Monday, September 26, 2011


On the way back Sunday from a weekend in St. Louis, where we had gone to watch a baseball game--participating, in a way, in an activity from olden days--the sign for the town of Lincoln, Illinois tempted us off Interstate 55. For Lincoln is where William Maxwell was born, and it seems wrong to pass, again and again, a place that figures prominently in the work of a favorite writer without pausing to simultaneously pay homage and see, and imagine with, the remnants of the early twentieth-century town whose streets a young Maxwell walked.

The town looks like any number of Illinois small towns, including the one I grew up in: a courthouse anchoring a town square surrounded by a mix of local businesses and ghostly empty storefronts; quiet, tree-lined streets lined with a mix of large, century old wood-frame mansions and smaller, midcentury houses; a small park, functionless since the end of the days of the local brass band; quiet, deep, fundamental quiet.

Maxwell, in Ancestors (1971), wrote of Lincoln:
At the point at which I began to have a general working knowledge of persons, places, and things--that is to say, about 1912--Lincoln was a modestly flourishing county seat that seemed to have been there forever. It was not even very old, though it did have the air of being deeper in the shadow of the past than many of the towns around it. Nothing of any historical importance had ever happened there, or has to this day.
Forty years later, I suspect that closing statement remains true.

We didn't succeed in finding the Maxwell home, where I have since been told there is a plaque, but we did climb the steps of the lovely Carnegie Library that opened in 1903--clearly architectural kin to the one I grew up patronizing--to which a young Maxwell walked to get books. And on this autumn day, under a stirringly beautiful blue sky dotted with puffy clouds, that, and the quiet, was enough. One of the qualities of Maxwell's novels and stories that keeps me coming back to them again and again is the way they seem to effortlessly bridge that gap between the prewar world--especially the prewar rural world, which was almost incomprehensibly isolated--and our contemporary, connected urban lives. Being in Lincoln, even as the occasional SUV rolled by, drew the connection close.

Elsewhere in Ancestors, Maxwell writes of his father:
In his old age my father enchanted the Rotary Club with a speech which he titled "Memories of Lincoln Way Back When." Being rather proud of this success, he presented me with a carbon copy of the notes he spoke from.

He began by describing the town in his boyhood in the 1880s--the, for the most part, unpaved streets, the original courthouse and the hitching posts all around the courthouse square, the horse fountains, the volunteer fire department, the coal-oil lamps in the houses, and the outside privies. At this time the town of Lincoln was less than forty years old. Up and down the streets of the happy past my father went, locating defunct hotels and dancing academies, banks that had changed their names or failed, dry goods stores, livery stables, boarding houses, barber shops (colored and white), saloons, meat markets, jewelers, gents' furnishings, greenhouses, ice houses, brickyards and coal mines, the collar factory and the shooting gallery.
Nostalgia has always been with us, and when you stand on the streets of Lincoln you can't escape more than a century of it. It's part of Maxwell's genius that nostalgia has little, perhaps no, part in his work; rather, he writes of loss, and time, and the way we work and work and work against their partnership.

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