The Clock at the Biltmore — William Maxwell: “Two Old Tales About Men and Women”

I loved and still love William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow.  I think it is a classic of American literature and should be more widely read.  So, when looking toward my next glimpse into the archives of The New Yorker for this feature, I wondered whether Maxwell had ever published any short stories in his own fiction section of the magazine.  Well, not only has he, he also published what could be considered a series of stories, entitled “Two Old Tales About Men and Women” (and other varieties such as “Two Old Tales About Women,” “More Old Tales About Women,” “Further Tales . . . ,” etc.).  In 1958, these tales made the part of four of the magazines.  In 1965, the series returned with five more offerings.

Meaning to start at the beginning by reading “Two Old Tales About Women (Found in a Rattan Tea Caddy c. 1913),” published March 15, 1958, I instead accidentally picked up “Two Old Tales About Men and Women,” the second appearance of this strange series, published June 21, 1958.

Click for a larger image.

As the title suggests, there are two stories.  If you’ve read So Long, See You Tomorrow, a beautiful narrative by a man looking back on his youth, you might be surprised, as I was, by the way the first tale begins:

Once upon a time, there was a country so large that messengers journeying from the capital to the frontier were often never heard from again.

I wasn’t expecting the tale to be a kind of fable.  I had been expecting something lonely, something a bit more reflective.  But here the main character is the King who rules a land with no regard for time.  Everything that happens happens drawn out over hours or even years.

It took the King a long time to realize that something was wrong and another five years to consider carefully what he ought to do about it.  The council of state had not met since his father’s time, and when it finally convened, at his order, the King’s opening remarks took three weeks, after which the council adjourned and met again in the following autumn.

The solution to the problem (the coffers are empty and spending is going up) is to build a big marble watch.  Before the watch can be completed, though, the kingdom is overthrown by some enemy.  The King goes into hiding for a while, until finally news comes:

The enemy — never, it seemed, very large in number — had grown weary of subjugating so inactive a country, had provoked a war with another small neighboring state, and had not been heard of for nearly six months.

This is a strange little story, more strange because it just wasn’t what I expected from Maxwell or The New Yorker.  I don’t want to suggest it is slight, though, just because it takes the form of a fable.  Furthermore, the writing is top-notch, very fluid and very clever.

The second story is a bit more what I expected from Maxwell.  Here’s how it begins:

Once upon a time, there was a half-crazy woman who lived off the leavings of other people, who shook their heads when they saw her coming, and tried not to get in the conversation with her.  They wanted to be kind, but there is a limit to kindness, and the half-crazy woman was so distracted that anyone listening to her began to feel half-crazy, too.

It still has a friendly-narrator tone to the telling, but it is a bit darker, a bit lonelier and a bit more intimate than the first tale.  Here we watch the woman talk to her pig, the fire, and finally death, yet this is a strangely intimate tale.  It kind of felt warm, like a good holiday story.

I don’t want to talk much about the stories themselves.  They are very short and to summarize them is to simplify them and take the pleasure out of Maxwell’s voice.  What I’d like to find out is what Maxwell’s motive was?  Why did he publish two series of these tales which read like fables, one in 1958 and one in 1965?  I’m anxious to read the others, and I hope to get a better idea about the work as a whole.  If anyone has any insights, they are very welcome.

4 thoughts on “The Clock at the Biltmore — William Maxwell: “Two Old Tales About Men and Women””

  1. Thank you for these Trevor and I wonder whether the answer lies in Maxwell’s Paris Review interview ?
    I’ve just been reading it and when asked about writing that comes entirely from the imagination he says he’d love to be able to do that and mentions a few attempts in tales that are neither fable nor fairy tale. He just hangs over the typewriter waiting to see what happens and the opening phrase Once upon a time seems essential. If he’s trusting the rest of the story follows.
    I’m also wondering whether this could be Sylvia Townsend Warner’s influence too? I might however be giving that undue emphasis in Maxwell’s life solely because I’m reading their letters The Element of Lavishness and seeing the most incredible relationship between friends and writers unfold. It really is an exquisite collection of correspondence.

