Carl Van Doren (1885–1950). The American Novel. 1921.Chapter 6. Howells and Realism
Section 2. William Dean Howells
Poems in the manner of Heine won Howells a place in the pages of the Atlantic, then the very zenith of his aspiration, and in 1860 he undertook the reverent pilgrimage to New England which he afterward recounted with such winning grace in Literary Friends and Acquaintance. Already enough of a journalist to have been asked to write a campaign biography of Lincoln and enough of a poet to have published a small volume of poems with his Ohio friend John James Piatt, Howells made friends wherever he went and was finally confirmed in his literary ambitions. At the outbreak of the Civil War he was appointed United States consul at Venice; he was married at Paris in 1862 to Elinor G. Mead of Vermont; and he spent four exquisite years of leisure in studying Italian literature, notably Dante, as the great authoritative voice of an age, and Goldoni, whom Howells called “the first of the realists.” In Italy, though he wrote poetry for the most part, he formed the habit of close, sympathetic observation and discovered the ripe, easy style which made him, beginning with Venetian Life (1866) and Italian Journeys (1867), one of the happiest of literary travelers. From such work he moved, by the avenue of journalism, only gradually to fiction. On his return to the United States in 1865 he first became editorial contributor to The Nation for a few months, and then served as assistant editor and finally editor of the Atlantic until 1881.
The literary notices which he wrote for the Atlantic during these years of preparation would show, had he written nothing else, how strong and steady was his drift toward his mature creed. Not alone by deliberate thought nor even by the stimulus of polemic was he carried forward, but rather by a natural process of growth which, more than an artistic matter alone, included his entire philosophy. From his childhood he had been intensely humane—sensitive and charitable. This humaneness now revealed itself as a passionate love for the simple truth of human life, and a suspicion, a quiet scorn for those romantic dreams and exaggerations by which less contented lovers of life try to escape it. “Ah! poor Real Life, which I love,” he wrote in his first novel, “can I make others share the delight I find in thy foolish and insipid face?” Perhaps Their Wedding Journey (1871) ought hardly to be called a novel, but it is a valuable Howells document in the method, so nearly that of his travel books, by which he takes a bridal couple on their honeymoon over much the same route, in a reverse order, that he had traveled between Ohio and Boston in 1860, and also in the zeal for actuality which makes him exalt the truth, however tedious, over any unreality however agreeable. “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.” Less of such argument, though no less of implicit zeal for veracity, appears in A Chance Acquaintance (1873), more strictly a novel, in which Howells showed that he could not only report customs and sketch characters felicitously but also organize a plot with felicitous skill. A young Bostonian, passionately in love with an intelligent but untraveled inland girl, who returns his love, is so little able to overcome his ingrained provincial snobbishness that he steadily condescends to her until in the end he suddenly sees, as she sees, that he has played an ignoble and vulgar part which irrevocably separates them. Nothing could be more subtle than the dramatic turn by which their relative positions are reversed. The style of A Chance Acquaintance, while not more graceful than that of Howell’s earlier books, is more assured and crisp. The central idea is clearly conceived and the outlines sharp without being in any way hard or cynical. The descriptions are exquisite, the dialogue both natural and revealing, and over and through all is a lambent mirth, an undeceived kindliness of wisdom, which was to remain his essential quality.
Although, to judge by A Chance Acquaintance, he had the art of narrative among his original endowments, he had only gradually discovered it in himself. His first narrative, No Love Lost (1869), had been in hexameters, more or less after the manner of Longfellow and Clough. Besides his life of Lincoln, Howells wrote three volumes of travels or essays before he attempted a novel at all. A Chance Acquaintance made no clean break with his previous experiments, for it deals with a group of Americans traveling in Canada, three of whom had already appeared in Their Wedding Journey. And even the success of his novel did not turn him wholly to fiction. He continued to write criticism and began to write farces, merely enlarging his range as he developed in power. The stream of literature had never before poured from an American writer with such variety and volume. Besides his stated duties for the Atlantic he found time during the seventies to edit a group of autobiographies, and later to write book introductions by the dozen; he translated modern Italian poets; he scanned the entire literary horizon for new planetaries; he was one of the most widely-read of Americans. As his curiosity never grew faint, so never did his pen, but kept up its amazing productivity without damage to the smooth surface of his style and the bland cheerfulness of his disposition.
