The Boston Globe
November 10, 2002
WILLIAM DEAN HOWELLS WAS THE LEADING MAN OF LETTERS OF HIS TIME. NOW HE'S OUT OF THE NORTON ANTHOLOGY. HOW DID THE BOSTONIAN'S STOCK FALL SO LOW?
BYLINE: BY Keith Gessen
IN 1912, ON THE occasion of his 75th birthday, the novelist William Dean Howells was treated in New York to an enormous banquet. It was the sort of party now reserved for the launch of a new T-shirt or a highway; among the luminaries in attendance was the President of the United States. Speech followed toast followed entree, and the enormous William Howard Taft, though betraying no specific knowledge of Howells's work, bravely declared Howells "the greatest living American writer and novelist." No one arched an eyebrow.
Across the ocean, Howells's old friend Henry James was nearing 70. He, too, was not without admirers ("an effeminate old donkey," as one observer described him, "who lives with a herd of other donkeys around him and insists on being treated as if he were the Pope"), and he had recently collected, revised, and prefaced his fiction in Scribner's immortal New York Edition. The initial sales were dismal, however, and James wasn't feeling particularly immortal.
The festivities surrounding Howells's birthday filled James with horror: He studied the guest list, he said, with "the appallment of fascination - or the fascination of appallment." He nonetheless penned an extraordinary letter for declamation at the event - a generous, touching appreciation after decades of private and public reservations. James had been complaining for years that Howells could only write of what he saw; now he was amazed that Howells had seen things so clearly. He had complained that Howells could only write about America, and that America was "thin"; now he acknowledged the signal service of Howells as a "documentarian" of the American scene. It is the most perfect and positive assessment Howells would ever receive, but amid all the festivities and declarations it would have struck, had it been read aloud as intended, an incongruous note. "The critical intelligence," James said at the end of his letter, "has not at all begun to render you its tribute." In the temple of Howells's delight, James could not forget that his friend was under-praised - that he himself had under-praised him. "Your really beautiful time," he promised Howells, "will come."
Fast-forward 90 years. John W. Crowley, the country's preeminent Howells scholar, brings to his small graduate seminar at Syracuse University the freshly printed prospectus for the sixth edition of "The Norton Anthology of American Literature." He has spent the past three decades attempting to rescue William Dean Howells from critical neglect, and now he bears bad news. "They've finally gone and done it," Crowley says, sounding like Charlton Heston at the end of "Planet of the Apes." "Howells is out of the Norton."
And so it goes. The central figure in American literature during the second half of the 19th century - it was, by popular consensus, the Age of Howells - has been dropped from the leading college anthology. "It's a classic Derridean situation," says Crowley, who has recourse to critical theory only in times of great distress. "They've eliminated the center of American literature. There is no center." This spring, students in hundreds of first-year American Lit courses will read Ronald Gottesman's introduction to the 1865-1914 volume of the Norton - an essay that necessarily invokes Howells a number of times - and then find no sample of Howells's work in the anthology itself. The terrible fate of obscurity, which James sensed was in the offing, and which Howells himself dimly glimpsed, has finally come to pass. And though just a few years ago, in Howells's home state of Ohio, college students rampaged through the streets because daylight savings time had closed the bars an hour earlier than they'd expected, one fears that they will not riot for Howells.
. . .
How did it happen? Certainly Howells was white, and male, and dead - not to mention, toward the end of his life, very fat. But he was also the founder of American realism, the most important literary development of the post-Civil War era. James, Twain, Stephen Crane, Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis - they did not come, as the Israelis like to say of Sharon, from outer space. They came from underneath the dinner-coat of Howells! As the editor of The Atlantic Monthly in the 1870s, Howells boosted James and brought Twain into the house organ of the Boston Brahmins. In his landmark critical writings, first in the Atlantic and then, after leaving Boston for New York, in Harper's, he called for a literature that would be true to the experience of actual people - "nothing more and nothing less," in his perhaps deceptively simple formulation, "than the truthful treatment of material." He fought for his writers and lambasted his enemies, and all the while he was himself producing a series of novels that would probably best be described as delightful.
