It’s not unusual for Yalies to read texts written by their professors. But only a few can attest to hearing their professors’ yet-to-be-published manuscript about a Soviet delegation’s visit to 1950s California.
In the cramped Comparative Literature library on the eighth floor of Bingham Hall, approximately 60 guests — mostly comparative literature faculty and students — gathered to hear excerpts from the unpublished, unfinished manuscript of comparative literature professor Richard Maxwell’s latest work, “Demonstration House,” a fictional account of a Cold War showdown in mid-century Los Angeles.
Fifteen people close to Maxwell — including comparative literature faculty, Maxwell’s 11-year-old son Alexander, and Maxwell’s father, R.C. Maxwell — read excerpts from the piece as the author sat in the audience, listening. The unique group presentation was designed to reflect the oral nature of the work’s creative process: the piece was dictated by Maxwell to his wife, Katie Trumpener, who is also a comparative literature professor, over a five-week period of nightly half-hour sessions. Maxwell, who was diagnosed late last year with cancer, had been undergoing treatment at the time, and his hands were paralyzed, keeping him from typing the work as he normally would. When he returned home from the hospital late last year, he took the opportunity to record the story he had been weaving in his head.
“The work would have probably been written over a period of a couple of years,” Trumpener said. “But it all just poured out of him. Sometimes I felt like he was Scheherazade.”
The narrative depicts a visit by a Soviet delegation to the house of anti-fascist activist and writer during the Reagan administration. The novella unravels three plot strands — one following the delegation, the second profiling former president Ronald Reagan and the third follows a script writer for Reagan’s television shows — all situated in Maxwell’s hometown, Los Angeles, where all of these characters really lived half a century ago. This is Maxwell’s first piece of fiction since his time in high school, Trumpener said.
“I had no idea what he was doing with this research,” said Rossen Djagalov GRD ’10, who translated Russian documents to English for Maxwell last November, when he said he still thought Maxwell was working on a nonfiction book or an essay. But Djagalov added that he finds the end product “astonishing.”
“This is what literature should be doing,” Rossen said.
The piece now exists as a full draft, at approximately 150 pages, all transcribed from dictation, Trumpener said.
“What a scandal,” Moira Fradinger GRD ’03, a comparative literature professor who read two excerpts at the reading, chided upon hearing the current page count. “Who’s going to publish it? You know they say you have to stop at 350 nowadays.”
But Maxwell said he isn’t planning on adding much to the work. Instead, he said he was going to work on finding ways to pare down and clarify his draft. Meanwhile, he already has ideas for future books, perhaps other works of fiction, which developed during his research of “Demonstration House.”
Sitting at the head of the room, as guests came up to congratulate him, Maxwell smiled and said he was happy with the presentation of his work. Meanwhile the dozens of guests greeting him said they were impressed by the work presented.
Maxwell taught “World Performance and Poetry,” “Introduction to Narrative,” “Stories of the Strange” and a literature section of Directed Studies last year.