Baxter, Charles (Morley) 1947-
BAXTER, Charles (Morley) 1947-
PERSONAL: Born May 13, 1947, in Minneapolis, MN; son of John Thomas and Mary Barber (Eaton) Baxter; married Martha Ann Hauser (a teacher), July 12, 1976; children: Daniel John. Education: Macalester College, B.A., 1969; State University of New York at Buffalo, Ph.D., 1974.
ADDRESSES: Home—Minneapolis, MN. Office—Department of English, University of Minnesota, 210G Lind Hall, 207 Church St. SE, Minneapolis, MN 55455. E-mail—[email protected]
CAREER: High school teacher in Pinconning, MI, 1969-70; Wayne State University, Detroit, MI, assistant professor, 1974-79, associate professor, 1979-85, professor of English, 1985-89; Warren Wilson College, faculty member, beginning 1986; University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, visiting faculty member, 1987, professor of English, 1989-99, adjunct professor of creative writing, 1999-2003; University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Edelstein-Keller Senior Fellow in Creative Writing, 2003—.
AWARDS, HONORS: Faculty research fellowship, Wayne State University, 1980-81; Lawrence Foundation Award, 1982, and Associated Writing Programs Award Series in Short Fiction, 1984, both for Harmony of the World; National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1983, Michigan Council for the Arts fellowship, 1984; Faculty Recognition Award, Wayne State University, 1985 and 1987; Guggenheim fellowship, 1985-86; Michigan Council of the Arts grant, 1986; Arts Foundation of Michigan Award, 1991; Lawrence Foundation Award, 1991; Reader's Digest Foundation fellowship, 1992; Michigan Author of the Year Award, Michigan Foundation, 1994; Harvard Review Award and O. Henry Prize, both 1995; Award in Literature, American Academy of Arts and Letters, 1997; finalist, National Book Award in Fiction, 2000, for The Feast of Love.
Chameleon (poetry), illustrated by Mary E. Miner, New Rivers Press (New York, NY), 1970.
The South Dakota Guidebook, New Rivers Press (New York, NY), 1974.
Harmony of the World (short stories), University of Missouri Press (Columbia, MO), 1984.
Through the Safety Net (short stories), Viking (New York, NY), 1985.
First Light (novel), Viking (New York, NY), 1987.
Imaginary Paintings and Other Poems, Paris Review Editions (Latham, NY), 1990.
A Relative Stranger (short stories), Norton (New York, NY), 1990.
Shadow Play (novel), Norton (New York, NY), 1993.
Believers (short stories and novella), Pantheon (New York, NY), 1997.
Burning down the House: Essays on Fiction, Graywolf Press (St. Paul, MN), 1997.
(Editor) The Business of Memory: The Art of Remembering in an Age of Forgetting, Graywolf Press (St. Paul, MN), 1999.
The Feast of Love (novel), Pantheon (New York, NY), 2000.
Saul and Patsy (novel), Pantheon (New York, NY), 2003.
(Editor, with Edward Hirsch and Michael Collier) A William Maxwell Portrait: Memories and Appreciations, Norton (New York, NY), 2004.
Poems have been featured in numerous anthologies, including The Fifth Annual Best Science Fiction, edited by Harry Harrison and Brian Aldiss, Putnam (New York, NY), 1972; Toward Winter, edited by Robert Bonazzi, New Rivers Press (New York, NY), 1972; The Pushcart Prize Anthology XVI, Pushcart Press (Wainscott, NY), 1991; and Best American Short Stories, 1982, 1986, 1987, 1989, and 1991. Contributor to periodicals, including Minnesota Review, Kayak, Prairie Schooner, Antioch Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Georgia Review, New England Review, Centennial Review, New York Times, and Journal of Modern Literature. Associate editor, Minnesota Review, 1967-69, and Criticism; editor of Audit/Poetry, 1973-74.
Baxter's works have been translated into Japanese, Swedish, German, Russian, Romanian, French, Spanish, Catalan, Italian, Portugese, and Chinese.
SIDELIGHTS: Charles Baxter initially caught critics' attention with his poetry and criticism, but it is the graceful prose and human understanding of his short stories and novels that have gained him entry into the pantheon of leading American writers of the twentieth century. In the words of Chuck Wachtel in Nation, "Baxter is a remarkable storyteller" who, in each new book, "has offered his readers an increasingly significant, humane and populous reflection, one in which we keep finding things we have sensed the presence of but have not before seen." Another Nation critic, Theodore Solotaroff, noted that Baxter "has the special gift of capturing the shadow of genuine significance as it flits across the face of the ordinary." Baxter's sharply drawn, unique characters—one of his hallmarks—elicited praise from Jonathan Yardley in the Washington Post Book World: "Unlike so many other young American writers . . . Baxter cares about his people, recognizes the validity and dignity of their lives, grants them humor and individuality."
