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The Grandfather Judd was the WASPiest man you could ever hope to meet. He was so proper you almost never saw him out of a suit. Even at the beach he wore a two-piece. The man used garters to hold up his socks. He never swore in his life, didn't drink, didn't smoke, worked Saturdays and kept sabbath on Sundays. And, as one would anticipate, was emotionally reserved. You never doubted his love, but you couldn't expect it to be demonstrative.

There was a component of this reserve though that I never really understood until the past year: survivor guilt. He lost his two brothers in the Great Influenza, From what I understand, in one instance he came home from school not even realizing a brother was ill and he had already passed. He, of course, would never talk about this, but it did seem to scar him permanently.

The beloved long-time New Yorker editor, William Maxwell, was two years younger than Grandpa and he lost his mother in the epidemic when he was ten years old, a loss which, likewise, haunted him his whole life. In this semi-autobiographical short novel, his survivor guilt is somewhat displaced, but he very much tries to re-establish the childhood world, in Lincoln, IL, that his loss ended:
I felt the need to put things back the way they were before. I couldn’t do it literally, but I could put it in the pages of a book. And so I did. I put the people back, I put the places back. Often I put her back.
The narrator of the story loses his mother in the same way and suffers the same sort of shock:
[I] couldn’t understand how it had happened to us. It seemed like a mistake. And mistakes ought to be rectified, only this one couldn’t be. Between the way things used to be and the way they were now was a void that couldn’t be crossed. I had to find an explanation other than the real one, which was that we were no more immune to misfortune than anybody else...
Rather than dwelling on this specific circumstance though, most of the narrative concerns a violent tragedy that befalls two other local families. Two tenant farmers--Clarence Smith and Lloyd Wilson--are best friends and constantly help each other out until Wilson falls obsessively in love with Smith's wife. Their affair and the breaking of his family provokes Smith to murder Wilson and then himself when he is being hunted by authorities. The surviving Smiths flee town and their shame, including the narrator's friend Cletus. I say friend, but that overstates the case. Indeed, in the telling of their story the narrator imagines much of what Cletus must have seen and known, because they weren't truly close. In fact, a not small portion of the tale is told from the perspective of a barnyard dog, just one of the ways that the author suggests how dubious our actual memories are.

This brings us to the narrator's personal guilt. His family too moves--to Chicago--and one day in the high school hall he sees Cletus, but he fails to speak with him. He imagines that this must have hurt Cletus and that it can only have been interpreted as a shunning. Decades later, it is his own shame at this perceived betrayal that drives him back to Lincoln to try and reconstruct the past.

Mr. Maxwell writes beautifully, in the pared down prose one would hope for from a professional editor. His passion for a time and a particular place in the past are matched only by the guilt that so clearly consumes him. That this guilt has been oriented towards an imagined slight instead of to his literal survival of the pandemic is understandable enough. For all our revival of Camus's Plague and Boccaccio's Decameron this past year, this is perhaps the most timely read of the Covid era.


Grade: (A-)


See also:

