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Atlantic Unbound | May 15, 2002
Relationships of Invention

A conversation with Alec Wilkinson, whose new book, My Mentor, pays tribute to the pitch-perfect writing and abiding friendship of William Maxwell


My Mentor: A Young Man's Friendship With William Maxwell
by Alec Wilkinson
Houghton Mifflin
179 pages, $22.00

hen I was a child, William Maxwell and his wife, Emily, lived down the road from my parents, and Maxwell was my father's closest friend.... Three days a week, Maxwell edited fiction at The New Yorker, and the other four days he wrote novels and stories." So begins Alec Wilkinson's My Mentor: A Young Man's Friendship With William Maxwell. When, at twenty-four, he decided he wanted to write, his father delivered him into Maxwell's care. Weaving together biography, memoir, and essay, Wilkinson tells of his twenty-five-year tutelage at the hands of a literary master, and the deep friendship that grew out of it. "My Mentor" is a meditation on writing and the special relationship between a mentor and his mentee.

Since the days of the ancient Greeks, when Odysseus left his son Telemachus in Mentor's care while he went off to Troy, the pairing of mentor with pupil has been an intellectual and artistic tradition in the West. As Wilkinson writes, "The relationship between Mentor and Telemachus suggests that in a classic arrangement of this kind, the guardian not be simply a teacher or an advisor acquainting a young man or woman with the rudiments of a trade or a code of behavior, but that there also be an attachment between them." Maxwell and Wilkinson's relationship was of this mold, and when Wilkinson was ready to emerge from under Maxwell's wing into his career as a writer, their friendship remained strong. True, Wilkinson writes, mentorships can fall apart in all sorts of ways, as competition upsets the delicate balance between mentee and master—Socrates' sometime protégé Alcibiades survives mainly as a scapegoat of sorts in Plato's Symposium; Verlaine, eclipsed in poetry and spurned in love by his mentee Rimbaud, shot him (unsuccessfully), did jail time, and ended his days a hopeless dipsomaniac endlessly tippling absinthe in frowsy cafés. In the best of cases, however, the mentor-student relationship can foster a unique closeness, and is probably one of the best settings for the passage of wisdom, affection, and respect between two people.

Wilkinson is still working at the trade that Maxwell taught him. He's been a writer at The New Yorker for more than twenty years, and is the author of several books, including A Violent Act and The Riverkeeper. My Mentor is a tribute to Maxwell as both a friend and as a writer—one who is curiously overlooked. While little known by the common reader, among those in his profession he is praised for his flawless novels and is widely considered the twentieth century's greatest editor of short fiction. During his time at The New Yorker he worked with—and in some cases brought to eminence—such writers as J. D. Salinger, Eudora Welty, John Updike, Vladimir Nabokov, John Cheever, Frank O'Connor, and Harold Brodkey. American literature owes him a great debt. With My Mentor, Wilkinson encourages us to pay it, and in so doing to discover a true artist.

I talked with him recently by telephone.

—John Thorne

Alec Wilkinson
Alec Wilkinson   

You write, "Maxwell never made a gesture to bring himself or his writing to anyone's notice, and he didn't allow any to be made on his behalf. Such behavior would have pained him." What do you think accounts for his modesty?

Maxwell was retiring—self-promotion was just not in his nature. But it was not entirely modesty. The New Yorker I arrived in, which was the tail end of the magazine that Harold Ross created and that William Shawn elaborated on, had a house policy that any kind of self-promotion was deeply vulgar. It was just distasteful. They were very clear in what their intention was, and it was to get out of themselves the best work they could. Which is different from saying "to do the best work possible." Any sensible writer or artist recognizes the extent of his or her talent. I tried to get Maxwell to be more aggressive with his publisher. In my mind he was the most accomplished American writer. He was at the head of the class. I would sometimes urge him to make sure his publisher treated him that way, but he wouldn't do it.

Maxwell was an "original person," you write, someone too preoccupied with reading, thought, and so on, to care much what others thought of him; in fact, you argue, an "original person" likes being overlooked because he "prefers to operate as a subversive." What about the common notion that original people often feel a kind of paralyzing alienation, at least socially, from others and use art as a way to connect with them? Doesn't an original person yearn to be noticed without having to sacrifice who he is?

Yes, one needs a port in the storm, and they're very hard to find. And being a misfit, being a maverick, is not an easy thing to do. I agree with that side of it. It requires strength. We're all social beings; we respond to, and derive part of ourselves, from how the world treats us. And if the world is indifferent and dismissive of us, especially at the earliest ages when we're most fragile, that becomes a defining element of our character, our natures. To have an individual life is very hard. Our culture isn't braced for it or prepared for it. Go into any two-for-one night bar or something and try to have an individual conversation with someone, and you'll find yourself going home alone, that's for sure.

The passage you quoted was my way of expressing contempt for a certain kind of person that I could do without in the world but that our culture certainly appears not to be able to do without. The difference between celebrities and regular people is that celebrities always know to smile when the camera is facing them. There's a smile that you see on the faces of these people that looks as if they're in ecstasies of happiness as they walk into a restaurant. I'm intrigued by those people who are aloof from self-dramatization. And for Maxwell, self-dramatization, self-inflation were not part of his nature. He really preferred being off to the side and being allowed to do his work.

I read an essay ("Missed Connections and Second Homes: Friendship and Place in Maxwell's Novels" by Thomas Bligh) the other day that said the young Maxwell had a "Midwestern morality" lacking in modern boys. Do you know what the writer means by "Midwestern morality?" Is this something you perceived also?

Maxwell was a product of the nineteenth century. He was raised among people who weren't far removed from prairie settlers, really, and who, I think, were a very hardworking, definite, upright sort of people. It was the period when, if your best friend failed in his debts, you paid them. Nobody walked away and said, "Ah, chapter eleven!" I'm not midwestern, but that's what midwestern morality means to me. A kind of core American value—a settler's way of facing down adversity without any ostentation.

Maxwell was very firm in his ideas of what was right behavior and what was wrong behavior. He was exceptionally forgiving, not judgmental in any way, but he had that nineteenth-century belief in following through on things one has agreed to do even though one may no longer wish to; in not complaining about one's lot; in working hard without expecting the effort to be acknowledged. A kind of understatement in character was very much a part of the atmosphere he grew up with—and both his character and his prose were understated.

Your writing is like Maxwell's; sentences that are short without being terse, and a generally somber tone. You allow that you have picked up something of his voice. Do you feel that you've picked up any other aspects of his writing?

He so dramatically influenced my way of thinking about the world, and feeling about the world, and viewing the world that I'm sure that influence has some resonance. I've been doing this for twenty-five years; what influences I have are really settled into me. I couldn't possibly imitate anybody else. At this point, though, that's unconscious. Maxwell once surprised me; one time we were being interviewed together, and Maxwell surprised me by saying, "We're the same kind of writer." I knew perfectly well he didn't mean I was as good a writer as he was, and I don't think I am. I knew that he meant we sort of had the same way of thinking about things.

How did Maxwell tend to work with the many writers he edited? Was it like how he worked with you?

Yes, I think he worked with every writer in the same way. It was really just a matter of how much help the writer needed. I know that he and Updike, for instance, worked very, very closely and collegially. They were two equals going back and forth on a story about how to bring it into its best possible form. With me it couldn't possibly be a collegial relationship; I'd never written a thing. The stuff I brought to him was the very first stuff I'd written in my life. I think he read other writers just as closely, but they didn't need his help as severely. With me it was even down to sentences, what you could say, what you couldn't say; yes, it was really a training in writing as opposed to editing.

Although he is highly praised by literary folk, Maxwell isn't a household (or even a classroom) name like some of those he edited—Salinger, Nabokov, Welty, Updike, for example. Why might this be?

First of all, Maxwell was not a prolific writer. He published an immense amount, but it was over sixty-five years. None of the other writers you mentioned were teachers or editors, for example—they all had the good financial fortune to be making their livings as writers. So they were working a great deal more. Maxwell only worked four days a week and he was constantly interrupted, in the sense that no matter what happened with the story that he was working on on Monday, he had to put it aside Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday and go back to the office. Sometimes, I think, that helped, and sometimes that was an imposition. I know he felt he could never have written So Long, See You Tomorrow, which he wrote immediately upon retiring from The New Yorker, if he had had to interrupt it.

He had an almost extreme reluctance to take part in any kind of public endorsement of his work. I mean, he wasn't like Salinger—he wasn't militantly retired from the world, he just didn't want to promote himself; he found it distasteful. In those years writers didn't go on book tours. He did readings here and there in his later years, I remember, but he took them very, very seriously and prepared for them.