Born in Minnesota and a longtime resident of Michigan, Baxter has created a fictional world that embraces the Midwest. As a reviewer for Ploughshares explained, the author portrays "in luminous, precise language, solid Midwestern citizens, many of whom reside in the fictional town of Five Oaks, Michigan, whose orderly lives are disrupted, frequently by an accident or incident or a stranger." The reviewer added: "The limits of geography tend to elicit introspection, and when even a small calamity befalls Baxter's characters, they brood over surprisingly large issues of morality and theodicy, grappling with good and evil and the mysteriousness of existence."
Baxter's first volume of short stories, Harmony of the World, includes the award-winning title story as well as several others. "Harmony of the World," originally published in the Michigan Quarterly Review, is about a young pianist who decides to become a newspaper critic after one of his performances elicits a particularly scathing review from a music teacher. His affair with a somewhat untalented singer and the events that bring both of their lives to a crisis are the means through which Baxter explores "the ache of yearning for perfection, in love and art, a perfection human beings can never attain, however close they come to apprehending it," to quote Laurence Goldstein in the Ann Arbor News. Goldstein praised Baxter for the "imaginative sympathy and marvelous craft" of his short stories, a view shared by Peter Ross of the Detroit News: "There are no weak spots in Harmony of the World, no falterings of craft or insight. Baxter's influences are many and subtle, but his voice is his own and firmly in control. . . . Harmony of the World is a serious collection by a serious writer; it deserves as much attention, study and praise as anything being written today."
Baxter's second collection of short stories, Through the Safety Net, was published just one year after Harmony of the World and was received with great enthusiasm by critics. "It's a nice surprise that a second collection is so speedily upon us and that it improves on the first," wrote Ron Hansen in the New York Times Book Review. Through the Safety Net is an exploration of the inevitable perils of everyday life. Baxter's characters—among them an unsuccessful graduate student, a five-year-old boy trying to understand his grandmother's death, and a spurned lover who becomes obsessed with the object of his desire—spend their energies trying to escape pain and loss, but inevitably fail. In the title story, Diana visits a psychic only to be told that she is headed for a great calamity. "What kind? The Book of Job kind," the psychic tells her. "I saw your whole life, your house, car, that swimming pool you put in last summer, the career, your child, and the whole future just start to radiate with this ugly black flame from the inside, poof, and then I saw you falling, like at the circus, down from the trapeze. Whoops, and down, and then down through the safety net. Through the ground." In another narrative, a psychopath, lamenting his lack of fame, remarks: "If you are not famous in America, you are considered a mistake. They suspend you in negative air and give you bad jobs working in basements pushing mops from eight at night until four in the morning."
Yardley characterized the people in Baxter's stories as individuals without purpose, "amiably retreating from life's challenges . . . though the forms of their retreats and the motives for them vary." A Publishers Weekly reviewer found the stories "flawed by a fondness for excessive detail, implausible turns and mere trickiness," but conceded that they contained "bright flashes of unmistakable talent." Baxter's careful attention to detail was praised by a New York Times critic: "An extraordinarily limber writer, Mr. Baxter makes his characters' fears palpable to the reader by slowly drawing us into their day-to-day routine and making us see things through their eyes." The stories in Through the Safety Net, concluded Hansen, are "intelligent, original, gracefully written, always moving, frequently funny and—that rarest of compliments—wise."
When Baxter's first novel, First Light, was published in 1987, it immediately garnered praise for its unique structure. Prefaced by a quote from Danish philosopher Sören Kierkegaard—"Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards"—the novel presents events in reverse chronological order. Thus, each chapter is a step further back into the past of the characters. At the outset of First Light, Hugh Welch and his sister Dorsey are uneasy adults reunited for a Fourth of July celebration. Their strained, distant relationship is clearly a source of anguish to them both. As the novel progresses, Hugh and Dorsey become younger and younger, and the many layers of their life-long bond are slowly uncovered. "We see their youth and childhoods revealed, like rapidly turning pages in a snapshot album," observed Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times. By the time the novel ends, Hugh is a young child being introduced to his newborn baby sister. "In reading of these events," Kakutani wrote, "we see why Dorsey and Hugh each made the choices they did, how their childhood dreams were translated into adult decisions." The combination of Baxter's unique narrative structure and fine characterization results in "a remarkably supple novel that gleams with the smoky chiaroscuro of familial love recalled through time," concluded Kakutani.
