William Dean Howells
William Dean Howells; drawing by David Levine


On May 1, 1886, American workers in general and Chicago’s workers in particular decided that the eight-hour work-day was an idea whose time had come. Workers demonstrated; and a number of factories were struck. Management responded in kind. At McCormick Reaper strikers were replaced by “scabs.” On May 3, when the scabs left the factory at the end of a long traditional workday, they were mobbed by the strikers. Chicago’s police promptly opened fire and America’s gilded age looked to be cracking open.

The next night, in Haymarket Square, the anarchists held a meeting presided over by the mayor of Chicago. A thousand workers listened to many thousands of highly incendiary words. But all was orderly until His Honor went home; then the police “dispersed” the meeting with that tact which has ever marked Hog-city’s law-enforcement officers. At one point, someone (never identified) threw a bomb: a number of policemen and workers were killed or wounded. Subsequently, there were numerous arrests and in-depth grillings.

Finally, more or less at random, eight men were indicted for “conspiracy to murder.” There was no hard evidence of any kind. One man was not even in town that day while another was home playing cards. By and large, the great conservative Republic felt no compassion for anarchists, even the ones who had taken up the revolutionary game of bridge; worse, an eight-hour workday would drive a stake through the economy’s heart.

On August 20, a prejudiced judge and jury found seven of the eight men guilty of murder in the first degree; the eighth man (who had not been in town that night) got fifteen years in the slammer because he had a big mouth. The anarchists’ counsel, Judge Roger A. Pryor, then appealed the verdict to the Supreme Court.

During the short hot summer of 1886, the case was much discussed. The peculiar arbitrariness of condemning to death men whom no one had seen commit a crime but who had been heard, at one time or another, to use “incendiary and seditious language” was duly noted in bookish circles. Yet no intellectual of the slightest national importance spoke up. Of America’s famous men of letters, Mark Twain maintained his habitual silence on any issue where he might, even for an instant, lose the love of the folks. Henry James was in London, somewhat shaken by the recent failure of not only The Bostonians but The Princess Casamassima. The sad young man of The Princess Casamassima is an anarchist, who has had, like James himself that year, “more news of life than he knew what to do with.” Although Henry Adams’s education was being conducted that summer in Japan, he had made, the previous year, an interesting comment on the American political system—or lack of one:

Where no real principle divides us,…some queer mechanical balance holds the two parties even, so that changes of great numbers of voters leave no trace in the sum total. I suspect the law will someday be formulated that in democratic societies, parties tend to an equilibrium.

As the original entropy man, Adams had to explain, somehow, the election of the Democrat Grover Cleveland in 1884, after a quarter-century of Republican abolitionist virtue and exuberant greed.

Of the Republic’s major literary and intellectual figures (the division was not so clearly drawn then between town, as it were, and gown), only one took a public stand. At forty-nine, William Dean Howells was the author of that year’s charming “realistic” novel, Indian Summer; he was also easily the busiest and smoothest of America’s men of letters. Years before, he had come out of Ohio to conquer the world of literature; and had succeeded. He had been the first outlander to be editor of the Atlantic Monthly. In the year of the Haymarket Square riot, he had shifted the literary capital of the country from Boston to New York when he took over Harper’s Monthly, for which he wrote a column called “The Editor’s Study”; and a thousand other things as well. That summer Howells had been reading Tolstoy. In fact, Tolstoy was making a socialist out of him; and Howells was appalled by Chicago’s judge, jury, and press. He was also turning out his column, a hasty affair by his own best standards but positively lapidary by ours.

In the September 1886 issue of Harper’s, Howells, who had done so much to bring Turgenev and Tolstoy to the attention of American readers, decided to do the same for Dostoevsky, whose Crime and Punishment was then available only in a French translation. Since Howells had left school at fifteen, he had been able to become very learned indeed. He had taught himself Latin and Greek; learned Spanish, German, Italian, and French. He read many books in many languages, and he knew many things. He also wrote many books; and many of those books are of the first rank. He was different from us. Look at Dean run! Look at Dean read! Look-say what Dean writes!


While the Haymarket Square riots were causing Howells to question the basis of the American “democracy,” he was describing a Russian writer who had been arrested for what he had written and sent off to Siberia where he was taken out to be shot but not shot—the kind of fun still to be found to this very day south of our borders where the dominoes roam. As Howells proceeded most shrewdly to explain Dostoevsky to American readers, he rather absently dynamited his own reputation for the next century. Although he admired Dostoevsky’s art, he could find little similarity between the officially happy, shadowless United States and the dark Byzantine cruelties of czarist Russia:

It is one of the reflections suggested by Dostoevsky’s book that whoever struck a note so profoundly tragic in American fiction would do a false and mistaken thing…. Whatever their deserts, very few American novelists have been led out to be shot, or finally expelled to the rigors of a winter at Duluth…. We invite our novelists, therefore, to concern themselves with the more smiling aspects of life, which are the more American, and to seek the universal in the individual rather than the social interests. It is worth while even at the risk of being called commonplace, to be true to our well-to-do actualities.

This was meant to be a plea for realism. But it sounded like an invitation to ignore the sort of thing that was happening in Chicago. Ironists are often inadvertent victims of their own irony.

