William Dean Howells

I

SOME novels are all plot and no characters. They are like unoccupied houses. Put Becky Sharp in the house. What a difference! How many detective stories do people read — and forget? But Sherlock Holmes and Watson are remembered these forty years; so are Don Quixote and Sancho Panza these four hundred. It is their personages, rather than their plots, which cause novels to outlive their generation. I read A Modern Instance in the early eighties. Until I reread it a while ago, I could have told you but obscurely of its incidents; whereas of Bartley Hubbard, and Marcia his wife, and her father Squire Gaylord, I could have given you a quite definite account. In my memory all three had weathered time; they stood out clear against the faded background of their detailed adventures.

William Dean Howells has left our literature a large company of men and women so true to life that, although he created them in an epoch that has passed, we can travel about the United States and see many still like them today. Indeed, if there be a writer whose books are more crowded with veracious portraits of his fellow Americans, firmly and subtly painted, I don’t know him.

Howells wrote some forty novels. One particular thread runs through so many of them that it might almost be called his leitmotif. This recurrent theme is the confronting of the simple with the sophisticated, the rustic with the urban, the country mouse with the town mouse. In Doctor Breen’s Practice, Grace Breen is a young lady physician at a seaside resort, with whom Dr. Mulbridge, of the vicinity, has fallen in love.

‘“I presume,” says his mother to him, speaking of the young lady, “that she’s been used to ways that ain’t like our ways. I’ve always stuck up for you, Rufus, stiff enough, I guess; but I ain’t going to deny that you’re country born and bred. I can see that, and she can see it too. It makes a great difference with girls. I don’t know as she’d call you what they call a gentleman.”

‘Dr. Mulbridge flushed angrily. Every American, of whatever standing, thinks of himself as a gentleman, and nothing can gall him more than the insinuation that he is less.’

From his birth in 1837 until 1861, when for the first time he set foot outside Ohio, Howells was himself a country mouse. When he was born, Andrew Jackson was n’t dead, Victoria was n’t crowned, Ohio cornfields were clearings framed by the backwoods, railroads were in their cradle, government postage stamps did not exist. Of his earliest years he records in that quiet, charming style of which he was master: —

‘Nobody was rich there or then; we lived in the simple abundance of time and place, and we did not know that we were poor.’

Except in those of his pages dedicated to laughter, a grave and gentle attitude toward life pervades his writings. Heredity made him so, as environment made him a country mouse. Four generations behind him, he had an ancestor in Wales who became in his maturity a Friend by Convincement, as the Quakers say. This Friend by Convincement had a son whose protest against the pomps and vanities of this wicked world drove him from Wales across the sea. He found shelter from mundane frivolities in the backwoods of Ohio. There, in a primitive settlement, he carried on his father’s business of making flannel, but placed his family in an outlying log cabin, isolated from whatever pomps and vanities rioted in the settlement. He became a Methodist of camp-meeting habit, and preached damnation to the sinful pioneer. In his son the inherited spiritual strain relaxed, but persisted. Skeptic for a while, he read Swedenborg, and was converted to that dreamy faith. To Howells this Swedenborgian father transmitted what had come straight down from the old Welsh Friend by Convincement. The moral appraisement of human action is implicit throughout the novels. This, with the delicate subtlety of his touch, sets Howells apart from his successors in the field of realism, the field he cleared sixty years ago for the crops that flourish in it to-day — the good grain and the noxious growth.

