent vivid, nostalgic memory of an idyllic childhood destroyed, was the subject of his own literary endeavours and provided him with three-quarters of his literary material. To read Maxwell now is to be taken back into a time and place lost for ever. It is an extraordinary and wonderfully surprising experience: here is an American provincial world presented in miniature and in exquisite detail, as though the deat
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