On November 2, 1887, the Supreme Court denied the anarchists’ appeal. On November 4, Howells canvassed his literary peers. What to do? The dedicated abolitionist of thirty years earlier, George William Curtis, whose lecture Political Infidelity was a touchstone of political virtue, and the noble John Greenleaf Whittier agreed that something must be done; but they were damned if they were going to do it. So the belletrist who had just enjoined the nation’s scribblers to address themselves to the smiling aspects of a near-perfect land hurled his own grenade at the courts.

In an open letter to the New York Tribune (published with deep reluctance by the ineffable Whitelaw Reid) Howells addressed all right-thinking persons to join with him in petitioning the governor of Illinois to commute the sentences. No respectable American man of letters had taken on the American system since Thomas Paine, who was neither American nor respectable. Of the Supreme Court, Howells wrote, it “simply affirmed the legality of the forms under which the Chicago court proceeded; it did not affirm the propriety of trying for murder men fairly indictable for conspiracy alone….” The men had been originally convicted of “constructive conspiracy to commit murder,” a star-chamberish offense, based on their fiery language, and never proved to be relevant to the actual events in Haymarket Square. In any case, he made the point that the Supreme Court

by no means approved the principle of punishing them because of their frantic opinions, for a crime which they were not shown to have committed. The justice or injustice of their sentence was not before the highest tribunal of our law, and unhappily could not be got there. That question must remain for history, which judges the judgment of courts, to deal with; and I, for one, cannot doubt what the decision of history will be.

Howells said that the remaining few days before the men were executed should be used to persuade the governor to show mercy. In the course of the next week the national press attacked Howells, which is what the American system has a national press for.

On November 11, four of the men, wearing what look like surgical gowns, were hanged. Of the others, one had committed suicide and two had had their sentences commuted. On November 12, Howells, undaunted by the national hysteria now directed as much against him as against the enemies of property, wrote another public letter:

It seems of course almost a pity to mix a note of regret with the hymn of thanksgiving for blood growing up from thousands of newspapers all over the land this morning; but I reflect that though I write amidst this joyful noise, my letter cannot reach the public before Monday at the earliest, and cannot therefore be regarded as an indecent interruption of the Te Deum.

By that time journalism will not have ceased, but history will have at least begun. All over the world where civilized men can think and feel, they are even now asking themselves, For what, really, did those four men die so bravely? Why did one other die so miserably? Next week the journalistic theory that they died so because they were desperate murderers will have grown even more insufficient than it is now for the minds and hearts of dispassionate inquirers, and history will make the answer to which she must adhere for all time, They died, in the prime of the first Republic the world has ever known, for their opinions’ sake.

Howells then proceeds to make the case against the state’s attorney general and the judge and the shrieking press. It is a devastating attack: “I have wished to deal with facts. One of these is that we had a political execution in Chicago yesterday. The sooner we realize this, the better for us.” As polemic, Howells’s letter is more devastating and eloquent than Émile Zola’s J’accuse; as a defense of the right to express unpopular opinions, it is the equal of Milton’s Areopagitica.


Unfortunately, the letter was not published in the year 1887. Eventually, the manuscript was found in an envelope addressed to Whitelaw Reid. The piece had been revised three times. It is possible that a copy had been sent to Reid who had not published it; it is possible that Howells had had second thoughts about the possibilities of libel actions from judge and state’s attorney general; it is possible that he was scared off by the general outcry against him. After all, he had not only a great career to worry about but an ill wife and a dying daughter. Whatever the reason, Howells let his great moment slip by. Even so, the letter-not-sent reveals a powerful mind affronted by “one of those spasms of paroxysmal righteousness to which our Anglo-Saxon race is peculiarly subject….” He also grimly notes that this “trial by passion, by terror, by prejudice, by hate, by newspaper” had ended with a result that has won “the approval of the entire nation.”

I suspect that the cautious lifetime careerist advised the Tolstoyan socialist to cool it. Howells was in enough trouble already. After all, he was the most successful magazine editor in the country; he was a best-selling novelist. He could not afford to lose a public made up mostly of ladies. So he was heard no more on the subject. But at least he, alone of the country’s writers, had asked, publicly, on November 4, 1887, that justice be done.

Howells, a master of irony, would no doubt have found ironic in the extreme his subsequent reputation as a synonym for middlebrow pusillanimity. After all, it was he who was the spiritual father of Dreiser (whom he did nothing for, curiously enough) and of Stephen Crane and Harold Frederic and Frank Norris, for whom he did a very great deal. He managed to be the friend and confidant of both Henry James and Mark Twain, quite a trick. He himself wrote a half-dozen of the Republic’s best novels. He was learned, witty, and generous.

Howells lived far too long. Not long before his death at the age of eighty-four, he wrote his old friend Henry James: “I am comparatively a dead cult with my statues cut down and the grass growing over me in the pale moonlight.” By then he had been dismissed by the likes of Sinclair Lewis as a dully beaming happy writer. But then Lewis knew as little of American literary near-past as today’s writers know, say, of Lewis. If Lewis had read Howells at all, he would have detected in the work of this American realist a darkness sufficiently sable for even the most lost-and-found of literary generations or, as Howells wrote James two years after the Haymarket Square riots: “After fifty years of optimistic content with ‘civilization’ and its ability to come out all right in the end, I now abhor it, and feel that it is coming out all wrong in the end unless it bases itself on a real equality.” What that last phrase means is anyone’s guess. He is a spiritual rather than a practical socialist. It is interesting that the letter was written in the same year that Bellamy’s Looking Backward was published. The ideas of Robert Owen that Howells had absorbed from his father (later a Swedenborgian like Henry James, Sr.) were now commingled with the theories of Henry George, the tracts of William Morris, and, always, Tolstoy. Howells thought that there must be a path through the political jungle of a republic that had just hanged four men for their opinions; he never found it. But as a novelist he was making a path for himself and for others, and he called it realism.


