HOWELLS AND REALISM
1. New Frontiers and Old Settlements
After the weeping fifties came the Civil War, which broke the pattern, though at the time it contributed little to the mode of fiction except new materials for the incessant popular romancers who turned their pens from the past to the present without any change as regards sensationalism. What the wicked Tory or the fierce Indian had been, the crafty Confederate or the cruel Federal—it depended upon the section to which the novelist was native—now became. The cloudy atmosphere and turgid style of the old romance wrapped themselves promptly around the new events and assisted in the process which, while the wounds of the struggle were still raw, began to transform it into an epic memory. That memory, however, had to wait a generation before it achieved any considerable maturity. Meanwhile, another tendency in fiction dispossessed the sentimentalism which had dispossessed the school of Cooper.
After the Revolution there had sounded from many literary throats the cry that the new nation ought to have an epic, as Greece and Rome and medieval Catholicism and English Puritanism had had; and although nothing great had been forthcoming the demand persisted until the middle of the next century. Then it had gradually given way before the idea that, as Simms pointed out, prose fiction is the modern epic form. Criticism came therefore to demand "The Great American Novel," not so much to enshrine the national past as to reflect the national present on a scale commensurate with the new consciousness. Although this expectation, too, was disappointed, it undoubtedly had something to do with the rapid rise of the fashion of local color, which may be thought of as initiated by Bret Harte's story, The Luck of Roaring Camp, in 1868, and which for some thirty years gave a dominant type to imaginative writing in the United States. The war had stirred the surface of various provincialisms which now discovered themselves and one another. In 1869 Mrs. Stowe in Oldtown Folks celebrated the manners of village New England; two years later Richard Malcolm Johnston did the same for Georgia with his Dukesborough Tales and Edward Eggleston for the Indiana frontier with The Hoosier School-Master. These ioneers were shortly followed in almost every quarter of the country: by George Washington Cable in New Orleans, by Constance Fenimore Woolson in the Great Lakes region, by Sarah Orne Jewett in New England, by Joel Chandler Harris among the negroes, by Mary Noailles Murfree ("Charles Egbert Craddock") in the Tennessee mountains, by Thomas Nelson Page in Virginia; and thereafter by an increasing multitude who strove, apparently, to furnish the country with an ordnance survey of all its riches of local custom. In the North, where the idea of "The Great American Novel" had been strongest, a good many writers and readers gave themselves to the new vogue in a romantic enthusiasm for glorifying the total national picture; in the South, the prevailing mood was a passion for displaying the depth and charm of the society which had received a mortal blow from the war. Too many in both sections regarded local color as a garment which, when worn by a story, called for a swagger or an elegance in the action which was not natural to it; others regarded the garment as a sufficient thing in itself and nearly dispensed with the flesh and blood of narrative; too many, also, where the color was already thin, beat it thinner. Nevertheless, the episode contributed something to the advance of realism. Scenes could no longer be unrealized; costume and dialect had to be reported with accuracy; characters and plots must consequently be fitted, more or less, to the actual circumstances among which they moved. The ordinary methods of local color, no less than doctrines of realism imported from Europe or than those Americans who espoused the doctrines, cleared the way for a critical conflict between romance and realism. Granted, controversy finally ran, that real persons and events should of course be represented, ought they to be merely everyday persons and events exhibited to the life or ought they instead to be selected with a view of making more of heightened moments and superior men and women than could be made of commonplace?
Bret Harte, however, and his followers fought no critical battles. Their victory was too easy. When The Luck of Roaring Camp was published California was the, microcosm and focus of America. Every section was represented there among the gold-seekers who gave the community its picturesqueness. Every section of course read Bret Harte with an interest compounded of curiosity about the unknown and delight in the familiar. The success of the master naturally suggested imitation, not only in regard to the local manners and types of other neighborhoods but in the very dimensions of the tales which he had thus begotten. The generation after 1870 practised the short story as no generation had ever done before. Brown and Cooper and Simms and Melville and Hawthorne and Mrs. Stowe had all indeed written short stories, but the novel had called forth their major faculties. Bret Harte, a voluminous author, wrote only one full-length novel; Thomas Bailey Aldrich, H. C. Bunner, Cable, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, Hamlin Garland, Miss Jewett, Miss Murfree, Page, Frank R. Stockton, though they wrote novels, are better known for their shorter stories; Ambrose Bierce and O. Henry wrote no novels at all. There was still an economic factor, as during the days of Cooper. Until the passage of the international copyright law of 1891 British novels could be freely pirated in the United States and American competition increasingly took the form of short stories, further encouraged by the multiplication of native magazines particularly hospitable to brevity. The novel, in consequence, was left standing for a few years out of the main channel of imaginative production. Those who chose it were likely to do so because of greater seriousness or larger strength than might be needed by the story-writers who were tempted to slighter and yet more profitable undertakings.