Manual work began early for him as typesetter in his father’s printing office: not always the same office; not always a newspaper. Once it was a mill; and thereby hangs the tale of New Leaf Mills, the most flawless of all. The unsuccessful Swedenborgian changed occupations right through the twenty-four years during which his son never set foot outside Ohio; but he succeeded in opening the boy’s mind to books. Volumes of doleful poetry formed the bulk of the Methodist grandfather’s small library. To these the father did not confine himself when he read aloud to his son. He led him to less gloomy authors. The precocious typesetter soon needed no guiding. By thirteen, Howells had fairly turned himself loose in literature. He climbed about in it as a boy climbs trees for cherries and apples and birds’ nests. He moved from author to author as his father moved from job to job; and he took to writing in the style of the master he was reading. At Columbus, it was decasyllabic couplets, like the Augustan Pope. They were composed in his head through the forenoon while setting type, and written down during the hour for the midday meal. Elsewhere, a tragedy drawn from Roman history was cast in the metre of The Lady of the Lake. While at Ashtabula, the future Dean of American Letters wrote in the manner of Ossian. At Jefferson, it was Shakespeare. He read the plays with a brother typesetter in the woods. He says of their reading that it ’was not interrupted when a squirrel dropped a nut on us from the top of a tall hickory, and the plaint of a meadow-lark prolonged itself with unbroken sweetness from one world to the other.’

Thus he continued to spring from enthusiasm to enthusiasm, continually changing literary costumes; off with one and on with another. He grew very agile. Standing at his type case, he set up as he made up a serial in the combined styles of Bleak House and Reveries of a Bachelor. He overheard a farmer who came in for his paper say that he did not think that story amounted to much. His greatest love possessed him while at Columbus for the third time. He was now furnishing news letters about legislation to various papers. He read Heine with an old German bookbinder. This bookbinder became Lindau in A Hazard of New Fortunes. With him Howells not only read but wrote Heine; sent a poem to the Atlantic Monthly, which James Russell Lowell thought must be Heine, and would not print for some time.

And now it was 1861, and Howells twenty-four, and in charge of the news department of a Columbus evening Republican newspaper. News in 1861 was fierce. It never got inside him. It ran off his back, just as it had run in 1848 while kings were being shaken from their thrones; just as it did while the Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny filled the winds with rumors and the earth with graves. Foreign lightning did not strike American barns in those days; but there were violent native storms all through the 1850’s well within hearing of Ohio. That decade began with the Fugitive Slave Law and ended with the hanging of John Brown; and Howells had read Uncle Tom’s Cabin as it came out in the National Era. And now, in 1861, the South had seceded, Sumter had fallen, Washington was threatened — yet during his farewell month in Ohio the news still ran off his back. ‘In this month,’ he says, ‘I devoured all the Waverley novels, but I must have been devouring a great many others, for Charles Reade’s Christie Johnstone is associated with the last moment of the last days.’

These days were the last because, in acknowledgment of his compiling the campaign life of Abraham Lincoln, Howells was appointed consul abroad. This country mouse stepped from Ohio to Austrian officers, the Piazza San Marco, Titian, and the Palace of the Doges, with not a step between. His momentary glimpse of Atlantic Monthly society in 1860 had not counted; it was this appointment that changed his destiny.

II

What did he take to that city of sophistication? Intimate knowledge of English literature, some knowledge of Latin, Greek, French, and Spanish; an Italian grammar to study aboard ship; a style already formed; and unbounded innocence of Mediterranean morals and social discriminations. What did he bring home? A wife, companion of his youth and age, and a wealth of impressions, delightfully recorded later; for example in A Foregone Conclusion, that early novel, where Don Ippolito is the translation into fiction of the priest with whom Howells in his Venetian days read Dante a little, and conversed much.

The Civil War was going on throughout his consulship, and formed the subject of an epic. This the consul composed in Dante’s terza rima. That no editor would accept it is hardly a matter for amazement. One wishes that Howells could have read John Brown’s Body. In his published books the Civil War enters by reference only: Ferris, Venetian consul, comes home and gets a wounded arm; in A Chance Acquaintance, Dick and Bob Ellison are on leave when the emancipation of the slaves is proclaimed: Colonel Silas Lapham carries in his leg a bullet from Gettysburg; in A Hazard of New Fortunes, Colonel Woodburn, a most amiable Virginian, cherishes a plan for restoring slavery so purged of its imperfections that Massachusetts, South Carolina, and Uncle Tom will all be equally and utterly content.