On Thanksgiving Day, 1858, the twenty-one-year-old Howells was received at the court of the nineteen-year-old first lady of Ohio, Kate Chase, a handsome ambitious motherless girl who acted as hostess to her father the governor, Salmon P. Chase, a handsome ambitious wifeless man who was, in Abraham Lincoln’s thoughtful phrase, “on the subject of the Presidency, a little insane.”

Howells had grown up in Ohio1 ; his father was an itinerant newspaper editor and publisher. He himself was a trained printer as well as an ambitious but not insane poet. Under the influence of Heine, he wrote a number of poems; one was published in the Atlantic Monthly. He was big in Cleveland. Howells and Kate got on well; she teased him for his social awkwardness; he charmed her as he charmed almost everyone. Although he wrote about the doings of the Ohio legislature for the Cincinnati Gazette, he preferred the company of cultivated ladies to that of politicians. A passionate autodidact, he tended to prefer the company of books to people. But through Kate he met future presidents; and was served at table by his first butler.

In a sense the Chase connection was the making of Howells. When Lincoln won the Republican presidential nomination in 1860, Howells was chosen, somewhat improbably, to write a campaign biography of the candidate. Characteristically, Howells sent a friend to Springfield to chat with the subject of his book; he himself never met Lincoln. He then cobbled together a book that Lincoln did not think too bad. One suspects that he did not think it too good, either. Shortly before the president was shot, he withdrew the book for the second time from the Library of Congress: nice that he did not have a copy of it on the coffee table in the Blue Room; but then Lincoln was so unlike, in so many ways, our own recent sovereigns.

Once Lincoln was president, Chase became secretary of the treasury. Chase proposed that the campaign biographer be rewarded with a consulate. But nothing happened until Howells himself went to Washington where he found an ally in Lincoln’s very young and highly literary second secretary, John Hay, who, with the first secretary, John Nicolay, finally got Howells the consulate at Venice.

It is odd to think that a writer as curiously American as Howells should have been shaped by the Most Serene Republic at a bad moment in that ancient polity’s history—the Austrian occupation—rather than by the United States at the most dramatic moment in that polity’s history: the Civil War. Odd, also, that Howells managed, like the other two major writers of his generation, to stay out of the war. Neither Mark Twain nor Henry James rushed to the colors.

Since Howells had practically no official work to do, he learned Italian and perfected his German and French. He turned out poems that did not get printed in the Atlantic. “Not one of the MSS you have sent us,” wrote the editor, “swims our seas.” So Howells went off the deep end, into prose. He wrote Venetian sketches of great charm; he was always to be a good—even original—travel writer. Where the previous generation of Irving and Hawthorne had tended to love far too dearly a ruined castle wall, Howells gave the reader not only the accustomed romantic wall but the laundry drying on it, too. The Boston Advertiser published him.

Then came the turning point, as Howells termed it, in his life. He had acquired a charming if garrulous wife, who talked even more than Mark Twain’s wife, or as Twain put it, when Elinor Howells entered a room “dialogue ceased and monologue inherited its assets and continued the business at the old stand.” Howells wrote a serious study of the Italian theater called “Recent Italian Comedy,” which he sent to the North American Review, the most prestigious of American papers, coedited by his friend James Russell Lowell and Charles Eliot Norton. At the time, Boston and Cambridge were in the throes of advanced Italophilia. Longfellow was translating Dante; and all the ladies spoke of Michelangelo. Lowell accepted the essay. Howells was now on his way, as a serious writer.

After nearly four years in Venice, which he did not much care for, Howells returned to New York. With a book of sketches called Venetian Life at the printers, he went job hunting. He was promptly hired by E.L. Godkin to help edit The Nation. Not long after, he was hired by the Atlantic Monthly as assistant to the editor; then from 1871 to 1881 he was editor in chief. In Boston, Howells was now at the heart of an American literary entertainment which had no way of knowing that what looked to be eternal noon was actually Indian summer—for New England.

Just before Howells had gone to Venice, he had made the rounds of New England’s literary personages. He had met Holmes and Hawthorne whom he had liked; and Emerson whom he had not. Now, at the Atlantic, every distinguished writer came his editorial way; and soon he himself would be one of them. But what sort of writer was he to be? Poetry was plainly not his métier. Journalism was always easy for him; but he was ambitious. That left the novel, an art form which was not yet entirely “right.” The American product of the 1860s was even less “aesthetic” than the English and neither was up to the French, who were, alas, sexually vicious, or to the Russians, who were still largely untranslated except for the Paris-based Turgenev. At this interesting moment, Howells had one advantage denied his contemporaries, always excepting Henry James. He could read—and he had read—the new Europeans in the original. He went to school to Zola and Flaubert. Realism was in the European air; but how much reality could Americans endure? Out of the tension between the adventurousness of Flaubert and the edgy reticence of Hawthorne came the novels of William Dean Howells.

From Heine, Howells had learned the power of the plain style. Mark Twain had also learned the same lesson—from life. Whereas the previous generation of Melville and Hawthorne had inclined to elevated, even “poetic” prose, Twain and Howells and James the First were relatively straightforward in their prose and quotidian in their effects—no fauns with pointed ears need apply. In fact, when Howells first met Hawthorne, he shyly pointed to a copy of The Blithedale Romance, and told the great man that that was his own favorite of the master’s works. Hawthorne appeared pleased; and said, “The Germans like it, too.”

