Though it presents not so broad and conscientiously loaded a canvas as such important Howells novels as A Modern Instance, The Rise of Silas Lapham, and A Hazard of New Fortunes, Indian Summer has faded less than most of this author’s immense and once immensely admired oeuvre. It was completed by March of 1884, when the impressions of an extended European trip with his family were fresh in his mind, but was held for sixteen months while The Rise of Silas Lapham, composed after Indian Summer, ran as a serial in Century magazine; accordingly, Howells had more time to polish this novel than he usually allowed himself and in its text as serialized in Harper’s Monthly from July 1885 through February 1886 he found little to improve for book publication. In one inscribed copy of the book, Howells called it “the one I like best.” His determined—nay, doctrinaire—fidelity to the inconclusive texture of quotidian life, which can leave his novels diffuse and tepid, here attaches to a colorful locale and a classic situation.
The novel examines a sexual triangle, with variations on the Oedipal triangle. Its unity of place, its small cast of characters, its precise evocation of the sights and seasons of Florence, its exceptionally well-honed prose, and something heartfelt in its basic concern with aging combine to give it the formal concentration whose absence is usually cited as one of Howells’s chief faults.
Indian Summer is the culmination of Howells’s transatlantic, Jamesian mode. It holds, we might fancy, a touch of friendly challenge, of riposte to the narratives of Americans abroad that had brought Henry James his one strong dose of popular success. Daisy Miller, when it appeared in Cornhill Magazine in 1878, made a considerable sensation, and Indian Summer’s young heroine, Imogene Graham, even without the teasing dialogue that openly names James and Howells toward the end of Chapter XIV, would have been recognized as one of Daisy’s sisters, another heartbreakingly uncautious cornfed beauty, an—in James’s phrase—“inscrutable combination of audacity and innocence.” For some months in 1866 and 1867, James and Howells had been companions in Cambridge, Massachusetts, debating literature and confessing their ambitions as they walked together around Fresh Pond, and their friendship endured their rivalry. Though Howells was older than James by six years and during his lifetime came to enjoy the securer hold on the American reading public, he was slower to make his start in fiction, staunchly loyal to James in his capacity of magazine editor, and never averse to learning from other writers. Not only Daisy Miller but The American (1877) and The Portrait of a Lady (1881) may have been in his mind as he settled to the glamorous scenes of Indian Summer.
Americans of apparently unlimited means established in foreign apartments; teas and balls in the expatriate community; the rustle of long dresses and insular gossip; exotic customs and colorful native populations gaily viewed from the height of a rattling carriage; meetings in museums; pagan and Catholic monuments somewhat sinisterly redolent in Puritan nostrils—such, since Hawthorne’s Marble Faun, composed a comfortable ground for a romantic novel. Howells was well qualified to write one: he had spent the years of the Civil War as the American Consul in Venice and was a natural cosmopolitan, a learner of languages and a reader of European literature even as a boy in Ohio.
What strikes us, however, in Indian Summer are its un-Jamesian elements, beginning with the title, naming a season that Europe doesn’t have. Though Florence and the Italian landscape are described with guidebook thoroughness, it is the fragmentary memories of America that are truly poetic—workaday Des Vaches, Indiana, and its Main Street Bridge overlooking a “tawny sweep of the Wabash”; the “untrammelled girlhood” America offers its young females, the open-air strolls and picnics “free and unchaperoned as the casing air”; and the Spartan New England Village of Haddam East Village, whose winter snows still visit Mr. Waters in his dreams:
I can still see the black wavering lines of the walls in the fields sinking into the drifts! the snow billowed over the graves by the church where I preached! the banks of snow around the houses! the white desolation everywhere!
Even the old clergyman’s vanished faith—“pale Unitarianism thinning out into paler doubt”—has in the description an affectionate, nostalgic ring.
James’s expatriates rarely strike this note of fond specificity in their memory of the mother country: Fanny Assingham, in The Golden Bowl, speaks shudderingly of a return to “the dreadful great country, State after State.” Whereas Howells’s hero, the dilettante architect Theodore Colville, is credited with the author’s own passionately professional interest in the United States as a site of mental exploration: “It was the problem of the vast, tumultuous American life, which he had turned his back on, that really concerned him.” James’s expatriates are seeking and losing their souls abroad; Howells’s are on holiday.
Nor is the attitude toward the basic issue, the sexual core of romantic maneuver and plot, the same. James regards sex as a force, all right, and concedes it its power to inspire betrayal and social disruption, but he shows little interest in sex itself and little pleasure in tracing its living currents and contradictions; whereas Howells, in spite of the prudery that led him to deplore Chaucer and disdain Dreiser, is fascinated and truthful. The attraction between the forty-one-year-old Colville and the twenty-year-old Imogene Graham is not purely a misunderstanding or piece of folly. Such matings were common enough in an age when men were expected to offer wives an achieved social substance, and when for respectable women the only permissible sexual experience occurred within marriage. The former could hardly come to the altar too late, or the latter too early.
