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.