During the sixties realism hovered in the air without definitely alighting. Oliver Wendell Holmes, for instance, in Elsie Venner (1861) worked his romantic problem of heredity upon a ground of shrewd realistic observation; Bayard Taylor employed a similar composition of elements; Louisa M. Alcott in Little Women (1868) and Thomas Bailey Aldrich in The Story of a Bad Boy (1870) turned away from the watery illusions which in respectable circles had furnished the substance for children's books; at the end of the decade the loud laughter of Mark Twain began to clear the scene. The distinction, however, of writing the first American novel which may be called realistic in a modern sense belongs to Colonel John W. De Forest of Connecticut, whose Miss Ravenel's Conversion from Secession to Loyalty (1867), as William Dean Howells said, was "of an advanced realism before realism was known by that name." Not half heroic or partizan enough to suit the contemporary feeling about the war, Miss Ravenel's Conversion missed the vogue of a war book, and when the tendency in fiction had caught up with it apparently it seemed too much a war book to fit the new taste. But no other novel of the decade has been less dimmed by a half century of realism. Coldly truthful in its descriptions of battles and camps, crisp and pointed in its dialogue, penetrating, if not over-subtle, in its character analysis, sensible in its plot, and in its general temper alert and sophisticated, it is still almost as convincing as it was once precocious. De Forest wrote numerous other novels but none so notable. All of them suffered from the rivalry of local color in its romantic phases.
While these phases originated on the frontier, so often influential in American culture, it was also on the frontier, though in another section of it, that realism took its earliest definite stand. Perhaps some bareness in the life of the Middle West, lacking both the longer memories of the Atlantic States and the splendid golden expectations of California, discouraged romance there and set going that tendency toward naturalism which descends unbroken from Edward Eggleston (1837–1902) through E. W. Howe and Hamlin Garland, Theodore Dreiser and Edgar Lee Masters. At first glance Eggleston looks strange enough in this gallery, for like Holland and Roe he was a clergyman and nourished upon the same soft food as they. As a Methodist on the frontier, though of cultivated Virginia stock, he was even brought up to think of novels and all such works of the imagination as evil things. But his diversified experience as an itinerant preacher, or "circuit rider," and his reflective and studious habits lifted him out of these narrow nooks of opinion. It is true that he shared the customary local color motive. "It used to be a matter of no little jealousy with us, I remember," he says, speaking of Westerners, "that the manners, customs, thoughts, and feelings of New England country people filled so large a place in books, while our life, not less interesting, not less romantic, and certainly not less filled with humorous and grotesque material, had no place in literature. It was as though we were shut out of good society." He had, however, a larger and sounder motive. Whereas Mrs. Stowe or her fellows would have thought of themselves as writing fiction considerably—or even primarily—for the sake of its moral consequences, Eggleston, having read Taine's Art in the Netherlands, undertook to portray the life of southern Indiana in the faithful, undoctrinaire spirit of a Dutch painter, and wrote The Hoosier School-Master (1871). Refusing to follow the violent and yet easy road of the dime-novelists, he confined himself to a plain tale of plain men and women, choosing for his scene, however, a backwoods district where true Hoosiers flourished at their most typical, rather than any of the more cultivated Indiana communities. His plot exists almost solely for the sake of the manners described, the backwoods sentiments and dialects, labors and amusements.
These singularities had already been exposed by Bayard Rush Hall in The New Purchase (1855), and there was beginning to grow up a modest literature reporting "that curious poor-whitey race which is called 'tar-heel' in the northern Carolina, 'sand-hiller' in the southern, 'corn-cracker' in Kentucky, 'Yahoo' in Mississippi, and in California 'Pike' . . . the Hoosiers of the dark regions of Indiana and the Egyptians of southern Illinois"—a race, still not utterly extinct, which later observers think of as the "contemporary ancestors" of those modern Americans who have outgrown eighteenth-century conditions as the "poor whites" have not. All of Eggleston's essential novels deal with this aspect of America, whatever the scene: Indiana in The Hoosier School-Master, The End of the World (1872), and Roxy (1878); Ohio in The Circuit Rider (1874); Illinois in The Graysons (1887); Minnesota in The Mystery of Metropolisville (1873). Light is thrown upon his aims in fiction by the fact that he subsequently aspired to write a "History of Life in the United States," which he carried through two erudite, humane, and graceful volumes, neither of them, so abundant was his learning, able to bring the account beyond 1700. The Hoosier novels, simple in plot, clearcut in characterization, concise and lucid in language, unwaveringly accurate in their setting, manners, and language, are indispensable documents, even finished chapters, for his unfinished masterpiece. What has given the School-Master its primacy in reputation is probably nothing but its having been first in the field, though something may also be allowed for its compactness and freshness of substance; Roxy is more interesting, and The Circuit Rider quite as informing. The Graysons deserves credit for the reserve with which it admits the youthful Lincoln into its narrative, uses him at a crucial moment, and then lets him withdraw without a hint of his future greatness. The morals of Eggleston's tales, it is true, are over-obvious, though they are not strained or hectic. Without any rush of narrative, neither has he verbosity or inflation of style. Even where, in his fidelity to violent frontier habits, his incidents appear melodramatic, the handling is sure and direct, for the reason, as he says of The Circuit Rider, that whatever is incredible in the story is true. No novelist, within the range of topics Eggleston touched, is more candid, few more believable. With greater range and fire he might have been a national figure as well as the earliest American realist to leave behind him a settled classic, a true folk-book of its neighborhood.