But realism, for Howells, had its limits. He had grown up in a happy if somewhat uncertain environment: his father was constantly changing jobs, houses, religions. For a writer, Howells himself was more than usually a dedicated hypochondriac whose adolescence was shadowed by the certainty that he had contracted rabies which would surface in time to kill him at sixteen. Like most serious hypochondriacs, he enjoyed full rude health until he was eighty. But there were nervous collapses. Also, early in life, Howells had developed a deep aversion to sexual irregularity, which meant any form of sexuality outside marriage. When his mother befriended a knocked-up seamstress, the twelve-year-old Howells refused to pass her so much as the salt at table.

In Venice he could not get over the fact that there could be no social intercourse of any kind with unmarried girls (unlike the fun to be had with The American Girl, soon to be celebrated not only by Henry James but by Howells himself), while every married woman seemed bent on flinging even the purest of young bachelors into the sack. Doubtless, he kept himself chaste until marriage. But he railed a good deal against European decadence, to the amusement of the instinctively more worldly, if perhaps less operative (“Oh, my aching back!”) James, who used to tease him about the latest descriptions of whorehouses to be found in French fiction. Nevertheless, for a writer who was to remain an influence well into the twentieth century, an aversion to irregular sexuality was not apt to endear him to a later generation which, once it could put sex into the novel, proceeded to leave out almost everything else. Where the late-nineteenth-century realistic novel might be said to deal with social climbing, the twentieth-century novel has dealt with sexual climbing, an activity rather easier to do than to write about.

The Library of America now brings us four of Howells’s novels written between 1875 and 1886. Before the publications of these four novels, Howells had already published his first novel Their Wedding Journey (1871); his second novel A Chance Acquaintance (1873); as well as sketches of Italy, people, and yet another personage. Elinor Mead Howells was a cousin of President Rutherford (known to all good Democrats as Rather-fraud) B. Hayes. So the campaign biographer of Lincoln, duly and dutifully, wrote a book called Sketch of the Life and Character of Rutherford B. Hayes (1876). Thanks to Cousin Hayes, Howells was now able to reward those who had helped him. James Russell Lowell was sent to London as American ambassador.

Of the books written before A Foregone Conclusion (the first of the four now reissued), the ever-polite but never fraudulent Turgenev wrote Howells in 1874:

Accept my best thanks for the gracious gift of your delightful book Their Wedding Journey, which I have read with the same pleasure experienced before in reading A Chance Acquaintance and Venetian Life. Your literary physiognomy is a most sympathetic one; it is natural, simple and clear—and in the same time—it is full of unobtrusive poetry and fine humor. Then—I feel the peculiar American stamp on it—and that is not one of the least causes of my relishing so much your works.

This was written in English. In a sense, Turgenev is responding to Howells’s championing of his own work (Howells had reviewed Lisa and Rudin) but he is also responding to a sympathetic confrere, a young writer whom he has influenced though not so much as has “the peculiar American stamp.” Unfortunately, Turgenev never lived to read the later books. It would be interesting to see what he might have made of A Modern Instance, a book as dark and, at times, as melodramatic as a novel by Zola, whose L’Assommoir Turgenev disliked.

A Foregone Conclusion (1875) has, as protagonist, the—what else?—American consul at Venice. The consul is a painter (young writers almost always make their protagonists artists who practice the one art that they themselves know nothing about: It’s the light, you see, in Cimabue). The consul attracts a young priest, Don Ippolito, who wants to emigrate to America and become an inventor. It is no accident that practically the first building in Washington to be completed in imperial marble splendor was the Patent Office. Don Ippolito is a sort of Italian Major Hoople. The inventions don’t really work but he keeps on because “Heaven only knows what kind of inventor’s Utopia our poor, patent-ridden country appeared to him in those dreams of his, and I can but dimly figure it to myself.” Here the auctorial “I” masquerades as the “I” of the consul, Ferris, who is otherwise presented in the objective third person. Howells has not entirely learned Turgenev’s lesson: stay out of the narrative. Let the characters move the narration and the reader. Howells’s native American garrulousness—and tendentiousness—occasionally breaks in.

Enter, inexorably, middle-aged American lady and daughter—Mrs. Vervain and Florida. This was four years before Howells’s friend sicked Daisy Miller onto a ravished world. But then The American Girl was to be a Howells theme, just as it was to be James’s and, later, and in a much tougher way, Mrs. Wharton’s. As every writer then knew, the readers of novels were mostly women; and they liked to read about the vicissitudes of young women, preferably ladies. But while James would eventually transmute his American girls into something that Euripides himself might find homely (e.g., Maggie Verver), Howells tends, gently, to mock. Incidentally, I do not believe that it has ever before been noted that the portrait of Florida is uncannily like Kate Chase.

It is a foregone conclusion that American girl and American mother (“the most extraordinary combination of perfect fool and perfect lady, I ever saw”) will miss the point to Don Ippolito and Venice and Europe, and that he will miss the point to them. Don Ippolito falls in love with Florida. The Americans are horrified. How can a priest sworn to celibacy…? Since they are Protestants, the enormity of his fall from Roman Catholic grace is all the greater. Although Don Ippolito is perfectly happy to give up the church, they will not let him. Mother and daughter flee. As for Ferris, he has misunderstood not only Don Ippolito but Florida’s response to him. Don Ippolito dies—with the comment to Ferris, “You would never see me as I was.”

