Rereading ‘Indian Summer’

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…

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