From the Middle West came the principal exponent of native realism, as an author so prolific during the sixty years between his earliest hook and his latest that he amounts almost to a library in himself, as editor and critic so influential that he amounts almost to a literary movement. William Dean Howells was born at Martin's Ferry, Ohio, in 1837, the grandson of a Welsh Quaker and the son of a country printer with a passion for books. Like his friend Mark Twain, Howells saw little of schools and nothing of colleges, and like him he got his systematic literary training from enforced duties as compositor and journalist. But unlike Mark Twain, he fell as naturally into the best classical traditions as Goldsmith or Irving, who, with Cervantes, earliest delighted him. Though he did not always read, as the mellow pages of A Boy's Town and Years of My Youth attest, his reading marked his growth. In My Literary Passions Howells has delicately recorded the development of his taste. At first he desired to write verse, and devoted months to imitating Pope in a youthful fanaticism for regularity and exactness. From that worship he turned, at about sixteen, to Shakespeare, particularly to the histories; then to Chaucer, admired for his sense of earth in human life; then to Dickens, whose magic, Howells even then dimly saw, was rough though authentic. Macaulay taught him to like criticism and furnished him a temporary model of prose style. Thackeray, Longfellow, Tennyson, followed in due course. Hawthorne for a time dominated him, more completely a passion with Howells than any other American author ever was. Having taught himself some Latin and Greek and more French and Spanish, Howells took up German and came under the spell of Heine, who persuaded him once for all that the dialect and subjects of literature should be the dialect and facts of life.
Poems in the manner of Heine won Howells a place in the pages of the Atlantic, then the very zenith of his aspiration, and in 1860 he undertook the reverent pilgrimage to New England which he afterward recounted with such winning grace in Literary Friends and Acquaintance. Already enough of a journalist to have been asked to write a campaign biography of Lincoln and enough of a poet to have published a small volume of poems with his Ohio friend John James Piatt, Howells made friends wherever he went and was finally confirmed in his literary ambitions. At the outbreak of the Civil War he was appointed United States consul at Venice; he was married at Paris in 1862 to Elinor G. Mead of Vermont; and he spent four exquisite years of leisure in studying Italian literature, notably Dante, as the great authoritative voice of an age, and Goldoni, whom Howells called "the first of the realists." In Italy, though he wrote poetry for the most part, he formed the habit of close, sympathetic observation and discovered the ripe, easy style which made him, beginning with Venetian Life (1866) and Italian Journeys (1867), one of the happiest of literary travelers. From such work he moved, by the avenue of journalism, only gradually to fiction. On his return to the United States in 1865 he first became editorial contributor to The Nation for a few months, and then served as assistant editor and finally editor of the Atlantic until 1881.
The literary notices which he wrote for the Atlantic during these years of preparation would show, had he written nothing else, how strong and steady was his drift toward his mature creed. Not alone by deliberate thought nor even by the stimulus of polemic was he carried forward, but rather by a natural process of growth which, more than an artistic matter alone, included his entire philosophy. From his childhood he had been intensely humanes-ensitive and charitable. This humaneness now revealed itself as a passionate love for the simple truth of human life, and a suspicion, a quiet scorn for those romantic dreams and exaggerations by which less contented lovers of life try to escape it. "Ah! poor Real Life, which I love," he wrote in his first novel, "can I make others share the delight I find in thy foolish and insipid face?" Perhaps Their Wedding Journey (1871) ought hardly to be called a novel, but it is a valuable Howells document in the method, so nearly that of his travel books, by which he takes a bridal couple on their honeymoon over much the same route, in a reverse order, that he had traveled between Ohio and Boston in 1860, and also in the zeal for actuality which makes him exalt the truth, however tedious, over any unreality however agreeable. "As in literature the true artist will shun the use even of real events if they are of an improbable character, so the sincere observer of man will not desire to look upon his heroic or occasional phases, but will seek him in his habitual moods of vacancy and tiresomeness." Less of such argument, though no less of implicit zeal for veracity, appears in A Chance Acquaintance (1873), more strictly a novel, in which Howells showed that he could not only report customs and sketch characters felicitously but also organize a plot with felicitous skill. A young Bostonian, passionately in love with an intelligent but untraveled inland girl, who returns his love, is so little able to overcome his ingrained provincial snobbishness that he steadily condescends to her until in the end he suddenly sees, as she sees, that he has played an ignoble and vulgar part which irrevocably separates them. Nothing could be more subtle than the dramatic turn by which their relative positions are reversed. The style of A Chance Acquaintance, while not more graceful than that of Howell's earlier books, is more assured and crisp. The central idea is clearly conceived and the outlines sharp without being in any way hard or cynical. The descriptions are exquisite, the dialogue both natural and revealing, and over and through all is a lambent mirth, an undeceived kindliness of wisdom, which was to remain his essential quality.