The consul goes home to the States and joins the army. Like so many other characters in the works of those writers who managed to stay out of the Civil War, Ferris has a splendid war: “Ferris’s regiment was sent to a part of the southwest where he saw a good deal of fighting and fever and ague” (probably a lot easier than trying to get a job at the Atlantic). “At the end of two years, spent alternately in the field and the hospital, he was riding out near the camp one morning in unusual spirits, when two men in butternut fired at him: one had the mortification to miss him; the bullet of the other struck him in the arm. There was talk of amputation at first….” Pre-dictaphone and word processor, it was every writer’s nightmare that he lose his writing arm. But, worse, Ferris is a painter: he can never crosshatch again. Broke, at a loose end, he shows an old picture at an exhibition. Florida sees the picture. They are reunited. Mrs. Vervain is dead. Florida is rich. Ferris is poor. What is to be done?

It is here that the avant-garde realism of Howells shoves forward the whole art of the popular American novel: “It was fortunate for Ferris, since he could not work, that she had money; in exalted moments he had thought this a barrier to their marriage; yet he could not recall anyone who had refused the hand of a beautiful girl because of the accident of her wealth, and in the end, he silenced his scruples.” This is highly satisfying.

Then Howells, perhaps a bit nervous at just how far he has gone in the direction of realism, tosses a bone of, as it were, marzipan to the lady-reader: “It might be said that in many other ways he was not her equal; but one ought to reflect how very few men are worthy of their wives in any sense.” Sighs of relief from many a hammock and boudoir! How well he knows the human heart.

Howells smiles at the end; but the smile is aslant, while the point to the tragedy (not Ferris’s, for he had none, but that of Don Ippolito) is that, during the subsequent years of Ferris’s marriage, Don Ippolito “has at last ceased to be even the memory of a man with a passionate love and a mortal sorrow. Perhaps this final effect in the mind of him who has realized the happiness of which the poor priest vainly dreamed is not the least tragic phase of the tragedy of Don Ippolito.”

This coda is unexpectedly harsh: and not at all smiling. A priest ought not to fall in love. It is a foregone conclusion that if you violate the rules governing sexuality, society will get you, as Mrs. Wharton would demonstrate so much more subtly in The Age of Innocence; and Henry James would subtly deny since he knew, in a way that Howells did not, that the forbidden cake could be both safely eaten and kept. It is an odd irony that the donnée on which James based The Ambassadors was a remark that the fifty-seven-year-old Howells made to a friend in Paris: No matter what, one ought to have one’s life; that it was too late for him, personally, but for someone young…. “Don’t, at any rate, make my mistake,” Howells said. “Live!”

Kenneth S. Lynn has put the case, persuasively to my mind, that the “happy endings” of so many of Howells’s novels are deliberately “hollow” or ironic. After all, it was Howells who had fashioned the, to Edith Wharton, “lapidary phrase”: Americans want tragedies with happy endings. There are times when Howells’s conclusions—let’s end with a marriage and live happily ever after—carry more formidable weight than the sometimes too-lacquered tragic codas of James: “We shall never be again as we were.” The fact is that people are almost always exactly as they were; and they will be so again and again, given half a chance.

At forty-four, the highly experienced man of letters began his most ambitious novel, A Modern Instance. Although the story starts in a New England village, the drama is acted out in the Boston of Howells’s professional life, and the very unusual protagonist is a newspaperman on the make who charms everyone and hoodwinks a few; he also puts on too much weight, steals another man’s story, makes suffer the innocent young village heiress whom he marries. In a sense, Howells is sending himself up; or some dark side of himself. Although Bartley Hubbard is nowhere in Howells’s class as a writer, much less standard-bearer for Western civilization, he is a man who gets what he wants through personal charm, hard work, and the ability to write recklessly and scandalously for newspapers in a way that the young William Randolph Hearst would capitalize on at century’s end, thus making possible today’s antipodean “popular” press, currently best exemplified by London’s giggly newspapers.

Unlike Howells, or the Howells that we think we know, Bartley is sexually active; he is not about to make the Howells-Strether mistake. He lives; until he is murdered by a man whom he may have libeled in a western newspaper. It would have been more convincing if an angry husband had been responsible for doing him in, but there were conventions that Howells felt obliged to observe, as his detractors, among them Leslie Fiedler, like to remind us. Mr. Fiedler writes:

Only in A Modern Instance, written in 1882 [sic: 1881], does Howells deal for once with a radically unhappy marriage; and here he adapts the genteel-sentimental pattern which had substituted the bad husband (his Bartley Hubbard has “no more moral nature than a baseball”) for the Seducer, the long-suffering wife for the Persecuted Maiden or fallen woman.2

Mr. Fiedler, of course, is—or was in 1960—deeply into “the reality of dream and nightmare, fantasy and fear,” and for him Howells is “the author of flawlessly polite, high-minded, well-written studies of untragic, essentially eventless life in New England—the antiseptic upper-middlebrow romance. Yet his forty books [sic: he means novels, of which Howells wrote thirty-five; there are close to 100 books], in which there are no seductions and only rare moments of violence, are too restrictedly ‘realistic,’ too…,” et cetera.