  2. These were very intriguing discovers, Trevor, since they are so different from what I would expect from Maxwell (while admitting that I’m barely started on exploring his work).

    They sent me off on a search to see if I have them and in the process if discovered in Volume One of the LOA collection a speech he gave at Smith in 1955 — “The Writer as Illusionist” — which I think you would find helpful. If you aren’t reading him from the LOA, the next time you are in a bookshop with 15 minutes to spare have a read because that is all it takes.

    Maxwell, in his “day job”, was exposed to an incredible range of writing styles, approaches, formats and ability — and as an editor, he had to pay serious attention to them all, whether or not they suited his personal taste. Add to that the thoughts about how writers work that he expresses in the Smith speech. The final part of the mix was that he was a writer himself — perhaps it is little wonder that he would choose to explore some of these formats and approaches.

    Even off my limited exposure, I have wondered whether a part of Maxwell was the attitude of “what if I tried this, just to see how it works?” This fable project seems to indicate that my impression might be on the right track. Certainly it is an idea that I will keep in mind as I continue exploring this most interesting author.

  3. Trevor says:

    Thanks for the insights, DGR and KFC! I think I need to get the LOA collection of Maxwell’s work. He certainly deserves to be more seriously read and with all sorts of supplemental material. The letters sound like a must, DGR. Also, does the LOA collect some of his short work too, Kevin?

  4. Both LOA volumes contain short stories, arranged chronologically. Volume 1 has nine (up to 1956). Volume 2 has 18 (up to 1999). And it has two sets of “improvisations” (21 and 19 respectively), which I suspect might include these two. Actually, I’m almost certain they do, but I’m not up to thumbing through to make sure.

    Obviously, I haven’t read the stories or improvisations, so I’m providing that summary off the index. And I don’t know how extensive Maxwell’s short fiction was, so I’m afraid I can’t tell you how complete a representation of his work that is (given the LOA, I suspect fairly complete).

    The jacket note says that the improvisations are “fairy tales that Maxwell wrote mainly to entertain his wife”, which seems consistent with the two you are describing here. Apparently he started by writing them for her and scrolling them up with a ribbon as a gift (Mrs. Berrett may like that) before he started publishing them.

    I did find in the notes of Vol. 2 of LOA an introduction he wrote to a published volume of some of the improvisations (The Old Man at the Railway Crossing and Other Tales) that describes a process exactly as dovegreyreader details from the Paris Review interview.

    Sorry that is so incomplete — I’ll admit I only fell into Maxwell a year or so ago and am now attempting to read the bulk of his work in chronological order, since I am committed to completing these two volumes. A project which I intend to spread over some time, because I like him so much. And since the improvisations come at the end of the collection, they’ll probably wait until last. As far as I know, Will Rycroft is the blogging expert on Maxwell and is the person most likely to have more detailed knowledge. Let’s hope he drops by.

    It goes without saying that I think the LOA volumes are an excellent investment, unless you already have most of the novels. Since I have them, I haven’t checked to see what the availability of the shorter work is in more conventional volumes (although a quick search for the Smith speech this morning showed someone offering a first edition of 16 pages for $225). I know I should know more than I do about Maxwell, so again my apologies. One more thing — there is a commerative volume of essays (A William Maxwell Portrait) from authors whom he edited which was published a few years after his death. I marked it down as a possible read once I had progressed further into his work. Given your interest in historical New Yorker fiction, I suspect you might find it useful (Munro, Updike and Donna Tartt are among the names that I recognized as contributors). And it does include the Smith speech — he does acknowledge the presence on the platform Mr. Bellow, Mr. Gill and Miss Chase and in the audience Mr. Ralph Ellison and Mrs. Kazin, so it was obviously a significant literary event.

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