Stewart O’Nan revisits the Maxwell family from Wish You Were Here and Emily, Alone - this time focusing on Henry's struggles | Literary Arts | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Stewart O’Nan revisits the Maxwell family from Wish You Were Here and Emily, Alone - this time focusing on Henry's struggles

Stewart O’Nan revisits the Maxwell family from Wish You Were Here and Emily, Alone - this time focusing on Henry's struggles
Beth Navarro
Stewart O’Nan

Readers were first introduced to the Pittsburgh-based Maxwell family in Stewart O'Nan's 2002 novel Wish You Were Here. He checked back in with the widowed Emily Maxwell in 2011's Emily Alone. And now O'Nan revisits the family once more with his new novel, Henry, Himself.  

“I was just thinking, ‘What’s the next project?’” says the Regent Square-based author and Pittsburgh native. “What story do I know that I haven’t told?”

That’s when Henry Maxwell re-appeared. The husband of Emily Maxwell, Henry is a World War II veteran, 75 years old when the story takes place in 1998. Henry suffers from the normal aches and pains that come with aging. He worries about finances to the point that he becomes flustered when he brings the wrong coupon to a store, even though the family is relatively well off. He attends church every Sunday, but often loses track of the other days of the week.

But Henry’s preoccupation with the mundane doesn’t obscure his extraordinary character, which O’Nan gradually reveals.

“What was he supposed to be?” says O'Nan. “As an American man in the mid-20th century, what were his privileges, what were his obligations, what were the responsibilities that he felt? So, it became a book that was a life story. Emily’s was a life story, and I thought Henry’s story would be a bookend to it.”

O’Nan’s nuanced portrayal slowly emerges over the course of 370 pages, Henry a reluctant subject. Like so many men of his era, especially veterans, Henry is reticent to talk about himself or his feelings, and often reverts to a childhood preoccupation.

“In everything that he does, Henry hides away,” O’Nan says. “He hides away from his children; he hides away from Emily. Even as a child, that was his favorite thing, to hide. He’s very private, and I think that’s true with that generation of men.”

What also emerges is an entirely different portrait of Emily. In Emily, Alone, devastated by her husband’s death, a softer side of her personality appeared.

But the Emily readers meet in Henry, Himself is feistier, more prone to confrontation, even a bit prickly, at least through Henry’s eyes. “I have to be totally true to Henry and the way Henry sees the world,” O’Nan says. “Henry has the same soft spots and the same resentments for someone who he’s been with for 48 years. They’ve learned to abide with each other. Of course, they have their own problems too. It's the story of a marriage, and we learn the most important things: How they met and how they courted and how they came together and what they think of each other. And now they’re with each other almost all the time.”

Henry, Himself has a wistful, at times nostalgic, quality. O’Nan colors the narrative with references to former Pittsburgh institutions: the Tin Angel, Three Rivers Stadium, Pirates catcher Jason Kendall, and Steelers’ quarterback Kordell Stewart.

But these details are just background. “There’s always a push to find that story that hasn’t been told,” O’Nan says. “At one point I wrote a piece for a newspaper about that idea of what [President Richard] Nixon and Nixon’s handlers called the 'silent majority' in America. And Henry definitely fits that idea of a silent majority. He would never raise his voice, and certainly not about anything political. And yet, he represents a lot of what America is, and still is. I don’t think it’s changed that much in generations. Looking at myself and my father, if we are the templates for what Henry is throughout his life, I see the same things in myself, and the same things in my father, in Henry and his father. I see a lot of that same attitude towards life.”

Between the Lines

The 2019-2020 season of Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures Ten Evenings series features a mix of revered writers and new voices, fabulous storytellers, and incisive commentator.

The lineup:

Sept. 23, 2019 — Sigrid Nunez, winner of the 2018 National Book Award for The Friend, a story of a bond between a woman and her dog.

Oct. 14, 2019 — Ibram X. Kendi, author of the forthcoming How to Be an Antiracist.  Kendi won a 2016 National Book Award in nonfiction for Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.

Oct. 28, 2019 — Doris Kearns Goodwin, 1995 Pulitzer Prize winner for No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II, and other history books including Team of Rivals and The Bully Pulpit.

Nov. 11, 2019 — Madeline Miller, dramaturge and classic scholar, author of Circe, a feminist retelling of The Odyssey.

Nov. 25, 2019 — Religious scholar Reza Aslan, author of In God: A Human History, which explores the history of religion by giving God human traits and emotions.

Dec. 9, 2019 — Richard Powers, 2006 National Book Award winner for fiction for The Echo Maker. His latest novel, The Overstory, is cast as a concentric ring of fables from antebellum New York to the Pacific Northwest in the 20th century.

Jan. 20, 2020 — Carmen Maria Machado, author of the short-story collection Her Body and Other Parties, and the memoir In the Dream House, about abuse in queer relationships.

Feb. 10, 2020 — Tommy Orange, whose debut novel, There There, about urban Native Americans, was one of 2018 breakout books.

March 9, 2020 — Esi Edugyan, author of Washington Black, the story of a slave born in Barbados whose journeys take him to Virginia, the Arctic, London, and Morocco.

April 6, 2020 — Michael Ondaatje, the revered novelist of The English Patient and Anil’s Ghost.  His latest novel, 2018’s Warlight, follows two children in post-World War II London after their parents are called away.

For the full lineup, call 412-622-8866 or visit