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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by Carl Van Doren (1885–1950)

By William Dean Howells (1837–1920)

NOT yet made the subject of a formal biography, William Dean Howells has been revealed, however, by his own books with a fullness rare in writers so essentially modest. ‘A Boy’s Town’ (1890), ‘My Literary Passions’ (1895), ‘Literary Friends and Acquaintance’ (1900), and ‘Years of My Youth’ (1916) are openly autobiographical, but all his travels and essays, as well as his criticisms, speak the same candid language. From them it is easy to discover the main facts of his life. He was born in 1837 at Martin’s Ferry, Ohio, the grandson of a pious Welsh Quaker who came to America early in the nineteenth century, and the son of a country editor and printer with a passion for books. The Howellses were a reading family; the eager, sensitive, delicate child who was to become one of the great American writers, read from the first with an ardor which lends an astonishing glow and haste to the quiet pages of ‘My Literary Passions.’ Goldsmith, Cervantes, and Irving were his earliest loves, at a time long before he was conscious of their art but when he was already susceptible, perhaps also unconsciously, to their gentleness and humanity. That he did not always read, the mellow memories of his childhood in ‘A Boy’s Town’ attest, and yet his growth may better be measured by the books he loved than by more outward facts. His first literary ambition was to write verse, and he devoted months to studying Pope, with a kind of fanaticism for regularity and exactness. From the worship of these traits he was partly won, at about sixteen or seventeen, by Shakespeare, to whose histories Howells was particularly drawn. Chaucer was another great passion, loved for his sense of earth in human life, and Dickens, who overwhelmed the youth by what he nevertheless knew was a rough magic. Criticism he first learned to like from Macaulay, and he revised his own style to fit his new liking. Thackeray, Longfellow, Tennyson followed in their turn.

Having taught himself some Latin and Greek and more French and Spanish, Howells took up German and came under the spell of Heine, who not only dominated him longer than any other author but was the first to teach him that the expression of literature is not different from the expression of life and that that is the best literature which most closely and most naturally utters reality. Poems in the manner of Heine won Howells a place in The Atlantic Monthly, then edited by Lowell, and in 1860 he made the reverent pilgrimage to New England about which he tells with such winning grace in ‘Literary Friends and Acquaintance.’ This journey, in more ways than one, had a large hand in his future. Although he was already a journalist of promise and had published, with John James Piatt, the pleasant ‘Poems of Two Friends’ (1860), he was now finally confirmed in his literary ambition; he made friends wherever he found acquaintances; and he captured certain impressions of scenery and manners upon which he later founded his first novels.

Neither verse nor fiction, however, had a chance to claim him entirely. Having written a campaign biography of Lincoln, whom, to his lasting regret, he did not go to Illinois to see as he might have done, and being known to John G. Nicolay and John Hay, Lincoln’s secretaries, Howells was appointed United States consul at Venice in 1861. He had asked for a similar post at Munich, hoping that he might continue his studies in German poetry, but he was so little disappointed at what he received that he eventually called it “the beginning of the best luck I have had in the world”—a hint at the fact that he was married at Venice to Miss Eleanor Mead of Vermont in 1862. So far as literature was concerned, however, his good fortune was not so apparent. The verses he wrote won no favor with the magazines to which he offered them. It was journalism, not poetry, that served him, for his defeat in verse turned him to prose, and he began that study of Italian life which bore fruit directly in ‘Venetian Life’ (1866) and ‘Italian Journeys’ (1867), and indirectly in the stories with an Italian setting, such as ‘A Foregone Conclusion,’ ‘A Fearful Responsibility,’ and ‘Indian Summer.’ From the first he had the gift of a ripe easy style and a temper singularly genial. Of the Italian writers he read in these four years, Howells felt his truest passion for Dante, whom he found often dull and tough and dry but still the great authentic voice of an age, and Goldoni, whom he called “the first of the realists.”

