William Dean Howells: Contribution as American Novelist

Also Read

      The preëminent figure in the field of American fiction during the last half century has been William Dean Howells, a man who is widely representative of the broad literary development in the country and worthy of careful study as an artist and as a critic of life. Although he has been an Easterner by residence for nearly half a century, he is the greatest contribution of the West—or what was West in his youth—to Eastern life and thought.

William Dean Howells was born in 1837 at Martins Ferry, Ohio—the second of eight children. Perhaps the richness of his character is accounted for by the varied strains in his ancestry. On his father’s side his people were wholly Welsh except his English great-grandmother, and on his mother’s wholly German except his Irish grandfather. His mother he has described as the heart of the family, and his father as the soul. The family fortunes were in money ways unsuccessful. His father’s experience as a country editor took him from place to place in a succession of ventures which were harrassed by uncertain income and heavy debts. These were always paid, but only by dint of unceasing effort.
William Dean Howells

      William Dean Howells was born in 1837 at Martins Ferry, Ohio—the second of eight children. Perhaps the richness of his character is accounted for by the varied strains in his ancestry. On his father’s side his people were wholly Welsh except his English great-grandmother, and on his mother’s wholly German except his Irish grandfather. His mother he has described as the heart of the family, and his father as the soul. The family fortunes were in money ways unsuccessful. His father’s experience as a country editor took him from place to place in a succession of ventures which were harrassed by uncertain income and heavy debts. These were always paid, but only by dint of unceasing effort. The Howells family were, however, happy in their concord and in their daily enjoyment of the best that books could bring them. Unlike many another youth who has struggled into literary fame, William Dean found a ready sympathy with his ambitions at home. His experience was less like Whitman’s than Bryant’s. From childhood the printing office was his school and almost his only school, for the district teachers had little to offer a child of literary parentage “whose sense was open to every intimation of beauty.” Very early his desire for learning led him into what he called “self-conducted inquiries” in foreign languages; and with the help of a “sixteen-bladed grammar,” a nondescript polyglot affair, he acquired in turn a reading knowledge of Latin, Greek, Spanish, German, French, and Italian. In the meanwhile he was reading and assimilating the popular English favorites. It was typical of his experience that Longfellow led him to his first studies of the Spanish language, bringing him back to Spain, where he had traveled in fancy with Irving. Always he was writing, for his life was “filled with literature to bursting,” and always imitating—now Pope, now Heine, now Cervantes, now Shakespeare.

      As a printer on country journals he had the opportunity to place his own wares before the public, often composing in type without ever putting pen to paper. His father encouraged him to contribute to journals of larger circulation, and the experience naturally led him into professional journalism before he was of age. It led him also to Columbus, the state capital, where he reported the proceedings of the legislature and in time rose to the dignity of editorial writer. During these years of late youth and early manhood his aspirations were like Bret Harte’s, all in the direction of poetry, and his earliest book was a joint effort with James J. Piatt, “Poems of Two Friends,” 1859. This was a typical experience in literary history. Again and again at the period of a change to a new form or, better, a revived artistic form, the literary youth has started to write in the declining fashion of his day and has been carried over into the rising vogue. “Paradise Lost” was first conceived of as a five-act tragedy. “Amelia” and “Tom Jones” were preceded by twenty-odd unsuccessful comedies. “The Lay of the Last Minstrel” and “Marmion” and “The Lady of the Lake” were all preliminary to “Waverley” and the tide of novels that followed. In 1860 Howells had five poems in the Atlantic and had no expectation of writing fiction; and it was another full decade, after the publication of several volumes of sketches and travel observations, before he was fairly launched on his real career.

      In Columbus he had come by 1860 to a full enjoyment of an eager, book-loving group. He was working enthusiastically as a journalist, but his knowledge of politics and statecraft did not bring him to any vivid sense of the social order. “What I wished to do always and evermore was to think and dream and talk literature, and literature only, whether in its form of prose or of verse, in fiction, or poetry, or criticism. I held it a higher happiness to stop at a street corner with a congenial young lawyer and enter upon a fond discussion of, say, De Quincey’s essays than to prove myself worthy the respect of any most eminent citizen who knew not or loved not De Quincey.” There was a succession of fellow-journalists with whom he could have this sort of pleasure, and there were houses in town where he could enjoy the finer pleasure of talking over with the girls the stories of Thackeray and George Eliot and Dickens and Charles Reade as they appeared in rapid sequence in book or serial form. “It is as if we did nothing then but read late novels and current serials which it was essential for us to know one another’s minds upon down to the instant; other things might wait, but these things were pressing.” During these years he developed a liking for the social amenities, of which an enjoyment of polite literature was a natural expression. Literature was an adornment of life and, as he saw it, was confined to an interpretation of individual experience.

