Pamela Benson -'76
Charles Baxter -'74
Seymour Gitin -'56
Alan Zweibel -'72
Dave Dealney -'77
Jackie Felix -'81
James O. Horton -'64
Charles Baxter, Ph.D. 1974
His blue eyes dancing with a smile, Charles Baxter looks like he should be in heaven.
But as a storyteller, Baxter much prefers hell. "Paradise is not a story," he writes in his new book, Burning Down the House, a collection of essays about fiction. "It's about what happens when the stories are over."
For Baxter-whose fiction has been compared with that of William Trevor, Alice Munro, John Cheever and Anton Chekhov-some of the stories are just beginning. With eight books published and two poised for re-release, he is quite possibly the best-known fiction writer to have graduated from UB, where he earned a Ph.D. in English in 1974. In May of this year, he received an Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters during a New York City ceremony.
From his years in Buffalo, Baxter remembers the little things: A job-hunting suit he bought at Kleinhans, a professor's spooky house, spring blossoms in Delaware Park. But he also remembers the big things: lively debates, intellectual confidence, and nurturing professors who cared about his future.
On a recent morning, Baxter reflected on all this as he relaxed in Ann Arbor, where he directs the M.F.A. program at the University of Michigan. In the writing room over his garage, his telephone was alive with news of favorable reviews of his latest books: Believers, a collection of short stories and a novella; and Burning Down the House.
Although Baxter's advanced degree is from Buffalo, his writing focuses on his native Midwest, often on the semirural, imaginary town of Five Oaks, Michigan. Steadily, Baxter has spun tales about the mostly small-town, small-time lives of teachers, salesmen, students, dropouts-even an astrophysicist.
Like his earlier works, Believers shimmers with such characters as they move through stories that seem oddly familiar, yet somehow are deeply illuminating. In "Flood Show," a small town watches a river rise. In "The Cures for Love," a brokenhearted classics scholar in Chicago takes a bus to O'Hare Airport, finding solace in Ovid.
In the novella, Baxter writes "about the articles of faith you must have to get out of bed in the morning. And I wanted to write about the tendency of Americans in the Midwest to get fanatical." The story traces the journey of Father Pielke, a Michigan priest, to Germany during the late 1930s.
For Baxter, writing such stories is more than his life's work-it is a vital part of the human experience. "We understand our lives in terms of stories," he says.
The story of Baxter's own life reads like a novel: A bright, strong-willed young man has a consuming desire to write, but must struggle to find a voice that will be widely appreciated.
Baxter was born in Minneapolis in 1947. His father, John, died when he was 18 months old. He says that Father Pielke was his effort "to reconstruct a father I did not have." When Baxter's mother, Mary, remarried, the family went to live on a 40-acre estate. At prep school Baxter was groomed for Williams College, but he chose Macalester College, a small liberal arts school in St. Paul, Minnesota. After graduating, he taught fourth grade in Pinconning, Michigan, on an occupational deferment from the draft.
Planning to become a professor and a writer, Baxter applied to UB, which he considered one of the best Ph.D. programs in the country. He was drawn by what he saw as a critical mass of luminaries in the English department-which included John Barth, Donald Barthelme, Mac Hammond, Robert Hass, Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, John Logan, and others. "It seemed like a wildly energetic and exciting place to be," Baxter recalls. "It seemed to have more going on than other places that were more famous."
During the late '60s, "there were poetry readings every night in Buffalo, many of them in the bars," recalls Carl Dennis, a poet and UB professor of English who was in a poetry-writing group with Baxter. He recalls young Baxter as "very quiet, somewhat shy, and as far as I knew, only a poet."
In classes, Baxter worked hard, at first thinking he wanted to specialize in Elizabethan poetry, but ultimately turning to modern fiction. Along the way, he impressed UB English professor Arthur Efron, who now teaches Baxter's books in his classes. "Charlie has the kind of discipline and integrity it takes to be a good writer," Efron says. "For him, words and expressions have great moral meaning. He doesn't mess around with them."
For his doctoral exam, Baxter visited that "spooky" Buffalo home, a place that became the inspiration for the house in Baxter's 1987 novel, First Light. The book, which moves backward through time, is about the relationship between car salesman Hugh Welch and his sister, Dorsey, an astrophysicist. Baxter's ability to combine an unusual narrative structure with rich characterization resulted in "a remarkably supple novel that gleams with the smoky chiaroscuro of familial love recalled through time," reviewer Michiko Kakutani wrote in the New York Times.
Throughout graduate school at UB, Baxter was exposed to intellectual debate. "New ideas had a shelf life of about five days," he says. "I left that department feeling I wasn't afraid of an idea."
Looking back, he recalls with gratitude the nurturing attitudes of his professors. "They were people who I felt really cared about me, and who would do everything they could to help you find your way. That made all the difference." Baxter is often credited with passing the same type of generosity on to his students at the University of Michigan today.
Despite the nurturing at Buffalo, it wasn't easy for Baxter to break into the publishing world. A Buffalo connection helped land him a teaching job at Wayne State University in Detroit. But his short stories-which he had begun writing in earnest after deciding that he didn't want to be a poet-seemed to be going nowhere. For about ten years he was in limbo, producing "some wildly lyrical stuff. I learned it is fantastically difficult to write a good story," he says. As a final effort, he penned Harmony of the World, a collection of short stories that proved his breakthrough into "Midwestern realism."
"I struggled for years to get my foothold as a writer," Baxter says. He believes that an M.F.A. program like the ones that have been established across the country over the past ten years-including the one he now directs-might have helped him more quickly solve problems in his writing.
Today, as his latest books garner lavish praise, none of that seems to matter. The key question seems to be how Baxter, who lives with his wife, Martha, a teacher, and their teenage son, Daniel, will keep his low-key humility and generous respect for others. "It's not that hard to keep your perspective when you have friends and family to take you down a peg," Baxter says, smiling.
Anne Valentine Martino is a freelance writer based in Ypsilanti, Michigan.