Friday, December 21, 2012

The Lily-White Boys

William Maxwell (1908–2000)
From William Maxwell: Later Novels & Stories

The author of dozens of short stories and six novels (including the National Book Award–winning So Long, See You Tomorrow), William Maxwell worked at The New Yorker for four decades, beginning in 1936. By the 1950s, comments Christopher Carduff, “he was coming into his own” as a fiction editor at the magazine, which “under its second editor-in chief, William Shawn, was transformed into something more daring and inclusive and, for Maxwell, congenial than it had been under Harold Ross.” Among the many writers Maxwell shepherded during his career were Eudora Welty, Vladimir Nabokov, Mavis Gallant, Harold Brodkey, John Cheever, and John Updike, who described Maxwell’s editorship as “one of the wisest and kindest in American fiction.”

“Although he wrote several superb short stories,” Carduff notes, “the story was never Maxwell’s favorite form.” But his duties as a magazine editor and as father of two daughters made it difficult for him to write novels, and Shawn encouraged him instead to write prose pieces for the magazine. He continued writing and publishing stories and sketches, and re-reading his favorite books, right up until his death in 2000, at the age of 91. In his essay, “Nearing Ninety,” he wrote that he was “not concerned about” the prospect of dying, comparing it “to an afternoon nap that goes on and on through eternity. . . . What spoils this pleasant fancy is the recollection that when people are dead, they don’t read books. This I find unbearable.”

Often included on annual lists of classic Christmas stories, “The Lily-White Boys” was written when Maxwell was in his late seventies and originally appeared in a special 100th issue of The Paris Review. In a review of holiday tales for the online magazine Untitled Books, Viola Fort hails Maxwell’s story as “brief and perfect” and describes its effect on the reader:
Like picking up a book and turning to a page at random, these lives, one feels, will continue whether we’re witness to them or not. The story itself is a flash of lightning illuminating a particular episode. Maxwell’s skill is in hinting at whole lifetimes in the space of five pages. . . . Maxwell cuts through the tinsel and the pitch-perfect carolling to a moment of quiet reflection on the years that have passed and the years to come, and there lies Christmas.
Maxwell biographer Barbara Burkhardt agrees, writing that the “tension between the piercing beauty and haunting sadness of human existence provides drama that courses beneath Maxwell’s spare, restrained, yet graceful prose.”

Note: The lyrics on the first page of the story are from the traditional English carol, “Green Grows the Rushes, O.”

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The Follansbees’ Christmas party was at teatime on Christmas Day, and it was for all ages. Ignoring the fire laws, the big Christmas tree standing between the two front windows in the living room of the Park Avenue apartment had candles on it. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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