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Howells First Of Living American Novelists

( Originally Published 1916 )


PROBABLY the most popular of contemporary American men of letters is William Dean Howells, who easily ranks first among our living novelists. For over a half-century he has been one of the most prolific of American writers, yet not a single one of his novels or his books of essays or notes of travel can be called a pot-boiler. Howells began to write during the great Civil War and he has written steadily ever since, averaging about a book a year. Considering the large number of poems, plays, novels, essays, critical estimates of authors and travel sketches that he has produced, his average of excellence is very high.

Howells has all the New England traits, with a broader outlook which he gained from early association with the people of the Northern Reserve of Ohio. The Puri-tan strain was dominant among these settlers in Northern Ohio but the Western atmosphere was fatal to that class feeling which the intellectual New Englander inherits. So Howells, who very early showed great literary aptitude, escaped the narrowing influence of class prejudice. His boyish fancy turned to poetry, but nothing that he produced in verse is worthy to rank with his best prose work.

Like Franklin, Whitman, Mark Twain and Bret Harte, Howells' real education was secured in a country printing office of which his father was the proprietor. There is something about composition - the set-ring up in type by hand of other people's writing— which stimulates literary work. A boy with an insatiable craving for reading, if placed in a printing office, usually becomes a writer. Howells had enjoyed a high school education; he knew some Latin and a little Greek, and he had been an omnivorous reader. With a keen literary faculty he had the foundation laid for literary culture. With the strong desire to express his thought in verse he wrote much poetry which is above the average magazine standard, but this verse was forgotten when he began to express himself in his natural medium of prose.

When he was twenty-two years old and had had some experience as a reporter and correspondent for several Ohio newspapers, the youthful Howells made a pilgrimage to Boston. He had had several poems printed in the ATLANTIC MONTHLY and naturally his first visit was to Lowell, then editor of the magazine. Fifty years after, in Literary Friends and Acquaintance, Howells gives a remarkably readable account of this journey and of his first meeting with Lowell, Emerson, Hawthorne, Longfellow, Holmes, and others of the circle of New England writers who had made the ATLANTIC famous. They were as gods to him, but wonderful to relate, he found them all simple in manners, easily accessible and full of interest in his literary ambitions, except Emerson, whose aloofness chilled the enthusiastic neophyte. Howells also visited New York and saw the leading literary lights, but in neither city was he able to establish any connection, so he returned home. He did some campaign work for Lincoln which secured him the consulate at Venice, with a salary of $1,500 a year. There he mastered Italian and gave himself up to the study of Dante and the great modern writers of Italy. These four years of literary leisure colored all his life. He wrote articles on Italian cities, afterwards grouped in Venetian Life and Italian Journeys, and he developed a prose style of singular flexibility and charm. On his return after the close of the Civil War Howells did some literary work on the New York NATION, but he gladly accepted the assistant-editorship of the ATLANTIC MONTHLY.

From that time, almost a full half century ago, Howells has been a magazine editor, with the later years devoted wholly to literary work. He has written over thirty novels and romances, a dozen comedies and farces, and more than a dozen books of criticism, travel and reminiscence. Although his allegiance to Boston was very strong, Howells in 1887 established a connection with the Harpers, in New York and from that time all his books have borne the New York publishers' imprint, and most of his work has appeared first in the Harper periodicals.

Howells began his career as a novelist as far back as 1872 with Their Wedding journey, a charming tale spiced with quiet humor, but it was The Lady of the Aroostook, issued seven years later, which first gave him fame. This is a story of the voyage of Lydia Blood, a New England girl, to Italy on one of the old sailing packets in order to study singing. She goes direct to Trieste, where a female cousin is to take the girl to her home in Venice. Her parents died during her childhood and she has made her home with her grandparents in a small New England village. Very amusing are the scenes describing the girl's trip to Boston with her grandfather and the arrangements for her voyage. Only when she is at sea does she discover that she is the only woman on the ship, even the cook being a negro man. But the captain treats her as he would treat one of his own girls, and the other passengers, three young men, are polite and considerate. One of these is a young aristocrat of Boston, who begins by ridicule of Lydia to his companion and ends by falling in love with the girl. The voyage is admirably described, the only sensational incident being the fall overboard of one of the passengers who is a dipsomaniac and his rescue by Lydia's admirer. The best work in the book is devoted to Lydia's introduction to Italian life and customs at Venice. There we leave her happy in her love, after a week of suffering during which she believes that her lover has forsaken her. The book is noteworthy as giving a perfect picture of the New England temperament in contact with a strange environment. Although we may laugh at Lydia's ignorance of many things, yet we respect her for her truth, her common sense and her independence. Another novel by Howells which is typical is A Modern Instance, published in 1882. It is devoted to a full-length picture of a young American, Bartley Campbell, who marries Marcia, the daughter of an old lawyer. Bartley has one grave defect; he has no moral principle. If things had gone right with him he probably would have settled down into a quiet, conservative citizen. As it is, he gives way to a tendency to drink, and his moral degeneration is slow but sure. Mr. Howells, with rare power, shows us how inevitable is Bartley's decline after the first step in self-indulgence and how this decline is stimulated by the jealous disposition of his wife. In the hands of a woman of tact Bartley might have been saved, but his wife simply aggravates his malady. Finally he abandons her, going out to Arizona, where he begins a secret suit for divorce. Marcia learns of this legal proceeding and with her old father journeys to the West to contest the suit. The figure of Bartley in the court-room — the once dapper, clean-cut young fellow now a bloated, shabby hanger-on about the courts, with his fat neck hanging over his greasy coat collar — will always remain in the reader's memory. Equally impressive is the figure of the old Judge, Marcia's father, who denounces the man who has ruined his daughter's life. Professor William Lyon Phelps compares this book with George Eliot's Romola and declares that the American novelist's picture of the gradual moral degeneration of Bartley Campbell is finer than the English author's sketch of the downfall of Tito Melima.

Other fine stories by Howells are The Rise of Silas Lapham, a powerful sketch of a self made American, and Indian Summer, a comedy of the tangled relations of a young girl and a middle-aged man and woman. Throughout half the book the man sincerely believes he is in love with the romantic young girl, as she believes that she loves him. There is very little action in the story, but the conversations are as witty as the dialogue in the third act of Oscar Wilde's Lady Windermere's Fan. All the talk between the two women is also admirably done. It is surprising that this book should have ceased to keep its hold on American readers, as it is far and away better than most of the humorous stories issued every year.

Howells has tried his hand at a number of farces, most of which are very good reading, but they have lacked action to succeed on the stage. His sketches of travel, of which he has written many volumes, are always readable, although of late he has fallen into the style of Henry James, which makes his work very hard reading. It is singular, the influence of Tolstoi upon Howells' later novels and the influence of James upon his style. During the last ten years Howells seems to fancy that he must have some moral doctrine to preach in his novels, with he result that his work reminds one of a religious tract disguised as a novel. All the freshness and spontaneity that marked his earlier novels is gone. Then, too, he seems to think, with Mr. James, that his thought cannot be expressed in simple language, but must be elaborated and refined to the last degree. The result is the loss of that simple, flexible style which was once his greatest charm.

It is perhaps in reminiscence that Mr. Howells is most happy. In A Boy's Town he has described happily and with great humor his boyhood in an Ohio village, while in Literary Friends and Acquaintance he has sketched most deftly the life of Cambridge and the great figures in New England literature of forty years ago. To Howells also belongs the credit of having encouraged and aided by his wise advice many of the successful American writers of today.

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