Mr. Howells's Literary Creed

IT was somewhat of a shock to Mr. Howells’s readers, and therefore to his friends, for all his readers are his friends, when in one of his novels two or three years ago they came upon a light and trifling reference to his own fiction. In spite of its playfulness it jarred on the ear; it was;; something to be accounted for, to be excused, to be defended. But this new Apologia pro Arte mea1 is so aggressive in tone, so shrill almost in its pitch of voice, that the reader is compelled to listen attentively, and possibly to readjust his notions regarding this writer. May it not be, one asks, that the change of subject noticeable in Mr. Howells’s recent work is consentaneous with a new outlook on his part? If there is a wider scope and more generous humanity in A Hazard of New Fortunes than in The Lady of the Aroostook, ought we not to look for a note in his criticism as gathered in this little book different from, or rather fuller and richer than, that which sounded in the book notices to which one turns with pleasure still as one looks over old files of The Atlantic, consule Planco?

Far be it from us to set out on a study of Howells in his first and second periods. How do we know that there will not be a third which will offer even a better vantage-ground for observing the intellectual path made by him ? Rather, we postpone to the days of our children this interesting task of historical analysis, and leave to them the thesis of establishing his identity by means of his successive developments. We have something better to do with a contemporaneous author. Imaginary perspectives are illusory, and we must accept whatever disadvantage there may be in using our own angle of observation when on the same parallel line with this novelist and critic. The views which he sets forth are working views ; they concern his neighbors and friends who are engaged in the same pursuit, and we cannot treat them merely as an interesting contribution to nineteenth - century criticism which we in the twentieth are classifying and reducing to order in our history of the development of literature.

This being so, we cannot fail to be struck with the sincerity of the utterance. Whether or not we agree with the conclusions reached by Mr. Howells, we must admit that the very intemperateness of his zeal, the almost incoherence of his protestations, bears witness to the fact that his literary creed as regards criticism and fiction is not a cool intellectual dogma, but a belief quicunque vult. His playfulness does not altogether desert him, — indeed, it betrays him into expressions which his critics, willfully or not, seize upon as fresh illustrations of his supposed arrogance; but for the most part he is too much in earnest to catch up any lighter weapons than sarcasm and irony. Nor does he look to his defenses, and with a carelessness which is born, not of confidence, but of zeal, troubles himself little with consistency, and accentuates his doctrines by personal illustrations which he makes sweeping that he may not weaken the force of his argument by too many modifications. One is not tempted to liken him to Proudhon, who, when he was expostulated with for his extravagant assertion Property is Robbery, replied that he put his price high because he knew he should be beaten down. There is no note of audacious exaggeration in Mr. Howells’s vehement assertions; he almost forgets the humorist in him as he strikes his blows and invites his opponents to come on.

It is easy, therefore, to find weaknesses in his position ; to divert attention from the main question by indignantly declaring that he is slandering Scott and Thackeray, and setting up a Russian idol in place of our native gods. A juster view discovers that his contention is for art in its relation to human nature and human history ; that the figures whom he uses are not so much directly the subjects of his criticism as they are concrete examples of artistic tendencies. In his eagerness to preach his doctrines he ignores the offenses of those whom he holds to have the true faith at heart, and overlooks the shining virtues of those who are to him worshipers of false gods. The dreariness of Ibsen, the false proportions of Margaret Fleming, may be forgiven ; the fine honor, the noble recognition of service, displayed in Scott’s characters are forgotten.

Yet is not this narrowness of intention a defect in a critic? Does it not argue the mind of a special pleader rather than of a judge ? Unquestionably, and this admission would damage our estimate of Mr. Howells as a critic, if his book in its very fibre did not renounce pretensions to criticism as that word is generally understood. It would indeed be a reduction ad absurdum if we could suppose Mr. Howells savagely girding against critics for the purpose of demonstrating that he is himself a critic. It is true that now and then he takes his place in the prisoners’ dock along with these literary criminals, but there is a mockery in this supposititious attitude which precludes deceit. No, wherever else he may deliberately discriminate, and divide, and seek with the self-effacement which belongs to the genuine critic to get at the bottom of the well, the patience which such study demands is not to be found in this little book. Here he is an apostle ardently declaring his gospel ; a crusader who knows only two classes of men, believers and paynims. It is in this light only that one can view his book.

What, then, is the truth for which Mr. Howells contends, and counts all else as dross ? What is the central idea about which all his deliverances gather ? What does he want of us, — especially what does he want of his fellow-craftsmen ? In looking through his book for some single expression of his belief we find it somewhat difficult to settle upon any one phrase ; for if we content ourselves with his final statement, that “ neither arts, nor letters, nor sciences, except as they . . . tend to make the race better and kinder, are to be regarded as serious interests, . . . and they cannot do this except from and through the truth ; 舡 or take his initial proposition “ that moods and tastes and fashions change, . . . but what is unpretentious and what is true is always beautiful and good, and nothing else is so,” we find truisms not to be quarreled with ; yet we are only at the threshold of our inquiry, for the question forces itself upon us, to be asked in no spirit of mockery, What is Truth ? The most fatal error a critic could make would be to assume that the only truth in art is what commends itself to him as truth. Here are words which bring us a little closer to Mr. Howells’s mind : —

