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So Long, See You Tomorrow Teacher’s Guide

By William Maxwell

So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell



This guide is designed to help you in leading your students to explore the themes of coming-of-age and the psychological force of childhood memory in William Maxwell’s profound short novel So Long, See You Tomorrow. Maxwell, long one of America’s most distinguished authors, writes with an especial poignancy concerning the vulnerability and anguish of childhood and the difficult, often forced emergence into adulthood. His lyrical evocation of the persistence of childhood in memory and its continuing power to shape adult life is unmatched in contemporary letters.

The action of So Long, See You Tomorrow takes place in the early 1920s in Lincoln, Illinois, Maxwell’s hometown and a place he has returned to in his fiction many times. The story is related by an elderly man, looking back on certain unhappy events of his childhood and hoping to come to terms with his guilt about his own behavior. The narrator’s mother died in the 1918 influenza epidemic, when he was a child; his father, after a long period of intense grief, remarried and settled down, but the child never fully recovered. Maxwell weaves this story with that of his playmate Cletus Smith, a tenant farmer’s child from the nearby countryside. The Smiths and their nearest neighbors, the Wilsons, are best friends until Lloyd Wilson falls in love with Fern Smith, Cletus’s mother. Their passion and the fatal series of events it precipitates change Cletus’s life irreversibly. His previously secure and seemingly timeless life dissolves forever, like the narrator’s, into what the narrator describes as "shipwreck." So Long, See You Tomorrow constitutes a kind of apology from the now-elderly narrator to Cletus, a belated attempt to offer his former friend the sympathy that, as a child, he had felt but never expressed. "The one possibility of my making some connection with him seems to lie not in the present but in the past" (p. 56), the narrator says. The entire novel can be read as an exploration of this psychological dilemma and its implications for storytelling and for literature.


William Maxwell was born in 1908 in Lincoln, Illinois, a town he has returned to again and again in his fiction, including So Long, See You Tomorrow. His mother died during the influenza epidemic of 1918; his father remarried, and four years later the family moved to Chicago. Maxwell attended the University of Illinois and did graduate work at Harvard, then spent some time teaching before turning permanently to a writing career which has produced six novels, three collections of short stories, a memoir, a collection of essays, and a children’s book.

For forty years Maxwell was a fiction editor at The New Yorker, where he edited the work of some of the century’s foremost writers, including John Updike and Vladimir Nabokov; he has also served as president of the National Institute of Arts and Letters. William Maxwell is a recipient of the Brandeis Creative Arts Award Medal; So Long, See You Tomorrow won the 1980 American Book Award and the Howells Medal of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Maxwell is the father of two daughters, Kate and Brooke. He died in 2000.


So Long, See You Tomorrow is a classic coming-of-age story that addresses many of the issues, perplexities and crises of growing up. What is innocence, and when is it lost? At what point is a young person obliged to separate from a parent or parents and make his or her own decisions? What is self-reliance, and when is it necessary? At what age do young people begin to take responsibility for their own actions? What does it mean to grow up?

Young people should be asked to consider decisive moments and turning points in their own lives, in the same way that Maxwell’s narrator has done. Students should be asked to consider what difference the narrator’s distance of fifty years from the events he describes makes in their telling. Memoirs and personal essays should grow naturally out of these reflections, as well as from class discussions and consideration of the questions, discussion topics, suggested reading list and author biography below. Students should also be asked to read at least one other coming-of-age story, a few examples of which are included in the suggested reading list, and to compare the two works of literature. What do the protagonists have in common? Do all young people on the verge of growing up have certain things in common, and if so, what?


Understanding the Story

1. How old is the narrator now, as he is writing? What sort of life do you think he leads as an adult?

2. What distinguished the murder of Lloyd Wilson from other violent crimes was the fact that the murderer had cut off the dead man’s ear and taken it away. "In that pre-Freudian era people did not ask themselves what the ear might be a substitution for, but merely shuddered" (p. 5). What does Maxwell mean by this?

3. "My father was all but undone by my mother’s death" (p. 8). How does the father’s reaction to her death differ from that of the narrator himself? Which of the two, in your opinion, is the more profoundly wounded? Which makes the more complete recovery?

4. In fairy tales, the narrator writes, "for the father to remarry is an act of betrayal, not only of the dead mother but of [the children], no matter what the stepmother is like" (p. 16). Do you think that the narrator believes that his own father has betrayed him? Why does he see his father’s happiness as a "threat" to him? Does he have any justification for feeling so?

5. How did society change during the 1920s? What does the narrator mean when he says that "so far as good manners are concerned, it was the beginning of the end" (p. 18)? Why did the dancing teacher ask the narrator’s father and stepmother to leave the floor when they danced the Toddle?

6. Maxwell quotes Ortega y Gasset as saying that life is "in itself and forever shipwreck" (p. 22). What does this metaphor express? How do the narrator’s and Cletus’s life illustrate this idea?

7. "I was a character" (p. 29), the narrator says of his young self. What does this word connote to his community? What do the other children’s reactions to him tell us about that community and its values? Why are the attitudes of the kids at the city high school (p. 50) different?

