Charles Baxter and MQR

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Nonfiction by Laurence Goldstein from our Fall 2015 issue.

The first of many publications by Charles Baxter in Michigan Quarterly Review was his short story “Harmony of the World,” in the Spring 1981 issue. As I understand it, this was the second short story he published, following one in the Antioch Review. “Harmony of the World” was reprinted in Best American Short Stories, 1982, edited by John Gardner, and in The Pushcart Prize, VII: Best of the Small Presses, and was the title story in Baxter’s inaugural collection, from University of Missouri Press, following its selection as first-place winner of the AWP Award Series in Short Fiction for 1984.

I remember vividly my first reading of this remarkable story. I was alone in the MQR office in late afternoon, poring through a stack of manuscripts, searching for that ever elusive entity: a great story, poem, or essay that, as John Milton put it, the world would not willingly let die. It was my fourth year as editor, and I assumed that I would serve in that post for six or seven years like my two predecessors. Perhaps three more years lay ahead of me, I thought, unaware that I would remain editor for thirty-two years altogether. Stories I had published in earlier issues had been reprinted in Best American Short Stories, 1979 and O. Henry Prize Stories, 1980. Authors I had welcomed into the journal included John Ashbery, Paul Bowles, Robert Hayden, Gayl Jones, Arthur Koestler, Joyce Carol Oates; the Spring 1981 issue would include, along with “Harmony of the World,” essays by Rudolf Arnheim, Alger Hiss, and Robert Scholes as well as an interview with, and new artwork by, Henry Miller. On that autumnal afternoon, as I opened the envelope from an author unknown to me, postmarked Ann Arbor, MQR was enjoying the success of its special oversize theme issue for that season, “The Automobile and American Culture.”

I was stunned by the long first paragraph of “Harmony of the World.” I set down the story and took a deep breath, thinking that if the rest of the story were this well written and as secure in its rhetorical structure, this narrative would fulfill Milton’s prescription for greatness. It would be read appreciatively a hundred years hence, just as in 1980 we read short fiction by Henry James and Stephen Crane, and poems by Emily Dickinson. The rest of the story did indeed impress me as being on that level. I reread it, unable to move on to other manuscripts. I took it away with me and dropped it off at the home of MQR’s Associate Editor, Ned Creeth, asking for a response that evening. He called a couple hours later and said, yes, it was the best story I had shown him in four years.

Baxter has spoken in interviews of what happened next. Astonished by the fact that he too lived in Ann Arbor, I called him that same evening and after identifying myself, I gasped, “Who are you? How could you live in Ann Arbor and write this well, and I don’t know who you are?” He explained that he taught at Wayne State and did not get around in local literary circles. In one interview, in Letters to a Fiction Writer, he remarks that it astonished him that anyone in the literary world would care who he was, and that he took heart from being corrected on that point: “He was a stranger, and yet he asked as if the answer might be worth knowing.”

By 1980 minimalism, of a radical or tonal kind, had become the mode of choice for young writers. We have by now absorbed the masterpieces of 1970s–1980s minimalism, just as young writers did in the 1920s when Sherwood Anderson and Ernest Hemingway artfully pared their sentences and paragraphs. Joan Didion, Donald Barthelme, and Raymond Carver are the neo-Hemingways of the era, masters of their craft. But every editor of the 1980s has compensatory anecdotes about the concurrent rise of “K-Mart Realism” as it quickly became known: the bland, identical landscapes and cityscapes, Anywhere USA, where characters with tough surfaces and few depths enacted rituals of conflict in condensed and generic popular narratives. The world was flattened and stripped of expository detail in the stories delivered to journals by the boxload, the fruit of creative writing courses promoting the new style.

“Harmony of the World” had other ambitions. The psyche of the narrator is immensely complex, and his relationship with his female counterpart—both steeped in erudition and sensitive to a fault—enormously complex. Objects have prominent presence in the story, as do the Ohio locales of old houses and wooded glades. Dramatic development is leisurely, detailed, without a word wasted. Baxter’s apprenticeship as a poet—he published two chapbooks in the 1970s—accounts for the music of the language and freshness of the imagery. The story is about music, and the rhythms of thought and speech become mesmerizing as we move through the plot toward its insightful and moving conclusion.

“Harmony of the World” is an ironic title derived from the narrator’s unhappy task of reviewing for the local newspaper a performance of Hindemith’s symphony of that name. As an aspiring pianist who was rudely rejected by a music teacher, he endures unremittingly a sense of humiliation for his failure to achieve professional status. His self-contempt puts him in a complex psychological bind when he begins a romantic relationship with a woman who aspires to be a singer of art songs. He becomes her accompanist and tutor as they drift closer together, each aware of the other’s pain. He understands that he is now in the position of his former instructor and his resentment of the singer clearly proceeds not just from her flawed singing style but from the self-reproach that torments him as he gradually senses how his trauma will inevitably drive the two of them apart. The film director Billy Wilder opined that the key question of any narrative about lovers is not “what brings them together” but “what keeps them apart.” Baxter fashions a plot in which the two questions work together for a unified effect. That the narrator feels compelled to tell this story of the broken harmony between two failed artists who cannot keep their shortcomings from ruining their happiness is a perfect illustration of the guilty conscience—a recurring motif in Baxter’s oeuvre. The long-simmering self-contempt that bursts forth in his ridicule of her toward the story’s conclusion accounts also for the remorseful self-knowledge he must carry with him to the end of his days.

Baxter’s signature story in anthologies, and the title of his book of selected short fiction, is “Gryphon,” a first-rate account of a schoolboy’s fascination with the fantastical monologues of a substitute teacher. I admire this text as much as anyone, yet I would rank “Harmony of the World” just above it in my personal canon of compelling tales.

To my ear and mind, “Harmony of the World” sets the standard for short fiction, not least for Baxter’s own fiction, where literary effects from this story are recreated in some of his finest later stories and novels. The strains of Keats’s ballad “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” muted but audible in this story, are elaborated in later work, such as the story “The Disappeared,” also published in MQR, and more than one work in his latest collection, There’s Something I Want You To Do. Inventiveness in dialogue, sensitivity to the contours of thought and feeling between people rooted in a shared vocation, and more than anything, the shaping of sentences and paragraphs into elegant verbal objects redolent of human understanding (and occasionally of laugh-out-loud humor)—these are some of the admirable traits I first noticed in “Harmony of the World” and which impress me in all of Baxter’s work.

Photo by Keri Pickett for the New York Times.

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This excerpt is featured content from the Tribute to Charles Baxter

in our Fall 2015 issue

For ordering information or to find out more about the contents of this issue, click here.

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