A Light to Read By: A Tribute to William Maxwell

I came to William Maxwell late. I did not read his work when I was in high school or in college, nor did I read any of his novels or stories when I attended graduate school. Rather, I was twenty-eight years old, standing in the Barnes and Noble in Union Square, thumbing through the stacks, when I came across a thin paperback volume entitled They Came Like Swallows (1937). It was the Vintage International edition, on the cover of which was a photograph of a young boy whose expression hovered between doleful and petulant. To this day I do not know why, but I dug fifteen dollars out of the back pocket of my jeans.

A few weeks later I found myself and my cat in the basement of the split-level in which I had grown up in southern Maryland—my former bedroom had been converted to a study—sitting cross-legged on a mattress my parents had put down there for the occasional guest. My boyfriend and I had broken up, and I was immersed in that self-indulgent, pitiful state in which so many of us find ourselves in such situations. I was to spend the first week of August in that house before moving to Richmond, Virginia, and I slept for the first three days of my stay, although my father, a recently retired meteorologist at the National Weather Service whose name was unknown outside his small circle of co-workers, would come down the stairs each morning at 6:00 AM, after he had checked the vegetables in his back yard garden and the flowers that ringed the lamp post out front, and try to coax me out of bed. And each day I refused, offering up ridiculous excuses and even more ridiculous rationales for why my relationship with Jim had failed—the most ridiculous being the fact that the apartment in which I had lived with him in New York was too dark, and that I did not have enough lamps to dispel the darkness. On the fourth day, my father insisted that I get out of bed, take a shower, get a move on. There was a firmness to his voice, an impatience in his tone, that made me do what he said. A couple of hours later we were browsing the stalls of a cheap antique mall, my father pointing out lamps made in the 1930s. He picked up one lamp on which the original shade had clearly been replaced; still, the base with its molded pink flowers edged in gilt was intact—not a single chip in the china. My father asked if I liked it, and I nodded. “It’s a nice lamp,” he said. “A lamp for a girl.” He picked up another lamp, this one made of milk glass. The painted yellow flowers had faded, but they were clearly still flowers. “What about this one?” he said. Again I nodded my approval. We left the antique mall with those lamps, each one wrapped in brown paper and resting on the backseat of the Ford. My father then drove us to a pet store. “We are getting Witchkitty a new bed and new litter box,” he said. “Everyone is starting over.”

That night, I sat on the mattress in the basement, my back against the panelled wall and the new lamps burning, and read They Came Like Swallows beginning to end—it is a mere 174 pages in the Vintage International edition—marvelling at the way in which Maxwell made the death of a beloved mother so heartbreakingly real in the space of so few pages. What struck me most was the way in which the death of Elizabeth Morison—who is not afforded a perspective despite the fact that her emotional presence, and subsequent lack thereof, is at the center of the novel in much the same way that Caddy Compson is the physically absent, yet all-too-present emotional core of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury (1929)—does not occur in the primary narrative of the novel. Rather, the moment of her death is almost, but not quite, summarized in a flashback in the final section of the book, similar to, and yet different from, the way in which Woolf summarizes Mrs. Ramsay’s death in To the Lighthouse (1927). In the light of those antique lamps, I discovered that for Maxwell, like so many modernists, the pivotal moment in the story does not occur in the ostensibly highly dramatic scene but instead is rendered in the seemingly insignificant moments that occur in the aftermath of tragedy.


In his essay “A Breath of Life,” Charles Baxter writes of how “in [Maxwell’s] novels and many of his stories we are led by art and perfectly articulated sentences to a scene of cruelty, or loss, or misbehavior so extreme that one is silenced. The scenes rise not out of a struggle for power, but from an effort to hold on, sometimes desperately, to what is loved and likely to be lost” (101-102). In Maxwell’s final novel, So Long, See You Tomorrow (1980), “that effort to hold on…to what is loved and likely to be lost” threads together the pages. In the novel, the elderly narrator recalls meeting Cletus Smith, a boyhood friend with whom he used to walk the beams of an unfinished house in Lincoln, Illinois, in the hallway of a Chicago High School and not speaking to him. In an effort to atone for his silence, the narrator then constructs a narrative in which his own tragedy, the loss of his mother in the 1918 Spanish Influenza epidemic, is interwoven with the tragedy of Cletus Smith, who loses his childhood home, and therefore his childhood innocence, in the wake of his mother’s affair with a family friend, his parents’ subsequent separation, and his father’s murder of that family friend and ultimate suicide. Baxter notes how “in Maxwell’s novel a refusal or inability to speak brings on heartsickness, the misery of the unsaid” (96). He also writes of the dog:

In So Long, See You Tomorrow there is a dog named Trixie who belongs to Cletus Smith, the murderer’s son….Early on in the novel…, we learn about the dog’s life, and Cletus’s life, by means of a series of inventories accomplished with great artfulness. The reader is given lists of objects with which the dog is familiar and then, when Cletus enters the house, a list of the objects in the kitchen from which the boy takes comfort. Steam on the windows. Zinc surfaces. The embossed calendar. The cracked oil cloth on the kitchen table. The list goes on and on, but it does not become wearisome because something tells the reader that all this is fragile and will soon disappear. This boy inhabits this particular world, a voice seems to say, and it will soon be gone. We have already been given a similar inventory of the narrator’s own surroundings, just before and immediately after his mother’s death. (94-95).

