William Maxwell

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Maxwell, William 1908–

Maxwell is an American novelist, short story writer, and editor whose pride in his midwestern heritage permeates his writings. So Long, See You Tomorrow is a masterful evocation of a young man's coming of age. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 93-96.)

The New York Times Book Review

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["Bright Center of Heaven"] is a bright fragment from the lives of an oddly assorted group of people on a Wisconsin farm. It begins with breakfast and carries on to bedtime. That short space of time is crammed with penetrating glimpses into the characters of the twelve people on the farm that day. The point of view shifts from the inner consciousness of one to another, and each inner view sheds light on the individual and reflects on his house-mates. The scope is deliberately narrow, and in its field the book is remarkably well done. The writing is pungent and sure. The humor is adult and original. The author's attitude is one of impartial detachment tinged with a human fondness for his characters….

The book is a sort of literary snapshot—clear-cut, incomplete but satisfactory. Overwrought emotions are portrayed with clean, swift strokes, and there are rapid transitions to keenly comic situations.

"A Frantic Lot," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1934 by The New York Times Company; copyright renewed © 1962 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 9, 1934, p. 17.


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Treating with lightness and dexterity a number of subjects usually discussed only with the highest seriousness of the sort commonly labelled "Social Problems," Mr. Maxwell in ["Bright Center of Heaven"] has put together an admirable satiric comedy, bitter-sweet in flavor, yet always humorous. "Bright Center of Heaven" exhibits few of the weaknesses present in most recent efforts by American writers to achieve subtlety and a graciously detached viewpoint in dealing with human relationships. Nevertheless it is essentially original, and does not imitate the prevailing British and French conventions for such fiction. (p. 109)

[The] core of the plot has a peculiarly native quality for which the author is to be congratulated…. Besides this, the rest of Mr. Maxwell's material is sufficiently timeless and universal to be anyone's property, such themes as adolescent love, the musical temperament, and the servant problem supplementing his more novel central idea.

Technically, Mr. Maxwell has surprisingly little to learn. He shows remarkable skill in presenting his people and in making them understandable, and does not often overemphasize the tragic undercurrent which flows continually beneath his deliberately careless manner. On the other hand, his book is a trifle slow in starting, and his climax … is too long delayed to be really effective. There is no particular reason why the writer of such a novel as this should pay great attention to narrative form, especially as he has confined the action within the limits of a single day, but there are a good many annoyingly loose ends left untied and unaccounted for at the close of these twelve hours. Exception taken for minor and comparatively unimportant aberrations of this sort, it is possible to say that "Bright Center of Heaven" is a delightful and amusing satiric novel, and consequently also something of a rarity in this season. (p. 110)

Theodore Purdy, Jr., "American Comedy," in The Saturday Review of Literature (copyright © 1934 by Saturday Review; copyright renewed © 1952 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. XI, No. 9, September 15, 1934, pp. 109-10.

Amy Loveman

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["They Came Like Swallows"] is one of those rare tales in which childhood is reflected in the simplicity and intensity of its own experience…. Mr. Maxwell has a warmth of comprehension, a delicacy of insight not only into the mood and emotions of youth...

(This entire section contains 287 words.)

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but into those of maturity which augurs well for his future as a novelist…. His story is compact, economical, and straightforward, and has a deliberate inarticulateness of emotion which lends it strength and beauty.

"They Came Like Swallows" is the simplest of tales…. [The] pivot and inspiration of daily life is the wise, undemonstrative, tender woman who is awaiting another child and in the meanwhile counseling, laughing at, soothing, and loving her men folk big and little. Mr. Maxwell has drawn her with sure and loving skill and made her real and convincing. With subtle strokes, a half sentence, a glance, a caress, she is made to come to life, and the influence she is supposed to exert rendered entirely credible…. Mr. Maxwell has been singularly successful in creating a character whose distinction resides in no dramatic qualities but in a quiet understanding.