      With the presidential candidacy of Lincoln, Howells became one of his campaign biographers, and after the election and a period of anxious waiting he received the appointment as United States consul to Venice. Upon his return to this country he became an Easterner, settling happily in Boston as assistant editor and then as editor in chief of the Atlantic Monthly from 1866 to 1881. This was a fulfillment beyond his highest hopes. The great New England group were at the height of their fame, and his connection with the unrivaled literary periodical of America brought him into contact with them all. He was ready to begin his own work as a writer of novels.

      For the next twenty years he was a thoroughly conventional artist, gaining satisfaction and giving pleasure through the exercise of his admirable technique. In this period he wrote always, to borrow an expression originally applied to Tennyson, as though a staid American matron had just left the room: a matron who had been nurtured on the reading which gave rise to his own literary passions—Goldsmith, Cervantes, Irving, Longfellow, Scott, Pope, Mrs. Stowe, Dickens, and Macaulay; a matron, in short, who was the Lady of the Aroostook at forty-five, the mother of a numerous family, and aggressively concerned that no book which fell into the hands of her daughters should cause the blush of shame to rise upon the maiden cheek. He wrote not only on an early experience in the life of this lady but on “A Modern Instance,” “A Woman’s Reason,” “Indian Summer,” and, best of them all, “The Rise of Silas Lapham.” He was giving ground to Mr. Crothers’s pale-gray pleasures as a reader in the time when, as he said: “I turned eagerly to some neutral tinted person who never had any adventure greater than missing the train to Dedham, and I … analyzed his character, and agitated myself in the attempt to get at his feelings, and I … verified his story by a careful reference to the railroad guide. I … treated that neutral tinted person as a problem, and I … noted all the delicate shades in the futility of his conduct. When, on any occasion that called for action, he did not know his own mind, I … admired him for his resemblance to so many people who do not know their own minds. After studying the problem until I came to the last chapter … I … suddenly gave it up, and agreed with the writer that it had no solution.” Had nothing occurred to break the sequence, he was on the way to wasting his energy, as Henry James did, “in describing human rarities, or cases that are common enough only in the abnormal groups of men and women living on the fringe of the great society of active, healthy human beings.”

      The books of this period, in other words, were all the work of a well-schooled, unprejudiced observer whose ambition was to make transcripts of life. “Venetian Life” and “Italian Journeys” were the first logical expression of his desire and his capacities—books of the same sort as “Bracebridge Hall” and “Outre-Mer” and “Views Afoot” and “Our Old Home”. “A Foregone Conclusion” and “A Fearful Responsibility” simply cross the narrow bridge between exposition and fiction but employ the same point of view and the same technique. Howells was interested in American character and in the nice distinctions between the different levels of culture. In “Silas Lapham,” his greatest novel written before 1890, the blunt Vermonter is set in contrast with certain Boston aristocrats. He amasses a fortune, becomes involved in speculation, in business injustice, and in ruin. But whatever Howells had to say then of social and economic forces, he said of powers as impersonal as gravitation. Business was business, and the man subjected to it was subjected to influences as capricious but as inevitable as the climate of New England.

      More and more as a realist he devoted himself to the presentation of character at the expense of plot. “The art of fiction,” he wrote in his essay on Henry James in 1882, “has become a finer art in our day than it was with Dickens or Thackeray. We could not suffer the confidential attitude of the latter now nor the mannerism of the former any more than we could endure the prolixity of Richardson or the coarseness of Fielding. These great men are of the past—they and their methods and interests; even Trollope and Reade are not of the present.” He dismissed moving accidents and dire catastrophes from the field of the new novel, substituting for fire and flood the slow smolder of individual resentment and a burst of feminine tears. With “April Hopes” of 1887 he deliberately wrote an unfinished story, following two young and evidently incompatible people to the marriage altar, but leaving their subsequent sacrifice to the imagination of the reader, who must imagine his own sequel or go without.

      However, when he was past fifty he underwent a social conversion. And when he wrote his next book about his favorite characters, the Marches, he and they together risked “A Hazard of New Fortunes.” He and they were no longer content to play at life under comfortable and protected circumstances. They went down into the metropolis, competed with strange and uncouth people, and learned something about poverty and something about justice. In fact they learned what went into “Annie Kilburn” and “The Quality of Mercy” and “The World of Chance” and “A Traveler from Altruria” and “The Eye of a Needle,” learning it all through the new vision given by the belated reading of a great European.

