In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section William Maxwell

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works
  • Biographies
  • Correspondence

American Literature William Maxwell
Gretchen Comba
  • LAST REVIEWED: 14 January 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 April 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0158


William Maxwell (b. 1908–d. 2000) was born in Lincoln, Illinois, and lived there until he was fourteen, when he moved to Chicago. He attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and then spent a year at Harvard, where he earned an MA in 1931. He then returned to Urbana, where he took graduate courses and taught freshman composition for two years. In 1936, Maxwell moved to New York City and found work at the New Yorker, where he served for forty years, first in the art department and then as a fiction editor. In 1945, Maxwell married Emily Gilman Noyes, and the couple had two children, Katherine Farrington and Emily Brooke. As a fiction editor, he worked with such notable writers as John Cheever (b. 1912–d. 1982), Vladimir Nabokov (b. 1899–d. 1977), Frank O’Connor (b. 1903–d. 1966), John O’Hara (b. 1905–d. 1970), V. S. Pritchett (b. 1900–d. 1997), J. D. Salinger (b. 1919–d. 2010), John Updike (b. 1932–d. 2009), and Eudora Welty (b. 1909–d. 2001). From 1969 to 1972, he served as president of the National Institute of Arts and Letters. During the course of his lifetime, he published six novels, two collections of stories, two collections of tales (one printed privately), a volume of collected stories, a family history, a volume of essays and reviews, and two books for children. The defining event in Maxwell’s life was the death of his mother in the 1918 Spanish influenza pandemic. In the 1985 Godine edition of the novel The Chateau, a “Note about the Author” appears on the final page, and in this note Maxwell recalls his mother’s death: “It happened too suddenly, with no warning, and we none of us could believe it or bear it. My father’s face turned the color of ashes and stayed that way a whole year. The nightmare went on and on.” The subject of his mother’s death is treated, either directly or indirectly, in a number of his works, including his final novel, So Long, See You Tomorrow, which won the William Dean Howells medal and the National Book Award. In addition to these and other awards that honor individual works, Maxwell received several awards for lifetime achievement, including the Gold Medal for lifetime achievement in the category of Fiction from the American Institute of Arts and Letters and the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction, which recognizes a body of work that exemplifies excellence in the short-story genre.

Reference Works

Maxwell’s life and works are addressed in three reference guide entries: an untitled entry (Anonymous 2005), “William (Keepers) Maxwell, (Jr.)” (Hrebik 2000), and “William (Keepers) Maxwell, (Jr.)” (Steinman 2003). In 2009, the single bibliographic treatment of his work, “William Maxwell: A Checklist of the Primary Sources” (Comba 2009), appeared.

  • Anonymous. Untitled entry. Contemporary Authors Online. Detroit: Gale, 2005.

    A succinct overview of Maxwell’s life, work, and editorial career. The narrative portion of the entry offers excerpts from reviews of eight of Maxwell’s volumes.

  • Comba, Gretchen. “William Maxwell: A Checklist of the Primary Sources.” Resources for American Literary Study 32.1 (2009): 267–296.

    DOI: 10.7756/rals.032.009.-

    Comba’s checklist categorizes the body of Maxwell’s work, and it is broken into the following three sections: the first lists Maxwell’s publications in periodicals, the second lists Maxwell’s books and contributions to books, and the third lists Maxwell’s publications in anthologies. All works are cross-referenced between publications and contain annotations with regard to substantive and nonsubstantive revisions.

  • Hrebik, Dale. “William Maxwell (16 August 1908–).” In American Short-Story Writers since World War II: Second Series. Edited by Patrick Meanor and Gwen Crane, 205–213. Dictionary of Literary Biography 218. Detroit: Gale Group, 2000.

    In the “Biographical Essay” portion of this entry, Hrebik offers an overview of Maxwell’s first volume of tales, two volumes of short stories, and his volume of collected stories. He claims that the distinction between autobiography and fiction becomes increasingly blurred in Maxwell’s later work.

  • Steinman, Michael. “William Maxwell (1908–2000).” In American Novelists since World War II: Seventh Series. Edited by James R. Giles and Wanda H. Giles, 246–255. Dictionary of Literary Biography 278. Detroit: Gale Group, 2003.

    In the “Biographical Essay” portion of this entry, Steinman offers a deft overview of Maxwell’s six novels and briefly addresses Maxwell’s other literary work. Speaking to the fact that Maxwell’s work has failed to be canonized, he considers how critics may have overlooked Maxwell’s subject matter, styles, and themes.

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