Melancholy and Inwardness

My reading in the past weeks has been taken up with Kent Haruf’s and William Maxwell’s fiction. I understand that Maxwell, who was an editor at New Yorker for many years and passed away in 2000, has experienced a kind of rediscovery of late. Haruf, who died in 2014, has received well-deserved acclaim and numerous literary awards. Both shared a certain sparseness of style and ease in storytelling that many of their contemporaries try to emulate but fail. Both wrote Serious literary fiction, but unlike, for example, many of the authors featured in the short stories of the 2016 Pushcart Prize 4oth anniversary volume (Norton, 2016), whose Seriousness is often ostentatious and strained, Haruf and Maxwell wore their gravitas with grace and effortlessness.

That said, I have some questions about balance in each author’s work. In Haruf’s novels (I’ve read Plainsong [1999], Where You Once Belonged [2000], Eventide [2004],  Benediction [2013], and Our Souls at Night [2015]), we get evocatively woven stories of ordinary people in the fictional town of Holt, Colorado. Most characters are so skillfully wrought and sensitively portrayed that they almost leap off the page even as Haruf’s clean, simple writing restrains them. This is prose best described as High Plains poetry, rich in aridity and expansive in its intimacy.

Haruf’s work, most of the time, does a fine balancing act between melancholy and hope, but so often, especially in Benediction, which some commentators say is his best novel, the narrative slips into a mournfulness from which nothing can retrieve it. At one point in the novel, there is a scene in which an elderly woman and her orphaned granddaughter join other women friends for a picnic. They eat, drink wine, talk, and soon become adventuresome. The most adventurous among them  sheds her clothes to take a dip in a cool-water stock tank, and the others soon abandon caution and follow, with nearby cows looking on in wonder. It’s a beautiful scene, rendered perfectly, yet even here, the group’s frivolity is overshadowed by the pain we know each woman feels in her life. It is in otherwise humorous or lighthearted scenes such as these where the imbalance of Haruf’s wonderful work shows through; an imbalance that finally leaves a stronger residue of sadness than perhaps he intended. Haruf’s work is full of references to Christianity, as the subject matter and titles suggest, and one wonders if Haruf’s fiction was finally too strongly shaped by a Christian sense of humankind’s desperate fallenness.

The situation is somewhat different in Maxwell’s work. Here too we have rich characters, poignant scenes, and perfectly paced storytelling. Much of what Maxwell wrote was semi-autobiographical, from his 1937 novel They Came Like Swallows, to his So Long, See You Tomorrow from 1980. In between, Maxwell wrote other novels but also many stories, which are collected in All the Days and Nights (Vintage, 1995). Maxwell once referred to his short stories as a “Natural History of home,” and that description is apt. Maxwell was a master of domestic realism, and his stories and novels narrate characters and indeed a way of life that with not too much difficulty can be used to chart elements of American history in the twentieth century.

Yet precisely there is the rub. Maxwell’s domestic perspective is so intense, so finely attuned to the nuances of a parent’s or brother’s glance or the arrangement of furniture in a living room, that the reader forgets that “home” is embedded in a wider set of social relations. This is not to say Maxwell would have been more convincing as a sociologist. But it is to say that inwardness of this sort perhaps robs the storytelling (and the characters) of further complexity. Social “embeddedness” is an unwieldy term, but it’s appropriate for the time being to point to the imbalance in Maxwell’s impressive literary oeuvre. Rich in emotional nuance, economic in style, Maxwell’s “Natural history of home” finally missed a wider palette on which to draw its textured stories and embed them in their social contexts.

Even if Haruf and Maxwell, two of recent American literature’s finest talents, may finally have erred on the side of melancholy or inwardness respectively, they are nonetheless worth reading again and again, if for no other reason than to luxuriate in their prose. So it is worth quoting Haruf in the last line of his Benediction–a line that, like his work as a whole, reads like a blessing of sorts: “And in the fall the days turned cold and the leaves dropped off the trees and in the winter the wind blew from the mountains and out on the high plains of Holt County there were overnight storms and three-day blizzards.”

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