Max Steele

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Date: Nov. 10, 2005
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Biography
Length: 1,684 words
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1180L

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About this Person
Born: March 30, 1922 in Greenville, South Carolina, United States
Died: August 01, 2005 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, United States
Nationality: American
Occupation: Novelist
Other Names: Steele, Henry Maxwell
Updated:Nov. 10, 2005
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Max Steele is essentially a short story writer and teacher of creative writers. His only novel, Debby, was well-received and a prize-winner in 1950, but his published fiction since that time has been in the short story form. Probably the most obvious characteristic of Steele's writing is his humor and wry wit. This does not mean he is less than serious in his fiction; in fact, his perceptions into the potential of the human spirit to survive and grow rivals that of the poet. It does mean that Steele presents the human comedy with such twists and turns that readers must re-examine values and take an inward look at themselves. Steele's readers observe the ordinary human being--children, adults, and elderly--with an indulgent smile and a recognition or remembrance of themselves. In a Harpers' review, Katherine Jackson called this "the lunatic logic that illuminates everything" in Steele's writing.

At the core of his stories is a single moment when the narrator reaches understanding, much as Henry James uses an instant of recognition as pivotal in his fiction. Steele's point of view, however, is from innocence--the perception of a child or the adult's remembered childhood. He asks his readers to recover their childlike perception when they were in possession of a sensibility they since may have lost. An example is the narrator of "The Cat and the Coffee Drinkers" (a story published as a book ostensibly for children). The boy narrator learns more than just how to drink coffee and how to kill a cat, as one review misreads the story. While he learns the love of reading, he learns about discipline, work, manners, respect, courage, and, most importantly, dignity. To Steele, these values define civilization, and the child learns them by observation rather than by lessons.

Steele's artistic eye transforms the scenes into language, freezing the crucial moment into a vivid and unforgettable one. Miss Effie, the boy's teacher, has shown the children how to kill a cat by chloroform, which she must do after her aging pet has been hit by a car and then mauled by dogs. The children at once understand both the cruelty of life and the necessity in life for courage and mercy. At the same time, they observe Miss Effie carry out the difficult task with the same expression and dignity with which she taught them to drink coffee--black for the pure pleasure of it and without sugar or cream to disguise it as nourishment. The honesty of her character comes across to the children without overly dramatic action or emotional expression as she sends them home early to say to their parents: "the only thing Miss Effie had to teach you today was how to kill a cat." The narrator's final sentence is his permanent image of Miss Effie, "of her coming through the garden from the toolshed and standing in the doorway a moment to say that she had nothing more to teach us."

Steele shows the defining experience of life to be a mixture of cruelty and death, analysis and understanding, caring and mercy. The young narrator learns life lessons from his observation of adults--their manner and expressions more than their actions and words. The story is a retrospective narrative in which a boy tells of his experiences as a pre-schooler in a selective kindergarten. Steele often uses the "unreliable" narrator, letting his protagonist reveal more than he realizes, while the reader, through dramatic irony, understands more than is said. Steele, however, goes further by implying that the narrator, himself, comprehends more than he is capable of articulating. His children's point of view is only surface to the deeper understanding the child has but cannot express. The adult reader (the audience Steele expects) understands not only because his language is refined, but because he recognizes his own inner child. This is the "A-ha!" of Steele's fiction.

In his essay "Speak, Painting, Speak," Steele reacts to a painting in the North Carolina Museum of Art. Noting that "we've learned from physics that the observer changes the thing observed," he suggests that maybe the work is "not a surface painting," that painting, like fiction, must be more than what really happened: "to have worth they must also tell in what way the creating of the scene informs or transforms the soul of the artist or writer." Elizabeth Easton, in a Saturday Review article, finds that his "stories are like scenes glimpsed from a moving train: situations that may lead to something, but one is never around to find out what. It isn't necessary; there is an odd sort of completeness to the fragment." The completeness in Steele's fiction is when memorable moments (fragments) work into a whole story for readers, evolving as they experience life.

The innocent who knows more than he can articulate is central to Steele's stories. If his plots and images sometimes seem surreal, as in "Hear the Wind Blow" with its woman producing an eight-pound blue egg, the reader has only to remember the child's acceptance of a goose laying a golden egg. Children's demarcation between reality and fantasy is blurred, and that blurred vision is essential to seeing clearly in Steele's work. He questions the realness of reality and the emptiness of life without imagination that strains the reality: the "observer changes the thing observed," according to physics, he reminds readers. His "Promiscuous Unbound," with its six-year-old protagonist's affair with his thirty-two-year-old neighbor, a lady of considerable charms named Mrs. Ludie Shaggs, is a play on the myth of Prometheus. A Titan bound by chains to a rock in punishment for bringing fire from the gods to mankind, Prometheus achieves freedom (is unbound) from Hercules. In Steele's story, the fire is of a different kind, but is, nonetheless, forbidden to the child. The tone is tongue-in-cheek, an extravagant comedy played out with Steele's humorous examination of the boundaries of life. He often pairs unlikely characters in his stories, juxtaposing their differing qualities so that the ensuing relationship may be examined, the eccentricities reevaluated. Steele's microscope focuses on the spaces between action and scene.