Commonplace happenings, commonplace conversations, life flowing on as it did for thousands of families in hundreds of towns in the United States as the war was drawing to an end, woven together by an art that is discriminating and touched to life by sympathy and understanding—that is Mr. Maxwell's book….

I make no claims of large importance for this book. But I repeat that it is a lovely one.

Amy Loveman, "Family Life through the Eyes of Children," in The Saturday Review of Literature (copyright © 1937 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. XVI, No. 1, May 1, 1937, p. 4.

V. S. Pritchett

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The weakness of They Came Like Swallows is technical. The narrative disintegrates because you begin with little Bunny at his mother's knee, go on with little Robert who is "father's boy" and then muddle along with father. There is no unity. Otherwise the book is a sensitive, wistful reminiscence of family life, very intimate and pathetic and with some acute observation which, between one dab of the handkerchief and the next, is actually very delightful. (p. 312)

V. S. Pritchett, "New Novels," in The New Statesman & Nation (© 1937 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. XIV, No. 340, August 8, 1937, pp. 312-13.∗

Edmund Wilson

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[It] is peculiary reassuring to read "The Folded Leaf."… Mr. Maxwell is not putting on a show for the international literary world …; he has no gospel for Europe at war. He does not even have to brush aside the magazine and movie formulas, for he does not hear them humming in his ears. He has fixed upon a segment of experience and has molded it into a work of fiction through a style and a narrative skill which have been learned in the struggle with his subject…. This drama of the immature, with no background more glamorous than middle-class apartments and student fraternity houses, is both more moving and more absorbing than any of the romantic melodramas which have been stimulated by the war.

There are episodes in "The Folded Leaf"—incompletely imagined or dramatized—which sometimes keep it from being quite rounded out. The opening sequence of chapters is perfect: the author alternates between his two heroes, taking us to their respective homes and letting us see inside the minds of both, presenting them in contrast and balance. But from the point where they go to college, though we continue to see Lymie from within—the more sensitive and dependent of the pair—we get rather out of touch with Spud, the athletic and instinctive one, and the girl characters, though carefully sketched, never really find their way into the spotlight with which Lymie and Spud are followed. The end leaves us a little unsatisfied…. [The] author breaks off the story without quite having been able to persuade us to share Lymie's feeling of confidence [after his suicide attempt]. Yet the whole thing has been so real as we read it that we may hardly complain about this. It is almost as if we were merely losing sight, at graduation, of two men we had known in college. We wonder what became of them afterward. There were some things about them that we never knew. But when we look back on them in later years—as we do when we look back on this book—we see new and grave implications in the semi-childish incidents of college life, a contest of impulses and needs which we did not suspect at the time.

Reading "The Folded Leaf," one is reminded of certain American novelists who were working, against the popular taste, in the field of serious social realism at the end of the last century and during the early decades of this. In his effort to deal with young boys on a plane of detached observation as far as possible from the mere sentimentality and humor with which the subject has usually been treated in America, Mr. Maxwell is sometimes quite close to the "Whilomville Stories" of Stephen Crane: he approaches such matters as fraternity initiations and gratuitous schoolboy fights, the traditional customs of childhood, from an anthropological point of view which was also to some extent developed by Crane…. [There may] be a special kind of realism which is inevitably imposed upon a Middle Western writer by the landscape and life of his region. This realism may not be at all folksy; it may not be at all raw, like Dreiser's; it may be thoughtful, accomplished, and neat, like the realism of [William Dean Howells or Henry B. Fuller]. "The Folded Leaf" is an example of this. With careful, unobtrusive art, Mr. Maxwell has made us feel all the coldness and hardness and darkness of Chicago, the prosaic surface of existence which seems to stretch about one like asphalt or ice. But there are moments when the author breaks away into a kind of poetic reverie that shows he is able to find a way out. (pp. 81-2)

Edmund Wilson, "Faintness of the 'Age of Thunder' and Power of 'The Folded Leaf'" (© 1945 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.; copyright renewed © 1972 by Edmund Wilson; reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Inc.), in The New Yorker, Vol. XXI, No. 7, March 31, 1945, pp. 81-2.∗

Richard Sullivan

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"The Folded Leaf" is a sustained piece of extraordinarily good writing; its sensitive and often beautiful prose re-creates accurately and illuminates warmly a whole complex of human experience—difficult, not often handled, yet deeply meaningful…. The events are the intense, simple, urgent ones of growth: friendship and jealousy and falling in love and waking to desperation.

