William Maxwell letter to Louise Bogan, (1945?). In: Louise Bogan Papers (box 12, folder 13), Amherst College Library.

Amherst College is fortunate to have the literary papers of poet and critic Louise Bogan (1897-1970).  Bogan was poetry critic for The New Yorker for thirty-eight years. One of the greatest treasures in her papers are the nearly four hundred items of correspondence with writer and fellow New Yorker staffer William Maxwell.  Bogan, eleven years his senior, met Maxwell in 1936, shortly after he joined the magazine as an editor. She soon recognized Maxwell’s prodigious talents for fiction and served as his muse and advisor.  Gradually they became close friends and artistic co-equals.

Dipping at random into their correspondence (1937-1969) presents literary delights at every turn.  Warmth, intelligence, and a mutual delight in language animate these letters — even in mundane passages describing the weather or a head-cold.  Here is Maxwell to Bogan in 1943 on her literary criticism:

I think of you agreeably as a kind of submerged rock on which the specious and the phony are bound, sooner or later, to get ripped open.

Here is Bogan sharing a humorous anecdote about her daughter Maidie in 1941:

Maidie is becoming v. proficient in driving; and we got to Jones Beach in 1 and 1/2 hours.  The other day a refugee couple sprang out in front of the car, against the lights, and the woman began berating Maidie for not stopping. Maidie immediately shouted: “You’d better watch the lights, BABE!”  This BABE, after I had shaken off my own fright, really made me laugh.  “Why BABE?” I asked Maidie. “O, that was to put a little life into it!” she said. –The secret of style, really!”

The easy charm and obvious affection that radiates from their letters and postcards make one want to reach for stationery and a stamp.

Bogan and Maxwell also discussed literature, of course.  One such example is the letter reproduced above, written perhaps in 1945, in which Maxwell briefly records his  impressions of a new writer on the scene, “that poor young hysterical Mr. Salinger,” whose story he has just accepted for publication in The New Yorker.  He says, “I think he is on the literary make.”

The last paragraph of the letter refers sweetly to Bogan’s professed difficulty in changing from a formal to an informal mode of address for him, even in the face of their clearly flourishing friendship.  Four years earlier, when Maxwell had assertively changed the salutation in his letters to “Dear Louise,” she had warned him,

I always think of you as Maxwell, and I’ve already told you how hard it is for me to change, once I have started thinking of someone under one title.

By the time of the present letter, however, it appears that Bogan had found her way to loosening up a bit by addressing her friend as “M” (her letters would soon thereafter alternate between “William” and Bill”).  This is, then, among other things, a document of a clearly different, stricter, more formal time.

See the guide to the Louise Bogan Papers here.

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