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
§ 16. A Modern Instance
In 1869 he had published a metrical novel, No Love Lost, and in 1871 a volume of Suburban Sketches; he continued to write criticism and later began to write farces; but an increasing share of his energy now went to novels. The study of the conflict between different manners or grades of sophistication, taken up at about the same time by Henry James, concerned Howells largely, and appears in A Foregone Conclusion (1875), The Lady of the Aroostook (1879), and A Fearful Responsibility (1881). Writing of spiritualism and Shakerism in An Undiscovered Country (1880), he made clear his suspicion of those types of otherworldliness. And in 1882, with the publication of A Modern Instance, Howells assumed his proper rank as the chief native American realist.
The superiority of this book to all that had gone before can less justly be said to lie in its firmer grasp of its materials, for Howells from the first was extraordinarily sure of grasp, than in its larger control of larger materials. It has a richer timbre, a graver, deeper tone. Marcia Gaylord, the most passionate of all his heroines, is of all of them the most clearly yet lovingly conceived and elaborated. In the career of her husband, Bartley J. Hubbard, Howells accomplishes the difficult feat of tracing a metamorphosis, the increase of selfishness and vanity, fed in this case by Marcia’s very devotion, into monstrous growths of evil without a redeeming tincture even of boldness—mere contemptibility. The process seems as simple as arithmetic, but, like all genuine growth, it actually resists analysis. The winter scenes of the earlier chapters, faithful and vivid beyond any prose which had yet been written about New England, drawn with an eye intensely on the fact, have still the larger bearings of a criticism of American village life in general. The subsequent adventures of the Hubbards in Boston, though so intensely local in setting and incident, are applicable everywhere. Squire Gaylord’s arraignment of his son-in-law in the Indiana courtroom vibrates with a passion seldom met in Howells; and Bartley’s virtual offer of his former wife to his former friend belongs with the unforgettable, unforgivable basenesses in fiction. After these episodes, however, it must be owned that an anticlimax follows in Halleck’s discovery that his New England conscience will now forever hold him from Marcia because he had loved her before she was free.