His principal limitation—his chariness of passion and tragedy—did not entirely reveal itself in the novels which he wrote during the Atlantic period. Like Henry James in those same years, Howells was at first concerned with the contrast between different manners or grades of sophistication—a conflict to which his own sojourn as an American in Italy and as a Westerner in Boston had made him sensitive. A Foregone Conclusion (1875) and A Fearful Responsibility (1881) show American and Italian manners in conflict; Private Theatricals (published in the Atlantic in 1875–76 as a serial but never issued in a separate volume) and The Lady of the Aroostook (1879) set the social habits of the American village in contrast with those of the American city; An Undiscovered Country (1880) takes its characters through contact with spiritualism and Shakerism, making clear Howells’s disagreement with those forms of otherworldliness; 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. Devoted as all these were to the transcription and criticism of the lighter manners of the age, they could hardly be censured for not going deeper, especially since they did what they set out to do with such ease, such dexterity, such revealing humor, such shrewd and illuminating comment. It appeared, however, as the series lengthened, that Howells was not doing full justice either to his material or to himself. The conventions of Boston restricted him. He who hardly ever portrayed a Bostonian of the respectable classes in anything but unlovely attitudes; he who, though an outsider, had as editor of the Atlantic inherited the power in a declining literary society—he fell too much into Boston habits and confined his art too much within the respectable reticences of Boston. Not without some complaint he nevertheless accepted the fate of writing largely for women—Boston women; he came to the decision that “the more smiling aspects of life … are the more American.” A subsequent critical generation has accused him of thus vitiating his practice while contending for a realistic precept. He dared for the sake of truthfulness to represent human beings in their “habitual moods of vacancy and tiresomeness” but was not willing to represent them in the hardly less habitual moods which make mankind so often illicit or savage or sordid. As a matter of fact he never consciously compromised, for he held that the lawless moods of men belong to those “heroic or occasional phases” which he left to the romancers. His novels in effect pay an extraordinary compliment to civilization on its success with mankind. Sterner critics call his compliment flattery and his shrinking from ugliness and vice a womanish defect. It has not generally been remarked how closely he stood with Emerson in the orthodox New England optimism which governed opinion in Boston at the end of its classic period—closing Boston eyes to evil and disease and pointing to theosophical anodynes.
Having resigned his Atlantic editorship at forty-four, Howells in the next half-dozen years brought his Boston period to its summit and conclusion. Besides certain minor novels—A Woman’s Reason (1883), The Minister’s Charge (1887)—he wrote A Modern Instance (1882), which he thought his strongest, The Rise of Silas Lapham (1884), which the public has generally found the best of his novels, and Indian Summer (1885), which he himself thought his best. Without the bitter tincture of pessimism which Howells lacked, realism can hardly go further than in these three. The superiority of A Modern Instance to all that has come before lies less in its firmer grasp of its materials, for Howells from the first was sure of grasp, than in its larger control of larger materials. It has a richer timbre, a deeper tone. Marcia Gaylord, the most passionate of all his heroines, is of all of them the most clearly yet lovingly conceived and elaborated. Her unaccountable impulses and endurances convey an impression that is completely individual. Types do not behave so. In the career of her husband, Bartely Hubbard, the journalist, Howells adroitly traces a metamorphosis from selfishnes’s and vanity, fed in this case by Marcia’s unreasoning devotion, into contemptible viciousness which has not even a dash of boldness to redeem it. Like the impulses of Marcia, the process hides itself perhaps rather too closely from the observer, who as in the case of living persons may now and then be surprised to find that the decay has gone so fast and far with so few outward signs. Writing the winter scenes of the earlier chapters Howells had the advantage of those many pens which in the past decade had wrought at the local color of New England; he achieved something more faithful and vivid than anything yet achieved in that direction. Although done with an eye intensely on the fact, these scenes have still the larger bearings of a criticism of American village life in general. The subsequent adventures of the Hubbards in Boston, acutely local in setting and incident, are still as universal in application as any ever laid in that metropolis. Squire Gaylord’s arraignment of his son-in-law in an Indiana court room vibrates with a dramatic passion seldom met with in Howells, a passion made the more emphatic by the sickening descent from a tragic occasion which follows immediately afterward in Bartley’s virtual offer of his former wife to his former friend. Following such episodes it is, however, difficult to forgive Howells his apparent sympathy with Halleck in the discovery that a New England conscience will now forever hold him from Marcia because he had loved her before she was free. The attentive imagination simply refuses to be convinced; or else it finds itself disgusted at an ending no better than sentimental to a narrative heretofore full of wisdom maturely wielding the most admirable and enlightening details.