His true gift to American literature was the depiction of marriage. "A Modern Instance" (1882) is the first novel in that literature to focus exclusively on a crumbling union; while that book is humorless, his two other significant novels, "The Rise of Silas Lapham" (1885) and "A Hazard of New Fortunes" (1890), are charming and touching in their depiction of middle-aged couples. Silas Lapham is a Yankee farmer who becomes a prosperous paint manufacturer and builds a house in Boston's newly fashionable Back Bay; Howells describes him taking a detour to wonder at the pile driver digging his foundation pit. "Mrs. Lapham," writes Howells, "suffered him to enjoy the sight twenty or thirty times before she said, 'Well now drive on, Si.' " In the famous apartment search that opens "A Hazard of New Fortunes," Basil March marvels at his wife's ability to imagine their future in every bare and shabby flat they visit: "She got a lot of pleasure as well as excitement out of this, and he had to own that the process of setting up housekeeping in so many different places was not only entertaining, but tended, through association with their first beginnings in housekeeping, to restore the image of their early married days and to make them young again." There are, as Howells once admitted, no "palpitating divans" in his novels; they've been replaced by that other great pleasure - the loving irony of domestic banter.
But the 20th century was cruel to marriage, and it was cruel to Howells. He stands now as the great anti-failure of American literature. Where writers like Melville and Fitzgerald died in debt and obscurity only to be covered in posthumous glory, Howells slid in the exact opposite direction. He was the most popular literary author of his day, and was moved to the front office (he became president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1908) when his creative gift could no longer deliver the crowds. But instead of a posthumous revival, or even just a harmless posthumous neglect, he received one posthumous drubbing after another.
And some of the worst of them only felt posthumous - Howells enjoyed the questionable good fortune of a life so long (he died in 1920 at the age of 83) it thrust him into an era that found him laughable. If 1870-1900 was the Age of Howells, then, honorary degrees and President Taft notwithstanding, 1900-1930 was the Age of Making Fun of Howells. He was their Updike - if you weren't having at him it only meant you were lazy. Frank Norris, Jack London, H.L. Mencken, and Van Wyck Brooks all took considerable swipes at "The Dean" of American letters for his supposed prudery and narrowness. By 1930, when Sinclair Lewis actually devoted a portion of his Nobel Prize Address to savaging Howells, there was very little left of him to savage.
And, in the end, very little left to salvage. The postwar age has witnessed the occasional rousing plea-for-Howells from what John Crowley calls the Howells Defense League. Most recently, HDL-er Adam Gopnik claimed that "Howells is the victim of perhaps the single greatest injustice in American literary history." Gore Vidal and John Updike have written of Howells as if it were absurd to read anyone else; and before them, Lionel Trilling managed to suggest that the failure to appreciate the Dean represented a civilizational crisis. But his real friends, and Howells himself, have always known better: There was something wrong with him, something besides the politics of literary reputation that would cause his eventual eclipse. Crowley tells the story of a publication in the mid-1990s of a scholarly paperback edition of Howells's pretty good novel "Landlord at Lion's Head." "I wrote them a gushing letter, thanking them, saying, 'I'll use this as much as I can. I'll use it in my classes. But what possessed you to do this?' I got a letter back very soon. The guy had long been a Howells admirer. He said, 'It was my idea. And I'm already suffering for it.' "
One speaks of lasting fame; Howells's obscurity, too, has stood the test of time. It has also become the most interesting and poignant thing about him. In his 1942 critical masterpiece, "On Native Grounds," Alfred Kazin uses Howells's insufficiency to explain Henry James's greatness. Richard Chase's influential "The American Novel and Its Tradition" has a number of references to the Dean, but only one actual subhead in the index. "Howells, William Dean," it reads. "Failure as novelist of." Even Howells's most loyal and scrupulous biographer, Edwin Cady, admitted the trouble. "I cannot help feeling," he wrote in 1946, "that Howells, with his fine gifts and talents, should have been a very great writer: and among all his often very good books almost no one seems to find a really great one."
It's true: Howells's novels are, many of them, very enjoyable, and the best of them are just plain good. But he never quite did it, and it is particularly galling because his openings are often so promising: "A Hazard of New Fortunes," with its New York apartment search and magazine launch; the first hundred pages of "The Rise of Silas Lapham," with its suggestion of Lapham's barbarism. One experiences something like suspense when reading Howells's novels: You know that Howells never pulled it off, and yet with each felicitous opening there is renewed hope. But "Hazard" lapses into formlessness, and "Silas Lapham" turns pale when Lapham turns out to be just another Yankee farmer. "A Modern Instance" is in this sense his most successful novel - it is a sustained effort. But it lacks utterly the wit and charm that otherwise distinguish Howells.
