Tuesday, May 8, 2012

On Seersucker--William Maxwell and Vulnerability

I’m not gonna mandate some kind of seersucker donning go/no-go edict in this visit with you—I promise.  Oh, and I’m not going to start recycling old blog stories in a half-baked attempt to apologize for not writing new stuff. I have tons of raw material for new stories and due to some schedule changes, I’ll have time to write them over the next week or so—if I feel so motivated. But I was listening to Dr. Brené Brown’s TED talk on vulnerability again this morning and I thought of New Yorker editor and writer William Maxwell. And so I’m reposting my 2010 Maxwell story—with an update.
The motivation to again watch Dr. Brown’s vulnerability talk came from an email exchange with a fellow blogger who thanked me for suggesting her talks. So when Dr. Brown said…Vulnerability is our most accurate measurement of courage” and “Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change”, I had a little aha moment and said to myself…“vulnerability had to be part of William Maxwell’s secret sauce.”
I mean really--how can you publish your own work and more so...how can you cajole and edit other writers without first being dialed-in to your own vulnerabilities.The man had to be well acquainted with his vulnerabilities and my evidence of this comes from a general sense of Maxwell that I gained from reading A William Maxwell Portrait and more precisely; from the observations of  two Maxwell acolytes. Donna Tartt and Edward Hirsch offer anecdotes to support my bias.
 First…Donna Tartt…“Love at first sight? I can safely say that I loved him the instant I saw him. He carried himself carefully (age had made him frail) but as old as he was—well into his eighties then—he was still very handsome. His spare Midwestern elegance…”
And from professor and poet Edward Hirsch…“I had never met anyone, let alone an old man, who seemed so emotionally present. It ran against the grain of my experience to find someone who had not been stopped or closed up, who had not been defeated by old age.”  
I take from these comments a belief that Maxwell in his long life, had to have early-on come full face with his vulnerabilities. So here’s to the liberating potential of vulnerability and self-surrender. And to seersucker and William Maxwell. I strongly urge you to watch Dr. Brown’s TED talk on vulnerability and then her talk on shame. In that order.

And here’s my original story about Maxwell.

William Maxwell: Seersucker Insouciance

Here’s editor and author William Maxwell. In seersucker—and an unbuttoned button-down. Certainly in his dotage but until the end, very much present…and interested in people and their words.
My first reaction to the unbuttoned button-down was a bit of a Gianni Agnelli esque takeaway. You know…careless aplomb…unfinished finishing touches…watch worn on the outside cuff of a dress shirt… insouciance but not arrogance. I’ll never be in their league. My insecurities demand that I crow, preen and shout about my whateverishness. They just had it.
But then it dawned on me simultaneously that William Maxwell was anything but an Agnelli. Too gentle though, I’ll speculate, to be offended by my comparison. Maxwell probably didn’t have a business or commercial bone in his body. Agnelli’s business acumen is legendary. What they both probably had in common was an adherence to a code…each their own… regarding dress and deportment whose endgame said that neither studied it too much.
I’ve been on a New Yorker magazine tear of late and it’s been great fun. Fuelled by a reader who kindly sent me Genet, the biography of Janet Flanner. Flanner delivered to Harold Ross and the New Yorker gang, dispatches from Paris for fifty years.
But before I could begin the Flanner book I decided to reference a thing or two from the Harold Ross biography. And then I had to pull William Shawn from the shelf. And then Truman Capote popped his elfin-ass little head up again as a result of my peek in on Shawn. I’m telling you, ADD is a gift and a curse. Oh, and I was so re-captivated by the Ross bio that I read the entire thing again.
So then at five thirty this morning I picked up this little William Maxwell tribute book. I’ve read at least once , all of the aforementioned save Flanner. Same for the Maxwell tribute but I remembered dogging a few page ears and so here we are…Maxwellizing on an early Friday morning. Editors intrigue me. I don’t know how Maxwell Perkins tended to Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Wolfe…while also loving a wife and five daughters. I do know that he worked all day with his hat on and had martinis everyday at lunch over at 21. Whatever works I suppose.
Unlike Perkins though, William Maxwell was a prolific editor and writer. I’ve yet to read any of Maxwell’s stories but I will.  And he edited the biggies while in the employ of The New Yorker…Updike, Salinger, Nabokov and a guy named Cheever to name a few. I love what Eudora Welty said about Maxwell the editor… "For fiction writers, he was the headquarters."