General Literature
William Maxwell Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: William Keepers Maxwell Jr.
    -LIBRARY OF AMERICA: William Maxwell 1908–2000
    -ENTRY: William Maxwell American author (Encyclopaedia Britannica)
    -ENTRY: William Maxwell (Gretchen Comba, Oxford Bibliographies)
    -ARCHIVES: William Maxwell (The New Yorker)
    -ARCHIVES: William Maxwell papers, 1928-1998Add to your cart. | Rare Book & Manuscript Library (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign)
    -STORY: So Long, See You Tomorrow (William Maxwell, September 30, 1979, The New Yorker)
    -WIKIPEDIA: So Long, See You Tomorrow
    -BOOK SITE: So Long, See You Tomorrow (Penguin Random House)
    -READERS GUIDE: So Long, See You Tomorrow (Super Summary)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: William Maxwell, the 'Wisest, Kindest' Writer (Terry Gross, March 29, 1995, Fresh Air)
    -INTERVIEW: William Maxwell, The Art of Fiction No. 71 (Interviewed by John Seabrook, FALL 1982, Paris Review)
    -VIDEO: William Maxwell (Charlie Rose Show, 03/01/1995)
    -OBIT: Legendary Editor Maxwell Dead at 91 (ABC News, January 7, 2000)
    -OBIT: Author, Editor William Maxwell Dies at 91,/a> (Adam Bernstein, August 2, 2000, Washington Post)
-OBIT: William Maxwell, 91, Author and Legendary Editor, Dies (Wilborn Hampton, Aug. 1, 2000, NY Times)
    -OBIT: William Maxwell and Emily Maxwell: He was a brilliant editor and writer, she a talented painter; within their ambiance, creativity flowered (Harriet O'Donovan Sheehy, 25 Aug 2000, The Guardian)
    -OBIT: William Maxwell (LA Times, 8/02/2006)
-STORY: The Lily-White Boys (William Maxwell, Library of America)
    -ESSAY: Housemother (William Maxwell, 5/33, The Emerald of Sigma Pi)
    -EXCERPT: Excerpt: 'The Actual Thing' (William Maxwell)
    -VIDEO: John Lithgow on performing William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow. (Walker Caplan, May 14, 2021, LitHub)
    -PODCAST: Tony Earley reads "Love," by William Maxwell (New Yorker Fiction)
    -REMEMBRANCE: Imperishable Maxwell: The Library of America celebrates the novelist’s centennial. (John Updike, September 1, 2008, The New Yorker)
    -REMEMBRANCE: The Gentle Realist,/a> (DANIEL MENAKER, October 15, 2000, NY Times Book Review)
-REMEMBRANCE: Remembering William Maxwell: “He used a pause better than most of us use a paragraph.” (Cynthia Haven, October 2012, The Book Haven)
    -REMEMBRANCE: In Memory Of A Mentor: 'So Long,' William Maxwell (WILLIAM LYCHACK, 4/17/2011, NPR)
    -REMEMBRANCE: Love, Bill: When the Evanston writer Cornelia Maude Spelman tried to unlock the mystery of her mother’s melancholy, she turned to one of her parents’ long-ago college pals—William Maxwell, the famed fiction editor of The New Yorker—and found a new friend (CORNELIA MAUDE SPELMAN, JANUARY 5, 2009, Chicago)
    -VIDEO: William Maxwell: Celebration of His Work and Life (National Book Foundation, Sep 2, 2008)
    -AUDIO: Library Of America Honors Overshadowed Writer: with CHRISTOPHER CARDUFF (Editor, Library of America) (Jackie Lyden, August 24, 2008, All Things Considered)
    -INTERVIEW: The Library of America interviews Christopher Carduff about William Maxwell ( Rich Kelley, The Library of America e-Newsletter)
    -INTERVIEW: 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 (John Thorne, MAY 2002, The Atlantic)
    -VIDEO: Giacometti, The Palace at 4am (Khan Academy)
    -ESSAY: A reading list for “the most deadly pandemic in human history”: Though its role in literary history was little remarked upon until recently, the 1918–19 flu epidemic was a formative experience for a generation of American writers. (Library of America, 3/24/20)
    -ESSAY: Memory and Imagination in William Maxwell's So Long, See You Tomorrow Maxfield, James F. Maxfield, Fall 1982, Critique)
-ESSAY: When Parents Die: William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow and Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs (Kate Leary, May 09, 2016, Ploughshares)
    -ESSAY: The world of William Maxwell: An American original with an almost European touch: A Slightly Foxed books essay (Justin Cartwright, May 25, 2019, Slightly Foxed)
