Review: The Folded Leaf by William Maxwell

Set in 1920s Chicago, The Folded Leaf follows two very different boys who find themselves forming an unlikely friendship. Lymie is thin, clever and terrible at sport. Spud is athletic and quick to fight and blithely accepts Lymie’s passionate devotion to him. The bond between them is obsessively close, until they leave home for college and both find themselves drawn to their new classmate, Sally.

Review by Erastes

This book was published in 1945, so it’s particularly “coded” in such a way that it can be read without some people noticing the homosexual sub-text. I think perhaps that if the ending had been more upbeat in the way The Charioteer had been written then it would be as popular as that book because it’s certainly written as beautifully and to read it is to truly immerse yourself in the high school and university life of 1920’s America with the coon skin coats, letterman sweaters and the heady importance of who you knew against what you knew. However, these aren’t grown men able to do what they like with their lives, and they aren’t in England. They are 19 year old American schoolboys in 1920 smalltown America.

I think I’d have to disagree with the blurb, though. I didn’t see any indication that Lymie was attracted to Sally at any point. They liked each other extremely well, but it is Spud’s misinterpretation of Lymie’s friendship with her that causes the conflict, not any realistic attraction at all.

Are Lymie and Spud homosexual? I think possibly, yes. I would say that Spud shows bisexual tendencies and Lymie homosexual. In today’s frat houses I think that they would–as they are sleeping together in The Folded Leaf, and always sleep touching in a sweet innocent fashion–take their relationship to another level. I got the impression from the story that neither boy ever had any suspicions as to what their deep feelings really meant. Even when Lymie longs to touch Spud, I felt it was more of an adoration of a body of a type that he could never hope to have, for he himself is an entirely different body shape, rather than any sexual desire.

Very often, looking at Spud, he felt the desire which he sometimes had looking at statues–to put out his hand and touch some part of Spud, the intricate interlaced muscles of his side, or his shoulder blades, or his back, or his flat stomach, or the veins of his wrists, or his small pointed ears.

The affection is clear between them both, but stronger from Lymie to Spud. Spud inhabits a much more physical world than Lymie; he boxes, he swims–does all sport well, while Lymie’s skills are cerebral and Spud takes Lymie for granted, while always wanting him in his life. I think that others see their relationship a little more clearly than they do themselves, notably the effeminate landlord (there’s always one!) and Spud’s own family, who, until Sally is brought home to meet them, had been entirely accepting of Lymie’s place in Spud’s life.

The crisis comes when a mutual acquaintance tells Lymie (and it’s never acknowledged as to whether it’s a true tale he tells) that Spud hates Lymie because of Sally’s friendship. Sensitive Lymie feels entirely betrayed and takes matters into his hands. Thankfully the book doesn’t end with tragedy (and I think for the sake of readers of this blog I’ll be forgiven for spoiling this much) but still, the author writes the only ending that would have been accepted in 1945, after giving us one of the most memorable scenes in the book.

If you liked The Charioteer, you’ll definitely like this, because it has much in common with its themes and has beautiful prose–and as a piece of homosexual history, I’d think it definitely rates a read from anyone interested in America at this time.

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7 Responses

  1. Nice piece, I will get a copy of that book when I get home to my trusted computer.

  2. Where do you dig these up? Incredible how much coded pre-stonewall stuff there is out there.

  3. Hi Helen, nice to see you, and I hope you enjoy it!

    Thanks, Mark – at the moment I’m just wading through The List (although my library lets me down 4 times out of ten) but when I was setting The List up, I scoured Amazon for everything that had any tags for gay or historical – I’m sure there will be more yet to be discovered.

  4. Just finished “The Folded Leaf” and was mystified by the cover blurb written at time of first publication. It bore little resemblance to the story I read, carefully skirting the homosexual feelings expressed so clearly in the novel. I found no convincing evidence that Lymie was “in love” with Sally and plenty to suggest that he desired Spud. The ending – Hope Davison waiting in the wings – seemed tacked on and false. It is an interesting contrast to “Brokeback Mountain” which is honest and compassionate about the relationship it describes and strikes a truer note.

  5. I agree with Carol that the ending seems false. I interpreted the ending as suggesting that Lymie would put aside the ‘follies’ of his childhood and find a future in a conventional heterosexual relationship with Hope (symbolically named). But as a gay man myself that seems to be a cop out. No doubt Maxwell felt himself to be constrained by the oppressive conventions of the society in which he wrote, and was unable or unwilling to challenge that oppression by presenting a future for Lymie in which he honestly accepted and continued to live the realities of his personality. But that seems to me to be a weakness of the book (which I agree is beautiful, poignant, and a true work of art) and a moral failure on the part of Maxwell.

    I remember ‘Despised and Rejected’ (Christina Rossetti) which also deals with oppression, but rises to the challenge with authenticy (at the price of being banned in Britain). Mary Renault’s ‘Charioteer’ also seems more honest in this regard. Reading the Leaf suggested a strange parallel with Huck Finn. As Twain wants Jim to achieve his freedom, so Maxwell wants to assert the possibility and beauty of homosexual (or at least homophilic) love, but in neither case is the author prepared to challenge the oppressive society in which they live and write, and which denies the possibility of these things. Jim is not freed by escaping to the north, but is legally manumitted in the widow’s will, while Lymie ‘grows out of’ his homosexual phase and miraculously becomes ‘normal’. Both seem to be inadequate critiques of oppression, which I would prefer to see being challenged and resisted. I do not understand the frame of mind which wants to write about oppression without challenging it in anything more than a lilly-livered way.

    A friend with whom I discussed the book saw Lymie’s future as being a bachelor academic like the characters in the book with whom he is compared, so other interpretations can be argued for.

  6. To my mind, the comparable novel of the period is not Charioteer, which I much admire, but Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar. Clearly Maxwell, a New Yorker editor, did not want to write that sort of trope-y tragic ending, and probably figured the unmistakeable subtext in Leaf was as much as he could get away with.

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