Although, to judge by A Chance Acquaintance, he had the art of narrative among his original endowments, he had only gradually discovered it in himself. His first narrative, No Love Lost (1869), had been in hexameters, more or less after the manner of Longfellow and Clough. Besides his life of Lincoln, Howells wrote three volumes of travels or essays before he attempted a novel at all. A Chance Acquaintance made no clean break with his previous experiments, for it deals with a group of Americans traveling in Canada, three of whom had already appeared in Their Wedding Journey. And even the success of his novel did not turn him wholly to fiction. He continued to write criticism and began to write farces, merely enlarging his range as he developed in power. The stream of literature had never before poured from an American writer with such variety and volume. Besides his stated duties for the Atlantic he found time during the seventies to edit a group of autobiographies, and later to write book introductions by the dozen; he translated modern Italian poets; he scanned the entire literary horizon for new planetaries; he was one of the most widely-read of Americans. As his curiosity never grew faint, so never did his pen, but kept up its amazing productivity without damage to the smooth surface of his style and the bland cheerfulness of his disposition.
His principal limitation—his chariness of passion and tragedy—did not entirely reveal itself in the novels which he wrote during the Atlantic period. Like Henry James in those same years, Howells was at first concerned with the contrast between different manners or grades of sophistication—a conflict to which his own sojourn as an American in Italy and as a Westerner in Boston had made him sensitive. A Foregone Conclusion (1875) and A Fearful Responsibility (1881) show American and Italian manners in conflict; Private Theatricals (published in the Atlantic in 1875–76 as a serial but never issued in a separate volume) and The Lady of the Aroostook (1879) set the social habits of the American village in contrast with those of the American city; An Undiscovered Country (1880) takes its characters through contact with spiritualism and Shakerism, making clear Howells's disagreement with those forms of otherworldliness; Dr. Breen's Practice (1881) is the story of a woman's struggle to make a place for herself in the medical profession against the stupid resistance of a public which has no objection except that women are new in that profession. Devoted as all these were to the transcription and criticism of the lighter manners of the age, they could hardly be censured for not going deeper, especially since they did what they set out to do with such ease, such dexterity, such revealing humor, such shrewd and illuminating comment. It appeared, however, as the series lengthened, that Howells was not doing full justice either to his material or to himself. The conventions of Boston restricted him. He who hardly ever portrayed a Bostonian of the respectable classes in anything but unlovely attitudes; he who, though an outsider, had as editor of the Atlantic inherited the power in a declining literary society—he fell too much into Boston habits and confined his art too much within the respectable reticences of Boston. Not without some complaint he nevertheless accepted the fate of writing largely for women—Boston women; he came to the decision that "the more smiling aspects of life . . . are the more American." A subsequent critical generation has accused him of thus vitiating his practice while contending for a realistic precept. He dared for the sake of truthfulness to represent human beings in their "habitual moods of vacancy and tiresomeness" but was not willing to represent them in the hardly less habitual moods which make mankind so often illicit or savage or sordid. As a matter of fact he never consciously compromised, for he held that the lawless moods of men belong to those "heroic or occasional phases" which he left to the romancers. His novels in effect pay an extraordinary compliment to civilization on its success with mankind. Sterner critics call his compliment flattery and his shrinking from ugliness and vice a womanish defect. It has not generally been remarked how closely he stood with Emerson in the orthodox New England optimism which governed opinion in Boston at the end of its classic period—closing Boston eyes to evil and disease and pointing to theosophical anodynes.