Although First Light was Baxter's first published novel, it was not his first attempt at the novel form. His first three novels, he remarked in the New York Times, are "apprentice" efforts he would never consider publishing. "I did take a brief episode out of one of them but, for the most part, I can't stand to look at them now, so I wouldn't want anyone else to." Describing the structure of First Light, he commented: "The technique resembles those little Russian dolls that fit into each other—you open them up and they keep getting smaller and smaller. What I am trying to say is that grownups don't stop being the people they were many years before, in childhood."
Baxter's 1990 collection of short stories, A Relative Stranger, features characters "constantly having odd encounters with strangers that disrupt their quiet, humdrum lives and send them skidding in unexpected new directions," Kakutani stated in a New York Times review. In one story, a man's attempt to help an insane, homeless man sparks the jealousy of his wife and son. In another, a woman who is secretly in love with her husband's best friend develops an irrational fear of burglars. Describing the couple's suburban home as one of many "little rectangular temples of light," the friend scoffs at the wife's fear. "Nothing here but families and fireplaces and Duraflame logs and children of God," he tells the husband. "Not the sort of place," he continues, "where a married woman ought to be worried about prowlers."
Recommending A Relative Stranger in Nation, Theodore Solotaroff commented: "Baxter is well on his way to becoming the next master of the short story." A Relative Stranger was also praised by Kakutani: "All the stories in this collection attest to Mr. Baxter's ability to orchestrate the details of mundane day-to-day reality into surprising patterns of grace and revelation, his gentle but persuasive knack for finding and describing the fleeting moments that indelibly define a life. . . . We finish the book with the satisfaction of having been immersed in a beautifully rendered and fully imagined world."
Baxter's 1993 novel, Shadow Play, revolves around Wyatt Palmer, a man whose chaotic childhood has left him unable to deal with emotions. Instead, he focuses on maintaining a neatly ordered life with his understanding wife and two children. Wyatt's job as an assistant city manager leads him to cross paths with a former high school classmate interested in starting a chemical company in their economically depressed hometown. The former classmate, Jerry Schwartzwalder, asks Wyatt to bend the rules in order to help him launch his new company. In exchange for his cooperation, Jerry offers Wyatt's unstable foster brother, Cyril, a job at the plant. When Cyril shows signs of a fatal disease caused by exposure to toxins, Wyatt becomes enraged and vows to take revenge. According to New York Times Book Review contributor Lorrie Moore, Shadow Play is reminiscent of "The Lottery," by Shirley Jackson. Like Jackson's story, Baxter's novel "takes large themes of good and evil and primitive deal making, and situates them in municipal terms and local ritual. He is interested in those shadowy corners of civilization in which barbarity manages to nestle and thrive. The America of this book has become a kind of hell." Or, as Winston Groom, the author of Forrest Gump, put it in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, "Baxter has created a scenario in which alienation and anxiety are the norm, a kind of dubious universe where people are neither good nor evil but instead are driven by 20th-century pragmatism into a twilight zone of utter practicality."
In unfolding Wyatt's story of conflict in small-town America, Baxter brings to bear many of his talents as a storyteller. "To convey this sense of abandonment and emptiness without losing the reader is not easy," observed R. Z. Sheppard in Time. "Shadow Play could have turned into another clever existential dead end. But Baxter fills the void with a hundred human touches, a style as intimate as chamber music, and a hero who rouses himself to reject the banality that hoohah happens." A Publishers Weekly critic also drew a musical analogy to describe Baxter's command of style. The story of how Wyatt deals with his emotional handicaps is told in "language so carefully honed it sings." The reviewer continued that the author's "metaphors and apercus are striking and luminous, and several scenes—notably Wyatt and Cyril's final bonding—are unforgettable." Baxter's achievement, in the opinion of Lorrie Moore, is that "he has steadily taken beautiful and precise language and gone into the ordinary and secret places of people—their moral and emotional quandaries, their typically American circumstances, their burning intelligence, their negotiations with what is tapped, stunted, violent, sustaining, decent or miraculous in their lives."
