Contemporary Novelists: William Dean Howells

"Howells misses nothing ... of 'the real, the natural, the colloquial, the moderate, the domestic, and the democratic.'"

William Dean Howells is quite the most American thing we have produced. Almost all that one can profitably say of him distributes itself about this central magnetizing fact. Of the lessons he has taught us, no other seems half so important as the supreme value of having a home, a definitely local habitation, not to tear one's self away from, to sigh for, to idealize through a mist of melancholy and Weltschmerz, but simply and solely to live in, to live for. This part of his doctrine, more than any other, has the noble force of an eternal verity preached with striking timeliness. It is in itself the special crown of Mr. Howells, the open secret of his democratic grandeur; and it wins double emphasis because it had to be urged against the sterile aesthetic cosmopolitanism of the eighteen-eighties. Both his historical importance and, one may confidently hope, his permanence are affirmed by his anchorage in a provincialism as remote from mere provinciality as front the opposite extreme of cosmopolitanism—the 'wise provincialism' of Royce's Philosophy of Loyalty.

Moreover, the work of Mr. Howells, the most soundly representative expression of America as a spirit, is also the most broadly representative of America as a civilization. It falls in the era of the great transitions of our national life, the confusion of shifting ideals and mislaid ideas which led to the most American thing we have ever done—our specialization of everything. The war is over, and Howells comes back from his Venetian consulship to watch the phenomena of reconstruction, the emergence of a more centralized political system, and the dawn of a new unity. Agriculture grows relatively less important, manufacturing relatively more so; and there upon begins the flux of young men and women from village to city, from farm to factory and office, and the consequent specialization of multitudes of lives. In industry, the epoch of individual enterprise merges into that of great combinations and corporate monopolies; business too becomes specialized. As commerce gains respectability, idleness becomes dubious and finally odious; and the result is a cleavage between generations in many a patrician family, the parents clinging to an old ideal of the leisured ornamental life, the sons drawn by a new ideal of useful prestige.

When the new aristocracy of vigor has supplanted the old aristocracy of cultivation, there arises the new cultivation, through efficiency. The laboring class, disproportionately augmented by immigration, develops a self-consciousness; its problems become insistent and terrible. In the professions, the general practitioner of an elder time turns into the specialist. Journalism and advertising—the quintessentially modern professions—begin to have their day. Among women, too, a ferment is at work: they swarm through doors once closed, they begin to know something, subtle changes take place in the home, marriage itself hears questions asked of it and knows that sooner or later it must answer them. Dogmatic theology is sharply challenged when the physical sciences re-conceive the world, and the social sciences the people in it. The sense of an organic unity replaces that of an organized unity—and the world begins to wonder what purpose it serves, what it can possibly mean. Casting about, it begins to think it sees it purpose in unity itself. And through the confusion there crystallizes slowly the dream of a real society in which the common interests shall overthrow the conflicting ones. In a score of ways the America of 1875 was at the crossroads. And William Dean Howells was the man who was there with her to see everything. He saw—and he understood.

All these tendencies and forces—the recital of them may be tedious, but it is certainly indispensable—are charted in the fiction of Mr. Howells, with an amplitude and a fidelity applied elsewhere, as in the novels of Trollope, to much narrower sectors of life, but never before in English to all the important phases in the life of a whole nation. It is as lavish as anything since Balzac, and it is focal. Howells is master of village and town, farm and city, New England and the Middle West; he is at home in factory and lumber-camp; he knows artisan and idler, preacher and teacher, the scientist, the journalist, the commercial traveler, the nouveaux-riches and their débutante daughter, the country squire, the oldest inhabitant, the village scapegrace and the village fool, the doctor and the lawyer; he misses nothing, as a review written by his greatest American contemporary once phrased it, of 'the real, the natural, the colloquial, the moderate, the domestic, and the democratic.'

And he has through all this, in addition to the notion of where we are, the vision of where we are going. His novels convey the impression of greater lapses of time than any one of them actually records, because each one of them is an inquiry into something that is about to become something else. The Rise of Silas Lapham, our first and best analysis of the self-made man and of the social implications of his money, is a tragedy whose significance reaches nearly the whole of self-made America. Written at the nexus of so many tendencies and interests, the novel remains today as poignantly contemporary as ever, a drama of transitions not yet more than half-accomplished. We clamor still for 'the great American novel'? Why, we have been reading it these thirty years and more.


A comment of thirty years ago, written by one of the most unflattering of critics, has at least the merit of confirming, from a hostile and derogatory point of view, this fact of Mr. Howells's provincialism. 'Henry James,' said Mr. George Moore in Confessions of a Young Man, 'went to France and read Tourguénieff. W.D. Howells stayed home and read Henry James . . . . I have no doubt that at time of his life Henry James said, I will write the moral history of America, as Tourguénieff wrote the moral history of Russia—he borrowed at first-hand, understanding what he was borrowing. W.D. Howells borrowed at secondhand, and without understanding what he was borrowing.'

These remarks, whether or not we can agree to find in them something more important than their author intended to put there, leave something to be desired as accounts of literal fact. It should be evident now, for example, even if it was not in 1887, that it was Mr. Howells, rather than Henry James, who consciously set out to write the moral history of America. Also, Mr. Howells knew at first-hand, not only his Tourguénieff and his James, but Glados and Valdés as well. If his critical interest was never quite so intensive in its workings as Henry James's, it was certainly much more eclectic. Its boundaries in 1887 did in fact touch everything that we now recognize as having been at that time important in Continental fiction and drama, with the single exception of Meredith, who seems, lamentably, to have meant nothing to Howells. Many readers and some critics could still learn a good deal about Balzac and Zola, about Dostoievski and Tolstoi, from what Mr. Howells wrote about them more than a quarter of a century ago.

But one of the principal effects of his excursions among Italian, Spanish, Russian, and French realists was greatly to intensify his appreciation of Miss Wilkins, Miss Jewett, Mrs. Cooke, Miss Murfree, and Mr. Cable—American realists whose worth, like his own, is all in their provincialism; whose breadth is, as he says, 'vertical instead of lateral.' If his fiction withholds the cheap tribute of imitation, it is doubly rich in its recognition of the inimitable. His way of learning from Tourguénieff was not to copy Tourguénieff, but to be as American as Tourguénieff was Russian. In the profoundest spiritual and moral sense, he did stay at home; but neither physically nor intellectually can he be said to have done so. He not only understood just what he might have borrowed, whether from Continental fiction or British: he understood it too well to borrow it at all.

The alleged resemblance between Howells and Henry James is a subject which has been irritatingly overelaborated by criticism. What resemblance there is is so superficial, and leaves room for differences so fundamental, that it becomes a point, for criticism of Mr. Howells's critics rather than of Mr. Howells himself. But so many have conspired, both before and since George Moore, to make sure that neither great man shall be named without the other, that it is actually more invidious to ignore the point than to treat it.

To make an end of the matter, one may say that the similarities are most important where there is least hint of any debt,—that is, where each author is writing of the New England he knows,—and that where there is the hint of a debt, the similarity is purely verbal and almost too insignificant to bother with. However strange it may seem, it is true that Mr. Howells, whose style has for fifty years remained limpid and lacustrine, shows after 1895 an unconscious infiltration of the abused 'third manner' of Henry James. Miss Bellard's Inspiration, a tenuously delicate bit of high comedy, includes among its pretty sophisticated trifles some persiflage of the Henry James idiom—for example, the parting comment by Mr. Crombie, 'Well, I suppose she didn't want a reason, if she had an inspiration.'

But this sort of thing is of slight avail, is in fact positively silly, when one is dealing broadly with the question of 'influences.' While Henry James withdraws further and further from the America we know, into the queer world of his own intensely self-conscious art, Howells remains as objective, as regional, and as little self-conscious as an artist can be. It is utterly true that, in the sense we have described, he stayed at home; but the compliment is to America, not to a brother author.

There is assuredly nothing in all this to disturb our account of that provincialism which is the nourishing root of his greatness. Morally, it is the whole story. If we speak, as here we have hall to for a moment, of lighter and lesser things,—aesthetics, comparative literature, the transmission of influences,—we have to revise the account only so far as to say that Mr. Howells, if he did not stay at home, went home. We find him going everywhere but to go back again; enjoying one after another his Continental journeys, of the mind and of the body, as turnings of the road; never forgetting that great sprawled-out provincial modern Rome to which, he knew, whatever road he happened to be on must at length lead back; finding beauty, the beauty of self-fulfillment, in each successive reunion between the America he had left and the American he was.

Concretely, his books of travel, his various Italian Journeys and London Films, are better and truer records because there is no affectation in them of being anywhere except 'abroad.' Provincialism, like religion, is a surrender of something for the sake of something else that means more. If you arc at home everywhere, you have lost the meaning of home. Mr. Howells prefers to give up being at home everywhere, in order to see Europe through naive yet shrewd 'Yankee' eyes, very much in the mood of

You have curious things to eat,
I am fed on proper meat;
You must dwell beyond the foam,
But I am safe and live at home.

The result is that his most casual sketches of Italy, Spain, and England are not less American than A Boy's Town and The Lady of the Aroostook which are as American as Abraham Lincoln.


In speaking of the sacrifices with which Mr. Howells, like any one, must pay for a sound and wise provincialism, we have in mind first of all the penalty inherent in any choice, the mutual exclusion of opposites. It is in the nature of things that, you cannot be at the same time cosmopolitan and provincial: you can have everything or you can have something which shall mean everything to you, but not both. This is the inevitable penalty. And it is well for the artist who has the courage or the sublime innocence to pay it, as we see proved in the unpretentious successes of such authors as Trollope and Jane Austen. If we require proof that it is not well for the artist who lacks the courage or the innocence, we need seek it no further back than the pretentious failures of the Celtic Renaissance—a movement which had its headquarters in France and its impulse from a cosmopolitan aestheticism, and which was everything else before it was Celtic. We are safe, then, while we laud Mr. Howells for giving up everything, and acquiring nothing, which could have made him less definitively cisatlantic.

But there is another kind of penalty, incidental and secondary, not at all in the nature of things, which Mr. Howells also elected to pay, with damage to his work and even some risk to its lasting qualities. Seemingly in pure national self-assertiveness and a kind of fierce pride in heaping up the measure of his self-denials, he refused some things which he might fully as well have had. These minor refusals of his are made in all conscience, indeed with the finest recklessness; but they unquestionably blemish his work as that of a rounded artist, while adding nothing to its value as a national institution. If the future should disprove his theory that truth to fact is everything; if it should show that care for treatment counts for more than he supposed it could, his greatness will have been impaired, and none the less surely because through his own deliberate renunciations.

One is happy to note, first, that he was constantly threatening some sacrifices which he never made, and that his work as critic abounds in precepts the consequences of which he refused to incur in his own practice. He despises care for style, and says that style becomes less and less important to fiction: yet he writes a style finer on the whole than Hardy's, since it is just as objective, just as clear, much more full of highlights and undertones, and less metallically cold. He damns with faintest praise the necessary technical means of art; he seems to imply that the artist can draw the pattern of his facts, as well as the facts themselves, from life; his account of Jane Austen would lead one to suppose that the sum of her process was to look about and jot down what she saw; in short, he develops a theory of the relation between literature and life that would result, if anyone literally practiced it, in novels with masses of subject-matter but no subject at all. 'Out of this way of thinking and feeling about these two great things, about Literature and Life,' there has indeed 'arisen a confusion as to which is which'—a confusion which has become in the last decade one of the least promising symptoms of the novel. And Mr. Howells seems to welcome the confusion when he says, 'it is quite imaginable that when the great mass of readers, now sunk in the foolish joys of mere fable, shall be lifted to an interest in the meaning of things through the faithful portrayal of life in fiction, then fiction the most faithful may be superseded by a still more faithful form of contemporaneous history.'

Yet here again Mr. Howells follows infirm doctrine with sound practice: his own novels enjoy all the advantages of the definite issue carefully extracted from life and then displayed before the reader as having relevance to some unified critical purpose. To young authors he says, 'Do not trouble yourselves about standards and ideals.' Himself, he follows a better precept: 'Neither arts, nor letters, nor sciences, except as they somehow, clearly or obscurely, tend to make the race better and kinder, are to be regarded as serious interests'—a dictum which is unintelligible unless it provides art with a rationale. The creative artist is made as much by what he wants as by what he knows; and what he wants involves, of course, the whole question of how he is to get it. It is strange that Mr. Howells, who never desired fiction to be less than a criticism of life, should so often have ignored this truism in his critical writings and so unfailingly have used it in his fiction.

Neither in the style nor in the architecture of his novels, then, does he suffer the logical consequences of what is narrowly provincial in his theory. But in one deficiency of treatment, the enormous excess of conversation over everything else, his stories do suffer from his contempt of design. He appears, as Henry James wrote long ago, 'increasingly to hold composition too cheap'; he neglects 'the effect that comes from alternation, distribution, relief.' The dialogue especially needs to be 'distributed, interspaced with narrative and pictorial matter.' It is not that there is too much of the dialogue, which is uniformly of the first excellence, but that there is too little else. Mr. Howells is at his very best when he is giving his subject wrapped in interpretation of character and manners. He makes a woman speak 'with that awe of her daughter and her judgments which is one of the pathetic idiosyncrasies of a certain class of American mothers.' He speaks of the deplored 'infidelity' of a New Hampshire village squire as a time-honored local institution, 'something that would hardly have been changed, if possible, by a popular vote.' He is subtle in his notation of such realities as 'the two sorts of deference respectively due to the law and the church,' and 'the country habit of making no comment in response to what was not a question.' These touches are treatment, presentation at its finest, 'the golden blocks themselves of the structure'; and when Mr. Howells dispossesses them in favor of talk and still more talk, he deprives us of that which he can more abundantly afford to give than we can afford to be without.

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