The theme of Silas Lapham is one very dear in a republic, that of the rising fortunes of a man who has no aid but virtue and capacity. Lapham, a country-bred, self-made Vermonter, appears when he has already achieved wealth and finds himself being drawn, involuntarily enough, into the more difficult task of adjusting himself and his family to the manners of fastidious Boston. A writer primarily satirical might have been contented to make game of the situation. Howells, keenly as he sets forth the conflict of standards, goes beyond satire to a depth of meaning which comes only from a profound understanding of the part which artificial distinctions play in human life and a mellow pity that such little things can have such large consequences of pain and error. The conflict, however, while constantly pervasive in the book, does not usurp the action. The Lapham family has serious concerns that might arise in any social stratum. Most intense and dramatic of these is the fact that the suitor of one daughter is believed by the whole family to be in love with the other until the very moment of his declaration. The distress into which they are thrown is presented with a degree of comprehension rare in any novel, and here matched with a common sense which rises to something half-inspired in Lapham’s perception—reduced to words, however, by a friendly clergyman—that in such a case superfluous self-sacrifice would be morbid, and that, since none is guilty, one had better suffer than three. A certain rightness and soundness of feeling, indeed, mark the entire narrative. As it proceeds, as Lapham falls into heavy business vicissitudes and finally to comparative poverty again, and yet all the time rises in spiritual worth, the record steadily grows in that dignity and significance which, according to Howells’s creed, is founded only upon the unadorned and unexaggerated truth.
As, with the increase of the American population and the diminution of opportunity for the individual, the self-made man becomes a less outstanding figure than he was in the generation to which Silas Lapham belonged, Lapham will still continue to seem a standard example of his type. But his type is of New England and not of the United States at large. In other sections—at least in those not dominated by New England habits transplanted—the adventures of the self-made have nearly always been more stirring, motivated by less lawful ambitions, colored by ranker senses. Lapham rises through the easy and yet compact levels of a homogeneous provincial society as law-abiding as any in the world. The clang of the larger America, the sense of the manipulation of vast forces which give the story of the self-made American its thrilling interest, do not appear in this quiet story. Moreover, Howells presents Lapham, for the most part, in his milder hours, with his wife and daughters in the plainest of households, barely hinting at the tough struggles with the world to which of course Lapham gave most of his time. Lapham represents the American magnate only as subdued to New England conditions and then further subdued to the domestic hearth. Here, Howells might probably have contended, the true and essential Lapham had his existence, at this central station of human affairs. One misses, nevertheless, the thrust and clutch and strain and sweat of actuality. The more wonder then that, lacking these, the book still seems so solid an image of the truth. Its flawless structure assists it in making the impression; so does the unfailing lucidity and unobtrusiveness of the narrative and the unimprovable conversations. And yet all this art to conceal art must have been unavailing had not the final substance, thus exhibited, been shaped out of reality itself. To say, as one may say even of this admirable story, that it does not visit the uttermost deeps of human character, is not to say that it plays over the surface. Howells’s imagination has seen through and through all the persons in The Rise of Silas Lapham; it has thought round and round every situation. There are three dimensions to the matter; it is a sturdy, tangible, memorable block of life. To so much Howells added what his merely professional skill could not have added: the warm, friendly atmosphere which emanated from his own benign personality.