A William Maxwell Portrait helped me see what a life of well measured and properly cadenced literary guidance nets out. Legacies are self explanatory and the acolytes, protégées and people who simply loved Maxwell are clear in their convictions.

I like what Michael Collier wrote about his Maxwell experience... “I was to learn that what one should live for more than anything else are small moments of overwhelming astonishment.”  Damn. That probably sums up Maxwell right there.

And Edward Hirsch said… “I had never met anyone, let alone an old man, who seemed so emotionally present. It ran against the grain of my experience to find someone who had not been stopped or closed up, who had not been defeated by old age.” Emotionally present? Shit, people will be hiding from my ass if I’m still around at eighty.

And what Maxwell said about genuine interest in others…
“All pleasure is got from the rubbing-off of somebody else’s pleasure in something. From eye to eye, skin to skin. A cousin of love making.”  
Charlie Rose offers us an interesting peek at Maxwell. When you have time, take a look at this.

What I’ll leave you with though, is a dichotomy that makes me respect Maxwell all the more. Get the book and read the profound difference in the way Donna Tartt delvers homage versus Ben Cheever’s uniquely assembled gratitude.

Donna Tartt…  “Love at first sight? I can safely say that I loved him the instant I saw him. He carried himself carefully (age had made him frail) but as old as he was—well into his eighties then—he was still very handsome. His spare Midwestern elegance…”

And his paucity of words manifested in the inscription of Maxwell’s book So Long, See You Tomorrow, gifted to Tartt…

“Dear Donna,
I hope you like my farmers-

Ben Cheever… “William Maxwell had trouble believing in God. I had trouble believing in Bill Maxwell.”    and “…I suppose you could say that I was expecting Bill to morph into my father, and there’s some truth here. I missed my father and what I missed most acutely in my father was the occasional brilliant flash of rage, which used to illuminate my world. So I was looking for lightning but to reduce my friendship with Bill to its connection with my father would be the same as to conclude that a man with an umbrella is a meteorologist.”

So I’m pleased that my five thirty gander at William Maxwell this morning was evocative. On the other hand, damn you sblr for setting me on this latest round of .... AlgonquinRoundishSmartMagazinesBygoneEraLiteraryVoyeurism.

ADG II Impervious and Impenetrable. Ha!


Main Line Sportsman said...

After slogging through that post I concluded that this morning you need an Ativan the size of a hockey puck...and I mean that in a good way.

ADG said...

Oh no no. What I need, Main Liner, is Roxanne Burgess and half a Quaalude. Bam!

Anonymous said...

I must be having a Donna Tartt reaction to the man because I don't think I've ever heard Charlie Rose so lively, so on pointe and engaging, then again maybe Charlie too is enthralled, what a fantastic interview that was, thank you.

And now to you Max. Do you agree with WM that what makes a good writer stems from formative Deprivation, a Loss that can never be regained, that must be compensated for in perpetuity? You, one of the better writers on the internet, one of the better thinker/assimilators, what is your secret sauce, Max?


Anonymous said...

...oh and I'd already taken your advice to visit Dr. Brown@TED via your comment at Reggie, now there's a face to launch a thousand ships, what eyes lips teeth smile, sensational speaker, "Vulnerability is our most accurate measurement of courage," damn I wish I'd had that quotation handy as I was raising my stepchildren.

-in madras before Memorial Day

maven said...

That was beautiful. Thank you for introducing me to Dr. Brown, btw.

As for Mr. Maxwell - just wow.

Thinking of some of my own losses/deprivations/vulnerabilitiesthis morning...

CeceliaMc said...

The conventional wisdom of the day is that open vulnerability is synonymous with "letting it all hang out" and that this sort of openness is anathema to the traditionalism that obviously inspired the splendid Mr. Maxwell with his splendid manners, appearance, and sensitivity.

I've nearly always found that particular c.w. to be dangerously wrong. A respect for the past. a sense of.... historical excellence... is usually the precursor to the very best that can be in us-- courage, discipline, a sense of service..

A faux vulnerability... a disguise for hedonism and/or sloth is what comes from a disinterest in or neglect of the past and tradition.

I had never heard of any of the people who you mention in your post.

Very interesting! Thanks so much.

heavy tweed jacket said...

Thanks for this. I've often thought that aging well required a certain amount of self-reinvention at significant moments in one's life in order to move into the next chapter/stage of life. Vulnerability and courage are probably a significant part of this self-reinvention. Closer to home, today feels like a seersucker jacket kind of day. Cheers.