‘The Pilgrimage’ by William Maxwell

The Pilgrimage by William Maxwell, 1953

The magic trick:

Gentle satire that never uses narrative judgments

We’re starting a week of William Maxwell stories.

He’s excellent at letting the story do all the work. “The Pilgrimage” is a great example. The story pokes fun at the Ormsby throughout. They are the quintessential American tourists – well-meaning enough but self-absorbed and not nearly as cultured as they think are.

You’d think as a satire the story would take aim from the start. And it does. But not really. There is never a narrative statement that indicates judgment or criticism. The story is plainly told, leaving the reader to determine what is funny and what is social satire.

And that’s quite a trick on Maxwell’s part.

The selection:

The Richardsons, who were close friends of the Ormsbys in America, had insisted that they go there. “The best dinner I ever had in my entire life,” Jerry Richardson had said. “Every course was something with truffles.” “And the dessert,” Anne Richardson had said, “was little balls of various kinds of ice cream in a beautiful basket of spun sugar with a spun-sugar bow.” Putting the two statements together, Ray Ornsby had persisted in thinking that the ice cream also had truffles in it, and Ellen had given up trying to correct this impression.

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