Mr. Fiedler gets himself a bit off the hook by putting those quotes around the word realistic. After all, Howells had developed an aesthetic of the novel: and if he preferred to shoot Bartley offstage, why not? The classic tragedians did the same. He also inclined to Turgenev’s view that the real drama is in the usual. Obviously, this is not the way of the romantic writer but it is a no less valid way of apprehending reality than that of Melville or Faulkner, two writers Howells would have called “romancers,” about as much a term of compliment with him as “too unrestrictedly ‘realistic’ ” is to Mr. Fiedler. Without rehashing the tired Redskin versus Paleface debate of the 1940s, it should be noted that there is something wrong with a critical bias that insists upon, above all else, “dream and nightmare, fantasy and fear” but then when faced with the genuine article in, say, the books of William Burroughs or James Purdy or Paul Bowles starts to back off, nervously, lighting candles to The Family and all the other life-enhancing if unsmiling aspects of American life that do not cause AIDS or social unrest.

Whatever our romantic critics may say, Bartley Hubbard is an archetypal American figure, caught for the first time by Howells: the amiable, easygoing bastard, who thinks nothing of taking what belongs to another. Certainly Mark Twain experienced the shock of recognition when he read the book: “You didn’t intend Bartley for me but he is me just the same….” James, more literary, thought the character derived from Tito, in the one (to me) close-to-bad novel of George Eliot, Romola. In later years Howells said that he himself was the model. Who was what makes no difference. There is only one Bartley Hubbard, and he appears for the first time in the pages of a remarkable novel that opened the way to Dreiser and to all those other realists who were to see the United States plain. The fact that there are no overt sexual scenes in Howells (“no palpitating divans,” as he put it) does not mean that sexual passion is not a powerful motor to many of the situations, as in life. On the other hand, the fact that there are other motors—ambition, greed, love of power, simply extend the author’s range and make him more interesting to read than most writers.

In this novel, Howells is interesting on the rise of journalism as a “serious” occupation. “There had not yet begun to be that talk of journalism as a profession which has since prevailed with our collegians….” There is also a crucial drunk scene in which Bartley blots his copybook with Boston; not to mention with his wife. It is curious how often Howells shows a protagonist who gets disastrously drunk, and starts then to fall. Mark Twain had a dark suspicion that Howells always had him in mind when he wrote these scenes. But for Mr. Fiedler, “drunkenness is used as a chief symbol for the husband’s betrayal of the wife.” Arguably, it would have been better (and certainly more manly) if Bartley had corn-holed the Irish maid in full view of wife and child, but would a scene so powerful, even existential, add in any way to the delicate moral balances that Howells is trying to make?

After all, Howells is illuminating a new character in American fiction, if not life, who, as “he wrote more than ever in the paper,…discovered in himself that dual life, of which every one who sins or sorrows is sooner or later aware: that strange separation of the intellectual activity from the suffering of the soul, by which the mind toils on in a sort of ironical indifference to the pangs that wring the heart; the realization that in some ways his brain can get on perfectly well without his conscience.” This is worthy of the author of The Sentimental Education; it is also the kind of insight about post-Christian man that Flaubert so often adverted to, indirectly, in his own novels and head-on in his letters.

The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885) begins with Bartley Hubbard brought back to life. It is, obviously, some years earlier than the end of A Modern Instance. Bartley is interviewing a self-made man called Silas Lapham who has made a fortune out of paint. Lapham is the familiar diamond in the rough, New England Jonathan-style. He has two pretty daughters, a sensible wife, a comfortable house; and a growing fortune, faced with all the usual hazards. Howells makes the paint business quite as interesting as Balzac made paper making. This is not entirely a full-hearted compliment to either; nevertheless, each is a novelist fascinated by the way the real world works; and each makes it interesting to read about.

In a sense, Silas Lapham’s rise is not unlike that of William Dean Howells: from a small town to Boston back street to Beacon Street on the Back Bay. But en route to the great address there are many lesser houses and Howells is at his best when he goes house hunting—and building. In fact, one suspects that, like Edith Wharton later, he would have made a splendid architect and interior decorator. In a fine comic scene, a tactful architect (plainly the author himself) guides Lapham to Good Taste. ” ‘Of course,’ resumed the architect, ‘I know there has been a great craze for black walnut. But it’s an ugly wood….’ ” All over the United States there must have been feminine gasps as stricken eyes were raised from the page to focus on the middle distance where quantities of once-beauteous black shone dully by gaslight; but worse was to come: “…and for a drawing room there is really nothing like white paint. We should want to introduce a little gold here and there. Perhaps we might run a painted frieze round under the cornice—garlands of roses on a gold ground; it would tell wonderfully in a white room.” From that moment on, no more was black walnut seen again in the parlors of the Republic, while the sale of white paint soared; gold, too.

The rise of Lapham’s house on Beacon Hill is, in a sense, the plot of the book, as well as the obvious symbol of worldly success. Howells makes us see and feel and smell the house as it slowly takes shape. Simultaneously, a young man called Tom Corey wants to work for Lapham. Since Corey belongs to the old patriciate, Lapham finds it hard to believe Corey is serious. But the young man is sincere; he really likes the old man. He must also work to live. There are romantic exchanges between him and the two daughters; there is an amiable mix-up. Finally, Tom says that it is Penelope not her sister whom he wants to marry. Mr. and Mrs. Lapham are bemused. In the world of the Coreys they are a proto-Maggie and Jiggs couple.

