By the time I took his class, Max Steele, as director, had built the University of North Carolina's creative writing department into one of the country's finest undergraduate programs. But it was his reputation as a teacher that drew me to his course. Max was a poker-face comic, and he spoke to our class of would-be writers in a careful, halting rhythm, which gave him an oddly intimidating air. He also was a bit of a mystery. He had published his first novel, Debby, at 26, and it had won the prestigious Harper Prize in 1950. But he never published another novel. In 1968, he published a collection of short stories, some of which had appeared in the New Yorker, the Paris Review and Harper's. But both books were long out of print. When we students talked about Max, understanding so little about the complex nature of adult life, we sometimes wondered why he simply hadn't written more.
Max helped us to look at literature with a writer's eye, to both appreciate and aspire for language in our writing that was precise and true. Once, a female classmate wrote a story from the point of view of a young man who, across from an apartment building, saw a naked woman for the first time. Max pointed out that he could tell it was written by a woman because she had not fully described the narrator's awe of the beautiful nakedness. How full were the woman's breasts? Max wondered out loud. How did they move? On the verge of giggling, we all nodded in agreement.
I felt particularly encouraged by Max's comments about my stories and by his gentle criticism, and by the end of the semester, I let myself believe that he held out some hope that I might become a writer. For many years after college, I spent my nights writing and sending out story after story, but I had little to show for my efforts. By then, I'd become thoroughly versed in Max's own stories. Not long after our class was over, he'd published a collection called The Hat of My Mother, and I was forever rereading it for inspiration. Max was a brilliant writer, often mining the disappointments and complexities of childhood and the disillusion of faded love (he and his wife had divorced, and quite a few of his stories dealt with the pain and anger of separation). As much as I thought about Max, I didn't stay in touch with him. I felt like I had let him down, that I hadn't, in the end, learned what he had tried to teach me.
Ten years after graduation, I got a job as an editor at a literary magazine called DoubleTake, and it was then that I worked up the nerve to get back in touch with Max. I sent him a photograph I had come across, in the hope that it might inspire him to write a short story for the magazine. In a week's time, he sent back a short gem that had all the hallmarks of his work: heartbreak, a character's haunting memories, but also some element of hopefulness. I knew that he was happy with it, and pleased for it to appear in a magazine that was read in New York literary circles. It wasn't that he had stopped writing
entirely, but when people spoke of Max's writing, it was usually about the short stories he had written so long ago.
In the years after, I published four more pieces by Max -- this time non-fiction -- in this magazine's pages, giving him a new audience of a million potential readers. He wrote about the time when, as a boy and frightened of his mother, he trapped her on the roof of his family's house; he wrote of trying to escape the difficulties of the first Christmas after his divorce by traveling to Ecuador, where the sight of a small boy brought back a painful childhood memory. He was 80 years old at this point, but his writing was as clear-eyed and poignant as ever. When his pieces were published, he heard from old students and proud colleagues eager to congratulate him, as well as new and appreciative readers. After one of the pieces appeared, he wrote, "David, it would be hard to tell you how you have opened the doors to the literary world for me after my twenty years of self-exile."
I would always be Max's student in a way, but a new dynamic had developed between us: Just as he had encouraged me as a student, I was now encouraging him as a writer, turning to him again and again. And, in exchange, he had given me his trust.
One week in August, I came into the office planning to call Max and see if we could get a new piece in the works. Before I had the chance, I received an e-mail from his son Oliver, which said in the subject field: Regarding Max Steele. I knew instinctively what the message was going to tell me. Max had died earlier that week.
Sitting there at my desk, my grief fanned out along several tracks. I had lost a profound mentor, a friend and a writer whom I thought the world of. I mourned for the stories he'd never write. And I was aware of this, too: I had run out of time to publish my own book and be able to thank him in the acknowledgments. I had, though, learned enough from Max so that I could, so many years later, be an editor -- his editor. And, between the two scenarios, that was simply the better story.
David Rowell is an editor for the Magazine.