Colville, returning to Florence after seventeen years, meets on the Ponte Vecchio a woman his age, Mrs. Bowen, now a widow, whom he knew formerly as Lina, the friend of the object of an unhappy youthful romance. Mrs. Bowen invites him to a soirée at her apartment, there he sees Imogene, her temporary ward, dressed in ivory white; he asks his hostess, “Who is that Junoian young person at the end of the room?” Imogene, as their involvement deepens, becomes indeed Junoesque. She adopts an undeviating stance of cold enmity to her sexual rival, Mrs. Bowen, so recently her surrogate mother, and she begins to explore her new sexual rights with a speed that alarms Colville: “She pulled him to the sofa, and put his arm about her waist, with a simple fearlessness and matter-of-course promptness that made him shudder.” At the basic biological level, a girl of twenty can still be a match for a middle-aged man. Only Colville’s fastidious, facetious distancing and the fortuitous appearance of the attractive young Reverend Morton dampen the spark. Society’s complicity—Imogene’s mother, it turns out, is prepared to approve the match—combines with Colville’s instincts:
He felt sure, if anything were sure, that something in him, in spite of their wide disparity of years, had captured his fancy, and now in his abasement he felt again the charm of his own power over her. They were no farther apart in years than many a husband and wife; they would grow more and more together; there was youth enough in his heart yet; who was pushing him away from her, forbidding him this treasure that he had but to put out his hand and make his own.
To an extent of which the author is perhaps unaware, Mrs. Bowen, heaped high though she is with tender epithets, has Juno’s place as the jealous wife forbidding her consort (no Zeus, but a Theodore) his immortal conquest of a younger woman.
Howells excelled in his portrayals of men in their normal moral indolence. Colville is shown “struggling stupidly with a confusion of desires which every man but no woman will understand.” He passively wallows in polymorphous sexuality as not two but three females compete in lavishing love upon him. The triangle has a fourth corner, the child Effie, the daughter of Mrs. Bowen, whose wish to make him her father exerts the force that in fact tips the balance. The vividness with which this ten-year-old makes her presence felt may be traced to the presence of an actual ten-year-old girl, Howells’s younger daughter, Mildred, on the European trip of 1882–1883 which gave him the refreshed Italian background of Indian Summer. If Imogene usurps the consortial love to which Mrs. Bowen feels entitled, Effie seizes the paternal attention for which Imogene pleads when she says, “If I am wrong in the least thing, criticise me, and I will try to be better…. Wouldn’t you like me to improve?”
Colville’s evasive banter is least jarringly tuned to Effie’s prepubescent mentality. An unaccountable gap exists in his masculine make-up—the seventeen celibate and apparently chaste years spent in Des Vaches, with not a whisper of heterosexual involvement, leaving him free to take up his Florentine romance right where he left it, only this time with the alter ego of the original inamorata. Imogene, naive or not, seems right in divining that Colville’s real love-object is his own youth, and shrewd in offering herself as an embodiment of it: “I want you to feel that I am your youth—the youth you were robbed of—given back to you.” Her “sentimental mission” is not misconceived, except in her estimate of Colville’s robustness. She is a match for him, but not he for her.
For all his energy and breadth of interest, there was a nervous delicacy in Howells, a tendency toward depression and breakdown. His novels invite us to dabble in psychological waters because they are his chosen element, where only partly disclosed elements of his own unresolved psychology float. There is something in process, something not precisely formed about his characters, like—as Dorothy Parker said of the men and women drawn by Howells’s fellow Ohioan James Thurber—“unbaked cookies.” Here the contrast with Henry James tends to be in the other man’s favor, for James’s characters are nothing if not baked—finished, angular, crisp. They jab and scrape against one another where Howells’s characters tend to slide around their oppositions.
Both writers were the lapsed sons of ardent Swedenborgian fathers, and of the old religion Howells seems to have kept a benevolence that in his fiction suspends judgment and ameliorates conflicts, whereas James oddly kept, without theistic underpinnings, a pervasive sense of sin and punishment, an inkling of evil, and a judgmental sharpness that readily becomes satire. The run-on chatter of his Daisy Miller, for instance, is startling and caricatural and coolly observed and in the end touching. She is full of herself, which makes her courted doom poignant, while Imogene, not quite full and not quite empty, is created to be rescued and consigned to a vague future. Howells’s world may be more lifelike in its ambiguity and inconclusiveness, but James’s feels livelier, for being more aggressively imagined, with a glinting animus.