Corey takes Lapham to a grand dinner party where the old man gets drunk and chats rather too much. It is the same scene, in a sense, as Bartley’s fall in the earlier novel but where Bartley could not have minded less the impression he made, Lapham is deeply humiliated; and the fall begins. He loses his money; the new house burns down; by then, the house is an even more poignant character than Lapham, and the reader mourns the white and gold drawing room gone to ash. But there is a happy enough ending. Maggie and Jiggs go back to the Vermont village of their origin (which they should never have left?) while Corey marries Penelope.

It would be easy to point out traits in Penelope’s character which finally reconciled all her husband’s family and endeared her to them. These things continually happen in novels; and the Coreys, as they had always promised themselves to do, made the best, and not the worst, of Tom’s marriage…. But the differences remained uneffaced, if not uneffaceable, between the Coreys and Tom Corey’s wife.

The young couple move from Boston.

Then Howells shifts from the specific to the general:

It is certain that our manners and customs go for more in life than our qualities. The price that we pay for civilization is the fine yet impassable differentiation of these. Perhaps we pay too much; but it will not be possible to persuade those who have the difference in their favor that this is so. They may be right; and at any rate the blank misgiving, the recurring sense of disappointment to which the young people’s departure left the Coreys is to be considered. That was the end of their son and brother for them; they felt that; and they were not mean or unamiable people.

This strikes me as a subtle and wise reading of the world—no, not a world but the world; and quite the equal of James or Hardy.

Whether or not this sort of careful social reading is still of interest to the few people who read novels voluntarily is not really relevant. But then today’s “serious” novel, when it is not reinventing itself as an artifact of words and signs, seldom deals with the world at all. One is no longer shown a businessman making money or his wife climbing up or down the social ladder. As most of our novelists now teach school, they tend to tell us what it is like to be a schoolteacher, and since schoolteachers have been taught to teach others to write only about what they know, they tell us what they know about, too, which is next to nothing about the way the rest of the population of the Republic lives.

In a sense, if they are realists, they are acting in good faith. If you don’t know something about the paint business you had better not choose a protagonist who manufactures paint. Today, if the son of an Ohio newspaper editor would like to be a novelist, he would not quit school at fifteen to become a printer, and then learn six languages and do his best to read all the great literary figures of the present as well as of the past so that he could introduce, say, Barthes or Gadda to the American public while writing his own novels based on a close scrutiny of as many classes of society as he can get to know. Rather, he would graduate from high school; go on to a university and take a creative writing course; get an MA for having submitted a novel (about the son of an Ohio editor who grew up in a small town and found out about sex and wants to be a writer and so goes to a university where he submits, etc.).

Then, if he is truly serious about a truly serious literary career, he will become a teacher. With luck, he will obtain tenure. In the summers and on sabbatical, he will write novels that others like himself will want to teach just as he, obligingly, teaches their novels. He will visit other campuses as a lecturer and he will talk about his books and about those books written by other teachers to an audience made up of ambitious young people who intend to write novels to be taught by one another to the rising generation and so on and on. What tends to be left out of these works is the world. World gone, no voluntary readers. No voluntary readers, no literature—only creative writing courses and English studies, activities marginal (to put it tactfully) to civilization.3


Civilization was very much on Howells’s mind when he came to write Indian Summer (1886). He deals, once more, with Americans in Italy. But this time there are no Don Ippolitos. The principals are all Americans in Florence. A middle-aged man, Theodore Colville, meets, again, Mrs. Bowen, a lady who once did not marry him when he wanted to marry her. She married a congressman. She has a young daughter, Effie. She is a widow.

Colville started life as an architect, a suitable occupation for a Howells character; then he shifted to newspaper publishing, an equally suitable profession. In Des Vaches, Indiana, he published, successfully, the Democrat-Republican newspaper. Although he lost a race for Congress, he has received from former political opponents “fulsome” praise. Like most American writers Howells never learned the meaning of the word “fulsome.” Colville then sold his newspaper and went to Europe because “he wanted to get away, to get far away, and with the abrupt and total change in his humor he reverted to a period in his life when journalism and politics and the ambition of Congress were things undreamed of.” He had been young in Italy; with a Ruskinian interest in architecture; he had loved and been rejected by Evelina—now the widow Bowen. He looks at Florence: “It is a city superficially so well known that it affects one somewhat like a collection of views of itself: they are from the most striking points, of course, but one has examined them before, and is disposed to be critical of them.” The same goes for people one has known when young.

Mrs. Bowen has a beautiful young friend named Imogene. Colville decides that he is in love with Imogene; and they drift toward marriage. There are numerous misunderstandings. Finally, it is Mrs. Bowen not Imogene who is in love with Colville. The drama of the three of them (a shadowy young clergyman named Morton is an undelineated fourth) is rendered beautifully. There are many unanticipated turns to what could easily have been a simple-minded romantic novella.

When Colville is confronted with the thought of his own great age (forty-one), he is told by a very old American expatriate:

At forty, one has still a great part of youth before him—perhaps the richest and sweetest part. By that time the turmoil of ideas and sensations is over; we see clearly and feel consciously. We are in a sort of quiet in which we peacefully enjoy. We have enlarged our perspective sufficiently to perceive things in their true proportion and relation; we are no longer tormented with the lurking fear of death, which darkens and imbitters our earlier years; we have got into the habit of life; we have often been ailing and we have not died….

