All the Days and Nights Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Probably no other magazine published in America has had as powerful an impact on the twentieth century short story as The New Yorker. A cursory survey of such yearly collections as Best American Short Stories and O. Henry Prize Stories reveal that The New Yorker is generally represented more often than any other single magazine. Many of the greatest short-story writers in the second half of the century, such as Bernard Malamud, John Updike, Raymond Carver, and John Cheever, published in its pages regularly.

It is therefore somewhat surprising to read this collection of stories by a man who served as editor of The New Yorker for so much of the twentieth century—a man who clearly had much to do with the kind of fiction that has become known as The New Yorker story—and to discover how far they stray from the New Yorker model. Quite different from the tight minimalist stories of Carver, the modern metaphoric fables of Malamud, or the economical poetic stylizations of Updike, many of Maxwell’s stories are often rambling bits of realism that seem more like excerpts from novels than finely wrought short stories.

At the time of this collection, Maxwell had been writing and publishing short stories for more than fifty years. This capstone collection includes most of the stories that appeared in his three previous anthologies, as well as eight stories that had appeared in magazines but not in book form. In the preface to the book, Maxwell relates an anecdote about his aborted plan at age twenty-five to go to sea to find something to write about; instead he discovered that he already had three-quarters of the material he would need for the rest of his writing life—his family, friends, and neighbors. Indeed, most of Maxwell’s stories belong to the genre known as domestic realism, with plots and characters drawn from his youth in Lincoln, Illinois, and his adult life in Manhattan.

Approximately one-quarter of the collection consists of what Maxwell calls “improvisations”—brief fables and fairy tales that he says he wrote for birthdays and Christmases or that he made up and told his wife at night after they went to bed. Usually beginning in the fairy-tale manner, “Once upon a time,” these lightweight fables follow the model of traditional fairy tales and usually have a gentle moral lesson. For example, “A Love Story” is about a pair of moles who are dislodged from their home by a housing development. The mole wife has always believed that she married beneath her, but when the earthquakelike disruption occurs, it is her lowly husband who burrows them to safety. At first distraught that she has had to leave her treasured hand-painted china behind, madame mole is soon delighted to find that her husband has taken her to a lovely landscape that is identical to the image on her treasured Longview Willow china.

“The Carpenter” is about a carpenter to whom everyone tells their secrets, knowing that he will not repeat them. One day, however, he changes and begins to cause trouble by telling the secrets entrusted to him. When he tells someone that the son of the blacksmith is really the son of the one-eyed fiddler, he discovers that his carpenter’s tools will not work properly. With shame in his heart, he goes out to find the one-eyed fiddler to warn him about what he has done.

The story that gives the collection its name—also one of these fable improvisations—might be understood as a metaphor for Maxwell’s own approach to storytelling. The protagonist of “All the Days and Nights” is a man who stops one day to ask himself where all the days and nights of his life have gone. It seems that not only the major events of his life—his marriage, the birth of his children, the death of his mother and father—have been taken from him, but also an endless succession of days that are different only insofar as they were subject to accident or chance. One day he disappears, and a year later he returns with no apology or explanation for his absence. That night he tells his wife that all the days and nights of their life are here, that it is like a book with pages that they can go back and read over again. In the morning he does not remember a thing he told her, and she has great trouble making him understand that he had ever been away.

Because Maxwell was almost ninety years old at the time of this book’s publication, many of his more recent stories focus on preserving all the days and nights of his life in the perpetuity of his memory, as on the pages of a book—indeed the book entitled All the Days and Nights—so that one can read them over and over again. The major part of this book...

(The entire section is 1925 words.)