Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Lincoln, Illinois, a century ago, in William Maxwell's eyes

I've been rereading one of my favorite books of any kind, William Maxwell's Ancestors. I am endlessly impressed by the imaginative sympathy he brings to his ancestors' lives. He also remembers his own past. He grew up in a small downstate Illinois town in Logan County about a century ago, as I did in a smaller one about half a century later.

Lincoln was not a typical small town, because there is no such thing, any more than there is a typical human being . . . . You could be eccentric and still not be socially ostracized. You could even be dishonest. But you could not be openly immoral. The mistakes people made were not forgotten, but if you were in trouble somebody very soon found out about it and was there answering the telephone and feeding the children. Men and women alike appeared to accept with equanimity the circumstances (on the whole, commonplace and unchanging) of their lives in a away that no one seems able to do now [1971] anywhere. This is how I remember it. I am aware that Sherwood Anderson writing about a similar though smaller place saw it quite differently. I believe in Winesburg, Ohio, but I also believe in what I remember. {188, 190}
I find it interesting that he does not mention Sinclair Lewis and Main Street -- perhaps because of Lewis's insistence that all small towns were the same kind of death trap, or perhaps because Lewis's style was crude compared to Maxwell's own ability to recall details and form them into a mosaic, not to build a case or prove a thesis, but just to see again what was there.

William Maxwell, Ancestors: A Family History (New York: Vintage, 1971).

Harold Henderson, "Lincoln, Illinois, a century ago, in William Maxwell's eyes" Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 28 August 2012 (http://midwesternmicrohistory.blogspot.com : accessed [access date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]

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