Finally, “we are put into the world to be of it.” Thus, Howells strikes the Tolstoyan note. Yes, he is also smiling. But even as Indian Summer was being published, its author was attacking the state of Illinois for the murder of four workmen. He also sends himself up in the pages of his own novel. A Mrs. Amsden finds Colville and Imogene and Effie together after an emotional storm. Mrs. Amsden remarks that they form an interesting, even dramatic group:

“Oh, call us a passage from a modern novel,” suggested Colville, “if you’re in a 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.”

For this beguiling modesty Howells no doubt dug even deeper the grave for his reputation. How can an American novelist who is ironic about himself ever be great? In a nation that has developed to a high art advertising, the creator who refuses to advertise himself is immediately suspected of having no product worth selling. Actually, Howells is fascinated with the interior drama of his characters, and quite a lot happens—to the reader as well as to the characters who are, finally, suitably paired: Imogene and Mr. Morton, Colville and Mrs. Bowen.

The Library of America has served William Dean Howells well. Although the spiritual father of the library, Edmund Wilson, did not want this project ever to fall into the hands of the Modern Language Association, all four of the novels in the present volume bear the proud emblem of that association. One can only assume that there are now fewer scholars outside academe’s groves than within. I found no misprints; but there are eccentricities.

In A Modern Instance (p. 474) we read of “The presidential canvas of the summer”; then (p. 485) we read “But the political canvass….” Now a tent is made of canvas and an election is a canvass of votes. It is true that the secondary spelling of “canvass” is “canvas” and so allowable; nevertheless, it is disturbing to find the same word spelled two ways within eleven pages. On page 3 the variant spelling “ancles” is used for “ankles.” On page 747 Howells writes “party-colored statues” when, surely, “parti-colored” was nineteenth-century common usage as opposed to the Chaucerian English “party.” Of course, as the editors tell us, “In nineteenth-century writings, for example, a word might be spelled in more than one way, even in the same work, and such variations might be carried into print.”

Anyway, none of this is serious. There are no disfiguring footnotes. The notes at the back are for the most part helpful translations of foreign phrases in the text. The chronology of Howells’s life is faultless but, perhaps, skimpy. For those who are obliged for career reasons to read Howells, this is a useful book. For those who are still able to read novels for pleasure, this is a marvelous book.

For some years I have been haunted by a story of Howells and that most civilized of all our presidents, James A. Garfield. In the early 1870s Howells and his father paid a call on Garfield. As they sat on Garfield’s veranda, young Howells began to talk about poetry; and about the poets that he had met in Boston and New York. Suddenly, Garfield told him to stop. Then Garfield went to the edge of the veranda and shouted to his Ohio neighbors. “Come over here! He’s telling about Holmes, and Longfellow, and Lowell, and Whittier!” So the neighbors gathered around in the dusk; then Garfield said to Howells, “Now go on.”

Today we take it for granted that no living president will ever have heard the name of any living poet. This is not, necessarily, an unbearable loss. But it is unbearable to have lost those Ohio neighbors who actually read books of poetry and wanted to know about the poets.

For thirty years book-chat writers have accused me of having written that the novel is dead. I wrote no such thing but book-chat writers have the same difficulty extracting meaning from writing as presidents do. What I wrote was, “After some three hundred years the novel in English has lost the general reader (or rather the general reader has lost the novel), and I propose that he will not again recover his old enthusiasm.” Since 1956, the audience for the serious (or whatever this year’s adjective is) novel has continued to shrink. Arguably, the readers that are left are for the most part involuntary ones, obliged by the schools to read novels that they often have little taste for. The fact that a novelist like Howells—or even Bellow—is probably no longer accessible to much of anyone would be bearable if one felt that the sense of alternative worlds or visions or—all right, Leslie—nightmares, fantasies, fears could be obtained in some other way. But movies are no substitute while television is, literally, narcotizing: the human eye was not designed to stare at a light for any length of time. Popular prose-fictions are still marketed with tv and movie tie-ins; but even the writers or word-processors of these books find it harder and harder to write simply enough for people who don’t really know how to read.

Obviously, there is a great deal wrong with our educational system, as President Reagan recently, and rather gratuitously, noted. After all, an educated electorate would not have elected him president. It is generally agreed that things started to go wrong with the schools after the First World War. The past was taught less and less, and Latin and Greek ceased to be compulsory. Languages were either not taught or taught so badly that they might just as well not have been taught at all while American history books grew more and more mendacious, as Frances Fitzgerald so nicely described,4 and even basic geography is now a nonsubject. Yet the average “educated” American has been made to believe that, somehow, the United States must lead the world even though hardly anyone has any information at all about those countries we are meant to lead. Worse, we have very little information about our own country and its past. That is why it is not really possible to compare a writer like Howells with any living American writer because Howells thought that it was a good thing to know as much as possible about his own country as well as other countries while our writers today, in common with the presidents and paint manufacturers, live in a present without past among signs whose meanings are moot, mute.

Edmund Wilson’s practical response was to come up with the idea of making readily available the better part of American literature; hence, the Library of America. It is a step in the right direction. But will this library attract voluntary readers? Ultimately—and paradoxically—that will depend on the schools.

Since no one quite knows what a university ought to do, perhaps that should be the subject of our educational system. What variety of things should all educated people know? What is it that we don’t know that we need to know? Naturally, there is a certain risk in holding up a mirror to the system itself (something the realistic novelist always used to do) because one is apt to see, glaring back, the face of Caliban or, worse, plain glass reflecting glass. But something must now be done because Herzen’s terrible truth is absolutely true: “The end of each generation is itself.”

This Issue

October 27, 1983