Howells’s first imitative enthusiasm was for Heine, and he broke into print—aside from his youthful journalism—as a poet, in The Atlantic Monthly. A poet’s light touch and trust in the vagaries of rendering was ever to flavor his approach as a novelist, along with a prose style that remained lucid, nimble, and youthful. Again and again in Indian Summer, the felicity of the writing makes us pause in admiration: the brimful inventory of Florentine “traits and facts” at the end of the first chapter; the complex activity of adverbs in such a social image as “some English ladies entered, faintly acknowledging, provisionally ignoring, his presence”; the charming period detail of how the two heroines “stood pressing their hands against the warm fronts of their dresses, as the fashion of women is before a fire”; Colville’s first appraisal of Mrs. Bowen with its culminating simile, “She had, with all her flexibility, a certain charming stiffness, like the stiffness of a very tall feather.”
The ubiquitous horses of this premotorized Italy are observed with a curious intensity and sympathy that readies us for the novel’s only incident of physical violence. Colville, having just appraised Mrs. Bowen, notices how the cab that takes her away is pulled by a “broken-kneed, tremulous little horse, gay in brassmounted harness, and with a stiff turkey feather stuck upright at one ear in his headstall.” In the line of cabs at Madame Uccelli’s, “the horses had let their weary heads droop, and were easing their broken knees by extending their forelegs while they drowsed.” When the horses bringing them back from their tense journey to Fiesole bolt at the sight of a herd of black pigs, and drag the carriage off the road, it is as if the abused equine species at last claims its revenge.
The natural world with its animal surges is not far from these prim drawing rooms. In the aftermath of a heated exchange between Imogene and Mrs. Bowen,
They looked as if they had neither of them slept; but the girl’s vigil seemed to have made her wild and fierce, like some bird that has beat itself all night against its cage, and still from time to time feebly strikes the bars with its wings.
In contrast, “Mrs. Bowen was simply worn to apathy.” The moods of these two competing women, caught in the entangling veils of genteel late-Victorian propriety and social duty, are beautifully searched out, and their differences in social wisdom and natural vitality scrupulously kept in account. Howells feels sufficiently master of the feminine heart to dare present, as in the fine tenth chapter, conversations between the two of them, in all-female intimacy. On the level of manners, Imogene is a Mrs. Bowen in bud, an apprentice society woman, and Colville, as a speciman man, the somewhat erratic instrument of her education:
He got himself another cup of tea, and coming back to her, allowed her to make the efforts to keep up the conversation, and was not without a malicious pleasure in her struggles. They interested him as social exercises which, however abrupt and undexterous now, were destined, with time and practice, to become the finesse of a woman of society.
These expatriate gentry have little to do but talk and improve their finesse as they drift across a Europe whose exchange rate favors the Gilded Age American dollar, and this leisure, this exclusive labor in human relationships, gives a stately languor to the developments—to the exquisitely modulated evolution, conversation by conversation, of the characters toward their proper romantic fate. As subjects for a novel, they are rather too ideal, too complacently and volubly self-concerned. Howells would not write about Americans abroad again, turning to New York and a more muscular, Tolstoyan, socially challenging, economically panoramic style of fiction. James, on the other hand, never wearied of his Americans freed of the clangor and coarseness of America, and refined their scruples and disappointments into fictions so spectacularly finespun as to be modernist. No such late blooming awaited Howells; he never wrote better than in Indian Summer, A Modern Instance, and The Rise of Silas Lapham, though he wrote much more, and for decades admirably acted the part of Foremost American Man of Letters. His talent was very American in needing an injection of youth, of youth’s suppleness and careless rapture; his charm and vivacious accuracy of observation were never better displayed than in his very first novels, Their Wedding Journey and A Chance Acquaintance, less novels than slight elaborations of trips he and Mrs. Howells had taken.
Indian Summer, too, has a trip at its heart, a return to Italy, and its hero, at the age of forty-one, is saying goodbye, on behalf of an author in his mid-forties, to youth. A midlife crisis has rarely been sketched in fiction with better humor, with gentler comedy and more gracious acceptance of life’s irrevocability. This comedy’s curious Virgil, godless old Mr. Waters from Haddam East Village, states the optimistic principle that makes Howells’s novels so simultaneously delicious and watery: he notes “the wonderful degree of amelioration that any given difficulty finds in the realization.” Elsewhere, he avows that “men fail, but man succeeds.” Colville, amid the “illogical processes” of amorous tendency, somehow fails to evade an “affection he could not check without a degree of brutality for which only a better man would have the courage,” but mankind, in the form of a predominately feminine polite society, succeeds in straightening out the tangle. Howells’s tropism toward “the smiling aspects of life” finds, in the microcosm of these few amiable tourists in Florence, a moment where smiling is reconciled with the darker intuitions of his realism.
Copyright © 1990 by John Updike.
‘Indian Summer’ March 29, 1990