8. Why don’t Cletus and the narrator tell one another about their troubles? Why doesn’t the narrator speak to Cletus when he sees him in the corridor of the city high school? Why do you think Maxwell has chosen their words to one another, "So long, see you tomorrow," as his title?

9. How do the lives of the tenant farmers differ from those of the townspeople, in their daily routine, their mores and religion, their beliefs and assumptions? They "apply the words of the Scriptures to their own lives, insofar as they are able" (p. 57). How do the Smiths and the Wilsons illustrate that fact?

10. What is Fern Smith like? Is she a wholly unsympathetic character, or does the narrator show some compassion for her wish to have a more exciting and fulfilling life than other farm women, women like Marie Wilson? How does Fern perceive herself and her actions?

11. What kind of a person is Cletus? Is he like, or unlike, the narrator? Do you think that the narrator, in inventing Cletus’s inner life, gives Cletus some of his own thoughts and characteristics?

12. What is Lloyd Wilson like? In what ways does he differ from Clarence? Why is he so ill-matched with Marie? Do you think that he and Fern would ever be happy together if they were able to marry? "All my life I’ve been a stranger to myself," he says on p. 77. How does this fact manifest itself in his family life?

13. What is Fern’s initial reaction to Lloyd’s declaration of love? How does her attitude change?

14. Whose betrayal do you think Clarence resents the most, Fern’s or Lloyd’s?

15. How does Lloyd’s treatment of his little boys compare with that of the narrator’s father toward his sons?

16. "Fern Smith wasn’t meaning to avoid trouble; she was bent on making it. It was her only hope" (p. 98). Her only hope of what?

17. Why are Fern and Lloyd unable to marry? Why can’t they live together without marriage?

18. Why does Clarence call Cletus "You little fucker" and strike him (p. 102)? What boundary has Cletus overstepped in his relationship with his father?

19. How would you describe Clarence Smith’s character? Has violence always been evident there, even before his wife’s betrayal? What evidence do you see of violent tendencies? With whom, and in what situations, is Clarence at his best, and when is he at his worst?

20. What does Clarence and Fern’s divorce trial tell us about the legal system? Which of the two is tougher and more capable, Fern or Clarence? Which, in your opinion, is the nicer person?

21. Why does Clarence stop going to church? In what ways is the religion preached by his church inadequate to the real circumstances of his life? How do his ideas of cause and effect change?

22. Why did Fern marry Clarence? Did she ever love him?

23. Why do you think that Maxwell writes from the dog’s point of view toward the end of the book?

24. Cletus "seemed so indifferent these days. About everything" (p. 125), Fern thinks. Why does he seem indifferent? Why has he decided that this is the best way to act?

In-depth Discussion

1. "This memoir-if that’s the right name for it-is a roundabout, futile way of making amends" (p. 6). Amends for what? The narrator admits to feeling guilty about the way he dealt with Cletus (p. 135). Do you believe his guilt is justified?

2. After reading of the close friendship that once existed between Lloyd and Clarence, and the hatred that came to follow it, why do you think Clarence cut off Lloyd’s ear? What might such an act symbolize, and what instincts would have prompted Clarence to carry it out?

3. How would you describe the character of the narrator’s father? What sort of relationship do the father and son have? Does the son feel trust in his father, or is he suspicious of him? If so, why? "We were both creatures of the period," the narrator writes (p. 13). What does he mean by this?

4. How are the social classes structured in Lincoln and the surrounding farmland? At what points do they intersect, and in what ways are they segregated? How does the class stratification Maxwell describes compare with the class structure of your own community? If you live in a big town or city, do you find that you are more exposed to other social classes than the people of Lincoln, or less so?

5. The nature of the society described by Maxwell is one of a profound reticence, markedly noticeable in the narrator’s family and in Cletus’s. The narrator’s father doesn’t discuss the mother’s death with him; Cletus never mentions his parents’ problems; Clarence is unable to talk of his heartache to anyone, not even his own parents. Is it this habit of reticence that keeps the narrator from talking to Cletus after the murder? Does Maxwell imply that such reticence is destructive? Do you find that an unwillingness to talk about emotions is characteristic of American society today?

6. In what ways does the character of the adult narrator differ from the person he was as a young boy?

7. Why does the Giacometti sculpture described on pp. 25-26 make such an impression on the narrator? In what ways does it recall his own youth to him? How does the architectural shape of the sculpture symbolize his emotional state?

8. What characteristics do Grace and her family display? What is the narrator’s attitude toward the McGraths, both as a boy and as an older man? Do the McGraths ever succeed in melting his reserve?

9. Lloyd and Clarence "look enough alike to be taken for brothers. No doubt Cain and Abel loved each other, in their way, quite as much as, or even more than, David and Jonathan" (p. 38). The biblical David and Jonathan are the ultimate models for male friendship, and after Jonathan’s death David cries out "thy love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women." What does this imply about the friendship between Lloyd and Clarence? Which of the two feels more intense love for the other, and how is that love expressed?