Realism, indeed, had practically won Howells by the time he returned to the United States. The romantic world of Europe on which his eyes had long been bent had turned out to be actual when he came to it, and now, once more in his native land, he found it not only more dear, as many men find it after a foreign residence, but more real. He had taken a new hold upon life by his marriage, and after his return he had the steadying experience of regular tasks, first as editorial contributor to The Nation for a few months, and then for fifteen years as assistant editor and editor of The Atlantic. Gradually, by the due process of growth, rather than by any deliberate thought, he came to his mature creed, the realism of which he is the chief American exponent. It was not solely an artistic or æsthetic matter with him. He derived his principles from a general philosophy of life in which the plain facts of the human story had come to seem the truest concern. From his childhood he had been intensely humane, sensitive himself and charitable toward others. His deepening sympathies now made him still more aware of human problems, and his delicate imagination made him aware of fine distinctions in character and feeling. Some bias toward actuality had compelled him when he read Hawthorne, more truly a passion with him than any other American writer, to like best of all Hawthorne’s novels the realistic ‘Blithedale Romance.’ On his return from Italy, Howells met the books of John W. De Forest, who taught him much about realism before the thing had a name. Perhaps Howells had his realistic bent before he knew it; certainly he had thought it out in most of its bearings before he practiced it. It is important to understand that his realism was the fruit of his own growth and not some alien graft. His first novel, ‘Their Wedding Journey’ (1871), offers proof. Strictly speaking, the book hardly deserves the term novel, for it is very near to the books of travel which he had already written; it takes a bridal couple on a late honeymoon over much the same route, in a reverse order, that Howells had traveled between Ohio and Boston in 1860. It has no structure beside that given by the simplest thread of narrative, no complication, no suspense. The aim of the author is clearly stated: “to talk of some ordinary traits of American life as these appeared to them [the travelers], to speak a little of well-known and easily accessible places, to present now a bit of landscape and now a sketch of character.” And he justified his choice of such unromantic material by certain remarks here and there in the volume which have an air of zeal about them and would hardly have appeared in any of his later books:

  • “Ah! poor Real Life, which I love, can I make others share the delight I find in thy foolish and insipid face?… As in literature the true artist will shun the use even of real events if they are of an improbable character, so 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…. Do I pitch the 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 fine and grand to my people, in order to make them worthier the reader’s respected acquaintance. But again, I forbid myself in a higher interest.”
  • Howells’s first novel, in the stricter sense of the word, was ‘A Chance Acquaintance’ (1873), which made use again of a group of American travelers in Canada, three of whom had already appeared in ‘Their Wedding Journey.’ A pretty, intelligent, inexperienced girl from Western New York, traveling with her brother and his wife, becomes acquainted with a young man who is perhaps the most unlovely of all Howells’s unlovely Bostonians. The two are thrown much together and fall in love, but his love, though full of passion, cannot overcome his ingrained provincial snobbishness. In the end, the lover, who has steadily condescended to the girl because of her inland simplicity, suddenly sees, as she sees, that he has played a hopelessly ignoble and vulgar part. The subtle turn by which their relative positions are reversed is as convincing as their consequent separation is final. Howells had shown that he could not only present landscape and sketch character but could also organize a plot with delicate skill. At thirty-six he thus decisively became a novelist, and entered upon what might be called his middle period, during which he produced his richest work. For that period ‘A Chance Acquaintance’ is prophetic and representative. Its style is more assured and crisp than that of his earlier books but not less graceful. The central idea is clearly conceived and the outlines sharp without being in any way cruel or cynical. The descriptions are exquisite, the dialogue both natural and revealing, and over and through all is that lambent mirth, that undeceived kindliness of wisdom, which was to remain Howells’s essential quality.

    The study of the conflict between differing manners or grades of sophistication, which Howells and Henry James thus took up almost at the same time, concerned Howells largely in the next dozen years. ‘A Foregone Conclusion’ (1874) is of a fine-spirited Venetian priest, tutor to an American girl, who falls in love with her, confesses his desire to leave his uncongenial profession for a new career in America, mistakes her friendly interest for affection, and finds her, when he declares himself, only horrified at an outcome she had never once dreamed of. Had he known more of America or she more of Italy, the error need not have been made. ‘The Lady of the Aroostook’ (1879) recounts another courtship of a village girl by a more worldly man, who in this case loves her enough to disregard the superficial differences between them. ‘A Fearful Responsibility’ (1881) shows how an American in Italy, from too rigid an insistence upon European decorum, which in this case is quite unnecessary, mismanages the affairs of a young girl placed in his wife’s charge. ‘Dr. Breen’s Practice’ (1881) is the story of a woman’s struggle to make a place for herself in the medical profession against the stupid resistance of a public which has no objection except that women are new in that profession. ‘A Modern Instance’ (1881) presents, with disconcerting truthfulness, the moral descent of a Boston journalist under the influence of success. ‘The Rise of Silas Lapham’ (1885), generally thought Howells’s greatest novel, aims to prove that a sturdy, virtuous countryman from Vermont, who is not at all a gentleman according to the standards of Boston, might have moral qualities sufficient to outweigh his fatal defect. ‘Indian Summer’ (1885) illustrates the hardships which a man of forty must go through to remain comfortably engaged to a girl half his age.

