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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.
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, poetry editor of The Daily Illini, and a member of Sigma Pi fraternity. Maxwell earned a master's degree at Harvard University. 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."
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.
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.
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. 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".
Awards and honors