William Maxwell Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 861 words.)


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Born in the small midwestern town of Lincoln, Illinois, in 1908, William Keepers Maxwell, Jr., was the second of three sons of William Keepers Maxwell, a traveling fire-insurance salesman, and Eva Blossom (Blinn) Maxwell. In his memoir Ancestors, Maxwell remembers his parents’ marriage and his childhood as being extremely happy. Maxwell was especially close to his mother, who died of Spanish influenza in 1918, only three days after giving birth to Maxwell’s younger brother. This event, frequently recalled in Maxwell’s novels, is a focal point in They Came Like Swallows and So Long, See You Tomorrow. He relates that his family members never really discussed their grief with one another and therefore never fully recovered from the loss. His father’s decision to remarry and move the family to Chicago four years later created more problems, for, although Maxwell’s stepmother was pretty and kind, he resented her taking the place of his mother. The move to Chicago brought Maxwell, a small, bookish child who had no interest in sports, to the Nicholas Senn High School, where for the first time he was encouraged to study literature and music.

Maxwell received a B.A. from the University of Illinois in 1930 and an M.A. from Harvard University in 1931. He taught in the English department at the University of Illinois from 1931 to 1933. Shortly after the publication of his first novel, Bright Center of Heaven, Maxwell joined the editorial staff of The New Yorker, where he remained as fiction editor for forty years. Maxwell was married to Emily Gilman Noyes on May 17, 1945, and they had two daughters. He died in New York City on July 31, 2000.