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
§ 22. Later Novels
The Institute rightly judged that, important as Howells is as critic and memoir-writer, he must be considered first of all a novelist. His later books of fiction make up a long list. That he could produce such an array of fiction is sign enough that he had not been overpowered by humanitarianism; a better sign is the fact that these later novels are even kinder, gayer, mellower than the early ones. In them his investigation moves over a wide area, which includes the solid realism of The Landlord at Lion’s Head (1897) and The Kentons (1902); the sombre 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); and, very notably, subtle explorations of what is or what seems to be the supersensual world in The Shadow of a Dream (1890), Questionable Shapes (1903)—short stories, Between the Dark and the Daylight (1907)—short stories, and The Leatherwood God (1916), which last, the study of a frontier impostor who proclaims himself a god, best hints at Howells’s views of the relation between the real world which he had so long explored and so lovingly portrayed and those vast spaces which appear to be beyond it for the futile tempting of religionists and romanticists.
Holding so firmly to his religion of reality, and with his varied powers, it is not perhaps to be wondered at that Howells produced in his fourscore books the most considerable transcript of American life yet made by one man. Nor, of course, should it be wondered at, that in spite of his doctrine of impersonality the world of America as he has set it down is full of his benignance and noble health, never illicit or savage and but rarely sordid. His natural gentleness and reserve, even more than the decorous traditions of the seventies and eighties, kept him from the violent frankness of, say, Zola, whose books Howells thought “indecent through the facts that they nakedly represent.” What Howells invariably practiced was a kind of selective realism, choosing his material as a sage chooses his words, decently. Most of his stories end “happily,” that is, in congenial marriages with good expectations. He did not mind employing one favoured situation—in ation—in which a humorous husband and a serious wife find themselves responsible for a young girl during her courtship—so often as to suggest a personal experience. Not without some complaint, he nevertheless not too rebelliously accepted the modern novelist’s fate of writing largely for women, a sex which in Howells’s world appears as often shallow and changeful and almost always quite unreasonable. Thus limited as to subjects by his temper and his times, he was likewise limited as to treatment. On every ground he preferred to make relatively little of impassioned or tragic moments, believing that the true bulk of life is to be represented by its common-places. “It will not do,” he wrote, speaking 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 repressed in those who represent and typify.” (The pendulum had swung far since the days when Cooper and Hawthorne repined over the democratic barrenness of American manners!) No one has written more engaging commonplaces than Howells, though perhaps something like the century which has elapsed since the death of Jane Austen—Howells’s ideal among English novelists—will have to pass before the historian can be sure that work artistically flawless may be kept alive, lacking malice or intensity, by ease and grace and charm, by kind wisdom and thoughtful mirth.