By Andrea Lynn
Author John Updike will pay tribute to his former fiction editor, William Maxwell, during a program April 24 at the UI.
The program celebrates the life and distinguished career of Maxwell, 88, and his recent major gift to the UI Library. A native Illinoisan and UI alumnus (he earned a bachelor's degree in English in 1930, and worked toward a doctoral degree from 1931 to 1933), Maxwell has given his personal papers including manuscripts of his novels, short stories and essays, and thousands of letters from major literary figures to his alma mater.
Many of the letters were written while Maxwell was fiction editor at The New Yorker magazine. During his 40-year tenure there (1936 to 1976), he worked with some of the century's most famous authors and produced four of his six novels, several of which went on to collect major awards. Nearly all of his work draws on his memories of his early life in the heart of America's heartland.
The Maxwell program will begin at 4 p.m. in the Foellinger Auditorium. Updike, a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, will talk about his 30-year association with Maxwell. Other speakers will be UI English professor Emily Watts and Maxwell scholar/biographer Barbara Burkhardt. A visiting professor in the UI library, Burkhardt is working with Maxwell's papers and expanding her dissertation on Maxwell into a critical biography.
Maxwell, who lives in New York, will participate in the event by way of a videotaped interview. In the piece, he discusses his route to a career in writing and his views on writing fiction. "... Life is the great storyteller," he said, "and you can't improve upon it."
At The New Yorker, Maxwell edited work by John Cheever, Mary McCarthy, Vladimir Nabokov, J.D. Salinger, Updike, Eudora Welty and Tennessee Williams, among others. The bulk of the papers he is giving the UI is correspondence with these and other acclaimed writers.
"He was a beloved and respected editor," Burkhardt said, "but the core of his literary contribution is his own fiction. The wise and sensitive narrator of his later work is one of the most distinctive of the 20th century. Maxwell has a rare ability to capture the nuance of family interaction and the childhood mindset with a spare, graceful prose. His body of work simultaneously reveals the beauty and haunting sadness of human experience."
Maxwell was born and raised in Lincoln, Ill., but it was at the UI that he obtained "a wonderful education," he said. Giving his papers to the university was "my way of paying [it] back."
His most recent awards include the 1995 Penn/Malamud Award for short fiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award for lifetime achievement in publishing, for his collected stories, "All the Days and Nights." Items from Maxwell's personal papers will be on display through May in the UI Rare Book and Special Collections Library.