Friday, February 11, 2011

William Dean Howells and the pleasures of the minor writer

The brief mention of minor writers at the end of Wednesday's post reminded me that I've neglected to write about a book I read recently and loved, William Dean Howells's Indian Summer (1886). As I read it, marveling at its wit and insight, I kept asking myself, Why have I never read Howells before?

The answer is actually pretty simple: I thought of him as minor, a friend-and-editor sort who also also happened to write--sort of an American Edmund Gosse. Wendy Lesser gets it right in her introduction to the NYRB Classics edition of Indian Summer: after quoting a letter from Twain in which he praises Howells for "making the feelings clear without analyzing the guts out of them" like George Eliot and Hawthorne (and, by implication, Henry James), Lesser writes,
It is exactly this sort of praise, taken too literally in most cases, which has damned William Dean Howells to his present obscurity. He is not Henry James, not George Eliot, he lacks their moral earnestness, their artistic intensity, therefore (this argument runs) we don't have to read him. But why? . . . Refusing to read Howells because he is not James or Eliot makes about as much sense as refusing to listen to Rossini because he is not Wagner. For some of us (and not only Mark Twain) the comic mode is not just a poor runner-up; it offers certain rewards that are unavailable in the tragic.
And Indian Summer is comic, even as it tells as very Jamesian story of misplaced love and failures of self-knowledge. Howells's dialogue is superb: he successfully creates a character who fancies himself, and is received by others as, a wit, a master of light-hearted banter--and whose dialogue is genuinely bubbly and funny. I quoted several examples on my Tumbler as I read the novel; they'll give you a good taste of the tone and verve of Howells's writing.

Then there's the additional, unexpected pleasure of Howells's allusiveness. The shadow of James is as inescapable in the novel as it surely was in the literary scene of the day; the book's setting and plot, which find American expatriates socializing in Italy, is as Jamesian as you can get. But Howells doesn't stop there: he deliberately plants a little joke keyed to his own minor status:
"This is deliciously mysterious. . . . Mr. Colville concealing an inward trepidation under a bold front; Miss Graham agitated but firm; the child as much puzzled as the old woman. I feel we are a very interesting group--almost dramatic."

"Oh, call us a passage from a modern novel," suggested Colville, "if you're in the romantic mood. One of Mr. James's."

"Don't you think we ought to be rather more of the great world for that? I hardly feel up to Mr. James. I should have said Howells. Only nothing happens in that case!"

"Oh, very well; that's the most comfortable way. If it's only Howells, then there's no reason why I shouldn't go with Miss Graham to show her the view of Florence from that cypress grove up yonder."
Does the metafictional ever get more gently self-tweaking than that? And all while keeping the characters firmly in character!

Indian Summer is a real pleasure, and it's unquestionably going to send me off after A Hazard of New Fortunes and The Rise of Silas Lapham. If winter is proving too much, might I suggest a brief jaunt to Florence in the company of Howells?


  1. A Hazard of New Fortunes is surprisingly nice & I recommend it. Howells always made sense to me as the missing link between Mark Twain & Henry James - he managed to be friends with both of them.

    And I think there's a fair amount about Howells in Thomas Beer's very nice The Mauve Decade? Though I could be misremembering - I don't know where my copy of that's gone off to.

  2. Not to push the comparison too hard, but I always think of Howells as an American Trollope. (Arnold Bennett is another good parallel.) He is a delightful writer and a delightful personality. Anyone who could be friends with both Henry James and Mark Twain clearly had diverse gifts! A Hazard of New Fortunes is a great social novel that I recommend strongly. Howells's technique is solidly mainstream, but his outlook can be surprisingly modern; significantly, the very last words of his novel of divorce A Modern Instance are "I don't know!" The open-endedness is both daring for its time and quite humanly attractive. Howells may be a minor writer, although I rather think he skirts being a major one; he is, in any case, a lovable and supremely readable novelist.

  3. The latest Hudson Review (Winter 2011) has an outstanding William Pritchard essay on just this theme - the pleasures of Howells, even of minor Howells, novels like The Quality of Mercy and The Landlord at Lion's Head. I thought it was convincing. Worth your time if you come across a copy.

  4. Thanks for the recommendations, guys. I can see I've got plenty more thinking about and reading of Howells to do soon!

  5. Anonymous1:37 AM

    I have a couple of Howells on my shelf to read. I bought them because I was curious about him and his work, never having heard of him before. Thanks for the recommendation.