Having resigned his Atlantic editorship at forty-four, Howells in the next half-dozen years brought his Boston period to its summit and conclusion. Besides certain minor novels—A Woman's Reason (1883), The Minister's Charge (1887)—he wrote A Modern Instance (1882), which he thought his strongest, The Rise of Silas Lapham (1884), which the public has generally found the best of his novels, and Indian Summer (1885), which he himself thought his best. Without the bitter tincture of pessimism which Howells lacked, realism can hardly go further than in these three. The superiority of A Modern Instance to all that had come before lies less in its firmer grasp of its materials, for Howells from the first was sure of grasp, than in its larger control of larger materials. It has a richer timbre, a deeper tone. Marcia Gaylord, the most passionate of all his heroines, is of all of them the most clearly yet lovingly conceived and elaborated. Her unaccountable impulses and endurances convey an impression that is completely individual. Types do not behave so. In the career of her husband, Bartley Hubbard, the journalist, Howells adroitly traces a metamorphosis from selfishness and vanity, fed in this case by Marcia's unreasoning devotion, into contemptible viciousness which has not even a dash of boldness to redeem it. Like the impulses of Marcia, the process hides itself perhaps rather too closely from the observer, who as in the case of living persons may now and then be surprised to find that the decay has gone so fast and far with so few outward signs. Writing the winter scenes of the earlier chapters Howells had the advantage of those many pens which in the past decade had wrought at the local color of New England; he achieved something more faithful and vivid than anything yet achieved in that direction. Although done with an eye intensely on the fact, these scenes have still the larger bearings of a criticism of American village life, in general. The subsequent adventures of the Hubbards in Boston, acutely local in setting and incident, are still as universal in application as any ever laid in that metropolis. Squire Gaylord's arraignment of his son-in-law in an Indiana court room vibrates with a dramatic passion seldom met with in Howells, a passion made the more emphatic by the sickening descent from a tragic occasion which follows immediately afterward in Bartley's virtual offer of his former wife to his former friend. Following such episodes it is, however, difficult to forgive Howells his apparent sympathy with Halleck in the discovery that a New England conscience will now forever hold him from Marcia because he had loved her before she was free. The attentive imagination simply refuses to be convinced; or else it finds itself disgusted at an ending no better than sentimental to a narrative heretofore full of wisdom maturely wielding the most admirable and enlightening details.
The theme of Silas Lapham is one very dear in a republic, that of the rising fortunes of a man who has no aid but virtue and capacity. Lapham, a country-bred, self-made Vermonter, appears when he has already achieved wealth and finds himself being drawn, involuntarily enough, into the more difficult task of adjusting himself and his family to the manners of fastidious Boston. A writer primarily satirical might have been contented to make game of the situation. Howells, keenly as he sets forth the conflict of standards, goes beyond satire to a depth of meaning which comes only from a profound understanding of the part which artificial distinctions play in human life and a mellow pity that such little things can have such large consequences of pain and error. The conflict, however, while constantly pervasive in the book, does not usurp the action. The Lapham family has serious concerns that might arise in any social stratum. Most intense and dramatic of these is the fact that the suitor of one daughter is believed by the whole family to be in love with the other until the very moment of his declaration. The distress into which they are thrown is presented with a degree of comprehension rare in any novel, and here matched with a common sense which rises to something half-inspired in Lapham's perception—reduced to words, however, by a friendly clergyman—that in such a case superfluous self-sacrifice would be morbid, and that, since none is guilty, one had better suffer than three. A certain rightness and soundness of feeling, indeed, mark the entire narrative. As it proceeds, as Lapham falls into heavy business vicissitudes and finally to comparative poverty again, and yet all the time rises in spiritual worth, the record steadily grows in that dignity and significance which, according to Howells's creed, is founded only upon the unadorned and unexaggerated truth.
As, with the increase of the American population and the diminution of opportunity for the individual, the self-made man becomes a less outstanding figure than he was in the generation to which Silas Lapham belonged, Lapham will still continue to seem a standard example of his type. But his type is of New England and not of the United States at large. In other sections—at least in those not dominated by New England habits transplanted—the adventures of the self-made have nearly always been more stirring, motivated by less lawful ambitions, colored by ranker senses, Lapham rises through the easy and yet compact levels of a homogeneous provincial society as law-abiding as any in the world. The clang of the larger America, the sense of the manipulation of vast forces which give the story of the self-made American its thrilling interest, do not appear in this quiet story. Moreover, Howells presents Lapham, for the most part, in his milder hours, with his wife and daughters in the plainest of households, barely hinting at the tough struggles with the world to which of course Lapham gave most of his time. Lapham represents the American magnate only as subdued to New England conditions and then further subdued to the domestic hearth. Here, Howells might probably have contended, the true and essential Lapham had his existence, at this central station of human affairs. One misses, nevertheless, the thrust and clutch and strain and sweat of actuality. The more wonder then that, lacking these, the book still seems so stolid an image of the truth. Its flawless structure assists it in making the impression; so does the unfailing lucidity and unobtrusiveness of the narrative and the unimprovable conversations. And yet all this art to conceal art must have been unavailing had not the final substance, thus exhibited, been shaped out of reality itself. To say, as one may say even of this admirable story, that it does not visit the uttermost deeps of human character, is not to say that it plays over the surface. Howells's imagination has seen through and through all the persons in The Rise of Silas Lapham; it has thought round and round every situation. There are three dimensions to the matter; it is a sturdy, tangible, memorable block of life. To so much Howells added what his merely professional skill could not have added: the warm, friendly atmosphere which emanated; from his own benign personality.