That in 1890 he thought Indian Summer his best novel shows how well inclined he was toward the gayer side of his character, for in this exquisite interlude, lightly, sweetly, pungently narrating the loves of a man of forty, Howells reached his highest pitch of comedy. His touch on each page and sentence is as graceful as his spirit is unfailing from first to last. The scene he laid in Italy; its characters he chose from among those temporarily and voluntarily exiled Americans who in the seventies and eighties of the last century so tempted novelists with any partiality for satire or contrast; the moral hints, as the story unmistakably tells, that for a middle-aged lover there is much more joy and comfort in a woman his own age than in the most entrancing young girl whatever. Out of a dozen possible keys in which the theme might have been set, Howells chose—or seems to have chosen—the one best suited to the innocent branch of polite comedy. The easiest and yet wisest badinage flickers continually over the surface of a naturally moving stream of narrative so pellucid that nothing in it, event or motive or insinuation, is ever hidden from the at-all-experienced eye. The happy taste which prompted him to name it for the most distinctive and most charming of American seasons no less happily instructed him how to clothe it in a golden, impalpable, enriching haze borrowed apparently from the season. In this autumnal atmosphere the energy of youth in the spring of its love looks awkward; the winter of wisdom is as near as the summer of desire. Only a sage could have carried the story through without falling now and then into the temptation of being too impassioned; only a poet could have done it without now and then becoming cynical and sounding elderly.
In 1882 Howells had gone to England for a visit during which he brought out a series of his works there and with them and himself charmed literary London. He seriously questioned whether he should not settle in Italy for the remainder of his life, but his passion for America proved too strong, and he came back, first to Boston, to a position of almost unparalleled influence in American letters. In his earliest Atlantic days he had given Henry James needed encouragement at the outset of the younger man’s great career. Then and since Howells had been for Mark Twain the important critical element drawing that tumultuous humorist from burlesque and uproar to the finer art of fiction. By the middle eighties all Boston that read at all was fighting for or against Howells’s principles. Promising writers, such as Hamlin Garland and Brand Whitlock, made discipular pilgrimages to him. The decade discovered a vitality and displayed a craftsmanship in novels and tales which the United States had never seen before. Of all this Howells was equally exemplar and critic. If his novels filled the air, so did his doctrines. The monthly articles which he wrote for “The Editor’s Study” in Harper’s Magazine between 1886 and 1891, though many of them were too timely to have survived, adumbrate the labors he performed on behalf of realism. Chiefly discussions of current books, they did not concern themselves merely with aspects of fiction, but also with poetry, history, and biography, applying to them all a calmly rational temper, measuring them by generous but none the less firm canons of truthfulness. What he warred upon particularly was the adulteration of honest literature with false alloys like sentimentalism, pseudo-heroic attitudes, gaudy ornament, theatrical endings; he enjoyed and praised works of pure fancy which do not pretend to paint the fact. Hardly one of the local color writers but passed under his critical or editorial hand, and few of them but in some degree were touched by his creed. The short story as well as the novel responded to his influence; even the theater, ancient home of the tinsel which he hated, had for a time its James A. Herne trying to write plays which should be as real as Howells’s stories. Moreover, though as a rule unfriendly to French realists because of his dislike of their fierce candor, Howells was constantly introducing and commending the realists of Spain and Italy and Russia.
Toward the end of the Boston period he had an eager partiality for Turgenev, his art, his poetry, his pity, his wisdom. But about 1886 a change came over Howells through his reading of Tolstoy, who became his final and greatest literary passion. “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 last to discern my relations to the race.” “Tolstoy gave me heart to hope that the world may yet be made over in the image of Him who died for it, when all Cæsar’s things shall be finally rendered to Cæsar, and men shall come into their own, into the right to labor and the right to enjoy the fruits of their labor, each one master of himself and servant to every other. He taught me to see life not as a chase of a forever impossible personal happiness, but as a field for endeavor towards the happiness of the whole human family.” Sincere as was his conversion, however, Howells did not turn preacher as Tolstoy had done, and as his radical admirers expected. At fifty he could hardly undergo any more considerable change than that his sympathies should be enlarged and his utterance even further mellowed by the tides of benevolence and brotherhood which all his life had been rising within him and now knew themselves. Tolstoy’s way was impossible to Howells’s will because Howells was a saint not of the other world but of this, a walker of amiable, companionable paths, too friendly for the solitude of the natural martyr, too kindly for the battles of the natural warrior. Others might grow angry for the sake of increasing peace, but Howells could not. Others for the sake of humanity might exchange an art for a mission, but Howells could not. The many books he subsequently wrote show him no less sunny and affectionate than before, though he had now a new eye for social injustices. In his Utopian romances, A Traveler from Altruria (1894) and Through the Eye of the Needle (1907), without compromise with the economic system under which he had been bred, he threw it incontinently over—though how urbanely and serenely!—in favor of the system of his imaginary Altruria, where all work is honorable and servants are unknown, where capital and interest are only memories, where equality is complete, and men and women, in the midst of beauty, lead lives that are just, temperate, and kind. Besides these exotic matters Howells touched closer ones. No man spoke out more firmly or ringingly on behalf of the Chicago “anarchists” or against the annexation of the Philippines and the attendant saturnalia of imperialism. Had he been by disposition a fighting man he might have become a national voice. Not being that, he led his art if not his nation.