    ‘Silas Lapham’ marked the culmination of Howells’s art. But he had not yet shaped his final philosophy. In 1881 he had withdrawn from The Atlantic. In 1886 he began to write for “The Editor’s Study” in Harper’s Magazine, and produced during five years a series of monthly articles, chiefly discussions of current books, which it would be hard to surpass for good temper and sane judgment and ripe style anywhere in the world of literary criticism. Avoiding whatever was metaphysical, he confined himself principally to poetry, history, biography, but above all to fiction. It was these columns that had most to do with encouraging the growth of realism in America, and it was they that most eloquently commended to native readers such Latin realists as Valera, Valdés, Galdós, and Verga, and the great Russians, Turgenev, Dostoyevsky, and Tolstoy.

    It will not do to say that these Russians molded Howells, for his development, whatever his readiness to assimilate, was always from within outward, but it helps to distinguish between the Howells who lived before about 1886 and the one who lived after that date, to say that the earlier man had one of his supreme literary passions for the art of Turgenev, and that the later Howells, knowing Tolstoy, had become impatient of even the most secret artifice. For Tolstoy was Howells’s great passion. “As much as one merely human being can help another, I believe that he has helped me; he has not influenced me in æsthetics only, but in ethics, too, so that I can never again see life in the way I saw it before I knew him.” Tolstoy’s novels seemed as perfect to Howells as his doctrine.

  • “To my thinking they transcend in truth, which is the highest beauty, all other works of fiction that have been written…. He has not only Turgenev’s transparency of style, unclouded by any mist of the personality which we mistakenly value in style, and which ought no more to be there than the artist’s personality should be in a portrait; but he has a method which not only seems without artifice, but is so…. I believe if I had not turned the corner of my fiftieth year, when I first knew Tolstoy, I should not have been able to know him as fully as I did. He has been to me that final consciousness, which he speaks of so wisely in his essay on Life. I came in it to the knowledge of myself in ways I had not dreamt of before, and began at least to discern my relations to the race, without which we are each nothing. The supreme art in literature had its highest effect in making me set art forever below humanity.”
  • This was said in 1895, some ten years after Howells had first read Tolstoy, about whom he has written at length in an essay published in this LIBRARY. In the interval he had not reverted to the preacher, as he saw Tolstoy doing, and he had indeed published his merry farces and had begun to be reminiscent in ‘A Boy’s Town.’ But, though too much himself to be greatly changed, Howells had broadened his field to include new problems. ‘A Hazard of New Fortunes’ (1889), in which Mr. and Mrs. Basil March, the bridal couple of ‘Their Wedding Journey,’ now grown middle aged, leave Boston for a future in New York, is not content merely to point out the unfamiliar fashions of life which they meet but is full of conscience regarding certain evils of the modern social order. Or rather, Howells had turned from representing the clash of those lighter manners which belong to comedy and had set himself to discuss the deeper manners of the race which belong to sociology and ethics and religion. Such concerns appear most frankly in his two Utopian tales, ‘A Traveller from Altruria’ (1894) and ‘Through the Eye of the Needle’ (1907), in which he compares America with the remote and lovely land of Altruria, where all work is honorable and servants are unknown, where capital and usury are only memories, where equality is complete, and men and women, in the midst of beauty, lead lives that are just, temperate, and kind. Howells has neither the langor of William Morris nor the bitter satire of Swift, and yet his socialistic books are full of peace and alive with gentle irony. The stern tones of Tolstoy Howells never learned, or at least never used, for he could not lose his habitual kindness, even when he spoke most firmly. It was kindness, not timidity, however, for though he held steadily to his art he did not keep silence before even the most popular injustices. He defended the Chicago anarchists and he condemned the annexation of the Philippines in brave, just terms; no good cause lacked the support of his voice.

