All the Days and Nights
The Collected Stories
by William Maxwell, Alfred A. Knopf, 415 pages .
William Maxwell was born in 1908 into a Midwest that Sherwood Anderson was still hard at work describing. He later spent four decades at The New Yorker editing short stories about urban sophisticates and country husbands by some of the greatest writers of his age, but he never let go of his fascination with Wilson-era Illinois. He wrote his own memorable short stories set in Eastern suburbs or among Americans in Europe, but he always kept returning to his boyhood town, most often called Lincoln. “The fact that I had not lived there since I was fourteen years old sealed off my memories of it,” he writes, “and made of it a world I knew no longer existed, that seemed always available for storytelling.” Maxwell’s language is stripped down almost bare, and the quiet poetry remains—heightened, even, by the spareness and compression. In affecting stories about a young black doctor starting his Illinois practice after the Great War, a strike by small-town newsboys, a charming uncle who borrows money, the poetry is in the things recalled. “Though it took me a while to realize it,” he writes, “I had a good father. He left the house early Tuesday morning carrying his leather grip, which was heavy with printed forms, and walked downtown to the railroad station. As the Illinois state agent for a small fire and windstorm insurance company he was expected to make his underwriting experience available to local agents in Freeport, Carbondale, Alton, Carthage, Dixon, Quincy, and so on. . . . Three nights out of every week he slept in godforsaken commercial hotels that overlooked the railroad tracks and when he turned over in the dark he heard the sound of the ceiling fan and railway cars being shunted. He knew the state of Illinois the way I knew our house and yard.”
Maxwell took over that territory and the long-vanished people who lived there. From his own sure knowledge of both he has made an American literature.