Maxwell’s first novel, “Bright Center of Heaven,” which he refused to reprint during his lifetime (found in the first volume of the Library of America edition published in 2008), is set in an estate in Meadowland. , Wisconsin, which serves as a guesthouse and impromptu artists’ colony for a motley collection of creative and intellectual types. Their messy ways of mixing sex, emotions, politics and work – personal commitment, idealism, hypocrisy – are likely to sound familiar, and Maxwell’s satirical view of the limits of what we could now do. calling awakening hardly has a date. The eventful plot, presented over the course of a single day, revolves around the arrival of Jefferson Carter, a black writer and traveling speaker. His presence brings out the worst in everyone, proceeding through a multitude of micro-aggressions into a climactic scream match that is both hilarious and sad at the same time. “If they weren’t all crazy,” Jefferson thinks as the evening rolls by, “then their conduct was inexcusable.”
And they’re all crazy in their own way. White racial neurosis – not so much fragility as a defensive, anxious urge to dismiss issues and talk about something else – is something Maxwell returns to, especially in “The Chateau”, in which his alter ego , Harold Rhodes, challenges the reflexive racism of certain French acquaintances. “They are a wonderful people,” he says of black Americans. “They have the virtues – sensitivity, patience, emotional richness – that we lack. And if the distinction between the two races blurs, as in Martinique, and they become one race, then America will be saved.
The shortcomings of this kind of liberalism are of interest to Maxwell, and his graces too. The “Billie Dyer” story, about an actual resident of Lincoln a generation older than Maxwell – the son of a laundress who fought in World War I and became a distinguished physician – is a chronicle of the upward mobility of blacks and white civic benevolence. at a time of discrimination, violence and segregation.
While claiming a place for “Bright Center of Heaven” in a race program in American literature is a bit of a stretch, it is less difficult to include Maxwell’s third book, “The Folded Leaf,” in American literature. the pre-Stonewall story of the American queer novel. Published in 1945, three years before Gore Vidal’s “The City and the Pillar” (often cited, notably by Vidal himself, as the first modern gay novel), “The Folded Leaf” follows the romantic friendship of Lymie and Spud up to high school and the first part of college. Lymie is light-hearted, shy, and bookish, while Spud is athletic, outgoing, and non-academic. They meet in a swimming lesson and become inseparable, sharing confidences, meals and, once settled on campus, a bed in a rooming house full of undergraduate men.
The most current of Maxwell’s books at the moment is surely “They Came Like Swallows”, on the flu epidemic of 1918-20.
Their bond isn’t explicitly sexual, and the two of them pursue romances with girls, but it has an undeniable – and, for Lymie, overwhelming – erotic intensity. The world, in the form of Spud’s busy family and Lymie’s moody, widowed father, come to terms with the relationship without really recognizing what it means, and the narrator is both outspoken and circumspect. As in “Time Will Darken It”, sexuality is less a matter of secrecy, shame and silence than of implication and indirection. What’s going on between the two young men is both obvious and mysterious, and Maxwell’s treatment of it shows a sophistication and sensitivity that 21st century writers might envy and learn.
The most current of Maxwell’s books at the moment is surely “They Came Like Swallows”, one of the few enduring literary works on the influenza epidemic of 1918-20. Maxwell was 10 years old when his mother, Blossom, died of the flu, a trauma he reconstructed 18 years later with devastating precision. The disease is making its way into history via local newspaper headlines and gossip, a small detail among the routines of middle-class Midwestern family life.
As he does in most of his novels, Maxwell prefers the portrait to the plot, generating a sense of momentum by changing separate points of view, in this case the mother’s younger son, Bunny; his self-confident older brother Robert; and their father, a conscientious and somewhat stiff businessman. Males flit around their wives and mothers, who are pregnant and whose loving and witty presence permeates the family circle (which also includes aunts, in-laws, grandparents and close friends) . And then she left, leaving the world in a state of permanent imbalance.