10. Lloyd says to Clarence, "A good wife is a woman who is always tired, suffers from backache and headaches, and moves away from her husband in bed because she doesn’t want any more children" (p. 75). What does this sentence suggest about marriage, the relations between men and women, and the quality of daily life in a rural community of Illinois during the period (from about 1916 to 1925) that Maxwell describes?

11. One of the prominent themes of this book is that of innocence betrayed. What is the process by which Cletus forcibly loses his innocence? Who else in the novel is innocent? Is innocence presented by Maxwell as the converse of knowledge, or is it possible to be both innocent and knowledgeable?

12. Compare the way the three fathers in the book, Clarence, Lloyd, and the narrator’s father, deal with their children. How honest are they with them? How much do they respect their intelligence or their integrity? How much, or how little, do they confide in them? How far can these children trust their fathers? Do you think that in portraying these families Maxwell is implying that children cannot depend on their parents for too much emotional support and sustenance?

13. As an adult, the narrator finds himself weeping on his analyst’s couch, saying of his mother’s death, "I can’t bear it" (p. 131). Do you think that Cletus’s story, too, is an example of something that can’t be borne, that is too much to be borne? What parallels exist between the two stories, Cletus’s and the narrator’s? Why does the narrator mentally "find Cletus Smith" in the Palace at four a.m. (p. 132)?


"This is one of the great books of our age. It . . . contains our deepest sorrows and truths and love-all caught in a clear, simple style in perfect brushstrokes."–Michael Ondaatje, author of The English Patient


1. Describing the period of his youth, the narrator seems to be recalling a much more innocent time. For example, "In those days . . . people in Lincoln mostly didn’t lock their doors at night. . . . One sometimes read in the evening paper that some man had been arrested for disorderly conduct, but that meant drunkenness" (p. 5). The narrator reaches adolescence without knowing anything about sex-which will seem incredible to today’s teenagers. Yet at that time people were also exposed to a great many potential disasters: on pp. 6-7, the narrator tells of many incidents of disease, accident, and death that marked his own family. On balance, do the young people of Lincoln and its surroundings seem more, or less, innocent than yourself and your friends? Do they live a safer life than you, or a more dangerous one? Write a short essay laying out your opinions.

2. "Between the time that Cletus and I climbed down from the scaffolding and went our separate ways and the moment when he was confronted with the broken gun in the sheriff’s office, he must have crossed over the line into maturity, and though he is referred to as a boy, wasn’t one any longer" (p. 42). What does Maxwell mean here? Do you think that it is possible to grow up in a single moment? What personality characteristics differentiate adults from children? Write a two-page essay in which you discuss the meaning of the sentence, "Who believes children"(p. 4).

3. So Long, See You Tomorrow is a coming-of-age story. Think of another such book you have read (for some possibilities, you might look at the suggested reading list below), and compare the two books. What do the protagonists have in common? How much power do they have over their circumstances? To what degree are they able to change and mold their lives, to create their own futures? Bring the book you have chosen to class and tell the other students about it.

4. Write a personal memoir in which you discuss a "formative" time or event in your own life, a moment when you feel that you gained insight, became more adult, less innocent.

5. The narrator feels that he has sinned against Cletus in not speaking to him or acknowledging him after his family tragedy, and he writes the book as a form of expiation. What other themes of sin and expiation can you find in the book: who sins, and do they redeem themselves? Can you think of other novels in which sin and redemption are prominent themes?

6. Make separate pages for the following characters: Lloyd, Fern, and Clarence. On each page, write every adjective that seems to you to describe that person. How many adjectives do you have for each character? Do some of the adjectives seem to contradict each other? Do the same for yourself and two other people you know well. How do you imagine each will remember the others many years from now?


James Agee, A Death in the Family; Sherwood Anderson, Winesburg, Ohio; Truman Capote, A Christmas Memory; Evan S. Connell, Mrs. Bridge, Mr. Bridge; Jill Ker Conway, The Road From Coorain; Charles Dickens, David Copperfield, Great Expectations; Horton Foote, 1918; Thomas Hardy, The Mayor of Casterbridge; James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird; Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses; Carson McCullers, The Member of the Wedding; Willie Morris, North Towards Home; Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory; J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye; Esmeralda Santiago, When I Was Puerto Rican; Jane Smiley, A Thousand Acres; John Updike, Of the Farm.

Also by William Maxwell

Bright Center of Heaven (1934); They Came Like Swallows (1937); The Folded Leaf (1945); Time Will Darken It (1948); Stories (with Jean Stafford, John Cheever, and Daniel Fuchs, 1956); The Chateau (1961); The Old Man at the Railroad Crossing and Other Tales (1966); Ancestors (1971); Over By the River (1977); The Outermost Dream: Essays and Reviews (1989); All the Days and Nights: The Collected Stories of William Maxwell (1995).


This teacher’s guide was written by Brooke Allen. Brooke Allen has a Ph.D. in literature from Columbia University, and has spent several years in France as a teacher and a journalist. She writes regularly on books for The New Criterion, The Wall Street Journal, and other publications.


Copyright 1999 by Vintage Books

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