“Miss Vera Brown, she wrote on the blackboard, letter by letter in flawlessly oval Palmer method. Our teacher for the fifth grade. The name might as well have been graven in stone.”
These are first three sentences of William Mawell’s short story “Love,” which I came across on The New Yorker fiction podcast. I remember being mesmerized by it as I walked to work, paying no attention to where I was going, or that the crosswalk sign was telling me to stop. If I’d been sitting down in a chair I would’ve parked myself on the edge of its seat, hanging on to every word.
Maxwell’s prose grabs you first by the heart. As Tony Earley, who reads the story in the podcast, says, Maxwell’s writing has sentiment but is never sentimental. In a New Yorker piece honoring the late writer and editor’s life and legacy (a legacy persisting not only in Maxwell’s own published fiction but also the fiction of those literary elephants he edited—Updike, Cheever, Nabokov, and Welty, to name a few), Maxwell is said to have striven for “the line of truth exactly superimposed on the line of feeling.” Sentiment propels the narrative rather than weighing it down.
“Love” is about a boy infatuated with his fifth grade teacher, Miss Vera Brown, who has a “voice as gentle as the expression in her beautiful dark brown eyes.” She is gentle, encouraging, understanding Her students are all in love. They give her gifts, take her to a movie, “[intend] to pass right up through the sixth, seventh, and eighth grades and on to high school taking her with [them].” But she gets sick, and doesn’t come back. When the boy and his friend visit her, she’s already so consumed by her sickness that she isn’t even excited to see them. She dies soon after this.
The story is as simple as its prose, but what makes Maxwell such a talented writer, and this particular story so compelling to me, is that this simplicity is actually complex, perhaps even more so than a story of abstractions and flighty prose. Listening to it a second time, or reading it on the page, you pick up on every subtle foreshadowing and atmospheric layer (the name “graven in stone” in the first paragraph setting up Miss Brown’s death; the recurring flower imagery of pansies, asters, and sweet peas creating an atmosphere of fleeting beauty). But the story doesn’t rely on ostentation to be effective—you could listen to it straight through and be moved without considering its intricate mechanics.
Deborah Treisman, the current fiction editor at The New Yorker, supposedly said that “one can’t…be an exemplary editor and writer simultaneously.” Maxwell, who was both, proves this wrong. In his oeuvre—which is small: two volumes you could hold in one hand—he practiced what he preached: to write “sentences that won’t be like sand castles.” In “Love,” especially, he writes not a sand castle, or a straw house that could be easily blown down, but one made of brick: sturdy and timeless and a model to all.