There are material explanations for all this. Howells was obliged to write more quickly than he should have - he needed, for one thing, the money. His wife Elinor was an invalid who required constant rest and attention, and their eldest daughter Winny suffered for years from a mysterious malady for which the Howellses sought all the most expensive cures. For a good part of the 1880s and '90s, Howells was under contract to the Harpers, his publishers, to produce a novel each year, and in the end he wrote an incredible 34 of them. There are also theoretical reasons: Howells found the conventional novelistic treatment of human relations so false and pernicious that he could speak of an "economy of sorrow" and an "economy of pain," as if they could be regulated with the raising of interest rates. At some level his aesthetic theory rejected drama itself.
But there is also a further quality to Howell's failure, a sort of mystery. Kazin put it beautifully: "What was it he had missed? Howells had missed something and he knew it as well as the generations after him were to know it. It was not frankness in many spheres of conduct, though frankness would have helped; it was not a different method, a blunter speech. He had spoken in all the accents of greatness without ever being great himself."
. . .
What was it he had missed? Kazin can't answer the question, no one can. But the person who attempted to answer it more persistently than anyone else was Henry James. The two had met in Cambridge in 1866: Howells, in his late 20s, with a wife and daughter, was already launched at the Atlantic, while James was still living with his parents and writing haughty book reviews for The Nation. Howells and James immediately formed a mutual admiration society, but from the very first one of them was more admiring than the other. Within months of their meeting Howells was announcing privately that James might do more for the American novel than had previously been done, while James was already beginning to define the nature of his friend's inadequacy. "He will never read Saint-Beuve," he explained in 1871, "nor care to. He has little intellectual curiosity; so here he stands with his admirable organ of style, like a poor man holding a diamond and wondering how he can use it."
It was an encounter between a great artist and a very good one, but for those first ten, twenty years, James couldn't be sure. And so in the letters and essays and novels, one can see James watching Howells and measuring him. Everything that Howells did, James did the opposite. In the early 1870s, before he finally settled in Europe, James didn't really know what to do with himself, and in his comments on Howells during that time he returned again and again to the question of provincialism. "What a pity," he wrote his sister Alice, "that with such a pretty art, [Howells] can't embrace a larger piece of the world." James would embrace a larger world! When Howells became "monarch absolute" of the Atlantic Monthly, James declared that Howells had succumbed to "the eventual fate of all secondary and tertiary talents - worked off his slender Primitive, found a place and an income, and now is destined to fade slowly and softly away in self-repetition and reconcilement to the commonplace." However unfair to Howells, the lesson to James was clear: no "place," no income, and no commonplace. He had rebuffed the advances of magazines that would make him an editor or sign him to an exclusive contract; he would never marry; and he would go abroad, while Howells stayed home.
Later in life, Howells became for James more than a writer who had failed to read enough Saint-Beuve: In James's imaginative economy he was also the man who hadn't really lived. It is perfectly emblematic of their friendship that the most famous line ever delivered by Howells appears not in his own work but in the middle of James's greatest novel, "The Ambassadors." A mutual friend had reported the comment to James in 1895, and in the novel it comes from the mouth of Lewis Lambert Strether. "Live all you can," Strether tells a youthful acquaintance, adding, in an unmistakably Howellsian tone, "it's a mistake not to."
It's a mistake not to: a line of such perfect, rounded negativity. Yet it was James who was the master of renunciation; it was James who had refused to live. How odd to find him recording, in his notebooks, an idea for a story about "a man, who, like W.D.H. (say), has never known any woman at all but his wife" - as if James had known so many women!
And of course, given all this, it had to be James who penned the most devastating review Howells would ever receive. Compared to James in his 1886 essay "William Dean Howells," the Dean's modernist enemies look like children throwing pebbles in the schoolyard. It was overwhelmingly positive, respectful, filled with superlatives, and with every smiling compliment a dagger was twisting in the back of Howells's reputation. There was much Jamesian circumlocution, but the crux of it was here: "If American life is on the whole, as I make no doubt whatever, more innocent than that of any other country, nowhere is the fact more patent than in Mr. Howells's novels, which exhibit so constant a study of the actual and so small a perception of evil."