Jane Smiley, writing in Chicago's Tribune Books, conceded the eloquence of Baxter's writing and the wisdom of his observations, but she found "Wyatt himself is something of a cipher, a blank at the center whose moral odyssey is less than compelling. . . . The very vividness" of the fictional characters' "eccentricities finally limits the broader appeal of their situation." Moore drew a different conclusion. She maintained that "one of Mr. Baxter's great strengths as a writer has always been his ability to capture the stranded inner lives of the Middle West's repressed eccentrics. And here, in his second novel, he is full throttle." For a contributor to the Yale Review, the situations represented in Shadow Play achieve broad appeal because they demonstrate that Baxter "has a feeling for nuance, for what's being said and not said, for the complexities of social class and social privilege, for the resonance of personal history, for how much we are the authors—and the products—of our experience." The reviewer continued: "He's not only generous to his characters, but compassionate, endlessly patient, and tolerant of their human frailties and flaws." Richard Locke concluded in the Wall Street Journal, "After a decade of so much play-it-safe fiction of photorealistic gloom, it's a pleasure to encounter a novel in the great tradition of American moral realism touched by shards of gnostic faith and glints of transcendental light."
While some reviewers hailed Shadow Play as the book that would thrust Baxter into the national literary limelight, Baxter himself refused to set such high expectations. "When First Light came out, I was full of the American Dream," he recalled in the Detroit News. "I thought the birds of money were going to land in a huge flock on the roof, and I'd be proclaimed from housetop to housetop. It was foolish, and that's what young writers are. . . . I'm trying not to get my hopes up. I worked on [Shadow Play] so long, I just want it to do well. I just want people to like it and to find it interesting and find it has some meaning to their lives."
Baxter published another collection of short stories, with a novella, in 1997. A Publishers Weekly reviewer described Believers as "ambitious and accomplished," adding that "the shorter works here tackle slippery themes and subjects—fleeting moments of truth; the ambiguities of daily life and the defenses through which ordinary men and women attempt to clarify them." These stories are "Michigan stories," commented Frederick Busch in the Los Angeles Times Book Review. "They occur in the lives of those with intelligence, leisure in which to use it, walls behind which they may retreat and time enough for contemplation." "The book's self-scrutinizers," Busch added, "those who believe and those who cannot . . . are the middle class in the middle of the nation." Like Baxter's readers, they often experience "failures of will, of nerve, of ethics, of feeling," Busch suggested. "But . . . they are like us in that their souls do not only sink: They strive to climb."
Believers "will remind us that [Baxter] is an exemplary writer because he works in persuasive solidities, in what is actual," concluded Busch. Chuck Wachtel offered greater praise in his Nation review. "Rarely . . . have I been stopped by what I read and moved so deeply as I was in the novella and stories that make up Believers. Baxter, a master craftsman, knows that craft is more than something to be good at."
Baxter's National Book Award-nominated The Feast of Love begins with a character—named Charles Baxter—whose chronic insomnia leads him to a deserted park bench in Ann Arbor, Michigan. It is there that the fictional Baxter encounters a neighbor named Bradley who offers his own life story of two marriages—and two divorces—as grist for a new novel. After initial resistance, Baxter delves into Bradley's past and present, where each of his former wives, as well as his coworkers, help to enlarge the emerging group portrait. "The Feast of Love is as precise, as empathetic, as luminous as any of Baxter's past work," declared Jacqueline Carey in the New York Times Book Review. "It is also rich, juicy, laugh-out-loud funny and completely engrossing." A Publishers Weekly critic felt that Baxter's particular gift in the novel "is to catch the exact pitch of a dozen voices in an astutely observed group of contemporary men and women." Carey also noted the old-fashioned sense of community underlying the work. "In The Feast of Love, Charles Baxter shows us the hard-won generosity of spirit that day-today dealings with other human beings require," she stated. "He builds a community right on the page before us, using a glittering eye, a silvery tongue—and just a little moonlight."
Similar to The Feast of Love, Saul and Patsy focuses on married life in the Midwest, in this case on a newlywed couple who settle in a small town and find themselves moth-balled in their comfortable, middleclass neighborhood. At least Saul, the Jewish, former city-dwelling husband, feels stifled, "shipwrecked in the plainspoken, poker-faced Midwest," explained Atlantic contributor James Marcus, although the critic was quick to add that the novel is also "a valentine to the Midwest, whose terrain the author describes with almost luminarist ardor." Calling Baxter "a master of the distributed plot, the deceptively looping situation that discloses its tensions gradually," Book critic Sven Birkerts praised the novel's depiction of the "inevitably mine-studded marital terrain" traversed by his transplanted couple as they negotiate the role of outsider. Praising Baxter's characters, which include a troubled, obsessive teen, and a plot that rises to a tense and tragic denouement, Booklist reviewer Donna Seaman dubbed Baxter's protagonists "magnetic, his humor incisive, his decipherment of the human psyche felicitous, and his command of the storyteller's magic absolute."