“ I believe that, while inferior writers will and must continue to imitate them ” — great writers, that is, who have sinned against the truth — “ in their foibles and their errors, no one hereafter will be able to achieve greatness who is false to humanity, either in its facts or its duties. The light of civilization has already broken even upon the novel, and no conscientious man can now set about painting an image of life without perpetual question of the verity of his work, and without feeling bound to distinguish so clearly that no reader of his may be misled between what is right and what is wrong, what is noble and what is base, what is health and what is perdition, in the actions and characters he portrays.... I confess that I do not care to judge any work of the imagination without first of all applying this test to it. We must ask ourselves before we ask anything else, Is it true ?— true to the motives, the impulses, the principles, that shape the life of actual men and women ? This truth, which necessarily includes the highest morality and the highest artistry,—this truth given, the book cannot be wicked and cannot be weak ; and without it all graces of style and feats of invention and cunning of construction are so many superfluities of naughtiness. It is well for the truth to have all these and shine in them, but for falsehood they are merely meretricious, the bedizenment of the wanton ; they atone for nothing, they count for nothing. But in fact they come naturally of truth, and grace it without solicitation ; they are added unto it. In the whole range of fiction we know of no true picture of life — that is, of human nature — which is not also a masterpiece of literature, full of divine and natural beauty. It may have no touch or tint of this special civilization or that; it would better have this local color well ascertained ; but the truth is deeper and finer than aspects, and if the book is true to what men and women know of one another’s souls it will be true enough, and it will be great and beautiful.”

If we read this passage aright, Mr. Howells believes that a new era has dawned in fiction so radically different as to render all the achievements of the past at once antiquated ; that the distinction between the old and the new is as wide as between artificiality and naturalness ; that whereas the novel of the past was false to human nature, the only test to be applied to contemporaneous and future fiction is its fidelity to truth. There is no doubt that the range of fictitious writing has broadened and taken in subjects which once were treated only in the drama, in history, or in essays, and we agree with Mr. Howells in a remark elsewhere made that they “ form the whole intellectual life of immense numbers of people ; 舡 there has been a development likewise in the form of the novel, so that it requires some training or historical imagination to enjoy early examples, and with the greater freedom and flexibility which the novelist has attained there is greater opportunity for the full expression of individual genius ; the bounds of fiction have been extended greatly. But what proof can he allege that this development, which has been steady and normal, has suddenly become a cataclysm ? It would have been a more tenable position to hold that Walter Scott’s romances marked a new era in fiction, and that all behind belonged to the dark ages.

In Mr. Howells’s creed there is an assumption that the present generation is possessed of finer perception and is more acutely sensitive to truth in fiction, but it is incredible that men’s judgments as to truth in one form of literature should vary with the generations. There are many persons now who are misled by the false notes in Ibsen and Tolstoï, but it does not therefore follow that they would have been quick to respond to the healthy, generous sentiment of Scott. The apprehension of truth, like the expression of truth, is fundamental in human nature, and not the fortune of one favored generation. Fashions change, and it is entirely possible that the form of fiction which once was acceptable should now seem tiresome; but if our ancestors could read some of the microscopic fiction of the present day, we suspect they would cry out for something more in mass, less in detail. “ The touch of nature is there,” they might say, “ but we prefer nature in larger form. Grasshoppers do not interest us, no matter how truthful. We prefer leopards.” That truth is the test of art in fiction as in all forms of literature is undeniable ; but then the test has always been applied ; it is no new discovery.

There is again in Mr. Howells’s creed an assumption that literary art is of necessity false ; that art is a foe to the best fiction. It is true that he understands by art something that is derivative and not in itself original, but there is throughout his book a latent distrust of any art of fiction. “ Graces of style, feats of invention, cunning of construction,” these come near contempt, yet they are notes of art which, whether in fiction or poetry, has served to keep alive one work, when its neighbor, though it may have been true to fact, has perished ignominiously. We are entering, some of us think, upon a period when almost every one will write fiction, and there would be little comfort for the few of us left to read and not write if we did not believe that grace of style, feats of invention, and cunning of construction would separate some of the productions and make them worth reading. Art is the interpreter of nature, not its traducer, and in fiction as in all literature he who sees wholes and not fragments is the master. It is a mere gloss of the scholiast which makes creation to be the production of something out of nothing; in genuine theology as in genuine art the creator shapes and fashions forms out of chaotic material and breathes into them the breath of life.

With the passionate demand for truth in fiction and the denunciation of all artificiality which are prevalent notes in Mr. Howells’s book one may be in entire sympathy, without in the least believing that the portrayers of human life who are using fiction as a vehicle for conveying their diseased or hopeless views upon the character of our civilization and the destiny of man are any more close to the truth than men and women who, taking great delight in life, and unvisited by dreadful visions of the future, have built in their imagination from the materials lying about them beautiful palaces of art. A king is no doubt an obsolete sort of a creature, and the Pretender was a dismal failure, but loyalty is not a democratic invention, though it has been improved upon by democracies. Young people may safely be left in the company of paper courtiers if the man behind the courtier has not been obliterated, and something less than an historic imagination will long continue to be touched by the creations of the past.

In short, the difficulty with Mr. Howells’s literary creed is the difficulty which attaches to many religious creeds. The fundamental truth may be there, but the creed is dreadfully contemporaneous and hopelessly individual. Because one is vividly impressed by existing conditions, and discovers, it may be, here one and there one whose cry is like his own, he mistakes the accidental for the permanent, and straightway insists that the truth, though admittedly universal, must be stated in certain formulas. We are more disposed to think that what is technically known as realism is a phase of literature which corresponds with much that is contemporary in science and religion, but that, so far from being the final word in literature, it will simply make its contribution to art and give place to purer idealism.

  1. Criticism and Fiction. By W. D. HOWELLS. New York : Harper & Brothers. 1891.