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Wednesday, May 15th, 2002


My Mentor: A Young Man's Friendship with William Maxwell

by Alec Wilkinson

A Slender, Tender Tale

A review by Adrienne Miller

The novelist and editor William Maxwell became a friend of Alec Wilkinson's father when Wilkinson was a young man. Over the course of many years, Maxwell, a courtly, gentle, quiet man of letters, became a surrogate father to Wilkinson, one whose influence in both art and matters of the heart was perhaps more profound than his own father's. Maxwell and his wife Emmy, who lived up the road from the Wilkinsons in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, exposed the young man to the culture of art and ideas, to the world of, as Martin Amis would have it, thought and fascination. Maxwell had a distinguished literary career as the author of six novels and as the fiction editor of The New Yorker; Wilkinson was, by his own admission, unfocused in his career (did he want to be a musician, a policeman, a writer, what?) and in everything else. Maxwell encouraged him to be brave, to write.

Wilkinson, a stately writer, gracious, quiet and steady — a style perfect suited to his subject — explores the nature of his profound relationship with Maxwell in this wonderful, wonderful book. It's a slim volume, ringing in at only 197 pages, but each page nourishes. Maxwell lived a long life and died a good death — a death that was as "good" as any death can be. May we all die, thinking, as Maxwell once said, "I've had a very happy life." After finishing My Mentor, I felt expanded, and grateful in the knowledge that lives as quietly great as Maxwell's were possible. A profound portrait of a profound man.

Adrienne Miller is Esquire's literary editor.

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