The deprivation of both the narrator and Cletus, the deprivation of things given and then taken away, parallels that of the dog, Trixie, who, as Baxter notes,

becomes a vessel of pure feeling. The dog stays in So Long, See You Tomorrow so that she can express the core emotion of the book, deprivation. She begins howling, is what it amounts to. ‘They’ have taken the other animals away, and they have taken her boy away, and they have taken her food away, and they have also taken away her purpose for being on the farm, and after waiting for a long time, trying not to worry, she can’t help herself: ‘Eventually, in spite of her, the howls broke out. Sitting on her haunches, with her muzzle raised to the night sky, she howled and howled.’” (98-99).

This deprivation, this unfathomable loss, is at the heart of They Came Like Swallows, which offers a more explicit exploration of the death of a mother who, like the narrator’s mother in So Long, dies in the Spanish Influenza epidemic.

Just as the “effort to hold on…to what is loved and likely to be lost” is at the heart of So Long, so it is at the heart of They Came Like Swallows. The novel is told from the perspective of three members of the Morison family: the first section is told from the point of view of Bunny, the eight-year-old younger Morison son; the second section from the point of view of Robert, the older Morison son and five years Bunny’s senior; and the final section from the point of view of James, the boys’ father and Elizabeth Morison’s husband. As Barbara Burkhardt writes in William Maxwell: A Literary Life,

[t]hrough their love for [Elizabeth], the three Morison males are brought together; their stories revolve around her….the approach creates a gentle momentum as one perspective layers the next. Rather than present three isolated sensibilities, Maxwell’s method creates a set of related psychological experiences that built toward the final section…By novel’s end, the father’s inner world may be understood both individually and in light of what readers already know about his sons’ emotional lives. (7)

In the final section, Elizabeth Morison dies in the hospital, a scene not rendered in the primary narrative, but rather in a flashback and, even in the flashback, the moment of death does not occur: “[James] was only two rooms down the hall at the hospital, and Thursday night, when she was worse, he lay awake listening. The gas-light came through the transom and cut a rectangular hole in the ceiling. It was through that hole that the sound of her desperate suffocated breathing came to him” (Maxwell, Swallows 140). As Burkhardt points out, “Woolf had become an inspiration more than a model for his direct imitation [as her work is in Maxwell’s first novel, Bright Center of Heaven (1934)]: Swallows reflects her subject matter and insular, psychological focus yet also establishes an approach and direction that were uniquely Maxwell’s” (67). Burkhardt writes:

unlike Woolf, Maxwell did not incorporate the mother’s viewpoint in his story but allowed her to be seen through the eyes of her family members, set apart as the lodestar of their universe. To the Lighthouse portrays a home overflowing with Mrs. Ramsay’s attentive love and, after a symbolic (and literally parenthetical) mention of her death, depicts the hole she has left there. In contrast, Swallows focuses on the mother’s passing specifically—the events leading up to it, the jolt of the news, the tragic aftermath. (69)

Like Woolf, Maxwell does not offer the highly dramatic moment, and the effect is akin to that of Woolf’s: a family is devastated and struggles to move past a tragic moment withheld from the reader.

As in other modernist works, Maxwell’s epiphanies are deferred to the aftermath of tragedy. After returning from Decatur to the family’s home, James Morison, in order to rationalize and then undo what he had done in an effort to change fate, retreads the immediate past: he considers and then considers again how he should have waited for the interurban rather than force himself and Elizabeth to get seats on the crowded train already at the station. He buries his face in the “cold fur of” “Old John” (Maxwell, Swallows 162), the family dog who has been forgotten on the porch, and then he goes upstairs to stand in his and Elizabeth’s bedroom, where he makes a pile of Elizabeth’s personal items on the dresser, thinking of  “how [Elizabeth] had put him aside” (Maxwell, Swallows 163). James considers what he will do: sell the house; allow his sister, Clara, to keep the children; give away Elizabeth’s possessions. In essence, he seeks to erase Elizabeth in order to still the pain of his loss. Ultimately, James leaves the house—“He would not enter that empty house again” (Maxwell, Swallows 164)—and outside on the street, he considers his father-in-law’s deathbed avowal of a creator. Standing alone, James asks aloud, “But to what purpose?” before he discovers that “[t]he snow dropping out of the sky did not turn when he turned or make any concession to his needs, but only to his existence. The snow fell on his shoulders and on the brim of his hat and it stayed there and melted. He was real. That was all he knew” (Maxwell, Swallows 166). At this moment in the primary narrative, rather than in an ostensibly highly dramatic scene, James comes to his naturalistic conclusion, which is underscored by the action that follows: James hears the hooves of a horse and thinks that Elizabeth has come to him in a pony cart. He runs up the alley to meet her, only to discover a man in a wagon collecting trash, “the lantern [shining] upward into the man’s face that was thin and patient and crazy” (Maxwell, Swallows 167).


