Wednesday, August 01, 2018

'On the Whole, Commonplace and Unchanging'

A librarian I know leaves soon on a family road trip to the Midwest. Their destinations are Kansas City, Kans., her husband’s former home, and Lincoln, Ill., where her parents, now in their nineties, still live. I perked up. Lincoln is the birthplace of the novelist William Maxwell (1908-2000) and the place where his mother died during the influenza epidemic of 1918. Though he lived for most of his life in New York City, that place and that death recurred in Maxwell’s novels and short stories for more than fifty years. Refracted versions of Lincoln appear in Maxwell’s finest novels – Time Will Darken It (1948) and So Long, See You Tomorrow (1980). I recommended all of Maxwell’s books to my friend, who had only recently learned of him and his ties to Lincoln. In Ancestors: A Family History (1971), Maxwell writes about the town without fictional camouflage:

“At the point at which I began to have a general working knowledge of persons, places, and things-- that is to say, about 1912—Lincoln was a modestly flourishing county seat that seemed to have been there forever. It was not even very old, though it did have the air of being deeper in the shadow of the past than many of the towns around it. Nothing of any historical importance had ever happened there, or has to this day.”

Unlike other Midwestern writers – Sherwood Anderson and Hart Crane, for instance – Maxwell doesn’t portray his place of origin as something to flee. Neither does he sentimentalize it. In Ancestors he writes: 

“Men and women alike appeared to accept with equanimity the circumstances (on the whole, commonplace and unchanging) of their lives in a way that no one seems able to do now anywhere. This is how I remember it. I am aware that Sherwood Anderson writing about a similar though smaller place saw it quite differently.”

The librarian and I talked about related matters – the murderous abolitionist John Brown, the novels of Marilynne Robinson, the loss of family farms, Edgar Lee Masters and Langston Hughes’ birth in Lincoln. Later she sent me an email: “I went to the stacks and got some of the Maxwell books. The short story collection starts right off with a story describing Lincoln, Illinois and Logan County, my old stomping grounds. Time Will Darken It is at the LSC [Library Service Center, the off-site storage location for ‘low-use library materials’], so I’ll have to request it. Thanks again for the recommendation!”

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