The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.XI. The Later Novel: Howells
§ 14. Experiments in Fiction
Poems in the manner of Heine won Howells a place in the Atlantic, then the very zenith of his aspiration, and in 1860 he undertook the reverent pilgrimage to New England which he recounts with such winning grace in Literary Friends and Acquaintance. Already a journalist of promise, and something of a poet, he made friends wherever he went and was reconfirmed in his literary ambitions. At the outbreak of the Civil War appointed United States consult at Venice, married at Paris in 1862 to Miss Elinor G. Mead of Vermont, he spent four years of almost undisturbed 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, humorous observation and discovered the ripe, easy style which made him, beginning with Venetian Life (1866) and Italian Journeys (1867), one of the happiest of our literary travellers. From such work he moved, by the avenue of journalism, only gradually to fiction. On his return to the United States in 1865 he became, first, editorial contributor to The Nation for a few months, and then assistant 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, 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 truth of human life and a suspicion, a quiet scorn, of those romantic dreams and superstitious exaggerations by which less contented lovers of life try to enrich it or to escape it. “Ah! poor Real Life,” 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 its zeal for common actuality and in its method, so nearly that of his travel books.