The correspondence of New Yorker editor William Maxwell and poet, short-story writer, and novelist Sylvia Townsend Warner.
The letters range, as Maxwell puts it, over “poetry, casuals, sculptures, and Gregorian chant.” The pair only met three times, but Maxwell edited Warner’s work for years, and their correspondence sustained them both through rough patches. We learn of Carl Van Doren’s anxieties that an installment of a great novel might be lost in the mails (this was before the days of floppy disks), of the death of old friends, of Warner’s love for Provence, of Maxwell’s regret that he did not read the Victorian novelists at a younger age. We learn about the writers’ attitudes toward religion and their opinions on bedroom fireplaces. We read Warner praising the sparing beauty of Maxwell’s prose (he wrote fiction on the side), and we learn which fictional details Maxwell likes best (in one case, a portion of oxtail stew). The letters abound in moving, heartfelt observations as simple as Maxwell’s of September 20, 1966: “Rooting in the attic,” he found five or six of Warner’s letters from the 1930s and quietly observed, “We have been writing to each other for about thirty years now.” There is precious little name-dropping, and the editor avoids excessive annotation. Steinman (English/Nassau Community College), who previously edited Maxwell’s correspondence with Frank O’Connor (The Happiness of Getting It Down Right, 1996), should also be thanked for including as an appendix Maxwell’s previously uncollected short memoir of Warner, “What You Can’t Hang Onto.” The only texts missing here are Warner’s collected works, so we could see for ourselves just how brilliant and insightful Maxwell’s notoriously brilliant and insightful editorial comments really were.
Studded with insights and with prose as elegant as that in either writer’s fiction, these letters delineate an epistolary friendship that makes 84 Charing Cross Road look dull.