    -ESSAY: Social Consciousness in William Maxwell's Writings Based on Lincoln, Illinois (Darold Leigh Henson, Ph.D., Finding Lincoln Illinois)
    -ESSAY: William Maxwell and The New Yorker (Erica Wagner)
    -REVIEW: of So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell (Kirkus)
    -REVIEW: of So Long, See You Tomorrow (Chris Lehmann, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW: of So Long, See You Tomorrow (Eileen Battersby, Irish Times)
    -REVIEW: of (Kevin Dean, The Rumpus)
    -REVIEW: of So Long, See You Tomorrow (Adrian D’Ambra, English Literature Teacher)
    -REVIEW: of So Long, See You Tomorrow (Maggie Kast, Fiction Writers' Review)
    -REVIEW: of So Long, See You Tomorrow (Christopher P. Jones)
    -REVIEW: of So Long, See You Tomorrow (Bethany, Postcards from Purgatory)
    -REVIEW: of So Long, See You Tomorrow (Heavenali)
    -REVIEW: of So Long, See You Tomorrow (Simon Lavery, Tredynas Days)
    -PODCAST REVIEW: of Kit de Waal on So Long, See You Tomorrow (Backlisted)
    -REVIEW: of So Long, See You Tomorrow (BookSnob)
    -REVIEW: of So Long, See You Tomorrow (Susan Osborne, A Life in Books)
    -REVIEW: of So Long, See You Tomorrow (Alex Belth, Deadspin)
    -REVIEW: of The Folded Leaf by William Maxwell (Adam Mars-Jones, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of The Folded Leaf (Kirkus)
    -REVIEW: of Time Will Darken It by William Maxwell (Tom Cox, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of
-REVIEW: of All the Days and Nights: The Collected Stories of William Maxwell by William Maxwell (Publishers' Weekly)
    -REVIEW: of All the Days and Nights (Kirkus)
    -REVIEW: of Billy Dyer and Other Stories by William Maxwell (Kirkus)
    -REVIEW: of
-REVIEW: of They Came like Swallows by William Maxwell (Travis Holland, Fiction Writers' Review)
    -REVIEW: of They Came Like Swallows by William Maxwell (Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of They Came Like Swallows by William Maxwell (Mark Roger Bailey)
    -REVIEW: of They Came Like Swallows (Claudia Franziska Brühwiler, PD Dr., VoegelinView)
    -REVIEW: of The Outermost Dream: Essays and Reviews by William F. Maxwell, Judith B. Jones, Editor (Publishers' Weekly)
    -REVIEW: of The Element of Lavishness: Letters of William Maxwell and Sylvia Townsend Warner, 1938-1978, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Author, William Maxwell, Joint Author, Michael Steinman, Editor (Publishers' Weekly)
    -REVIEW: of
-REVIEW: of Maxwell: Early Novels And Stories; Later Novels And Stories (John Updike, The New Yorker)
    -REVIEW: of Maxwell: Early Novels And Stories; Later Novels And Stories (Stewart O'Nan, WSJ)
    -REVIEW: of Maxwell: Early Novels And Stories; Later Novels And Stories (Peter Terzian, Bookforum)
    -REVIEW: of Maxwell: Early Novels And Stories; Later Novels And Stories (The Mookse and the Grippes)
    -REVIEW: of Maxwell: Early Novels And Stories; Later Novels And Stories (Edward Mendelson, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of Maxwell: Early Novels And Stories; Later Novels And Stories (Bruce Bawer, The Hudson Review)
    -REVIEW: of What There Is to Say We Have Said: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell, Edited by Suzanne Marrs (Danny Heitman, CS Monitor)
    -REVIEW: of What There Is to Say We Have Said (Abigail Deutsch, WSJ)
    -REVIEW: of What There Is to Say We Have Said (Jonathan Yardley, VQR)
    -REVIEW: of William Maxwell: A Literary Life. By Barbara Burkhardt (Morris Dickstein, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of William Maxwell: A Literary Life (Publishers' Weekly)
    -REVIEW: of William Maxwell: a Literary Life (Chicago Tribune)
    -REVIEW: of William Maxwell: a Literary Life (Rich Shereikis, Illinois Times)
    -REVIEW: of A WILLIAM MAXWELL PORTRAIT: Memories and Appreciations, Charles Baxter, Editor, Michael Collier, Editor, Edward Hirsch, Editor (Publishers' Weekly)
    -REVIEW: of My Mentor: A Young Man’s Friendship with William Maxwell by Alec Wilkinson (James Campbell, Boston Review)
    -REVIEW: of My Mentor: A Young Man’s Friendship with William Maxwell (Publishers' Weekly)

Book-related and General Links: