Contemporary Novelists: William Dean Howells

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

Unless one is in the heroic mood to require that the writer of fiction supply a full measure of everything one happens to like, one need not be greatly disturbed by the several details about Mr. Howells that one simply cannot understand. Why does it happen that, with all his coldness to technique, he instinctively warms to the most careful technicians, from Jane Austen to Hardy and Henry James? Why, against that same coldness, should he reject Thackeray because Thackeray pleased to 'stand about in his scene, talking it over with his hands in his pockets, interrupting the action, and spoiling the illusion in which alone the truth of art resides'—a minor technical quiblet if ever there was one? Why should he denounce Scott for 'acquiescence in the division of men into noble and ignoble, patrician and plebeian, sovereign and subject, as if it were the law of God,' without allowance for the fact, that Scott often makes his plebeians nobler than his patricians, the subject more of a man than the sovereign? Why, above all, should he belittle Dickens because of the occasional caricature of people and the romantic distortion of facts, and not see that Dickens was on the whole a valiant fighter in the cause of realism against an effete romanticism, precisely as Mr. Howells himself was?

The only explanation of these sophisms is that Mr. Howells loves truth—by which he nearly always means actuality—so much that the most trivial violation of it affronts all his sensibilities. Let an author, especially it British author, tell more truth than anything else, let him further truth in intercourse and sternly rebuke whatever tends to defeat it: all this goes for naught if, in a moment of deference to some innocent romantic fashion now discredited, he is caught dodging realities. Why, the fellow cherishes 'shadows and illusions,' he is 'very drolly sentimental and feeble'; Mr. Howells will have none of him. We can think of hardly any other critic of equal repute to who has allowed so little that he disliked to overrule so much that he would have liked if he could have taken the trouble to see it. This is all explanation, of it limping sort; but it does not materially reduce the deficit chargeable to Mr. Howells as critic.

What does materially reduce it is, of course, his historical position and influence. Preaching realism and democracy at a time when the novel, under the sanction of Stevenson and Anthony Hope Hawkins, was trying as hard as it could to get back to Scott and Dumas, he was in the position of a man who must shout if he is to make the unwilling crowd listen, and even so can make them hear but one thing. Most of Mr. Howells's criticism, despite its urbane moderateness of tone, is essentially controversial. He was decrying a fashion which he hated as spurious and silly; his one message was the ugliness of whatever denies or shirks reality, and his exaggeration of that ugliness was simply the raising of his voice to overcome inattention. We do not think that he said what he did not mean, in order to he heard; but unconsciously he was carried away by his enthusiasm, as any small minority tends to be. The measure of his usefulness was the universal need of just that message, and his justification is its later universal acceptance. He fought the costume romance, and it is dead; he predicted the 'sociologic' novel, and it has come, to the exclusion of pretty nearly everything else.

In short, the author of Criticism and Fiction (1891) was one of the very few great modern men who have been deeply enough immersed in the stream of historical tendencies, and sensible enough of main currents in the life about them, really to understand and work for the future. He decried the romantic novel when it had most applause, in terms which show that he thought of it as already discredited. More characteristically, he decried a certain mawkish and very fashionable kind of sentimentalism—the sentimentalism of useless self-sacrifice made in bad cause, on the theory that self-sacrifice is in itself a great enough good to be sought at the expense of everything else. Many readers will recall the instance in Silas Lapham: a girl's refusal to marry a man because her sister is madly in love with him, and the author's admonition (expressed, it happens, though a minister of the gospel) that it is better for two people to be happy and a third unhappy for a time than for all three to be permanently wretched. In both these particulars Howells is of the twentieth century more than the nineteenth.

But even these are as nothing to his vision of what the future was to do for the brotherhood among men, the increase of economic and social community, and the sense of 'living in the whole.' That sense, he saw, was what fiction must acquire unless it were altogether to lose step with the world; and in precept and practice he helped fiction acquire it. 'Men are more like than unlike one another,' he said; 'let us make them know one another better, that they may be all humbled and strengthened with a sense of their fraternity.' 'The work done in the past to the glorification of mere passion and power, to the deification of self, appears monstrous and hideous....Art, indeed, is beginning to find out that if it does not make friends with Need it must perish.' And to Matthew Arnold's complaint that there was no 'distinction' in our national life, he justly and eloquently retorted: —

'Such beauty and such grandeur as we have is common beauty, common grandeur, or the beauty and grandeur in which the quality of solidarity so prevails that neither distinguishes itself to the disadvantage of anything else. It seems to me that these conditions invite the artist to the study and the appreciation of the common, and to the portrayal in every art of those finer and higher aspects which unite rather than sever humanity, if he would thrive in our new order of things. The talent that is robust enough to front the every-day world and catch the charm of its work-worn, care-worn, brave, kindly face, need not fear the encounter, though it seems terrible to the sort nurtured in the superstition of the romantic, the bizarre, the heroic, the distinguished, as the things alone worthy of painting or carving or writing. The arts must become democratic, and then we shall have the expression of America in art; and the reproach which Mr. Arnold was half-right in making us shall have no justice in it any longer: we shall be "distinguished."'


Because Mr. Howells's love of reality is more intense and consistent than that of any other important novelist we can think of,—and we have thumbed the list of others with some pains for the possible exception,—his realism is inexpressibly more vital than most realism. Of writers who explored the actualities because they distrusted or feared them, despised or did not know what to make of them, we have seen many, perhaps too many, since the turn of the century; but Mr. Howells is not of this company. No one has done him justice who has not seen that his love of life is his belief in life, and that it is to him quite literally a faith. By this we do not mean that he accepts everything as it is, proposing no improvements,—we have already seen how much courage he derives from the facts of social evolution,—but we do mean that he sees in life itself, ever struggling to articulate consciousness and beginning to operate, all the forces that are necessary to a great society and a great art. For him, there is no need of a fiat to legislate order into society from without; nor does he go to the opposite extreme of giving up the hope of order. All things work together for good, because that is the nature of them—even of things not in themselves good.

Thus, for him, intimacy with the real stands in the room of more prerequisites to art, and is altogether more sufficient, than we commonly know it capable of. He is a generation further along in the chronology of art than such a realist as Gissing, with whom reality was a distressing makeshift for lost faith. Mr. Howells appears never to have cherished illusions. Partly because he brought over from his early work as journalist and editor a vivid sense that life was in itself enough, and more because he was born with the probing mind that will not believe without sight where it is possible to see, he picked his way serenely through the religious disturbances of the decades when even Huxley and Arnold were spending themselves in theological controversy. He reports the disturbances indeed, but tolerantly, indulgently, as things milder than they seemed, more ephemeral, less real. Here again his faith took him forward beyond the stresses of his time; he looks back on struggles little more than begun.

This faith in the reality which is our daily life is strikingly exemplified in everything Mr. Howells has written about the phenomena of mysticism. It was only the other day that he gave us, after a long incubation, The Leatherwood God, his record of religious imposture in a small Ohio community of the early nineteenth century. It shall not be said here that he intended this story as a sly and subtle exposé of all religion through direct physical revelation: all that the evidence warrants is the assertion that he may so have intended it, and that if so he could not have done much more to sharpen its point. Clearly it expresses his contempt of the faith that demands a sign. And in Squire Matthew Braile, the shrewd and humorous 'infidel' of Leatherwood, we have not only a striking individual of one of Mr. Howells's most sympathetic types, but also the intellectual point of view of the book. 'Why,' says Braile, 'I don't see what you want of it miracle more than you've had already. The fact that your cow did n't come up last night, and Abel could n't find her in the woods-pasture this morning, is miracle enough to prove that Dylkes is God. Besides, did n't he say it himself, and did n't Enraghty say it? ...When a man stood up and snorted like a horse and said he was God, why did n't they believe him?' In all this quizzical irony did Mr. Howells mean to say, for hearing ears only, that Christianity is to him, not the water and the wine, the loaves and fishes, the empty tomb, the harps and crowns, but a rule of life which can neither be given nor taken away by any of these, and which is real whatever becomes of them?

We ask, not answer, the question. But it is worthwhile to note that the conjecture interlocks most adroitly with something Mr. Howells had written more than thirty-live years earlier—his analysis of spiritualism and its materializations in The Undiscovered Country. 'All other systems of belief, all other revelations of the unseen world, have supplied a rule of life, have been given for our use here. But this offers nothing but the barren fact that we live again. . . . It is as thoroughly godless as atheism itself, and no man can accept it upon any other man's word, because it has not yet shown its truth in the ameliorated life of men. As long as it is used merely to establish the fact of a future life it will remain sterile. It will continue to be doubted, like a conjuror's trick, by all who have not seen it; and those who see it will afterwards come to discredit their own senses. The world has been mocked with something of the kind from the beginning; it's no new thing.'

The quoted words are Dr. Boynton's: who can doubt that the meaning is the meaning of Howells? He will have nothing to do with the mysticism which is only 'a materialism that asserts and affirms, and appeals for proof to purely physical phenomena.' Its sole effect is to drive him homeward to the plain every-day faithful and courageous actual. His philosophy is all in the cry of a foolish woman who has given a bolt of linsey-woolsey that the Leatherwood God may turn it into 'seamless raiment.' '"Oh, I don't care for the miracle," she kept lamenting, "but what are my children going to wear this winter? Oh, what will he say to me!" It was her husband she meant.'


The corollary of faith is peace. And the faith of Mr. Howells in the realities of life brings to him, throughout the inordinate business of his career1, a peace, a large serenity, that one instinctively thinks of in Scriptural phrases—'the peace that passeth understanding'; 'He that believeth shall not make haste.' We have seen how little friction and loss he suffered during years when the fading of supernaturalism brought a tragic unrest into nearly the whole Western world. Through those years while others fought, he enjoyed; and even when he fought, as sometimes one must for opinions worth holding, it was in the jolliest fighting mood, and with a good nature as uncompromising as the opinions. If he had enemies to tackle, at least he was on the best of terms with himself. If it were not so, how should one account for the preponderance in him of humour, a tranquil attribute, over wit, a restive?