They are the events which, in a sense, belong to every life. But not every writer is able to project in sharp detail the larger—indeed the almost universal—feeling which William Maxwell so constantly and easily evokes….

There is a kind of absolute rendering of the Nineteen Twenties here; the feeling is sound, the air is true. But convincing as the touches of the time surely are, an even deeper penetration is shown in the treatment of people and places throughout….

Within the limitations of its own subject, which admittedly furnishes no vast or heroic theme but only a good and sound one, "The Folded Leaf" does precisely, beautifully and completely what it sets out to do.

Richard Sullivan, "Merging of Boyhood and Manhood," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1945 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 8, 1945, p. 3.

Richard Sullivan

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"To arrive at some idea of the culture of a certain street in a Middle Western small town shortly before the First World War, is a … delicate undertaking," runs one meditative chapter ending in ["Time Will Darken It"]. But even more delicate, and more difficult, is the projection in fiction of the breathing people, the living relationships, the very air and feeling of such a time and place. Yet that is precisely what Mr. Maxwell …, in a quiet, accurate way, achieves in "Time Will Darken It."

The book's time, 1912–13, and its scene—an Illinois town typical enough to be recognized under many names but here called Draperville—are both still close enough to allow many readers to check their own remembered impressions. The events all rise out of a simple, natural, even common circumstance….

There is a sense of responsibility in Mr. Maxwell's writing. This is a quiet, thoughtful, knowing book. Its design is both simple and rich; its movement is grave. Reading it one feels that its elements—its people and place and time—have been permanently, faithfully rendered. And one cannot help feeling that an effect of this kind was part of the author's primary intention. For all the way through this seems an attempt—beautifully accomplished—at fixing in words a section of the very substance of the near American past, so that a good and important and meaningful thing will not be lost in the darkening progression of our days.

Richard Sullivan, "Life in Draperville, Illinois," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1948 by The New York Times Company; copyright renewed © 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 5, 1948, p. 4.

Ernest Jones

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"Time Will Darken It" is the least satisfying of Mr. Maxwell's novels. His greatest power, the ability to recreate the pangs and joys of childhood and adolescence, made "They Came Like Swallows" a very moving book. It did not, however, save the tender account of adolescent passion in "The Folded Leaf" from a blown-up quality, the result of an intrusive semi-philosophical commentary not necessary to the fiction; nor from a conclusion—although this is a minority opinion—false in terms of the rest of the book. "Time Will Darken It" has the same power and the same faults. Mr. Maxwell recaptures perfectly his Illinois town in 1912. His small-town parties, his junkets into the countryside are excellent. His family groups are done in the best genre style. He makes the perfectly sound point that, in naive good faith and desiring to hurt no one, a man can commit an error in judgment which will involve him and his family in a holocaust. But there is too much abstract talk about this and about other matters not strictly relevant. Too much comes right in the end, although in terms of the first two-thirds of the novel everything should have gone wrong…. This could have been a very good novel about that painful adolescent phenomenon, the crush. Instead, it is tender, reminiscent, sensitive.

Ernest Jones, "Books and the Arts: 'Time Will Darken It'," in The Nation (copyright 1948 The Nation magazine, The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 167, No. 13, September 25, 1948, p. 353.

Richard Gilman

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[The Chateau] is likely to be even more disappointing than Maxwell's previous books to readers looking for fleshly characters who undergo things, as well as to those who wait for novels that come in the shape of chinese boxes. It is really an anti-novel; and if you understand that there is no massive esthetic theory involved and that Maxwell isn't angry or on fire or jaded, you might appreciate and enjoy the kind of anti-novel it is.