That in 1890 he thought Indian Summer his best novel shows how well inclined he was toward the gayer side of his character, for in this exquisite interlude, lightly, sweetly, pungently narrating the loves of a man of forty, Howells reached his highest pitch of comedy. His touch on each page and sentence is as graceful as his spirit is unfailing from first to last. The scene he laid in Italy; its characters he chose from among those temporarily and voluntarily exiled Americans who in the seventies and eighties of the last century so tempted novelists with any partiality for satire or contrast; the moral hints, as the story unmistakably tells, that for a middle-aged lover there is much more joy and comfort in a woman his own age than in the most entrancing young girl whatever. Out of a dozen possible keys in which the theme might have been set, Howells chose—or seems to have chosen—the one best suited to the innocent branch of polite comedy. The easiest and yet wisest badinage flickers continually over the surface of a naturally moving stream of narrative so pellucid that nothing in it, event or motive or insinuation, is ever hidden from the at-all-experienced eye. The happy taste which prompted him to name it for the most distinctive and most charming of American seasons no less happily instructed him how to clothe it in a golden, impalpable, enriching haze borrowed apparently from the season. In this autumnal atmosphere the energy of youth in the spring of its love looks awkward; the winter of wisdom is as near as the summer of desire. Only a sage could have carried the story through without falling now and then into the temptation of being too impassioned; only a poet could have done it without now and then becoming cynical and sounding elderly.
In 1882 Howells had gone to England for a visit during which he brought out a series of his works there and with them and himself charmed literary London. He seriously questioned Whether he should not settle in Italy for the remainder of his life, but his passion for America proved too strong, and he came back, first to Boston, to a position of almost unparalleled influence in American letters. In his earliest Atlantic days he had given Henry James needed encouragement at the outset of the younger man's great career. Then and since Howells had been for Mark Twain the important critical element drawing that tumultuous humorist from burlesque and uproar to the finer art of fiction. By the middle eighties all Boston that read at all was fighting for or against Howells's principles. Promising writers, such as Hamlin Garland and Brand Whitlock, made discipular pilgrimages to him. The decade discovered a vitality and displayed a craftsmanship in novels and tales which the United States had never seen before. Of all this Howells was equally exemplar and critic. If his novels filled the air, so did his doctrines. The monthly articles which he wrote for "The Editor's Study" in Harper's Magazine between 1886 and 1891, though many of them were too timely to have survived, adumbrate the labors he performed on behalf of realism. Chiefly discussions of current books, they did not concern themselves merely with aspects of fiction, but also with poetry, history, and biography, applying to them all a calmly rational temper, measuring them by generous but none the less firm canons of truthfulness. What he warred upon particularly was the adulteration of honest literature with false alloys like sentimentalism, pseudo-heroic attitudes, gaudy ornament, theatrical endings; he enjoyed and praised works of pure fancy which do not pretend to paint the fact. Hardly one of the local color writers but passed under his critical or editorial hand, and few of them but in some degree were touched by his creed. The short story as well as the novel responded to his influence; even the theater, ancient home of the tinsel which he hated, had for a time its James A. Herne trying to write plays which should be as real as Howells's stories. Moreover, though as a rule unfriendly to French realists because of his dislike of their fierce candor, Howells was constantly introducing and commending the realists of Spain and Italy and Russia.