We would be at some pains to distinguish this deep composure of Mr. Howells from the merely vegetative contentment of which he is rather irresponsibly accused in several quarters. To words already quoted Mr. George Moore adds, in the mood of patronizing impishness which had then become his fixed mental posture: 'I see him [Mr. Howells] the happy father of a numerous family; the sun is shining, the girls and boys are playing on the lawn, they come trooping in to a high tea, and there is dancing in the evening.... He is ... domestic; girls with white dresses and virginal looks, languid mammas, mild witticisms here, there, and everywhere; a couple of young men, one a little cynical, the other a little overshadowed by his love; a strong, bearded man of fifty in the background; in a word, a Tom Robertson comedy faintly spiced with American.' These are indeed the ingredients, this is a large part of the formula—and it is a large part of America, too.

What George Moore really meant was that Mr. Howells had not chosen to be turgidly frank about sex. To which the answer is that Mr. Howells had chosen not to be, for the good reason that America does not share the Continental obsession, and provides singularly little in sex to be turgidly frank about. Mr. Howells explains himself on this point in two chapters of Criticism and Fiction; and in A Modern Instance, which contains some of his most inimitably faithful tragi-comedy of New England village life, he makes these observations upon the girl entertaining her suitor at midnight in a sleeping household: 'The situation, scarcely conceivable to another civilization, is so common in ours, where youth commands its fate and trusts solely to itself, that it may be said to be characteristic of the New England civilization wherever it keeps its simplicity. It was not stolen or clandestine; it would have interested everyone, but would have shocked no one in the whole village if the whole village had known it; all that a girl's parents ordinarily exacted was that they should not be waked up.'

This is not the ignorant bliss; it is the pax Americana that leaves youth blessedly and uniquely free from the experience of guilty love, —

. . . a heart high-sorrowful and cloy'd,
A burning forehead and a parching tongue.

No: the equableness of Mr. Howells is something other than the languor that aspires 'to sit in a corner tippling tea.' It consists of elements dynamic but under the control of knowledge and faith. Set a taut wire vibrating and touch it with the thumbnail: it gives forth a jangling buzz. Mr. Howells's criticism of life is the wire left to vibrate harmoniously; there is nothing to disturb its free play in the vast quiet space of his charity, his faith, and his self-command. The Celtic rebelliousness which he inherited gives it timbre and poignancy but not discordance; and again and again the rarely beautiful overtones, such as that poor defrauded woman's cry for her lost labor, prove that it is taut, not slack.

And, finally, 'Mr. Howells proves his profound calm in his most American appreciation and retention of the ardors of youth. We cannot see that he wrote better about youth when he had it than latterly, with all his weight of years and honor; or that he knows the meaning of age better in his eightieth year than in his fortieth. In his philosophy, things must always he renewed if they are to live; the present must re-create itself out of the dead past, and be perpetually attaining perpetual youth. Language renews itself: 'No language is ever old on the lips of those who speak it.' Literature renews itself: 'Most classics are dead.' And life renews itself. When, in The Son of Royal Langbrith, Mr. Howells treats the problem of wealth got through the chicane of the father, and the serious question of the children's attitude toward it, he makes an end of the whole matter by letting the sleeping dog lie. 'It came to Anther again, as it had come before, that each generation exists to itself, and is so full of its own events that those of the past cannot be livingly transmitted to it; that it divinely refuses the burden which elder sins or sorrows would lay upon it, and that it must do this perhaps as a condition of bearing its own.'

There is more than a touch of this indomitable youth in the characters, the best of whom live on, no older now than when we last saw them. Rarely, they step, like Trollope's characters, from one book into another—and then they are doubly welcome, doubly alive.

This year of Howells's eightieth birthday is also the centenary of Jane Austen's death—fitly, because he has honored himself in honoring her, and because she too loved reality and made successful war, from her provincial citadel, on superstition, on mawkish sensibility, and on the tinsel romanticism of the fashion then current. The years in which she was quietly fulfilling her allotted task were, like this year, made terrible by war and the pouring out of blood; yet she pursued her way and kept her faith, in a quietude untroubled by the great stirrings of empire abroad.

It is to be feared that Mr. Howells has not known how to keep himself similarly untroubled—for the world is smaller now, and crowded, and what hurts one hurts all. Our wish for him on New Year's Day, when these words are written, is that he may wring from this very fact, the community of pain, a continuation of solidarity in the world, and a hope for its eventual triumph. If we could venture to wish him anything else, it would be that he might find somehow the way to keep on believing in America—his America of the soiled hands and the good heart.

1Including, as readers of this article will like to remember, a fifteen years' connection with the Atlantic, of which he was editor-in-chief for ten years.

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