Tolstoy’s novels seemed to Howells as excellent 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 Tourguenief’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.” Howells must have understood that the artlessness of Tolstoy is only apparent, must have learned, then or later, how painfully Tolstoy toiled at his art; still it was hardly more than critical hyperbole to say that, compared to other novelists, Tolstoy was a mirror of nature and had no art but nature’s own of growth. Howells himself having been in all his novels singularly unartificial, those written after he had read Tolstoy could exhibit no new methods. He merely broadened his field and deepened his inquiries.
A Hazard of New Fortunes (1889), in which Basil and Isabel March, the bridal couple of Their Wedding Journey, give up Boston, as Howells himself had just done, 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 the evils of the modern social order. Or rather, Howells had turned from the clash of those lighter manners which belong to comedy and had set himself to discuss the profounder manners of the race which belong to morals and religion. He wrote at a moment of hope, at the end of a decade which had disturbed the heavy stagnation following the Civil War: “We had passed,” he afterwards said, “through a period of strong emotioning in the direction of the humaner economics, if I may phrase it so; the rich seemed not so much to despise the poor, the poor did not so hopelessly repine. The solution of the riddle of the painful earth through the dreams of Henry George, through the dreams of Edward Bellamy, through the dreams of all the generous visionaries of the past, seemed not impossibly far off.” In this mood Howells’s theme compelled him so much that the story moved forward almost without his conscious agency, “though,” he carefully insists, “I should not like to intimate anything mystical in the fact.” A Hazard of New Fortunes, which encountered greater immediate favor than any of his previous novels, outdoes them all, and the subsequent ones too, in its conduct of different groups of characters, in the perfect naturalness with which now one and now another rises to the surface of the narrative and then retreats at the due moment without a trace of management. New Englanders, Southerners, Westerners, all appear in their true native colors, as do various ranks of society, and many professions, in their proper dress and gesture. The episode of the street-car strike, brought in near the end, dramatizes the struggle which has heretofore been in the novel rather a shadow than a fact; but Howells, artist first then partizan, employs it almost wholly as a sort of focal point to which the attention of all his characters is drawn, with the result that, having already revealed themselves generally, they are more particularly revealed in their varying degrees of sympathy for the great injustice out of which class war arises.
To call the Hazard the best novel of New York, as it has been called, is still to admit that the whole of that vast picture has yet not been drawn. Howells wrote from the point of view of the older America which in 1889 was mystified at labor unrest and horrified at a strike; the America in which the country had been one with the towns, and the villages had ruled them both; the America which knew the thunder and smoke of the industrial nation less as realities in themselves than as new problems crowding in upon the older order of Americans. So New York was for Howells, in spite of his fine sympathies, a community of established Americans moving somewhat gingerly among its immigrants, and not a new Rome or a new Constantinople for the Western hemisphere. The book partially suggests a volume of travels in a city where the traveler lives with the ruling class, without digging very deeply into the commoner soil of life, except as he encounters some chance individual who belongs with the unprivileged or who out of conscience consorts with them in the hope of lightening their burdens. Howells’s sympathies were as wide as the metropolis, but his knowledge was restricted. For this reason his narrative seems quiet by comparison with the jagged, multicolored, whirling, rowdy, gorgeous reality which even then lay under his eyes and which since that day has grown in a hundred respects out of its former likeness. This deficiency of depth and texture in the background, however, of qualities which Howells was too newly come to New York to have been able to capture, does not deprive the story of a very real substance, solidly conceived, felicitously portrayed, and warmed with a quick wit and an affectionate understanding.
