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William Maxwell

He grew from a small-town kid to become one of the most powerful magazine editors in history and, eventually, a novelist and short-story writer.  That's the legacy of William Maxwell.  Born in Lincoln, Ill., in 1908, Maxwell grew up in the small town just a stone's throw north of the state capital at Springfield.  His father was a fire insurance salesman who traveled for days at a time.  Since his father was gone so much, Maxwell grew extraordinarily close to his mother.  He said, "She just shone on me like the sun."

When Maxwell was ten years old, his mother became suddenly ill during the 1918 influenza epidemic and died.  He wrote, "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."

Maxwell's father moved the family to Chicago a few years later.  Though he never lived in Lincoln again, young Maxwell never forgot it.  He centered many of his stories there and included a number of tales about his childhood with his mother.

After college, Maxwell taught for a time at the University of Illinois before moving to New York.  There, he took a position at the New Yorker--just to fill in while he decided what he wanted to do with the rest of his life.  He remained there for 40 years.  He started out in the art department, where he persuaded John Updike to give up drawing cartoons and begin writing fiction.  After a while, he was moved to the editorial department, where he worked on the fiction of Updike, J. D. Salinger, Vladimir Nabokov, and Mavis Gallant.  He said that what made him a good editor was that he himself hated being edited; so he changed very little of his authors' words.  Eudora Welty said, "For fiction writers, he was the headquarters."

While editing the stories of others at the New Yorker, Maxwell began writing his own fiction.  He cranked out numerous novels, including They Came Like Swallows (1937) and So Long, See You Tomorrow (1980).  Most of his short stories are collected in All the Days and Nights (1995). 

Once, later in life, someone asked him what he would say to his mother if he could tell her anything.  He replied, "I would tell her, 'Here are these beautiful books that I made for you.'"

William Maxwell died in Manhattan on July 31, 2000.

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