Old World sophistication could not have dawned upon Howells; it must have burst. What in that epoch, for complexity, could have been the ripest Ohio beside the greenest Venice? Consider the jump from Dan’l Boone to Francis Joseph and Colleoni! It is what gave a shock to Lydia Blood in The Lady of the Aroostook. And next, the step from the Adriatic to Manhattan, to Harvard and Beacon Street, less sophisticated than Francis Joseph, but more complex than Columbus, Ohio.

It is through these contrasts that Howells found his perspective; for to see your own place critically you must always go somewhere else. From Venice he looked at his own country, from New York and Boston he saw Ohio. Enter his novels through him, and you have their interpretation and their significance. It is a map of his country and the people of his day that he opens. It is drawn by the true descendant of the Friend by Convincement, watching his fellow men and their ways with forbearance and understanding, and sorrowful over the inequalities of civilization.

He did some writing for the Nation and North American Review in New York; thence he went in 1866 to Cambridge and Boston as subeditor and editor of the Atlantic Monthly for fifteen years. He lingered in Boston after that.

There, in 1884, some young men made him a request. These young men were undomesticated. Their meals were homeless, their pennies few, most of them slept in lodgings. A violin, or a voice, or a paintbrush, or a pen, was to keep the wolf from their door. They wanted a club — a small one, and simple. Would Howells be president? He would. To gather enough members, they sought further among the congenial and undomesticated. They found young doctors, fresh from Vienna and Paris, all learning and few patients; attorneys ready for clients, and architects recently out of the Beaux Arts; some musicians by choice, some bank clerks by compulsion, with tastes at war with banking: a rare, harmonious motley. They jested and romped. Their meat was modest, their drink Chianti; but with no drink at all they could career like colts in a field. They abounded in whims. One purchased a bear, and brought it to be the club pet. This was not a success. And there sat gently smiling Howells, presiding when he brought guests like Henry Irving, who prolonged the night to 6 A.M. listening to high-kilted songs. Then Howells said, ‘Irving, do you never go home?‘ And so ended that particular festivity.

Gently smiling Howells; sturdy of frame, round and massive of head; nearing fifty; moustache and hair growing gray; with kind, rather sad eyes; watching and relishing the gayety of these young men. In after years he wrote from New York: ‘I would gladly be with you all again, for a part of my past that I am proud of and fond of is bound up with the Tavern Club.’ In that dining room, mellowed with memories, hangs his likeness, pensive and benign. Beneath it he has written: —

Taverners! where long ago I was the host,
Let me come back again and be your guest;
And while I share the joy of song and toast,
Still keep the silence that I shone in best.

Few are left at that club who remember their first president. More are in New York who saw and heard him as first president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. After those Beacon Street years, he moved, at the end of the eighties, to New York, and there spent most of his later life. For what might be called a moment he was editor of the Cosmopolitan, and, during twenty years, of ‘The Editor’s Easy Chair,’ in Harper’s Magazine, his busy hand as unflagging in Manhattan as it had been in the days when it had set type in Ohio.

When the Great War began, Eugène Brieux brought greetings from his Academy to ours. At the assembly to receive him, our first president bade the French dramatist welcome. Sturdy of frame, of rounded head, grayer than in his Tavern days, he spoke with the same felicity that fills his books and quietly glows with the inner gentleness of a Friend by Convincement.

III

In his very first story Howells says: —

The sincere observer of man will not desire to look upon his heroic or occasional phases, but will seek him in his habitual moods of vacancy and tiresomeness. ... I never perceive him to be so much a man and a brother as when I feel the pressure of his vast, natural, unaffected dullness. Then I am able to enter confidently into his life and inhabit there, to think his shallow thoughts, to be moved by his dumb, stupid desires, to be dimly illuminated by his stinted aspirations, to share his foolish prejudices, to practise his obtuse selfishness. . . . Do I pitch my pipe too low? We poor honest men are at a sad disadvantage; and now and then I am minded to give a loose to fancy, and attribute something really grand and fine to my people, in order to make them worthier of the reader’s respected acquaintance.