He was completely indifferent to commercial success. One day David Mamet wanted very much to make a movie of The Folded Leaf, so much so that finally Maxwell agreed that Mamet could come over for tea and talk to him. And he still said no. As he says in a letter to his father that I quote in My Mentor, to be a great artist (which he hopes to be), it means saying no to the temptations of easy money. Maxwell is also remarkable in this: he left no clunkers. He didn't publish anything in order to stay in front of the public eye, he didn't publish anything because his vanity wished to have another book out at the moment, he didn't publish anything to make money. Every single thing he wrote (that's in print) has a kind of sterling quality to it.

Maxwell bore the loss of his mother, who died when he was young, through his life and dealt with it in books such as The Folded Leaf and They Came Like Swallows. Do you think he ever came to terms with it?

Oh, I think he did by the end of his life. But in a way there's no coming to terms with anything like that except just sort of no longer being so devastated by it. I think a certain tranquility settled in on him in the last four or five years of his life. It was no longer a haunting event to him, it was just a melancholy one. And he was so brave about facing his end that I think he may possibly have had some thought that in some way his end meant the end of suffering.

Maxwell seems to have owed his keen sense of the human experience to his sympathetic nature, to his ability to grasp the nuanced joys, sorrows, hopes, and despairs of other people. Yet he had his own deep sorrow too. It's often said, perhaps wrongly, that an artist must suffer. Did he depend partly on telling his own story veiled within his novels?

His mother's death was such an enormous event in his life. I think it formed so many of the ways that he ended up looking at the world— his sense of the organization of the world, the way the world worked, and how people moved through it. Her death certainly impressed him with the fragility of human happiness and the notion that beyond the light of the campfire something is always threatening.

I think what suffering does is separate one from the common experience, and it requires that one develop an individual resistance to it. And that touches on what we've been talking about the entire morning—the essence of individual life. The richness of one's inner life, and the fullness of it. Suffering can either be extinguishing or liberating, but it's always complicated.

The mentor-student relationship is clearly one of unequals; this would seem to make friendship awkward, as friends usually feel themselves on an even footing. But you were great friends with Maxwell nonetheless. Is the mentor-student relationship a kind of friendship, an extension of it, or something else altogether?

People can come together for all sorts of reasons, whether romantically or platonically, and what matters is not the reason that brought them together but what they make of it. I've seen other people my age have relationships with mentors that went completely wrong. The young person was an ambitious one who attached himself to an older one in order to further his career and feigned an interest in friendship, and perhaps consciously believed he or she was interested in the friendship, but discarded it as soon as a better opportunity came along. I think in a funny way Maxwell's and my friendship stayed unequal right till the end because he was so much older than I and I always felt a part of me occupied the role of a child, of a son. That remark of Nietzsche's is so apt to my circumstances, "If you haven't had a good father it's necessary to invent one." And I invented Maxwell in the sense that I invented his importance to me. I needed this kind of person to lean on.

I think the relationship would have changed, because I felt myself maturing. I felt us drawing closer; we had such an intimate time, everyone, his daughter, me, his closest friends, had such an intimate period with him in those last two to three weeks. It was a crisis in the household, both Maxwell and Mrs. Maxwell were dying, and all pretensions were put aside. And I don't mean pretensions in the lowest sense, the meanest sense, but simply that all observations of social conduct that might have applied in tranquil times were discarded and everybody was clear about expressing the love everyone felt for each other.

My approach to Maxwell and my original engagement with him were already within the arena of intimacy because of his relationship with my father and my growing up with him. He had other, younger writers he had taken on, whom he had helped over the years, and whose relationship with him was friendly and close, but nothing like ours. But I'm sure if I had met him professionally our relationship would have been different.

You and your father both loved Maxwell, each in your own way. Do you think your father ever resented your devotion to Maxwell?

So far as I could tell, his only feeling about the matter was how pleased he was that Maxwell had been able to train me in such a way that I could find a place in the world for myself. My father had a very sweet element of his nature, and it always intrigued me that he never seemed resentful when certainly he had every reason to feel embarrassed or self-conscious about the genesis of this friendship between his son and his best friend. My father wasn't petty or small-minded. Certainly, over the years, I worried that my father could draw no other conclusion than that I had replaced him, but he never gave any sign that this was so.

My Mentor is a father/son book. And that's a fundamental subject. It's an element of mythology, the third character who represents the middle way between two opposites and becomes the way out of an intolerable situation for one of the two characters. It's actually such a relief, for once, to talk about something that means so much to me.

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More interviews in Atlantic Unbound.

More on books in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

John Thorne was recently an intern at The Atlantic.

Copyright © 2002 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.