Oh! - it's the sort of remark that stings for the next hundred years. James had made certain that he was not Howells; he then turned around and blamed Howells for not being James. Ever gentle, ever fair, Howells didn't mind - just as he didn't mind, some years later, when he actually read some of James's crueler early letters about him. "I am not sorry," he said then, "for having wrought in common, crude material so much; that is the right American stuff." He then proceeded to compare the writer's task to that of an insect, "scraping about on the surface of our life and trying to get into its meaning." Was this almost perverse humility what James had meant when he said that Howells had "worked off his slender Primitive"? Perhaps this is what Howells had missed: a certain savagery, a ruthlessness, a conviction, held in one way or another by James, and Henry Adams, and Twain, that his own voice was the only voice America should hear.
The author of the essay "The Man of Letters as a Man of Business" certainly had more than a faint inkling of the power of the literary marketplace. He knew, he knew, that his star was waning: In the early years of the new century, both Howells's Boston publisher and then his New York publisher both abandoned plans for a complete edition of his works. But he lacked, as James famously said, a grasping imagination, and there is no way he could have imagined the absurdity of the latest Norton anthology. As Gottesman, the volume editor and onetime Howells scholar (who described Howells to me unapologetically as "the most important writer of the second half of the 19th century") explained, the anthology's publisher performs targeted marketing research on what selections are being taught in classrooms. Howells's charming but roundabout lecture on realism, "Novel-Writing and Novel-Reading," was not being taught.
A more interesting sample might have been chosen, and Howells is such a witty performer, who, furthermore, wrote so scrupulously for magazine serialization, that any group of chapters from his novels might have done the trick. Yet to say all this is not to pretend that there will ever be a Howells revival, or even a Howells revision. "It's a fantasy," says Crowley, "that comes sometimes out of the academy." It gets inflamed occasionally by something like the Gopnik piece. Howells's life is so perfectly symbolic of a certain movement in 19th-century American life that he will survive all critical neglect - but not, apparently, as a writer. There will never be, despite a thousand indignant essays, an Air Howells basketball sneaker, or even a William Dean Howells tote bag, with canvas handles. The Norton has conducted a survey, and Howells is out.
SIDEBAR: HOWELLS'S BOSTON HOUSE-HOPPING
HOWELLS WAS JUST 23 WHEN HE LEFT OHIO IN 1860 TO MEET THE NEW ENGLAND GODS. THOUGH LACKING A HIGH-SCHOOL DIPLOMA, HE KNEW HOW TO WIELD A LETTER OF INTRODUCTION, AND HE WAS REMARKABLY WELL RECEIVED: A STROLL THROUGH CAMBRIDGE WITH JAMES RUSSELL LOWELL (EDITOR OF THE ATLANTIC), TEA WITH THE POET AND WIT OLIVER WENDELL HOLMES, AND THEN A VISIT TO THOREAU-HAWTHORNE-EMERSON IN CONCORD. EITHER YOUNG HOWELLS WAS PRETERNATURALLY CHARMING OR THE DEITIES DIDN'T GET OUT MUCH. AFTER SMOKING A CIGAR AND "DESCANTING ON THE LANDSCAPE," HAWTHORNE ADDED ANOTHER FLOWER TO HOWELLS'S GARLAND OF INTRODUCTIONS: "THIS YOUNG MAN," HE WROTE EMERSON, "IS WORTHY."
When Howells and his wife Elinor returned to Cambridge after the Civil War to live, the city was much stingier with its hospitality. There was, Howells reported, "not a house, furnished or unfurnished, to be had." After months of agonizing, the couple decided to buy. Their tiny pillbox at 41 Sacramento St. was just a few blocks north of Harvard Yard, but at the time still belonged to the half-wilderness - Howells once had to miss a precious meeting of Longfellow's Dante Society because the cook was off and Elinor was afraid to stay in the house alone.
The Howellses soon left Sacramento Street for nearby Berkeley Street, after which they moved to Concord Avenue in West Cambridge, and then Belmont, the Back Bay, even Newton - over the years they probably lived in as many apartments and houses as Howells wrote novels. "I don't care how often Howells moves," one friend said, "so long as he doesn't move into the same place! That's when I get mixed up."
In the next 25 years Howells became more Bostonian than any native of the city - to the point that, like any true Bostonian, he eventually moved to New York. In Howells's "A Hazard of New Fortunes," when the Marches relocate from Boston to New York, Isabel March laments "the literary peace, the intellectual refinement of the life they had left behind them"; her husband Basil is more skeptical: He "owned it was very pretty, but he said it was not life - it was death-in-life."
New York likes it when Bostonians traduce their former city, but it took this pledge of allegiance in stride. Even though Howells was bringing with him the center of American literary culture, he still had trouble finding an apartment.
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Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.
Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.
Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.
Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.
Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."
Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.
Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.