      This passage we can hardly overvaluate. Taken by itself, it is merely a punctuation point in one author’s autobiography, but seen against its background it records the epoch-marking fact that in the very years when America as one expression of itself was producing such native-born spokesmen as Whitman and Mark Twain and Joaquin Miller, it was also, in the spiritual successor to Longfellow and Lowell, making reverent acknowledgment, not to the splendors of an ancient civilization but to the newest iconoclasm in the Old World. It is not unworthy of comment that the influence of Tolstoy was exerted upon Howells after his removal to New York City, where he has been associated with the editorial staff of Harper’s Magazine ever since 1881, and that the experiences of the Marches in their hazard of new fortunes is apparently autobiographical.

      There was no violent change in the material or method of his fiction-writing. It was simply enriched with a new purpose. To his old power to portray the individual in his mental and emotional processes he added a criticism of the role the individual played in society. He added a new consciousness of the institution of which the individual was always the creator, sometimes the beneficiary, and all too often the victim. His maturity as a man and as a writer secured him in his human and artistic equilibrium, and in this degree has distinguished him from younger authors who have written with the same convictions and purposes. He has written no novels as extreme as Sinclair’s “The Jungle,” which ends with a diatribe on socialism, although he has been a socialist; he has written nothing quite so insistent as Whitlock’s “The Turn of the Balance,” although he has been keenly aware of the difference between justice and the operation of the legal system. Every story has contained a recognition that life is infinitely complex, with a great deal of redeeming and a great deal of unintelligent and baffling good in it. Furthermore, he has written always out of his own experience and with all his old skill as a novelist, so that he has never done anything so clumsily commendable as Page’s “John Marvel, Assistant” or anything so clearly prepared for by painstaking study as Churchill’s “The Inside of the Cup.”

      By 1894 Howells had come to the point where he wished to present his social thesis as a thesis, and he did so in “A Traveler from Altruria,” which is not a novel at all but a series of conversations on the nature of American life as contrasted with life in an ideal state. Mr. Homos from Altruria (Mr. Man from Other Land) is the traveler who gets his first impressions of America by visiting a conservative novelist, Mr. Twelvemough, at a summer resort in which the hotel furnishes “a sort of microcosm of the American republic.” Here, in addition to the host, are an enlightened banker, a complacent manufacturer, an intolerant professor of economics, a lawyer, a minister, and a society woman “who as a cultivated American woman … was necessarily quite ignorant of her own country, geographically, politically and historically”; and here also are the hotel keeper, the baggage porter, a set of college-girl waitresses, and a surrounding population of “natives,” as the summer resorter invidiously describes the inhabitants whom he doesn’t quite dare to call peasants. In the earlier part of the essay the social cleavages are embarrassingly revealed—the ignominy of being a manual laborer or, worse still, a domestic servant, and the consequent struggle to escape from toil and all the conditions that surround it. This leads quickly to a study of the economic situation in a republic where every man is for himself.

      When pinned by embarrassing questions the defenders of the American faith take refuge in what they regard as the static quality of human nature, but are further embarrassed by the Altrurian’s innocent surprise at their tactics. He does not understand that it is in human nature for the first-come to be first served, or for every man to be for himself, or for a man “to squeeze his brother man when he gets him in his grip,” or for employers to take it out of objecting employees in any way they can. To Mr. Twelvemough it is a matter of doubt as to whether the traveler is ironically astute or innocently simple in his implication that even human nature is subject to development.

      The latter two thirds of the book are a composite indictment of an economic system which permits slavery in everything but name and which extols the rights of the individual only as they apply to the property holder. This culminates with the concluding lecture by the Altrurian—an “account of his own country, which grew more and more incredible as he went on, and implied every insulting criticism of ours.”

      These are the convictions which dominate in all the later works. On the whole it is a significant fact that novels of so radical a thesis have attracted so little opposition. Never was an iconoclast received with such unintelligent tolerance. The suavity of his manner, the continued appearance of his books of travel and observation, the recurrence (as in “The Kentons”) to his old type of work or the resort (as in the long unpublished “Leatherwood God”) to fresh woods and pastures new, and all the while the humorous presentation of his favorite characters, particularly the bumptious young business man and the whimsically incoherent American woman, beguile his readers into a blind and bland assumption of Mr. Howells’s harmlessness. Possibly because they have been less skillful and more explicit, novel after novel from younger hands has excited criticism and the healthy opposition which prove that the truth has struck home. Perhaps his largest influence being indirectly exerted, his lack of sensationalism or sentimentalism debar him from the “best-seller” class; but for fifty years he has been consistently followed by the best-reading class, and no novelist of the newer generation has been unconscious of his work.

Previous Post Next Post