An illuminating collection of an author widely regarded as one of the twentieth century’s great unsung heroes of American literature.
As a fiction editor at The New Yorker from 1936 to 1975, William Maxwell helped shaped several generations’ sense of the literary short story. At the same time, Maxwell himself was also an exceptional novelist, short story writer, essayist, children’s author, and memoirist.
Given unique, unfettered access to Maxwell’s private papers, Alec Wilkinson—whose memoir My Mentor explores his twenty-five-year friendship with Maxwell—has gathered a stunning and revealing collection of some of Maxwell’s lesser-known and previously unpublished works of nonfiction and fiction.
The Writer as Illusionist includes biographical sketches; remembrances of fellow authors, such as the poet Louise Bogan and short story writer Maeve Brennan; a 1941 nonfiction piece about Bermuda that was the only piece of long reporting Maxwell ever published in The New Yorker; and Maxwell’s thoughts on the craft of writing, many of them made privately.
While Maxwell often said he never kept a journal because anything worth writing about was something a writer would remember, The Writer as Illusionist proves otherwise: included are many notes from his private journals, including some that became parts of his revered novels, such as The Folded Leaf.
Re-reading Maxwell’s work leads Wilkinson to think “I am still often amazed—at the subtlety of the art, the depth of what he saw, at his capacity for dramatizing situations that require a rare hand and eye.”
Maxwell passed away in 2000 at the age of ninety-one. The Writer as Illusionist celebrates his legacy in American letters and is part of Godine’s Nonpareil series.
“I suspect that one mark of great writers—writers who’ll be listed in the literary historical record; writers who’ll remain alive, for decades or centuries, after their earthly departures—is our ongoing interest in everything they wrote, thought, or said. Thanks to Alec Wilkinson’s brilliantly edited collection, my own convictions are confirmed: William Maxwell was, and remains, a great writer.”
—Michael Cunningham, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Hours
“This collection is much more than the sum of its parts. Alec Wilkinson has done a masterful job of creating an unexpected and insightful autobiographical portrait of William Maxwell, a magical writer who shines through as a person of great rectitude and character. What a marvelous book!”
—Edward Hirsch, author of The Heart of American Poetry
“As when leaving an exhibition of landscape paintings you might see a harbor, field, or forest out of the painter’s eyes, so when you read William Maxwell’s thoughts and reminiscences, you will, for a little while, view life through his humorous and keenly intelligent mind. Although he tells us that his writing process involves revision after revision, his prose is simple and direct. It flows as if it came into being without artifice, without struggle. He never indulges in writing for writing’s sake. Rather he puts together exquisite sentences propelled by his search for understanding. He talks to you. His quiet voice is close by. You can imagine sitting by a fire while Maxwell answers your questions about how he became a writer or how an autobiographical fiction writer writes. He keeps a slight distance, a light touch. Thanks to this gentlemanly reserve, what he says is intimate without ever becoming cloying. He does not tell you more than what you want to know. As his stories unfold, you can picture his gentle smile. If he had a dimple, it would deepen.”
—Hayden Herrera, author of Upper Bohemia