    After 1892 he succeeded George William Curtis in “The Editor’s Easy Chair” of Harper’s and wrote monthly articles which, less exclusively literary than the “Editor’s Study” pieces, carried on the same tradition. Nor did he give up fiction. To this period belong ‘The World of Chance’ (1893), ‘The Coast of Bohemia’ (1893), ‘The Day of their Wedding’ (1895), ‘A Parting and a Meeting’ (1896), ‘The Landlord at Lion’s Head’ (1897), ‘An Open-Eyed Conspiracy’ (1897), ‘The Story of a Play’ (1898), ‘Ragged Lady’ (1899), ‘A Pair of Patient Lovers’ (1901), ‘The Kentons’ (1902), ‘The Flight of Pony Baker’ (1902), ‘Questionable Shapes’ (1903), ‘The Son of Royal Langbrith’ (1903), ‘Miss Bellard’s Inspiration’ (1905), ‘Between the Dark and the Daylight’ (1907), ‘Fennel and Rue’ (1908), ‘The Mother and the Father’ (1909), ‘New Leaf Mills’ (1913), ‘The Daughter of the Storage’ (1916), ‘The Leatherwood God’ (1916). That he could produce such an array of fiction is sign enough that he had not been overpowered by Tolstoy’s humanitarianism. And there is further proof in the fact that these later novels, though they open up a wider world, are even kinder, gayer, mellower than the early ones. Their range of theme and setting is very great, from the solid realism of ‘The Landlord at Lion’s Head’ to the subtle explorations into psychic phenomena in ‘Questionable Shapes.’ If they have been less read, as a rule than ‘A Modern Instance’ and ‘The Rise of Silas Lapham,’ it is because they lack the important tang of malice, the sharp edge, of those books. It is a question how far realism can ever be impressive unless it bites and stings now and then.

    Reminiscences and travels assume a large place in Howells’s later work. After ‘My Literary Passions’ he wrote ‘Literary Friends and Acquaintance,’ of all accounts of the classic age of Boston and Cambridge one of the best. He revisited Europe, and left records in ‘London Films’ (1905), ‘Certain Delightful English Towns’ (1906), ‘Roman Holidays’ (1908), ‘Seven English Cities’ (1909), ‘Familiar Spanish Travels’ (1913), in which, indeed, he occasionally drew his matter out thin but in which he was never for a page dull, or untruthful, or sour, after the ancient habit of travelers. ‘My Mark Twain’ (1910) is a golden book, incomparably the finest of all the interpretations of Howells’s great friend, while ‘Years of My Youth’ (1916), written when the author was almost eighty, is the work of a master whom age has made wise and kept strong.

    To a remarkable degree Howells’s life and work seem always of a piece. No writer was ever more wholly devoted to his calling, but in this case the creed of realism prevented the growth of any barrier which might have shut so devoted an author away from the world of reality upon which his whole art was based. If his poems, his fiction, his farces, his essays, his criticisms, his biographical writings, his travels contain what is clearly the most considerable transcript of American life yet made by one man, they are still full of a personality which, try as it might, could not withhold itself from the record. That personality, not American life, explains why Howells’s world is so free from whatever is savage, sordid, illicit, bloody. His own essential gentleness and reserve, rather than the decorous American tradition of his time, kept him from the violent frankness often associated with realism. “I think,” he said, “that the books of Zola are not immoral, but they are indecent through the facts that they nakedly represent…. I do not mind owning that he has been one of my great literary passions.” What Howells practiced was a kind of selective realism, choosing his material as a sage chooses his words, decently. He knew, too, that “in matters of art one must do what one likes if one would do it well.” His gentle nature, which thus limited his subjects, also limited his treatment, and he is seldom best in impassioned or tragic moments. He preferred, indeed, not to make too much of them, believing that the true bulk of life is to be represented by its commonplaces. Few have written more engaging commonplaces and Howells cannot justly be charged with a failure to produce effects at which he never aimed, but the charge must stand that his work lacks the intensity which appears in such of his contemporaries as Flaubert, Tolstoy, and Thomas Hardy. The mere mention of such names makes it necessary to look elsewhere for authors with whom Howells may reasonably be classed, and one goes back to his first boyish passions, Goldsmith, Cervantes, Irving, men who please less by depth or intensity than by ease, grace, and charm in their art, and in themselves by kind wisdom and thoughtful mirth.