The kind it isn't is that of Robbe-Grillet or Nathalie Sarraute…. What Maxwell does is something much less ambitious on the one hand and less embittered on the other, though it stems from quite the same weariness with the novels that give answers, artificially jack up our morale or our comprehension, recharge our emotions or provide us with vicarious selves.

"When you explain a mystery, all you do is make room for another," Maxwell says in The Chateau. And in another place, "answers may clarify but they do not change anything." He does not wish to explain nor change nor even really to clarify, he doesn't even want to do what the novel, in the literary supplements, is supposed to do: impose an order upon chaos….

So many negatives to establish one positive. Well, the point is that we are never able to respond with freshness to any experience, much less an esthetic one, unless we are able to get out from under the load of preconceptions we carry….

It's always harder to say what a thing is than what it isn't. But The Chateau does have a substance and a purpose. The substance is the fragile network of relationships that the couple establishes between themselves and the people they meet at the chateau and later see in Paris, and between themselves and Europe, which has always existed as the mythical substructure of their imaginations. And the purpose is to pursue and arrest those relationships, to present them, in mystery and ambiguity, never exerting any pressure to explain them, make them yield up secrets or deal with problems they raise….

Those unchanging patterns, traced by the swallow-like flights we make toward, around, away from and in company with one another … are the reality that underlies all formulations of our social experience; they are what The Chateau is about.

It is also about its author's wry questioning of the novel as a source of accurate knowledge and solutions to problems. After the low-keyed events are set down, there is a short epilogue in which Maxwell engages in a dialogue with an imaginary reader who presses him for explanations and further histories of the characters. They are given but they do not amount to much, and they might just as well be otherwise, the author says. Do you want heroes? It is far more likely that you really want a model of endurance. What is better for you is to be "reminded of how old the human race is, and of the beautiful touching sameness of most human occasions." Do you want answers? Art is concerned with questions.

Richard Gilman, "The Anti-Novel of a Trained, Cool-Tempered Sensibility," in Commonweal (copyright © 1961 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. LXXIV, No. 2, April 7, 1961, p. 50.

Laurence Lafore

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[William Maxwell calls "The Old Man at the Railroad Crossing"] a collection of tales, but they blend some of the quality of classic fables with the form of fairy tales. They combine the traditions of Aesop and the Brothers Grimm, and are faithful to both.

The fidelity to tradition is the quality most immediately noticeable. The 29 tales, each only a few pages long, contain morals, more or less directly stated, and epigrams—along with freshly minted proverbs as well. They are written in a style so simple and direct as to suggest, elusively, deliberate archaism—there are moments when one half expects to turn a page and come upon an illustration by Howard Pyle. And the subject matter belongs, for the most part to tradition….

All this may strike some readers as slightly irritating, while others will take pleasure in the imagination with which Mr. Maxwell constructs his pastiches. His morals and proverbs are always original, frequently funny and often ironic and profound. The tales are best read slowly, one at a time, with pauses, to enjoy the striking juxtaposition of legendary settings and contemporary situations. These are fables not so much for our time, since their meaning is intended to be universal, but certainly they are very much of our time….

Nor is the style, in fact, so much mannered as simply appropriate. Its simplicities are not imitative, but rigorously honest. Mr. Maxwell writes with art, with the attitude of a jeweler arranging precious stones in a display case.

His themes are varied, but they are consistent and unified in the view of life that they represent….

[Hope] and joy, frequently represented by their traditional symbols of music, birds and trees, appear as the good things of life; the bad things are often in the form of possessions made, and paid for, by men. Many of the tales are about characters symbolic, traditional and sometimes scriptural, lamplighters, fishermen, carpenters. But the moral often comes as a surprise and a paradox. In Mr. Maxwell's world, unexpected people fill the essential function of saving souls, like the compulsive talker who, by her talk, deflects the discontents of those about her.

He is conveying, in intricate forms, his decisions about the nature of mankind and of morality….

The most frequent of the themes is the recurrent notion that "for every deprivation there is always some gift."

Laurence Lafore, "Fables of Our Time," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1966 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 13, 1966, p. 5.