Toward the end of the Boston period he had an eager partiality for Turgenev, his art, his poetry, his pity, his wisdom. But about 1886 a change came over Howells through his reading of Tolstoy, who became his final and greatest literary passion. "He has been to me that final consciousness, which he speaks of so wisely in his essay on 'Life.' I came in it to the knowledge of myself in ways I had not dreamt of before, and began at last to discern my relations to the race." "Tolstoy gave me heart to hope that the world may yet be made over in the image of Him who died for it, when all Cæsar's things shall be finally rendered to Cæsar, and men shall come into their own, into the right to labor and the right to enjoy the fruits of their labor, each one master of himself and servant to every other. He taught me to see life not as a chase of a forever impossible personal happiness, but as a field for endeavor towards the happiness of the world human family." Sincere as was his conversion, however, Howells did not turn preacher as Tolstoy had done, and as his radical admirers expected. At fifty he could hardly undergo any more considerable change than that his sympathies should be enlarged and his utterance even further mellowed by the tides of benevolence and brotherhood which all his life had been rising within him and now knew themselves. Tolstoy's way was impossible to Howells's will because Howells was a saint not of the other world but of this, a walker of amiable, companionable paths, too friendly for the solitude of the natural martyr, too kindly for the battles of the natural warrior. Others might grow angry for the sake of increasing peace, but Howells could not. Others for the sake of humanity might exchange an art for a mission, but Howells could not. The many books he subsequently wrote show him no less sunny and affectionate than before, though he had now a new eye for social injustices. In his Utopian romances, A Traveler from Altruria (1894) and Through the Eye of the Needle (1907), without compromise with the economic system under which he had been bred, he threw it incontinently over—through how urbanely and serenely!—in favor of the system of his imaginary Altruria, where all work is honorable and servants are unknown, where capital and interest are only memories, where equality is complete, and men and women, in the midst of beauty, lead lives that are just, temperate, and kind. Besides these exotic matters Howells touched closer ones. No man spoke out more firmly or ringingly on behalf of the Chicago "anarchists" or against the annexation of the Philippines and the attendant saturnalia of imperialism. Had he been by disposition a fighting man he might have become a national voice. Not being that, he led his art if not his nation.
Tolstoy's novels seemed to Howells as excellent as his doctrine. "To my thinking they transcend in truth, which is the highest beauty, all other works of fiction that have been written. . . . He has not only Tourguenief's transparency of style, unclouded by any mist of the personality which we mistakenly value in style, and which ought no more to be there than the artist's personality should be in a portrait; but he has a method which not only seems without artifice, but is so." Howells must have understood that the artlessness of Tolstoy is only apparent, must have learned, then or later, how painfully Tolstoy toiled at his art; still it was hardly more than critical hyperbole to say that, compared to other novelists, Tolstoy was a mirror of nature and had no art but nature's own of growth. Howells himself having been in all his novels singularly unartificial, those written after he had read Tolstoy could exhibit no new methods. He merely broadened his field and deepened his inquiries.
A Hazard of New Fortunes (1889), in which Basil and Isabel March, the bridal couple of Their Wedding Journey, give up Boston, as Howells himself had just done, for a future in New York, is not content merely to point out the unfamiliar fashions of life which they meet but is full of conscience regarding the evils of the modern social order. Or rather, Howells had turned from the clash of those lighter manners which belong to comedy and had set himself to discuss the profounder manners of the race which belong to morals and religion. He wrote at a moment of hope, at the end of a decade which had disturbed the heavy stagnation following the Civil War: "We had passed," he afterwards said, "through a period of strong emotioning in the direction of the humaner economics, if I may phrase it so; the rich seemed not so much to despise the poor, the poor did not so hopelessly repine. The solution of the riddle of the painful earth through the dreams of Henry George, through the dreams of Edward Bellamy, through the dreams of all the generous visionaries of the past, seemed not impossibly far off." In this mood Howells's theme compelled him so much that the story moved forward almost without his conscious agency, "though," he carefully insists, "I should not like to intimate anything mystical in the fact." A Hazard of New Fortunes, which encountered greater immediate favor than any of his previous novels, outdoes them all, and the subsequent ones too, in its conduct of different groups of characters, in the perfect naturalness with which now one and now another rises to the surface of the narrative and then retreats at the due moment without a trace of management. New Englanders, Southerners, Westerners, all appear in their true native colors, as do various ranks of society, and many professions, in their proper dress and gesture. The episode of the street-car strike, brought in near the end, dramatizes the struggle which has heretofore been in the novel rather a shadow than a fact; but Howells, artist first then partizan, employs it almost wholly as a sort of focal point to which the attention of all his characters is drawn, with the result that, having already revealed themselves generally, they are more particularly revealed in their varying degrees of sympathy for the great injustice out of which class war arises.
To call the Hazard the best novel of New York, as it has been called, is still to admit that the whole of that vast picture has yet not been drawn. Howells wrote from the point of view of the older America which in 1889 was mystified at labor unrest and horrified at a strike; the America in which the country had been one with the towns, and the villages had ruled them both; the America which knew the thunder and smoke of the industrial nation less as realities in themselves than as new problems crowding in upon the older order of Americans. So New York was for Howells, in spite of his fine sympathies, a community of established Americans moving somewhat gingerly among its immigrants, and not a new Rome or a new Constantinople for the Western hemisphere. The book partially suggests a volume of travels in a city where the traveler lives with the ruling class, without digging very deeply into the commoner soil of life, except as he encounters some chance individual who belongs with the unprivileged or who out of conscience consorts with them in the hope of lightening their burdens. Howells's sympathies were as wide as the metropolis, but his knowledge was restricted. For this reason his narrative seems quiet by comparison with the jagged, multicolored, whirling, rowdy, gorgeous reality which even then lay under his eyes and which since that day has grown in a hundred respects out of its former likeness. This deficiency of depth and texture in the background, however, of qualities which Howells was too newly come to New York to have been able to capture, does not deprive the story of a very real substance, solidly conceived, felicitously portrayed, and warmed with a quick wit and an affectionate understanding.
