William Keepers Maxwell Jr.

William Keepers Maxwell Jr. (August 16, 1908 – July 31, 2000) was an American editor, novelist, short story writer, essayist, children's author, and memoirist. He served as a fiction editor at The New Yorker from 1936 to 1975. An editor devoted to his writers, Maxwell became a legendary mentor and confidant to many of the most prominent authors of his day. Although best known as an editor, Maxwell was a highly respected and award-winning novelist and short story writer. His stature as a celebrated author has grown in the years following his death.

William Maxwell
Born(1908-08-16)August 16, 1908
Lincoln, Illinois, United States
DiedJuly 31, 2000(2000-07-31) (aged 91)
New York City, New York
OccupationEditor, novelist, short story writer
Alma materUniversity of Illinois, Harvard University
GenreDomestic realism

Early life

Maxwell was born in Lincoln, Illinois on August 16, 1908. His parents were William Keepers Maxwell and Eva Blossom (née Blinn) Maxwell. During the 1918 flu epidemic, the 10-year-old Maxwell became ill and survived, but his mother died. After his mother's death, the boy was sent to live with an aunt and uncle in Bloomington, Illinois. His father remarried, and young Maxwell joined him in Chicago. He attended Senn High School. He received his bachelor's degree from the University of Illinois in 1930 where he was class salutatorian,[1] poetry editor of The Daily Illini,[2] and a member of Sigma Pi fraternity.[3] Maxwell earned a master's degree at Harvard University.[4] Maxwell taught English briefly at the University of Illinois before moving to New York.


Maxwell was best known for being a fiction editor of The New Yorker magazine for forty years (1936–1975), where he worked with writers such as Vladimir Nabokov, John Updike, J. D. Salinger, John Cheever, Mavis Gallant, Frank O'Connor, Larry Woiwode, Maeve Brennan, John O'Hara, Eudora Welty, Shirley Hazzard, and Isaac Bashevis Singer. Welty wrote of him as an editor: "For fiction writers, he was the headquarters."[5]

He also wrote six highly acclaimed novels, a number of short stories and essays, children's stories, and a memoir, Ancestors (1972). His award-winning fiction, which is increasingly seen as some of the most important of the 20th century, has recurring themes of childhood, family, loss, and lives changed quietly and irreparably. Much of his work is autobiographical, particularly concerning the loss of his mother when he was 10 years old and growing up in the rural Midwestern United States. After the flu epidemic, young Maxwell had to move away from the house where he lived at the time, which he referred to as the "Wunderkammer" or "Chamber of Wonders". He wrote of his loss, "It happened too suddenly, with no warning, and we none of us could believe it or bear it ... the beautiful, imaginative, protected world of my childhood swept away."

In 1968 Maxwell was elected as president of the National Institute of Arts and Letters.[6]

Since his death in 2000, several biographical works about him have been published, including A William Maxwell Portrait: Memories and Appreciations (W. W. Norton & Co., 2004), My Mentor: A Young Man's Friendship with William Maxwell by Alec Wilkinson (Houghton-Mifflin, 2002), and William Maxwell: A Literary Life by Barbara Burkhardt (University of Illinois Press, 2005).

In addition, in 2008 the Library of America published the first of two collections of works by Maxwell, Early Novels and Stories, edited by Christopher Carduff. His collected edition of Maxwell's fiction, published to mark the writer's centenary, was completed by publication of the second volume, Later Novels and Stories, in the fall of 2008.

Personal life

William Maxwell married Emily Gilman Noyes of Portland, Oregon. Emily Maxwell was an accomplished painter, winning the Medal of Honor in 1986 from the National Association of Women Artists. She also reviewed children's books for The New Yorker. The couple were married for 55 years. Maxwell died eight days after his wife.[7] They had two daughters, Katherine and Emily. William Maxwell died on July 31, 2000 in New York City. The epitaph marking his memorial gravestone in Oregon reads, "The Work is the Message".