Bernard Bergonzi

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Moral fables would … loosely describe William Maxwell's short stories [in The Old Man at the Railroad Crossing]; the author calls them "tales," which is a better word, since these pieces have more in common with the world of legend and fairy tale than with the sophisticated art of the modern short story as it is generally practiced. Not that Mr. Maxwell is unmodern; many of his seemingly artless pieces effectively turn on the problem of identity and other hot contemporary issues: The total effect is of something midway between the Brothers Grimm and Kafka, with perhaps a touch of Zen. I found the whole collection odd, charming, repetitious, and with rather too calculated an air of uplift and inspiration. (p. 24)

Bernard Bergonzi, "Private Fortunes," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1966 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. VI, No. 7, April 28, 1966, pp. 23-4.∗

Edmund White

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Almost every writer surrenders to the temptation to inflate his tale with unearned emotion and significance, to rave a bit and hint at Larger Meanings. Middle-class Americans, unconcerned with the ways in which the specific historical moment has shaped a life, are particularly apt to see themselves or their heroes as Everyman; the urge to eternalize and universalize is the sign of political naiveté. That William Maxwell has splendidly resisted this impulse is his chief victory. Seldom has a story been told with more modesty and by a voice so accessible, so educated and so simple. And [So Long, See You Tomorrow] is a novel securely situated in its time (the 1920s) and place (a small town in Illinois). This story did not happen to us all; it happened to these people. The very specificity is the source of interest, for surely voyeurism is a keener emotion than narcissism, or at least one more suited to fiction. (p. 1)

What unfolds is a tale of inarticulate passion among innocent, middle-aged farming people, a plot related in brief incidents. The story, in the hands of a less honest writer, would have had its lurid confrontations, its smoldering sex scenes, its horrifying climax. Fine stuff, no doubt, but not particularly true to the dour, inexpressive midwestern tenant farmers Maxwell has in mind. His accomplishment is to present a fascinating tragedy enacted by sincere, gentle, reluctant participants—and to give his account the same integrity that marks their deeds….

[What] I find remarkable and commendable—and realistic—is the way in which each character, while remaining an individual, is inscribed in his particular worldly circumstances. Maxwell tells us how much everything cost, who owned what, who worked for whom. The self-control of the Maxwells—and their son's sensitivity to literature—we feel are middle-class traits, or at least traits available to these characters. The half-suppressed resentment, and the tendency toward depression and violence are plausible attributes of the tenant farmers. We are sometimes told that politics makes fiction abstract. On the contrary, far from robbing the characters of their specificity, the social facts make them more palpable, more exact. So Long, See You Tomorrow is a beautifully worked example of the demanding art of exactitude. (p. 2)

Edmund White, "Ghosts of Childhood Guilt," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1980, The Washington Post), January 13, 1980, pp. 1-2.

Jack Beatty

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So Long, See You Tomorrow is a rare truth-telling fiction. Grave, moving, and wise, it presents a vision of life as a tragic order in which passion is fate, choice is illusion, and innocence and guilt have little meaning and no moral relation to suffering. There is no cure for this suffering, since its cause seems to be life, but there is an implied mitigation. This is the retrospective activity of the sympathetic imagination, which cannot change the facts of another's life, but can make their meaning present and in this way create a feeling of solidarity between oneself and others. This activity of the imagination is precious; it is not too much to call it the humanist's version of prayer. But it cannot make everything present, for some situations are so bad as to be unimaginable. (p. 39)

In the course of his narrative William Maxwell keeps coming back to the tragedy of Cletus Smith. But along the way he sketches in the sorrows of the minor characters who make up the world around [Cletus]…. The moral focus of the story, however, is on the narrator himself: his grief over the early death of his mother, his envy and anger over his father's second marriage, and his guilt for shunning the unfortunate Cletus—this tangle of emotion makes him the strongest presence in the novel. We accept his story as that of William Maxwell himself, and his book not as a fiction but as a memoir, a sincere offering for that snub 50 years ago…. This sense of moral authenticity is the supreme illusion in fiction; something we experience only with the great masters of realism: Flaubert, Tolstoy, Chekhov. Like them, William Maxwell reduces life to its tragic essence without portentousness, that stylistic insistence on the terrible. This is a short novel but only a quantitative theory of art would regard it as slight. (p. 40)

Jack Beatty, "Brief Review: 'So Long, See You Tomorrow'," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1980 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 182, No. 4, January 26, 1980, pp. 39-40.