‘We poor honest men.’ By that he meant the realists. In 1872, when he published that first story, realists were as yet little heard of on our side of the Atlantic. Howells espoused their doctrine, and was their evangelist in our wilderness.

Again, in his very next story, Howells utters his creed through the lips of his heroine. Kitty Ellison, in A Chance Acquaintance, says: —

‘If I were to write a story, I should want to take the slightest sort of plot, and lay the scene in the dullest kind of place, and then bring out all their possibilities.’

Very well: possibilities undoubtedly lurk in chronicling small beer; but so they do in Burgundy and champagne. If you banish those well-known if more expensive articles, you exclude, your realism stops short; for what justification has the word unless it means the inclusion of all reality?

I think Howells did pitch his pipe too low. And why, one might ask, when at the outset he offered to his readers a programme so plain, did any readers seek him? There are several answers to that, and all of them good. He pitched his pipe too low; but he brought from it such delicate and subtle tones as to charm the ears of the discriminating at once.

That first slight story, Their Wedding Journey, little more than an animated guidebook of the St. Lawrence, caused the discerning to speak to each other of it. Still more did A Chance Acquaintance. These two present the same group on the same steamboat, seeing Niagara and Canada on the same journey. In the second book, Howells picks other characters from the group to be chief actors in the little drama; and for the first time he confronts the country mouse with the town mouse. His third story, The Lady of the Aroostook, is a variant of the same theme, and brought him increasing attention. This was during the seventies. At the beginning of the eighties, A Modern Instance struck a far graver note; and when Silas Lapham appeared in 1885, his audience had come to watch with interest for each next book.

I set the charm of his style first among the good reasons for this. Next, Howells did not confine himself to man’s ‘vast, natural, unaffected dullness,’ and ‘shallow thoughts,’ and ‘dumb, stupid desires,’ and ‘obtuse selfishness.’ Plenty of all that he assuredly gives us; his map of Americans is the broadest I know; or better, his forty novels are a city peopled with more specimens of what Americans so variously can be than any other. But, had he stuck to his principles, never should we have had Kitty Ellison, that attractive, sprightly country mouse, with whom, right at the start, Howells deserts his principles. I wish he had followed Kitty up in subsequent stories, as he follows her fellow travelers Basil and Isabel March considerably, and other characters in other books slightly. Kitty writes of her Boston town-mouse acquaintance: ‘He has been a good deal abroad, and he is Europeanized enough not to think much of America, though I can’t find that he quite approves of Europe.’ And she says: ‘Sometimes it seems to me as if Mr. Arbuton were all gloves and slim umbrella.’

And so I come to my third good reason, and will add no others. It is that we Americans never until we were a hundred years old had seen ourselves in print, our daily selves and ways. Not Brockden Brown, nor Fenimore Cooper, nor Simms, nor the twilight Hawthorne, had hit us where we lived. Two visitors had done so — but how was a people that boisterously took itself and its institutions for the millennium to relish the pieces of their minds that Mrs. Trollope and Charles Dickens gave it? But that had been long ago. The Civil War was behind us, the Pacific railroad finished, civilization not quite a drop in the bucket; Punch lay on tables in rooms where Diaz and Daubigny hung on the walls, Chopin stood open on grand pianos; Patti was queen of song, Delmonico Chesterfield of the cuisine; the bronze mastiff no longer decorated the lawns of the genteel. At Appomattox the Union had won not only its war but also its intellectual independence. We had grown both less green and less sensitive. Many grandchildren whose grandparents had found the plain talk of Dickens and Mrs. Trollope highly exasperating were now fit to have a mirror held up to nature without desire to smash it. One mirror there had been as early as 1856; but so few had read the realistic novels of De Forest that he passed unheeded. Let any reader who opens Howells today and wonders why he awakened so much attention among the intelligent realize the situation. There had been no mirror. Here was one, clear and bright; and in it crowds of our daily selves and ways, reflected without distortion, and by one of us. It was a new thing. Howells stepped into a literary vacuum, and filled it.

