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William Maxwell: Bright Center of Heaven

Over the past year I have become a big fan of the nonprofit publisher The Library of America and their books (see their inspirational 25th Anniversary movie here).  For sometime, the dust jackets on their editions turned me away.  I’m not a huge fan.  However, I got one of the books, took the jacket off, and, wow, it’s a beautifully crafted cloth book.  You can bend each cover back until they touch, and the spine will not break or deform.  I now have a row of Library of America volumes, jacketless, in a beautiful line on my bookshelf.  Incidentally, I got a good start on my row by becoming a subscriber.  Each month a new book arrives, jacketless but in a hard sleeve.  The terms of the subscription are more than generous.  There are no hidden costs.

That row of books, however, has turned out to cause another problem.  I do most (90%) of my reading on my commute to work.  There’s just no way I’m going to pack these beautiful books, no matter how durable, on the train and subway I take to my office.  So I’ve been getting these books that I desperately want to read but couldn’t quite figure out a way to do it.  Finally, I decided that my weekend reading, as limited as it is, is going to be devoted primarily to my LOA stock.  And first on my list was William Maxwell.  I loved – loved — his final novel So Long, See You Tomorrow, so I took down LOA Volume 1 and read his first, Bright Center of Heaven (1934).

Before I talk about Bright Center of Heaven, another word about the LOA volume.  I typically do like to get my books individually packaged.  For example, I’d rather get an author’s individually published short story collections than a collected works or something similar (just a preference, not a rule).  I won’t be getting the LOA’s volumes of Philip Roth anytime soon, because I like to have all of his individual books taking up room on my shelf.  However, I’ve realized that I don’t mind these collected editions of novels much at all, especially when they come as nicely packaged as these do.  Another benefit, these volumes come with articles and essays and random bits from or about the authors.  They are masterfully edited.  Often, they often come with things that are essentially unavailable elsewhere.  In this case, that unavailable thing is Maxwell’s first novel, written when he was just 26 years old.  After two modest printings, Maxwell suppressed its republication for the rest of his life.  He thought it was weak and derivative.

Well, to be honest, it is a bit derivative.  When I read the novel, I didn’t know much about its publishing history, other than that it was out of print for around 70 years.  I knew nothing about the book itself.  However, after only 20 pages or so, I could tell it was heavily influenced by Virginia Woolf, particularly To the Lighthouse (one of my favorites — in fact, Woolf is one of my favorites; she’s not on my blog because I read all of her work before I started blogging).  I later read John Updike’s tribute to Maxwell and review of this LOA volume in The New Yorker (where Maxwell worked pretty much from just after this book was published until the 1980s) where Updike mentions that Maxwell felt he’d lifted everything from To the Lighthouse

That’s not quite true, and I’m glad this book is available now.  Maxwell was too hard on himself.  While similar in style to Woolf, Bright Center of Heaven is still its own creation, and it shows that Maxwell was already a brilliant observer and writer, just the type that The New Yorker would pick up to work for it for a half-century.

This book takes place in Meadowland, an artists’ colony in the upper Midwest run by Mrs. West (the setting is inspired by Maxwell’s own time in a similar place in Wisconsin).  Mrs. West is a widow and the mother of two adolescent sons.  She brings about the central event in the novel: the visit of a Harvard-educated black lecturer named Jefferson Carter.  Mrs. West has invited him and says, “I’ve always been a little hyped on the subject of Negroes.  I always feel I can pardon them things I wouldn’t put up with in my own, don’t you know, because of what we have done to them.”

This is “outlandish” to many of the community’s residents, and his mother’s strange ideas is particularly hard for Nigel:

It was a special and excruciating kind of agony for him that Nigel should find his family queer.  With every particle of his being he wanted to be like other people and do the things they did.  But there was always his mother doing outlandish things, like bringing a Negro to Meadowland, and he had to stick up for her, no matter what.  “They’re all right, if you don’t mind Negroes.”

One of the strengths of the novel — indeed, one reason it is reminiscent of To the Lighthouse — is how many characters Maxwell inserts into the foreground, allowing their consciousness to flood the page.  He follows them for a few pages, in which they are very well developed, moves on to another, and then comes back later.  By the end, we have come to know well some dozen characters, all connected in some way by the community, but each with her or his own concerns.  I found them all interesting and engaging.  My favorites to follow were the young lovers.  He’s bookish and seems vaguely inattentive; meanwhile she cannot sleep because she is trying to find a way to cope with an unintended pregnancy (he doesn’t know yet, though she mouths the words to him when he isn’t looking).