The thirty years yet remaining of Howells’s life brought no marked new development. In 1891 he summed up his critical position in Criticism and Fiction, declaring “I am in hopes that the communistic era in taste foreshadowed by Burke is approaching, and that it will occur within the lives of men now overawed by the foolish old superstition that literature and art are anything but the expression of life, and are to be judged by any other test than that of their fidelity to it”; and at the same time declaring, as if to set limits to the naturalism thus implied, that “[if] a novel flatters the passions, and exalts them above the principles, it is poisonous.” The next year Howells succeeded George William Curtis in “The Easy Chair” of Harper’s and wrote thenceforth monthly articles which, less exclusively literary than those in “The Editor’s Study,” carried on the same tradition. There and elsewhere his light, practised pen kept pace with American literary production, commenting on new authors and tendencies with an unwearied generosity which still never violated his central principles. Reminiscences and travels assumed a larger part in his work. After A Boy’s Town (1890) and My Literary Passions (1895) came Literary Friends and Acquaintance (1900), classic account of the silver age of Boston and Cambridge which Howells had lived through. He revisited Europe and left records in various books which occasionally drew his matter out thin but in which he was never for a page dull or untruthful or sour. My Mark Twain (1910) is incomparably the tenderest of all the interpretations of Howells’s great friend. Years of My Youth (1916), written when its author was nearly eighty, is the work of a master whom age had made wise and kept strong. In 1909 he was chosen president of the American Academy, and six years later he received the National Institute’s gold medal for “distinguished work in fiction.” He died in 1920.
His later novels make up so long a list that some of them must go unnoted, though all, if not invariably profound, are invariably kind, gay, and mellow. In them his investigation moves over a wide area which includes the somber study of a crime in The Quality of Mercy (1892); the keen statement of problems in An Imperative Duty (1892) and The Son of Royal Langbrith (1904); happier topics as in Miss Bellard’s Inspiration (1905); the sound realism of The Landlord at Lion’s Head (1897) and The Kentons (1902); and, it should be remarked, subtle explorations of what is or what seems to be the supersensual world in The Shadow of a Dream (1890), the two volumes of short stories Questionable Shapes (1903) and Between the Dark and the Daylight (1907), and The Leatherwood God (1916). This last, the study of a frontier impostor who proclaims himself a god, as an actual person had once done in early Ohio, best hints at Howells’s views of the relation between the real world which he had so long explored and those vast spaces which appear to be beyond it for the futile tempting of religionists and romanticists. The maturest Howells, like the Mark Twain whose Mysterious Stranger appeared in the same year as The Leatherwood God, speculated much upon such matters, but without losing himself in them. In The Kentons Howells most perfectly exemplifies his later reading of the actual world. “You have done nothing more true and complete,” wrote Henry James about the book, “more thoroughly homogeneous and hanging-together, without the faintest ghost of a false note or a weak touch.” Returning to the Middle West of his youth Howells took a family thence to New York and then to Holland, with all the freshness and point of his first period exposing the contrasts between their Ohio manners and those of the other regions which they visit. More than ever he is sage first then satirist: “remember,” says Judge Kenton in a speech which sounds none the less like him for being so much like Howells, “that wherever life is simplest and purest and kindest, that is the highest civilization.” Without contending on behalf either of his Ohioans, with their little angularities and large virtues, or of his experienced worldlings, with no angularities at all and their virtues more considerably mixed with manners, Howells interprets both with the lucid intelligence of an angel smiling at a beloved community of men. He sets forth an acute conflict of emotions with regard to Ellen Kenton and her love affairs but never once raises his voice above the natural human dialect; he flawlessly hits off that absurd adolescent, Boyne Kenton, who has read too many international romances, but he never once condescends to the boy or winks over his head at the beholders. The relations of Kenton and his wife and of both of them to their children are presented, though so easily, with the nicest shades of distinction, as if their creator not only seemed to employ no artifices but did employ none. Only the masters of narrative can tell a story which, like this, is clear yet full, continuous yet unhurried, balanced yet as natural as the flow of water or the movement of clouds across a blue sky. If not a great novel The Kentons is still a perfect one.