  • Bright Center of Heaven (1934)
  • They Came Like Swallows (1937) – autobiographical novella about the cruel impact of the 1918 flu epidemic, as seen through the eyes of an 8-year-old Midwestern child and his family
  • The Folded Leaf (1945)
  • Time Will Darken It (1948)
  • The Chateau (1961)
  • So Long, See You Tomorrow (1980) — An aging man remembers a boyhood friendship he had in 1920s Illinois, which falters following a murder.

Short-story collections

  • The Old Man and the Railroad Crossing and Other Tales (1966)
  • Over by the River, and Other Stories (1977)
  • Five Tales (1988)
  • Billie Dyer and Other Stories (1992)
  • All The Days and Nights: The Collected Stories of William Maxwell (1995)


  • Ancestors: A Family History (memoir) (1972)
  • The Outermost Dream (essay collection) (1989)

Children's books

  • The Heavenly Tenants (1946) – The constellations of the zodiac come to life and visit a family farm in Wisconsin.
  • Mrs. Donald's Dog Bun and His Home Away from Home (1995)


  • Early Novels and Stories: Bright Center of Heaven / They Came Like Swallows / The Folded Leaf / Time Will Darken It / Stories 1938–1956 (Library of America, 2008) ISBN 978-1-59853-026-1
  • Later Novels and Stories: The Château / So Long, See You Tomorrow / Stories and Improvisations 1957 – 1999 (Library of America, 2008)

Awards and honors


  1. So Long won the 1982 award for paperback Fiction.
    From 1980 to 1983 in National Book Awards history there were dual hardcover and paperback awards in most categories. Most of the paperback award-winners were reprints, including this one.


  1. "The Scholar's Reward". The Daily Illini. May 6, 1930. p. 4. Retrieved March 28, 2017.
  2. "The Daily Illini: The Illinois Magazine Section". The Daily Illini. May 5, 1929. Retrieved 26 December 2016.
  3. "Past & Present... Journalism" (PDF). The Emerald of Sigma Pi. Vol. 74 no. 3. Fall 1985. p. 13.
  4. Wilborn Hampton. "William Maxwell, 91, Author and Legendary Editor, Dies". The New York Times, August 1, 2000. Retrieved March 23, 2013.
  5. "Remembering William Maxwell", Bookhaven, Stanford University, Retrieved March 23, 2012
  6. "Orchids To: Arts Institute President" (PDF). The Emerald of Sigma Pi. Vol. 56 no. 1. Spring 1969. p. 19.
  7. Harriet O'Donovan Sheehy. "William Maxwell and Emily Maxwell". The Guardian, August 25, 2000. Retrieved March 23, 2013.
  8. The William Dean Howells Medal Archived 2015-03-14 at the Wayback Machine Retrieved March 23, 2013
  9. National Book Foundation. "National Book Awards – 1982". Retrieved March 11, 2012.
  10. Poses Institute for the Arts, Brandeis Creative Arts Award, Retrieved March 23, 2013
  11. Mark Twain Award, Society for the Study of Midwestern Literature, Retrieved March 23, 2013

Further reading

  • Baxter, Charles, Michael Collier and Edward Hirsch (eds.). A William Maxwell Portrait: Memories and Appreciations. New York: Norton, 2004. ISBN 978-0-393-05771-3
  • Burkhardt, Barbara (ed.). Conversations with William Maxwell. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2012. ISBN 9781617032547
  • Burkhardt, Barbara. William Maxwell: A Literary Life. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2005. ISBN 9780252075834
  • Henson, Darold Leigh. "Social Consciousness in William Maxwell's Writings Based on Lincoln, Illinois", Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, vol. 98, mo. 4 (Winter 2005):254–286.
  • Marrs, Suzanne (ed.). What There Is to Say We Have Said: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011.
  • Wilkinson, Alec. My Mentor: A Young Man's Friendship with William Maxwell. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 2002. ISBN 9780618123018
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