This is the first novel by William Maxwell, author of Pulitzer finalist So Long, See You Tomorrow and fiction editor of The New Yorker magazine. He was there from 1936-1975 and worked with Cheever, Updike, Salinger and Nabokov, among others. Not a novel published singly, I found Bright Center of Heaven in an American anthology of Maxwell’s early work. This is a quiet read though ambitious in its subject matter, and well worth spending time with before reading Maxwell’s later works.
He follows the time-honoured structure of placing a group of people in one place over a limited time period and observing what happens. It is a contemplative novel and, although it does work to a climax, it is more an insight into the mind of each character as events unfold.
Widow Mrs West and her two teenage sons Thorn and Whitey live at Meadowland, a dilapidated farm that they can no longer afford to run, with her husband’s sister Amelia and her son Bascomb, German cook Johanna and farmer Gust. Thorn feels close to the land to the ten-acre field gifted to him by his father on his sixth birthday. Now Thorn helps Gust to work the fields. Gust is all that remains of the farm in its agricultural days when talk around the dinner table was of crop yields and mechanisation. Whitey runs errands for his mother ‘Muv’ and tends to his canoe. Into this quiet rural world come the summer lodgers – a teacher, artist, pianist and actress – and with it the dinner conversation changes. It changes again when Mrs West’s invitation becomes known; Jefferson Carter, a Harvard-educated New York intellectual who is black, is coming to visit.
It took me a while, at least halfway through, before I figured out the relationships and identities. Each person’s viewpoint is shown, their outward behaviour explained by inner worries. There is an intricate network of connections between them as well as individual stories, invisible from the outside, which Maxwell reveals piece by piece. Carter does his job as the catalyst for trouble around the dinner table. First he is blanked by Amelia, a hypochondriac Southern lady, old before her time; next, he argues with teacher Paul. Carter’s bewilderment and growing anger at this group of people serves to add a voice from outside Meadowland, another view of the world; he is as convinced he is correct about racial equality, as they are. “These seven people,” he thinks, “had no meaning beyond themselves, which was to say that they had no meaning at all. They did not express the life of the nation. They had no visible work. They were all drones and winter would find them dead.”
Bright Center of Heaven was published in 1934 [the same year as F Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night], before Maxwell joined The New Yorker, and was out of print for almost 70 years until this Library of America edition published in 2008. It is the beginning of Maxwell the novelist, a sensitive writer who takes his time and needs to be read without hurry. His are delicate stories without shouting. Maxwell was later unimpressed by Bright Center of Heaven, describing it as“hopelessly imitative” and “stuck fast in its period.” In The Paris Review he said, “My first novel… is a compendium of all the writers I loved and admired.” Virginia Woolf is a particular influence. Ten years after the novel’s publication, he reread it and wrote, “I… discovered to my horror that I had lifted a character—the homesick servant girl—lock, stock, and barrel from To the Lighthouse.”
Read my review of Maxwell’s Time Will Darken It.
And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
BRIGHT CENTER OF HEAVEN by William Maxwell #books https://wp.me/p5gEM4-3vV via @SandraDanby