It is to the difficult distinction between perfection and greatness that critical discussions of Howells always finally arrive. With few authors as eminent does it seem so hard to find the master conveniently distilled in a few masterpieces ready for transportation to posterity. His hand, like Andrea del Sarto’s, worked flawlessly from first to last, but never quite supremely. A Chance Acquaintance, A Modern Instance, The Rise of Silas Lapham, Indian Summer, A Hazard of New Fortunes, The Kentons, all admirable, do not stand more than measurably forth from the remainder of his novels. He must be studied rather in his total work, as the intimate historian of his age, who produced the most extended and accurate transcript of American life yet made by one man. Geographically, indeed, he was limited in the main to Ohio, New England, and New York, and to those parts of Europe and America in which Ohioans, New Englanders, and New Yorkers spend their vacations. He was conditioned, too, by his historical position as editor and arbiter so long in Boston at the declining end of an epoch, when taste ran rather to discipline than to variety or vividness, rather to decorum than to candor, rather to learning than to experience, rather to charm than to passion. Howells, indeed, instead of resting on the palms and laurels he already had, rose to meet the new world, contending as well as he could in his natural silver tone with the alternating tones of gold and iron which have lately dimmed the voice of Boston. But that in his creed and his temperament which had made him amenable to Boston lay deeper than its influences. On every ground he preferred to walk close to the commonplace, believing that the true bulk of life is always to be found there. “It will not do,” he wrote, speaking in Their Silver Wedding Journey of the ducal palace at Weimar, “to lift either houses or men far out of the average; they become spectacles, ceremonies; they cease to have charm, to have character, which belong to the levels of life, where alone there are ease and comfort, and human nature may be itself, with all the little delightful differences [which are] repressed in those who represent and typify.” Does not Howells here reveal himself as the most democratic of novelists? Fenimore Cooper and Hawthorne, both democrats, could still never leave off complaining that democracy lacks the elements of saliency and color upon which they thought the prosperity of the novelist depends. What his predecessors shrank from, Howells ardently embraced, thoroughly satisfied to portray the plain universe which lay before him, in a style which, as he said of that of Jane Austen, whom he preferred to all the novelists in English, is “the elect speech of life expressing itself without pretending to emotions not felt, but finding human nature sufficient for its highest effects.”
The question is whether Howells’s practice matched the serene consistency of his creed; and the truth is that he shrank from some of its consequences. His gentle nature would not permit him to follow men out of the cheerful sun into those darknesses of the mind and the soul which also belong to the commonplace. He clung to the day as Hawthorne to the night. Having planned just after A Modern Instance to write a novel which should take some of its characters to Hong-Kong, he abandoned it because in “reading up” for his Chinese chapters he had come across details of the night side of the city which horrified and disturbed him into unwillingness to touch the material again. Like Emerson, he closed his eyes to evil and its innumerable traces. His America, transcribed so fully as it is, is still an America of the smooth surfaces. Great peaks of drama do not rise upon it; passion does not burrow into it nor adventure run over it with exciting speed. Not quite as a Puritan as a pedant, Howells none the less employed a selective, a respectable, an official realism. He chose his subjects as a sage chooses his conversation, decently. To state these limitations is, however, to accuse Howells of nothing worse than the uncommon sin of too much gentleness. They ask him to stand on the mountain of fame a little further off from Ibsen and a little nearer Irving; nearer Thackeray than Tolstoy; nearer Daudet than Balzac. They remind his austerer critics that Goldsmith has outlasted a dozen austerer novelists. They challenge the historian to assert that work artistically flawless, which lacks malice or intensity, cannot be kept alive by ease and grace and charm, by kind wisdom and thoughtful mirth. Perhaps just his excess of gentleness, like his perfection of art, was needed to civilize American fiction by bringing it home from the frontier to the daily life of the settlements.