Robert A. Leiter

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The central event in William Maxwell's [So Long, See You Tomorrow] is a violent murder. We are given the particulars in the opening pages. The style is unadorned, reportorial….

If Mr. Maxwell's story were about nothing more than the murder, his presentation of this information so early on might have proved ruinous. But though he writes well and powerfully of the crime, he does not want it to dominate his other concerns. By suppressing an unnecessary element of suspense, he can explore the nature of death, the confusions of childhood, the quality—the very texture—of desire.

The story is told by a narrator looking back on events that occurred fifty years earlier. Once the details of the crime are presented, the narrator tells us about his [own] childhood, of his mother's death in the influenza epidemic of 1918….

At first this shift in the narrative is a bit disconcerting. It seems the author has needlessly delayed the telling of his story. But Mr. Maxwell has his reasons. (p. 283)

[In] a bold imaginative leap … the narrator takes himself out of his story and moves back in time to a point before the murder. He wants to know what it is like to be a child whose father will come to murder a man. Then he wants to know more—what it is like to be that very man, that man's wife, the lover himself….

The technique is reminiscent of Proust. The narrator, like Marcel imagining Swann pursuing Odette, writes of events he cannot possibly have witnessed. And this offering, like the story of Swann, is a long meditation on desire.

Mr. Maxwell's people speak and think in simple terms but the words burn….

Mr. Maxwell's greatest concern has always been with how people manage to survive. (p. 284)

Robert A. Leiter, "Simple Terms, Burning Words," in Commonweal (copyright © 1980 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. CVII, No. 9, May 9, 1980, pp. 283-84.

Gary F. Waller

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[So Long, See You Tomorrow] is an intriguingly intense account of an old man's recollections of a murder during his childhood. Maxwell … is interested in the interaction of place, history and spirit…. [He] evokes the mysterious currents of association and suggestion that unite us to our physical surroundings, most especially in childhood. He picks out the way minor details; arbitrary incidents, embarrassing hiatuses in our lives, may all link us beyond words or formulations to our own pasts or to each other's—and, most impressively, how such associations haunt our adult lives…. Maxwell doesn't simply tell us; he opens up our experience of this realization. Our adult memories, like a "continually retouched photograph" become "a roundabout, futile way of making amends," a "form of story-telling that goes on continually in the mind and often changes with the telling." Memory, the pressure of our private histories, like good fiction, is made up of conflict and indeterminacies, gaps in recall and logic, which we anxiously fill or compensate for…. John Updike once remarked that our keenest memories are those of events which never happened, people we never met or loved, but who remain for us a perpetual, tempting possibility. In memory, we continually recreate our lives around those events—and they are the more vivid because they are more "ours" than many events in our public lives. Maxwell's novella is a fine evocation of this realization. (p. 98)

Gary F. Waller, "New Fiction: Illumination, Participation, Tact," in The Ontario Review (copyright © 1980 by The Ontario Review, Inc.), No. 12, Spring-Summer, 1980, pp. 94-9.∗

Walter Sullivan

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[So Long, See You Tomorrow] is a small jewel of a book. (p. 439)

The novel is so soundly conceived and so brilliantly executed—I know of no narrative which has a structure quite like the one Maxwell employs—that theme cannot be separated from method. It is a consummate success, and it deserves the attention of all who are interested in learning more about the way fiction works. (p. 441)

Walter Sullivan, "The Feckless Present, the Unredeemed Past: Some Recent Novels," in The Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1980 by The University of the South), Vol. LXXXVIII, No. 3, Summer, 1980, pp. 432-41.∗