The Outermost Dream

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

For many years William Maxwell led what he describes as a “double life,” working three days a week as a fiction editor at THE NEW YORKER, the other four days at home as a novelist. For those who might think that the two jobs were nearly the same, Maxwell has a few words about the process of writing fiction, in which even the much-published professional is always a beginner, working in a realm where there are no infallible rules to follow. Something of that sense of writing as discovery also informs Maxwell’s work as a reviewer--a sideline to his editing and novel-writing. He never reviewed fiction; his preference was for “diaries, memoirs, published correspondence, biography and autobiography"--forms that exhibit the individuality and irreducible strangeness of human experience.

Of the nineteen pieces gathered in THE OUTERMOST DREAM, most are reviews of just such books (there are a couple of introductions as well); almost all of them were first published in THE NEW YORKER, the earliest in the mid-1950’s, the latest in the mid-1980’s. The range of subjects is wide: from the Reverend Francis Kilvert, the nineteenth century British diarist who is the subject of the title piece, to George Gordon, Lord Byron; from Missie Vassiltchikov, the daughter of an exiled Russian aristocrat, who found herself in Berlin for the duration of World War II and kept a diary of her experiences, to Andrei Amalrik, the Soviet dissident; from Edith Nesbit, author of wonderfully quirky children’s books, friend of George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells, to the American poet Louise Bogan.

Many of these pieces, though occasioned by the publication of a specific book, are substantial enough to be called essays. They are all beautifully written. Still, why bother with what is essentially a collection of old book reviews? The answer lies in Maxwell’s introductory note, in which he states his credo as a reviewer: “Reading is rapture (or if it isn’t, I put the book down meaning to go on with it later, and escape out the side door).” These reviews, essays, introductions have one purpose: to send the reader to the library or bookstore, hungry for more.