In addition to authoring fiction, Baxter has also served as editor of anthologies which focus on various aspects of the writing process. The Business of Memory: The Art of Remembering in an Age of Forgetting, for instance, explores the art of memoir and the process by which artists of all sorts recover and interpret memories. In Library Journal, Julia Burch wrote of the work: "These are self-conscious and beautifully written essays that deftly explore the act of memoir-making and the art of storytelling." A Publishers Weekly correspondent likewise found the essays "often engaging and occasionally quite inspired."
In both his short stories and novels, Baxter's exploration of his characters' inner desires and outward realities has struck a chord in critics and readers alike. "If there is a consistent theme in Baxter's work, it is the difficulty people have in accommodating themselves to a world that is complex, mysterious, and demanding, that offers rewards that glitter all the more brightly because so few attain them," Yardley summarized in the Washington Post Book World. "Whether he's writing about an overly self-conscious intellectual or an inarticulate street person," concluded Kakutani, "Mr. Baxter is able to map out their emotions persuasively and delineate the shape of their spiritual confusion." Praising the fluid beauty of the author's style, John Saari wrote in the Antioch Review: "Many writers today feel no depth of compassion for their characters. Baxter, in contrast, is adept at portraying his characters as human beings, even when some of them are not the best examples."
A self-described insomniac, Baxter also admitted in Ploughshares that he likes a routine and will sometimes fixate on even the slightest intrusions or variations from his schedule. Noting that he is "conscious of pattern-making" in his day-to-day life, the author added: "I think if you are somewhat compulsive or habitual in your ordinary life, it gives you some latitude to be wild in your creative work."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Baxter, Charles, Through the Safety Net, Viking (New York, NY), 1985.
Baxter, Charles, A Relative Stranger, Norton (New York, NY), 1990.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 45, 1987, Volume 78, 1993.
Contemporary Popular Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1997.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 130: American Short-Story Writers since World War II, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1993.
Ann Arbor News, May 16, 1982.
Antioch Review, fall, 1985, p. 498; summer, 1993, p. 465.
Atlantic, September, 2003, James Marcus, review of Saul and Patsy, p. 152.
Book, September-October, 2003, Sven Birkerts, review of Saul and Patsy, p. 74.
Booklist, April 15, 2000, Grace Fill, review of The Feast of Love, p. 1522; August, 2003, Donna Seaman, review of Saul and Patsy, p. 1924.
Detroit Free Press, December 23, 1992.
Detroit News, May 20, 1984; December 28, 1992, p. 1D.
Entertainment Weekly, September 12, 2003, Thom Geier, review of Saul and Patsy, p. 156.
Hudson Review, spring, 1991, p. 133.
Kirkus Reviews, July 1, 2003, review of Saul and Patsy, p. 869.
Library Journal, April 15, 1990, p. 96; December, 1992, p. 184; September 15, 1993, p. 136; May 1, 1999, Julia Burch, review of The Business of Memory: The Art of Remembering in an Age of Forgetting, p. 76; September 1, 2003, David W. Henderson, review of Saul and Patsy, p. 204.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, July 6, 1986, p. 10; December 6, 1987, p. 3; September 29, 1991; March 21, 1993, p. 5; March 30, 1997, p. 10.
Nation, December 30, 1991, p. 862; April 7, 1997, p. 33.
New England Review, summer, 1992, p. 234.
New York Times, June 26, 1985; August 24, 1987; September 7, 1987; September 4, 1990; September 29, 1991.
New York Times Book Review, August 25, 1985, p. 1; October 4, 1987, p. 18; October 23, 1988, p. 60; October 21, 1990, p. 18; February 14, 1993, p. 7; May 7, 2000, Jacqueline Carey, "The Ex Files."
People, February 1, 1993, p. 22; February 24, 1997, p. 65.
Ploughshares, fall, 1999, Don Lee, "About Charles Baxter: A Profile."
Publishers Weekly, May 24, 1985; October 19, 1992, p. 57; December 7, 1992, p. 45; February 24, 1997, p. 65; March 29, 1999, review of The Business of Memory: The Art of Remembering in an Age of Forgetting, p. 76; March 6, 2000, review of The Feast of Love, p. 79; July 28, 2003, review of Saul and Patsy, p. 76.
Southern Review, April, 1991, p. 465.
Time, September 7, 1987, p. 81; September 14, 1987; January 25, 1993, p. 70.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), January 17, 1993, p. 4.
Wall Street Journal, February 5, 1993, p. A9.
Washington Post Book World, July 10, 1985; January 17, 1993, p. 3.
Yale Review, July, 1993, p. 122.