It was new to meet your private thoughts about your own country and fellow countrymen uttered aloud, and so well uttered. When they read of the ‘humorous, sub-ironical American expression,’ close observers had seen that; they, too, had noted ’the American convention of jocosity in talk,’ the ‘optimistic fatalism of our orientalizing West,’ our ‘self-satisfied, intolerant, and hypocritical provinciality,’ that national mood of ‘sarcastic patience . . . in which we Americans face most problems of life,’ and an ‘abundance of that humorous brightness which may hereafter be found the most national quality of Americans.’ Over such generalizations as these, appreciative readers nodded their heads; nor could they differ with Howells when he said that ‘in America life is yet a joke with us, even when it is shameful and grotesque, as it so often is.’ Howells softens his hard sayings by his pervading kindness; he never preaches, he never scolds; it is seldom that he implies anything so savage as in what Ben Halleck in A Modern Instance says of the newspaper man, Bartley Hubbard: ‘He was a poor cheap sort of creature. Deplorably smart, and regrettably handsome. A fellow that assimilated everything up to a certain extent, and nothing thoroughly. A fellow with no more moral nature than a base-ball. The sort of a chap you’d expect to find, the next time you met him, in Congress or the house of correction.’

One parenthetical word about De Forest: in 1875, in his novel Playing the Mischief, before Howells, he had several Congressmen in his mirror; after sixty years they don’t look a day older.

Generalizations at which the discriminating nodded are to be found from first to last in the novels. I am considering the novels only. What he has to say in his essays and his verse gives no more of the man than is expressed or implied in his fiction: the poetry in him, the seriousness, the sadness, the drollery, the style. Of style he says, in praise of The Vicar of Wakefield: ‘Kindness and gentleness are never out of fashion. . . . I do not believe that the best art of any kind exists without them. . . . The greatest talent is not that which breathes of the library, but that which breathes of the street, the field, the open sky, the simple earth.’

Besides meeting in Howells their private thoughts about their country, observant readers found a large collection of Americans, men and women just like people they had often, or sometimes, seen: the hotel clerk who treats you as if it were a privilege to speak to him; the customhouse officer who addresses you as if he had caught you in a crime; the religious impostor, the rustic bigot, the fake medium, the deceived spiritualist, the ardent convert to a brand-new religion, the girl who can’t make up her mind, the spinster who fills her sterile hours with philanthropy, the dabbler in art, the infallible wife, the passively ironic husband, the unmanageable child, the helpless parent, the dry, shrewd Yankee, the rich man who builds the village a new Sunday school and dodges his taxes, many women with every shade of jealousy from imperceptible manœuvring to ungoverned outbreak, and various vivid degrees of the blackguard.

Howells succeeds with many types of both sexes; I think he is more at home with the eternal feminine, and also with his country-bred folk, rough or gentle. In Miss Bellard’s Inspiration he paints tenderly and truly a Victorian couple, old-fashioned, of simple, provincial decency; the people you may still find in square houses not lately carpeted or painted, whence antique dealers have bought sideboards and portraits, and left Landseer’s ‘Monarch of the Glen’ behind; and outside there is some box growing. Soon you will not be able to find them. Other types are better fitted to survive in our hit-and-run civilization, amid our haste, waste, and sham, our heyday of the crank, the crook, and the quack.

But you will find Mrs. Maynard. She is in Doctor Breen’s Practice. From the many examples of the spoiled American woman that Howells gives I pick her out. We have all seen her. Mrs. Maynard has lost her taste for her husband, has come away from him, is seeking a divorce, has left him. She is full of selfpity. She is n’t well. Complaint is her keynote. The doctor recommends her going to bed. She exclaims: ‘Then I’m going to be down sick! I knew I was! I knew it. . . . Well, I should think George Maynard would want to be with his family!’