A few days after the night that I read They Came Like Swallows in the basement of the house in which I grew up, I moved to Richmond, Virginia, the city that ultimately became my home. Three months later, my father moved to a small stucco house in Palm Coast, Florida, in front of which he planted hibiscus and behind which, far enough away from the still waters of a stagnant canal, he cordoned off a section of the back yard for a vegetable garden. Four and a half years later, my father was stricken with a heart attack in the study of that house, a study in which stood a day bed for the occasional guest.

I flew down that day, but the pivotal moment did not occur as I stood in the hospital room that evening; nor did it occur two days later as I stood again in that hospital room, quietly signing papers to unhook my father from the machines. The nurse said what I refused or was unable to say: “He is dead,” she said. “And sooner or later, the machines helping him to breathe will tear his lungs apart.” The pivotal moment did not occur when I saw the slowing rise and fall of the green wave go flat and still on the screen. Or when, afterwards, I stood and closed my father’s eyes, which were not doleful, not petulant, not even surprised. It did not even occur in the immediate aftermath: not when I picked up the cardboard box that held the plastic bag of ashes and chips of bone from the crematorium; not when I watched that bag being emptied in the bare January garden in the back yard of that stucco house to mingle, unmarked, with the soil. It did not even occur the following summer when I flew again to Florida to visit my mother and crouched in that still-bare garden, picking up chips of bone. Or five years later when I again crouched in that garden, and I could not find a single chip of bone: my father’s remains had become one with the soil. Rather, that pivotal moment occurred over twelve years after my father’s death as I sat on an August day before the open kitchen door of my house in Richmond, looking out over my back yard. I saw my ageing schnauzer moving through the weeds, picking his way around the graves, some marked and others unmarked, of several cats, one of which belongs to Witchkitty. As Winston limped towards me, I thought of Trixie watching as the “[b]edsteads, mattresses, chairs were taken from the Smith house and put into the yard where they were sold at auction” (Maxwell, So Long 121). And then I thought of Trixie, alone and abandoned on the property, howling: “[a]nd it wasn’t just the dog howling, it was all the dogs she was descended from, clear back to some wolf or other” (Maxwell, So Long 122). And then I thought of Trixie’s death, of how her death does not occur in the primary narrative, but instead is summarized in a single brief paragraph: “The new tenant couldn’t get Trixie to stay on the place…So your father took her to the vet’s and had her put out. With chloroform” (Maxwell, So Long 127). I thought of how that tiny paragraph jars the reader, who has grown to love Trixie as surely as Cletus loves Trixie: the unexpected, yet the expected. And then I thought of how Winston, too, someday will be in the ground, in a grave that may be marked or unmarked, but in which his bones will certainly become indistinguishable from the soil. And I thought of the fragility, the brevity, of life, and of the capriciousness, and finality, of death.

And as I stared at my back yard, I saw my father in his own back yard, the back yard of my childhood home in southern Maryland in which he had lived for over thirty years, standing in the garden as the dried peppers hanging from hooks before the bay window, the checkered placemats arranged on the round oak table, the clock above the sink around the face of which were plastic carrots, onions, celery, were wrapped in plastic and then put in boxes that were hauled out to the moving van. I saw those same items, oddly suspicious looking, in the small kitchen of the stucco house in Florida, behind which my father stood in yet another garden. I have no garden, I thought, not a vegetable garden, ripe with tomatoes, cucumber, and summer squash. Not a flower garden, in which might bloom tiger lilies, daisies, black-eyed susans. And then I remembered the pink and yellow flowers. And like James Morison, the snow was falling down on my shoulders, resting there until it melted. But unlike James Morison, I saw not the indifference of God or Nature but rather both the insignificance and significance of my father’s life—and perhaps my own—and I thought of a decidedly realist novel, Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871-72), a book I had read both in college and graduate school, and from which I had, for reasons I do not know, memorized the final sentence: “But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs” (882). I recited the passage out loud to the schnauzer, to the weeds in the back yard, to the neighbor in the red brick house next door, to everyone and no one who would listen. And then I thought of William Maxwell, who, like my father, had given me a light to read by.

Works Cited

Baxter, Charles. “A Breath of Life.” A William Maxwell Tribute: Memories and Appreciations.   

Baxter, Charles, Michael Collier and Edward Hirsch, eds., with introduction. New York:   Norton, 2004.

Burkhardt, Barbara. William Maxwell: A Literary Life. Urbana-Champaign, IL: University of       Illinois Press, 2005.

Eliot, George. Middlemarch. New York: Oxford, 1996.

Maxwell, William. They Came Like Swallows. New York: Vintage International, 1997.

Maxwell, William. So Long, See You Tomorrow. New York: Knopf, 1980.

Gretchen Comba

Gretchen Comba's fiction has appeared in a number of journals, including Alaska Quarterly Review, The Greensboro Review, and The South Carolina Review; and her collection of stories, The Stillness of the Picture, was published in 2016 by Kore Press.