Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1925
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 is thus filled with stories drawn from Maxwell’s own past—the days and nights of his life. The earliest stories—those published in the 1940’s, 1950’s, and 1960’s—are, by and large, the shortest and the most tightly patterned. The later stories—those that appeared in the 1970’s, 1980’s, and 1990’s—are the longest and the loosest, the ones most apt to be nostalgic reminiscences of the past. In the early group are such pieces as “Haller’s Second Home” and “The Patterns of Love”—both featuring men who seem to be cut off from any meaningful relationship and who live vicariously in the light of those who have established comfortable lives. At the conclusion of “The Patterns of Love,” a man who has been coming to visit a family every summer for a number of years compares his own lonely life with theirs: “Everywhere they go, he thought, they leave tracks behind them, like walking in the snow. Paths crisscrossing, lines that are perpetually meeting.” These wheels and diagrams, these traces, he understands, are “the patterns of love.”
The collection also contains some relatively predictable stories about the hard lessons of growing up. Typical is “What Every Boy Should Know,” about an adolescent boy who delivers newspapers, becomes reluctantly involved in a strike, and has his brand-new bicycle run over by a man who refuses to take responsibility for it. The bicycle disaster is a lesson to him, Maxwell says, in the sense that everything that happens, good or bad, is a lesson. The boy discovers that although people may be raised from the dead, as it is said in the Bible, “a ruined bicycle could not by any power on earth or in heaven be made shining and whole again.”
Two of the shortest and most tightly organized stories in the collection are “The Poor Orphan Girl” and “Love.” Although both are seemingly realistic, they are almost fable-like in their formal structure. The main character of “The Poor Orphan Girl” is an immigrant girl from Scotland who comes to America and gets a job as a domestic servant but loses it when she goes to bars and gets picked up. In “Love,” a twenty-three-year-old fifth-grade schoolteacher comes down with tuberculosis and is visited by young boys from her class who intuitively know that she does not belong to them anymore but belongs to her illness.
Other stories are often longer than they need to be, given the predictability of their themes. For example, “The Gardens of Mont-Saint-Michel” goes to some length to present the experience of an American tourist who returns to a French hotel where he has previously visited, only to find that its quaint charm has been displaced by modern materialism. Similarly, “Billie Dyer” is a long, rambling account of the son of a black slave who distinguishes himself during World War II and becomes a doctor in Maxwell’s hometown of Lincoln, Illinois, but whose contribution is ignored in the histories of the area.
Many of Maxwell’s later stories, beginning with those written in the 1970’s, are looser and more discursive than his earlier, more formal stories. Typical is the opening story in the collection, published in 1974, entitled “Over by the River,” which focuses primarily on the daily patterns of life that characterize the Carringtons, an upper- middle-class family living in Queens, New York. One of the longest stories in the collection, it has an anecdotal structure with no solid center except the life of the family. “My Father’s Friends,” “The Front and the Back Parts of the House,” and “The Holy Terror,” all published in the 1980’s and 1990’s, are autobiographical in nature, focusing on Maxwell’s father, who died at the age of eighty, and his brother, whose left leg was amputated above the knee when he was a child. Although these stories lack the kind of artistic control that the earlier stories have, they have a ring of actuality that is missing from the more formal early stories.
The latest story in the collection, however, seems to mark a return to the tight organization of Maxwell’s earlier work, even though, like other later tales, it focuses on realistic reminiscences. Entitled “What He Was Like,” it deals with a man who keeps a diary most of his life, for he finds it interesting to go back and see how he occupied his time and with whom. “To be able to do in your mind,” the man writes, “what is probably not a good idea to do in actuality is a convenience not always sufficiently appreciated.” Although the man is cheerful in his daily life, his diaries focus on dark thoughts, anger, resentment, indecencies, regrets, and remorse. After the man dies, his married daughter discovers the diaries and reads them. Shocked, she tells her husband that her father was not the man she thought he was and that reading the diaries has made her feel that she can never again trust anyone, least of all him. When her husband goes into the kitchen to make them a drink, she does not want to be separated from him even for a short time, for she fears that in that brief interval he might turn into a stranger. This brief well-made story seems simple on its surface but resonates with the complexity of the split between the public persona and the private self. It makes clear that although Maxwell does not always write about the shameful secrets of the heart, he is well aware that the short story works best when it focuses on such dark epiphanies rather than on the sunny surface of everyday life.
There are two basic types of short stories (although there are many variations in between): those that rest on the side of formal structure and those marked by ragged, realistic detail. Although Maxwell writes both types of stories, he seems most at home in the loose, realistic story, for many of his tales are novelistic and, like life itself, could go on and on forever, never coming to some inevitable patterned end as so many contemporary short stories, especially those following the New Yorker model, seem bound to do.
Sources for Further Study
American Heritage. XLVI, May, 1995, p. 102.
Booklist. LXXXXI, January 1, 1995, p. 780.
Boston Globe. January 15, 1995, p. 62.
Library Journal. CXX, February 1, 1995, p. 102.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. January 22, 1995, p. 6.
The New York Times Book Review. C, January 22, 1995, p. 3.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLI, November 28, 1994, p. 43.
San Francisco Chronicle. January 15, 1995, p. REV3.
The Times Literary Supplement. June 16, 1995, p. 25.
The Wall Street Journal. January 16, 1995, p. A12.
The Washington Post. January 18, 1995, p. B2.
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