Our best novelists have presented variously this specimen of American woman: in Unleavened Bread her name is Selma, you meet her in The Plutocrat, and in Dodsworth; perhaps the latest example of her is the insupportable mother in The Last Puritan.

Doctor Breen’s Practice is the novel I should recommend to any young reader desirous of making the acquaintance of Howells. It is not one of his important books. They are too long for a beginner, too andante in movement for a generation that demands everything to be allegro; but the story combines insight, character drawing, and landscape, with a perfection of delicate art that is hard to find just now. I rate Doctor Breen’s Practice high among the lesser novels. Excellent also is Annie Kilburn, with a rich girl trying to be a benefactor; and The Undiscovered Country, with a daughter sacrificed to her father’s fanatical belief in spiritualism. In The Kentons the beginner will find the headlong daughter, her nice, worried, helpless parents, her irrepressible younger brother, and a fine specimen of the blackguard. But the most interesting blackguard in the collection will be found in The Landlord at Lion’s Head. No character throughout Howells is more alive than Jeff Durgin. Much of the action is laid in New Hampshire, and the opening pages of landscape are pages of enchanting beauty.

Conversations in Howells are very natural. His car was true. It caught nice shades of ignorance or education, nice cadences and vocabularies, rustic and urban. I have spoken of his wellbred country mouse, Kitty Ellison. Compare the English which she speaks with that of the rustic Marcia Gaylord.

Less charming is poor, jealous, tragic Marcia Gaylord in A Modern Distance; but very vivid — alive from head to foot. Her jealousy of Bartley Hubbard is what breaks down that inferior character, and brings their marriage to grief. In this almost great book — the nearest he came to greatness — Howells lays a light, sure touch on one of the sinister infirmities in American character: the failure of the American parent. It is the most sinister of all. Neglectful homes turn out worthless children. were a census of young nuisances, young wastrels, young failures, and young criminals to be taken, the neglectful home would prove the place that bred most of them by its slipshod irresponsibility. Poor, stormy Marcia’s parents teach her nothing of self-control, let her dash defenseless into life; and upon her father, through her disaster, a logical Nemesis descends. The dramatic divorce trial rises to tragedy; the book far outtops the better-known Silas Lapham.

As a type of the self-made man, I choose Jacob Dreyfoos in A Hazard of New Fortunes, rather than Silas Lapham. He is more dynamic, more of a savage. The sudden creation of his fortune brings him, as it brings Lapham, from the country to the town. Wealth suffocates the human in him, and develops the ruthless. Many separate destinies are intertwined for a while in this most crowded of all the novels, many offspring of American conditions; Beaton, the poseur and parlor blackguard, Fulkerson the flippant promoter, Lindau the tragic old German socialist, once again Basil and Isabel March, Mela, silly daughter of Dreyfoos, her wildcat sister Christine, and still others. The strongest, deepest current of the book is the relation of Dreyfoos, the grasping, untamed gogetter, to his gentle, spiritually-minded, and only son, Conrad. Conrad’s devotion to helping the helpless bitterly angers his father. Once he strikes the boy. Conrad’s death while trying to pacify a mob of workmen with whom he sympathizes, and to shield the foolish, ungovernable Lindau from a policeman’s club, brings old Dreyfoos face to face with himself.

Silas Lapham is brought face to face with himself more gradually, by his sensible, clear-sighted, right-minded wife. All through the days of their prosperity she has shaken her head and spoken her mind over his freezing a partner out of business at a moment to his own, but not to the partner’s, advantage. Silas obstinately justifies himself by what is called the ethics of business: the partner took more money out of the venture than he put into it. Where was the hardship, where the offense? Well, it did n’t satisfy Mrs. Lapham. The partner was dropped at the moment when huge profits were imminent, and Silas got all of them. She never gives in, she always returns to the charge. Invariably he is sullen. But in the end, after adversity, and through it, Silas rejects a transaction which business ethics would entirely justify, but his wife never. This is the true core of the book, this bringing a rough, domineering man face to face with himself. It is a good instance of that moral measure and test of human conduct which makes the foundation of all the serious writing of Howells. Conscience had not been stricken from the dictionary of his generation.