Another interesting character – and one whose concerns, I think, reflect Maxwell’s – is a young painter.  She tries again and again to get her art to rise above the merely representational:

She looked again at the canvas.  Anybody could see that the oranges were oranges.  The oil-can was clearly an oil-can.  She could paint well enough where the thing itself was concerned.  It was something more she wanted — some revelation of the identity within forms, of the relationship between two spheroids and a hemispheroid out of which emanated a thin curved spire.

This “something more” is what Maxwell is getting at as he introduces character after character in Bright Center of Heaven.  The artist’s struggle is nicely undercut later in a thought Jefferson Carter has as he bursts out of a tent in a fury despite the “good intentions” of the white hosts:

These seven people had no meaning beyond themselves, which was to say that they had no meaning at all.  They did not express the life of the nation.  They had no visible work.  They were all drones and winter would find them dead.

Bright Center of Heaven is very different in tone, style, content, scope than Maxwell’s late masterpiece, and it is certain that Maxwell got even better, managing to become a spare, limpid writer rather than the somewhat abstract one we see here.  I prefer the later style, and I think in terms of substance and control the later book is better too, but it is a shame this book has been inaccessible for so long.  It is a great start to the career of one of America’s best and most compassionate writers.

8 thoughts on “William Maxwell: Bright Center of Heaven

  1. Lee Monks says:

    I love the Library of America editions. One bugbear: the font. If only they’d change the font……

  2. Lee Monks says:

    Not that I even know what the font is…

  3. leroyhunter says:

    Interesting thoughts about LOA and collections of writing generally, Trevor. I’m not madly keen on the anthology approach either, but I’m open to being convinced. I have a Hammett LOA volume which (shamefully) I’ve yet to open. The point about the additional material is a good one and helps sway me as a buyer.

    Like you, I’m a huge fan of So Long… I’ve also read Time Will Darken It which I thought a fine work. From your review I recognise it’s much futher along towards “late” Maxwell then Bright Centre of Heaven sounds. My impression is that They Came Like Swallows is a big step towards that as well: I own it but as yet unread. Interested to see how you get on with the rest of this volume.

  4. Trevor says:

    Do you mean the font on the cover, Lee? I’m not sure what it is, either, but my impression is that its calligraphy is meant to hearken to America’s founding, something like a Constitution font. While this font is used on most covers, if you look at the Philip Roth covers, the font is different (as is the layout) and fits his period better than the one on the Maxwell.

    If you’re talking about the font use for the inside text, well, I don’t remember anything about that.

    Leroy, I have the impression from my readings that Bright Center of Heaven is very different from anything else Maxwell wrote. Of course, I have much more to read before I can really be sure :).

  5. I read this novel knowing its history (and the author’s low opinion of it) as well and was more than pleasantly surprised. I found the collection of characters both entertaining and well developed — the only thing they have in common is total and complete self-preoccupation, but Maxwell uses that to weave some intriguing tensions.

    I am rationing Maxwell and have only read They Came Like Swallows (although some early short stories are on the agenda soon) and this one. I did see connections in the second novel, specifically the way that Maxwell chooses to move from character to character, with a particular focus, as he develops all the elements of his story. In both novels, the narrative creates intact pieces (almost like parts of the quilt) but the author leaves it to the reader to put them together.

  6. Trevor says:

    They Came Like Swallows is my next Maxwell. I, ahem, haven’t followed through on my Maxwell weekends as I’d hoped (prize season, etc.). But I will get to that one soon.

  7. I’d been wanting to read this book for years before the LOA version finally came into print. I was also slightly apprehensive knowing Maxwell’s disdain for it. Like Kevin I was pleasantly surprised when I finally read it, warmed to find that compassion you mentioned at such an early stage of his writing. It is slightly different from his other books (Time Will Darken It has quite a few characters too but a tighter focus) but I wasn’t at all disappointed reading this first last. He’s a fabulous writer. Hope you enjoy the rest.

  8. Trevor says:

    Thanks for the well-wishing, Will. I’m have high hopes that I will enjoy the rest.

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