William Keepers Maxwell, Jr., was a renowned editor at The New Yorker magazine, where he worked for forty years, publishing the work of authors such as J. D. Salinger, John Cheever, and John Updike. Although his own fiction did not receive the recognition that the writings of some of these celebrated authors enjoyed, he was also a skilled literary craftsman. Despite his many years in New York, his writing concentrated on small-town, midwestern life.
Maxwell’s early years were spent in Lincoln, Illinois, where he was born. His father, a salesman, was often away from home, so the young Maxwell developed a strong attachment to his mother. In 1918, two days after the birth of a younger brother, the mother died of double pneumonia. The death affected him deeply and became an event that would recur in his writing.
Two years after the death, his family moved to Chicago. Maxwell had planned to attend the Chicago Art Institute after graduating from high school but decided to enroll instead at the University of Illinois at Urbana in order to help a sick friend at the university. Graduating second in his class in 1930, he won a scholarship to pursue a doctorate in English at Harvard University. A poor showing in German, required for a Ph.D. in English, caused him to lose his scholarship after earning a master’s degree in 1931, and he returned to the University of Illinois at Urbana, where he got a job teaching freshman English.
During his stay in Urbana, he learned that he wanted to write. His landlord had agreed to produce a short version of a biography of the eighteenth century English agriculturalist Thomas Coke; Maxwell helped with the work and decided that he liked writing so much that he turned to writing a novel. At first titled “Snake Feeders,” then “Thundercloud,” this first novel was published under the title Bright Center of Heaven. Maxwell began working on a second novel, They Came Like Swallows, and finished it before leaving for New York.
Maxwell moved to New York City in 1936. He needed a job, so the publisher of his...
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