The love story in the book is something I am inclined to doubt. Given, as Howells gives, the sort of country mouse that Penelope Lapham is, and the sort of town mouse that Tom Corey is, I find myself in need of more convincing that Tom would have married, or ever have wished to marry, Penelope. His Beacon Street background and her farmhouse background had produced a youth and a maiden so widely dissimilar in tastes, customs, and ideas, that the thing is not to me quite probable. To make me believe it, Tom should have been far less conventional, and Penelope far more charming. Again, in A Modern Instance, the scruples of Ben Halleck about asking Marcia to be his wife — but listen; I leave it to you.

During Marcia’s unhappy marriage to Bartley Hubbard, Ben discovers that he has fallen in love with her. He never tells her. She never knows it. He takes himself off to a far country. Events move on. There is the divorce trial, the flight of Bartley Hubbard, and, in time, his death in the far Southwest. Marcia, a widow, has gone back to live with her father in the country. Ben wants to marry her just as much as ever; but he feels his having been in love with her while she was another man’s wife to be an indelible stain. ‘Am I not,’ he asks, ‘bound by the past to perpetual silence?’

Such a state of mind I could accept in a nature extravagantly morbid, but not in Ben Halleck as drawn by Howells up to that point. Nor can I accept, in MissBellard’s Inspiration, the savage quarrels of the married couple in public. They are visitors in the house of gentlefolk.

The readiness is all. In every fiction, whether on the stage or in a book, the art of preparation is the final secret to master. We need not know what is coming next; but when it comes, we must assent to it. What is the theatre? What is a novel? Each is a form of Art which creates, by a set of conventions, the illusion of actuality. Have you ever opened a story, expecting to read it for a little while — and sat up till you finished it in the small hours? Most of us know this experience. And what exactly happened to us while we read? The illusion of actuality was created in us by the author’s art. He conjured us into the land of make-believe. We knew that we were merely reading black words on white pages; yet, was our state not akin to hypnosis? We did not hear the telephone, and if the furniture cracked suddenly, perhaps we jumped. And so I find the doctrine of realism pretentious in its assumption of a superior veracity. Once the author creates the illusion of actuality, what matter if he tells me about Louis the Eleventh, or the smells his own nose has smelt in the slums, or a traffic policeman in Chicago, whom he sees every day? Of course we are likely to respect the accurately observed more than the ineptly invented; but true imagination sees deeper than the camera: else, why is Hamlet quite alive three hundred and thirty-seven years after his birth?

I cannot agree that realism is the only method by which the illusion of actuality can be created. Henry James, in writing enthusiastically to Howells about A Hazard of New Fortunes, says: ‘The novelist is a window . . . and it’s because you open so well and are hung so close over the street that I could hang out of you all day long. Your very value is that you choose your own street — heaven forbid that I should choose it for you.’ Of like opinion is Maupassant: ‘Some chosen spirits ask alone of the artist, “Make me something beautiful, in the form that suits you best according to your temperament.”’

And likewise Kipling: —

There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays,
And — every — single — one — of — them — is — right!

IV

Howells and James followed each other’s art with close admiration. In 1896, James asked me at Rye, where he was planning to live, if I had seen Howells lately. And he fell to praising The Landlord at Lion’s Head. ‘It’s — it’s — it’s,’ he began, ‘well, I think it’s possible — yes, I’ll go as far as possible — that — that six-and-a-half Americans know how good it is.’

‘Counting me?’

‘Yes, my dear Owen, you’re the half!’

Howells enjoyed that when I told him.

