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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

§ 15. A Chance Acquaintance

A Chance Acquaintance (1873), more strictly a novel, for the first time showed that Howells could not only report customs and sketch characters felicitously but could also organize a plot with delicate skill. A young Bostonian, passionately in love with an intelligent but unsophisticated 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 convincingly separates them. Nothing could be more subtle than the turn by which their relative positions are reversed. The style of A Chance Acquaintance, while not more graceful than that of Howells’s earlier books, is more assured and crisp. 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 a lambent mirth, an undeceived kindliness of wisdom, which was to remain his essential quality.