From Illinois Alumni, July/August 2006, page 28
William Maxwell: A Literary Life
By Barbara Burkhardt
On the power of the prairie:
A memory from [Maxwell’s] early days on the East Coast makes plain the psychological hold of the Illinois topography on his imagination: While in residence one summer at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire, he took a day trip to Lake George with another colonist, violinist Sol Cohen. Cohen, who was behind the wheel, got lost on the return, and the two found themselves stranded in unfamiliar territory at dusk. “All around us were mountains, and I felt threatened by them,” Maxwell remembered. “Only a flat landscape is reeassuring to my unconscious mind. A landscape where you can see the horizon in all directions.” This affinity for illimitable vistas, for the sense of total exposure on the plains, plays an integral role in the aesthetic unity and effect of his work. In essence, the prairie’s physical presence forms the tenor of characters’ lives. Maxwell’s spare, graceful prose echoes the unadorned beauty of the prairiescape, the stark symmetry of uninterruped soil and sky.
Don’t be afraid of mountains. They are useless and all look the same.
From Illinois Alumni, May/June 2008
The grand sweep of the Illinois prairie came as an unexpected thrill to Jane. She had had misgivings about the move from New Jersey, as scientists’ wives had complained about the Midwest’s endless fields upon fields of corn and soybeans and the lack of cultural attractions. But as the family drove into Champaign-Urbana in June 1951, Jane “gasped because it was so glorious.” She loved the sense of space and freedom expressed by the plains, set against the wide skies of the region. John felt immediately comfortable in the twin cities of Urbana and Champaign, which in some ways resembled the Madison of his youth. He experienced the move to Illinois like coming home.