I saw him often, knew his kindness well, listened to his opinions, not always able to agree with them. Once I came into his library in Beacon Street on a day of the Harvard Class Races. He had been watching them from the window.

‘I had a sort of religious experience this afternoon,’ he said. ‘People down there in the alley along the water kept climbing on my back fence to see the rowing; and a policeman was busy making them get off. I sent for him, and thanked him. After he had gone, it came over me, what better right had I than they to sit comfortably in this room when they were out on the fence?’

‘But you have earned it by your gift and hard work!’ I protested.

He gave a baffled sigh. ‘Yes, yes, but it ought n’t to be.’

We were speaking on another day of Dr. Weir Mitchell, whose genius as a doctor he admired; he also read his novels, which had a quality quite above the common. ‘But I fear he’s on the side of the nobles,’ said Howells, rather sadly.

He deplored the passages in great literature which unveil the human animal; and he wished that they could be expurgated. And when he had, with his usual unlimited kindness, read a long rebellious novel I had brought him, and given me quite astonishing encouragement, he paused with an embarrassed laugh, and proceeded, ‘I’m going to ask you not to publish it. You might find a publisher; and later I think you would be sorry. There are too much hard drinking and hard swearing in it and too much knowledge of good and evil. Were it a translation from the Russian, I should n’t object.’

Consider the objections that this inconsistent realist would have raised had the author of Teeftallow, Bright Metal, The Store, brought him those admirable, unsparing pictures of prejudice and bigotry! He would have begged the author of The Lost Lady not to tell us what she has there told us so well; and certain steps which the gifted author of Work of Art allows us to see in the education of Myron Weagle, Howells does not allow us to see in the education of Jeff Durgin. A perfect hotel is the ambition of both these youths; both are Yankee rustics; but a generation of change lies between them. Let the inquiring student of realism in our fiction compare The Landlord at Lion’s Head with Work of Art, and he will see what a long way we have gone beyond Howells.

In short, realist though he meant to be, the descendant of the Friend by Convincement, the typesetter from early Ohio, turns his mirror away from a very elemental reality in human nature, so compelled by the taste of his epoch and by that personal reticence which dwelt in him.

While still a typesetting lad, he stood at the case with his father, throwing the type right and left into place. And while they did so they read together and discussed George Eliot’s translation of the Life of Jesus, by David Friedrich Strauss, a new book then. It destroyed whatever faith in revealed religion was in young Howells. Until, in middle age, he was walking near Florence with James Bryce and Stillman, then correspondent of the London Times, he had taken it for granted that no well-read man had any faith. His happening to say so astonished his companions, and to learn that many educated men believed in God came to him, as he described it, like a blow.

I recommend one other short tale to the inquiring beginner. New Leaf Mills, distilled from the typesetter’s early years, but written very late, recalls Turgenev in its flawless directness and clarity, as well as in the rigorous simplicity of its subject. But, whatever book he explores, the young student will find that it ‘dates.’ After fifty years, how many novels do not date? If he is a real student, he will fall in with the more leisurely pace of other days. Then he will find that Howells, though most of his tales are laid east of the Alleghenies, somehow includes the whole of our social geography, except the very different social geography of Henry James. There, beginning with Daisy Miller, you find the American confronted with Europe, as you find the American in Howells confronted with other Americans. The successors of both masters are many: the American of Newport and Park Avenue in The House of Mirth, the less ornamental American in Babbitt. Our huge continent makes inevitable, and desirable, the regional novel, the Porgys, the Teeftallows, the Rome Hauls, the My Antonias; and these with many others are seldom written, like their predecessors of the Victorian era, with gloves on, but with bare hands — some hands that their owners would do well to wash.

But if he possess any critical discernment my inquiring beginner will perceive that the mirrors of none, though they may blaze more brutally, give reflections so clear in moulding and outline, so quiet, so undistorted, as those which the delicate art of William Dean Howells held up to nature in his day.

  1. Delivered before the American Academy of Arts and Letters on the Blashfield foundation.