Illustrations for William Maxwell's "Improvisations"

February 22, 2010

My favorite of William Maxwell's "Improvisations" is "The Industrious Tailor," which tells the story of a master tailor so dedicated to his work—the making of waistcoats and vests and knee breeches—that he loses the present moment entirely. Just stops occupying it to live exclusively in the past, which was "full of accomplishment," and the future, "when things would have to be done." But one day the tailor loses these as well, and suddenly finds himself in the middle of a magical woods, a sun-filled metaphor for death. For one day and one night, the tailor wanders these woods, seeking the path that will lead him back to the world he left behind, but he goes in circles. It is only when he comes across a woman and her child, and holds the newborn baby to him, and feels "the head wobble against his neck, and the down on the baby's head, softer than any material in his shop," that the transport back to his life is possible. All of a suddenly, the tailor finds himself back in his little shop, only he is really there now. As he sews, he listens to the world around him, "smiling to himself at what he heard, until his wife called him to supper."

I've been working for years on an on-and-off project of making illustrations for Maxwell's "Improvisations." These are two I've made for "The Industrious Tailor" :

"'I don't see why this should happen to me,' he said,
and from the depths of the wood a voice said, 

'To who?' . . . but it was only an owl"

"he studied the beautiful sound of footsteps 
approaching and receding,
so like a piece of music"