Wednesday, June 03, 2020

'We Knew Each Other and Were Friends'

We trivialize friendship by reducing it to mere utility. Some speak of friends as though they were a dependable pool of free labor: “He helped me . . .” “She gave me . . .” That aspect of friendship is a given, an extension of the way we might even treat a stranger. If the guy has a flat tire, you pull over and help him with the jack. There’s a more elusive quality to friendship, one not so often acknowledged, that might seem mercenary to some: friends are interesting, good company, even entertaining, seldom dull. They crave conversation (a dying art). They aren’t bossy. Their sense of humor is compatible with yours. They know when they’re skirting tedium and when to shut up. They know things and aren’t pedantic when sharing them. Their values in the essential things are not radically different from your own. They can tell a good story. There’s no virtue signaling or other unearned claiming of credit.

A literary model for such an understanding of friendship is the novelist and longtime New Yorker editor William Maxwell. Collections of Maxwell’s letters to Sylvia Townsend Warner, Frank O’Connor and Eudora Welty have been published. The last, What There Is to Say We Have Said: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell (2011), is especially rich. Not every man can be a friend to a woman. Sex can muck it up pretty quickly. Maxwell was no creampuff, but he understood that friendship is collaborative, a complex dance. He had a gift for intimacy without being cloying (a quality evident in his best novels). Maxwell begins his introduction to the Graywolf edition of The Outermost Dream: Essays and Reviews with this sentence: “I can never get enough of knowing about other people’s lives.” Spoken like a born novelist and a born friend.

Welty (1909-2001) and Maxwell (1908-2000) exchanged letters for almost sixty years. Maxwell’s emotional openness is extraordinary, a quality observed by many of his friends and evident to his readers. One of the last things he wrote and published was a contribution to a Festschrift on the occasion of Welty’s ninetieth birthday (included at the end of What There Is to Say We Have Said). Characteristically, he wrote it as a letter to Welty, and its theme is the century they shared:

“I have been thinking how fortunate we were to have been born toward the end of the first decade of this century. To begin with, the quiet: except on the Fourth of July. No heavy trucks, no bulldozers, no power lawnmowers, no leaf blowers, no power saws. When there was a sound, just the clop-clop-cloppity-clop of a horse and buggy. You could count the automobiles.”

Is this nostalgia? In a way, though Maxwell seems to have been a happy, unsentimental man, and isn’t a grouch when it comes to modernity and the passage of time. Maxwell and Welty were born in small towns -- he in in Lincoln, Ill., she in Jackson, Miss. For a solid page and a half, one long paragraph, he recalls the simpler rural America they were born into. For his final sentence, he adds another paragraph:

“Even more fortunate was the fact that we knew each other and were friends.”

1 comment:

Cal Gough said...

Oh, how pleasant it was to read your references to What There Is to Say We Have Said and to The Outermost Dream. Reading those books are still among my favorite reading experiences. I wouldn't be at all surprised if it was your mentioning them in some earlier blogpost that sent me off tracking them down (and buying a copy of the latter). However I came to hear of Maxwell and the collections of his letters to Welty (and, later, collections of Welty's letters to other writers), I feel so lucky to have stumbled onto them. Bless you for helping keep the excellence of their (epistolary) prose in view of current readers' eyes (at least the ones who read your blog).