"A Caracole in Paris" and "The Wanton Troopers," his two stories about an American veteran of World War II living in Paris as an artist, reflect Steele's own experience living and studying art in Paris for five years after his war experiences. In the first story, two Americans from the South meet at a Paris cafe and become friends, but not in a definable relationship--lovers or siblings. One is tempted to believe that this story's seed is in Steele's experience in Paris described in "Speak, Painting, Speak," in which he says, "I spent hundreds of rainy afternoons. . . [by] Notre Dame near where lived a wise old woman analyst who was trying to help me make sense out of a deep sorrow and disorder. (A good enough definition of art itself.)" Here, again, the line between reality and fantasy is blurred; Steele asks readers to observe the quality of the relationship without articulating a definition.

His fictional style presents stories by skillful construction in vivid images and with little drama; the substance of the stories lies in the nebulous area of innocence meeting experience. The humor--sometimes wry, sometimes ribald, and often ironic--asks readers to reexamine their own definitions of life, to reevaluate from a child's perspective, observing life and learning from expression and manner.

Finally, Steele's fiction is imaginative, like the poet; focused, colorful (and sometimes surreal), like the artist; meditative, like the philosopher; and respectful of sacred values, like the theologian. His protagonists are like Alice in her Wonderland; they fall through the rabbit hole into a world of adults with absurd actions. Like Alice, his readers must step through the looking glass to find the inner child. From his own childhood during the Depression, Steele remembers an image of his mother standing in the doorway holding a silver pitcher of water with real ice, "to assure us that the Depression will soon be over, that soon there will be iced tea again." Steele's own memory blooms with these moments of "A-has!" that he carries over into his fiction, exhorting his readers to remember their own such moments.


Born: Henry Maxwell Steel in Greenville, South Carolina, 30 March 1922. Education: Furman University, 1939-41; University of North Carolina, 1942; Vanderbilt University, 1943-44, and University of California, Los Angeles, 1944, as meteorology cadet; University of North Carolina, B.A. 1946; graduate study in painting at the Academie Julienne, 1951, and in French literature and language, Sorbonne, University of Paris, 1952-54. Military Service: U. S. Air Force, Weather Wing, 1942-46. Family: Married Diana Whittinghill, 31 December 1960; two sons. Career: First published story appeared in Harper's, August 1944; advisory editor, Paris Review, 1952-54; lecturer, University of North Carolina, 1956-58, Breadloaf Writers Conference, 1956, University of California, San Francisco, 1962-64; University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, writer-in-residence, 1966-67, lecturer, 1967-68, associate professor, 1968-72, professor, 1972-88, director of creative writing program, 1968-88, and professor emeritus, 1988-present; director at Squaw Valley Writers Conference, 1970 and 1972, and Rollins Writers Conference, 1972. Awards: Harper Prize for Debby, 1950, Eugene F. Saxton Memorial Trust Award, 1950, Mayflower Cup Award, 1950; O. Henry Prize, 1955 and 1969; National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities grants, 1967 and 1970; D. Litt., Belmont Abbey, 1970; Standard Oil Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching, 1971; Distinguished Alumna Award, Furman University, 1971; North Carolina Literary Festival (invited participant), April 1998.



  • Debby. New York, Harper, 1950 .
  • The Goblins Must Go Barefoot ( Debby retitled). New York, Perennial Library, 1966 .
Children's Fiction
  • The Cat and the Coffee Drinkers. New York, Harper & Row, 1969 .
  • Where She Brushed Her Hair, and Other Short Stories. New York, Harper & Row, 1968 .
  • The Hat of My Mother. Chapel Hill, Algonquin Books, 1988 .
Uncollected Short Stories
  • "English 23a: A Paper Long Overdue." In An Apple for My Teacher, edited by Louis D. Rubin, Jr., Chapel Hill, Algonquin Books, 1987 .
  • "Speak, Painting, Speak." In The Store of Joys, edited by Huston Paschal, Winston-Salem, John F. Blair, 1997 .


Critical Studies

"More Misses Than Hits" by James Degnan, Kenyon Review, 30, 1968

"Explosion of Talent" interview with Marjorie Hudson, Carolina Alumni Review, Summer 1988

"Max Steele" by Jeanne R. Nostrandt, Southern Writers: A Biographical Dictionary edited by Robert Bain, Joseph M. Flora, and Louis D. Rubin, Jr., Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1979 .

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|K1633000208