The thirty years yet remaining of Howells's life brought no marked new development. In 1891 he summed up his critical position in Criticism and Fiction, declaring "I am in hopes that the communistic era in taste foreshadowed by Burke is approaching, and that it will occur within the lives of men now overawed by the foolish old superstition that literature and art are anything but the expression of life, and are to be judged by any other test than that of their fidelity to it"; and at the same time declaring, as if to set limits to the naturalism thus implied, that "[if] a novel flatters the passions, and exalts them above the principles, it is poisonous." The next year Howells succeeded George William Curtis in "The Easy Chair" of Harper's and wrote thenceforth monthly articles which, less exclusively literary than those in "The Editor's Study," carried on the same tradition. There and elsewhere his light, practised pen kept pace with American literary production, commenting on new authors and tendencies with an unwearied generosity which still never violated his central principles. Reminiscences and travels assumed a larger part in his work. After A Boy's Town (1890) and My Literary Passions (1895) came Literary Friends and Acquaintance (1900), classic account of the silver age of Boston and Cambridge which Howells had lived through. He revisited Europe and left records in various books which occasionally drew his matter out thin but in which he was never for a page dull or untruthful or sour. My Mark Twain (1910) is incomparably the tenderest of all the interpretations of Howells's great friend. Years of My Youth (1916), written when its author was nearly eighty, is the work of a master whom age had made wise and kept strong. In 1909 he was chosen president of the American Academy, and six years later he received the National Institute's gold medal for "distinguished work in fiction." He died in 1920.
His later novels make up so long a list that some of them must go unnoted, though all, if not invariably profound, are invariably kind, gay, and mellow. In them his investigation moves over a wide area which includes the somber study of a crime in The Quality of Mercy (1892); the keen statement of problems in An Imperative Duty (1892) and The Son of Royal Langbrith (1904); happier topics as in Miss Bellard's Inspiration (1905); the sound realism of The Landlord at Lion's Head (1897) and The Kentons (1902); and, it should be remarked, subtle explorations of what is or what seems to be the supersensual world in The Shadow of a Dream (1890), the two volumes of short stories Questionable Shapes (1903) and Between the Dark and the Daylight (1907), and The Leatherwood God (1916). This last, the study of a frontier impostor who proclaims himself a god, as an actual person had once done in early Ohio, best hints at Howells's views of the relation between the real world which he had so long explored and those vast spaces which appear to be beyond it for the futile tempting of religionists and romanticists. The maturest Howells, like the Mark Twain whose Mysterious Stranger appeared in the same year as The Leatherwood God, speculated much upon such matters, but without losing himself in them. In The Kentons Howells most perfectly exemplifies his later reading of the actual world. "You have done nothing more true and complete," wrote Henry James about the book, "more thoroughly homogeneous and hanging-together, without the faintest ghost of a false, note or a weak touch." Returning to the Middle West of his youth Howells took a family thence to New York and then to Holland, with all the freshness and point of his first period exposing the contrasts between their Ohio manners and those of the other regions which they visit. More than ever he is sage first then satirist: "remember," says Judge Kenton in a speech which sounds none the less like him for being so much like Howells, "that wherever life is simplest and purest and kindest, that is the highest civilization." Without contending on behalf either of his Ohioans, with their little angularities and large virtues, or of his experienced worldlings, with no angularities at all and their virtues more considerably mixed with manners, Howells interprets both with the lucid intelligence of an angel smiling at a beloved community of men. He sets forth an acute conflict of emotions with regard to Ellen Kenton and her love affairs but never once raises his voice above the natural human dialect; he flawlessly hits off that absurd adolescent, Boyne Kenton, who has read too many international romances, but he never once condescends to the boy or winks over his head at the beholders. The relations of Kenton and his wife and of both of them to their children are presented, though so easily, with the nicest shades of distinction, as if their creator not only seemed to employ no artifices but did employ none. Only the masters of narrative can tell a story which, like this, is clear yet full, continuous yet unhurried, balanced yet as natural as the flow of water or the movement of clouds across a blue sky. If not a great novel The Kentons is still a perfect one.
It is to the difficult distinction between perfection and greatness that critical discussions of Howells always finally arrive. With few authors as eminent does it seem so hard to find the master conveniently distilled in a few masterpieces ready for transportation to posterity. His hand, like Andrea del Sarto's, worked flawlessly from first to last, but never quite supremely. A Chance Acquaintance, A Modern Instance, The Rise of Silas Lapham, Indian Summer, A Hazard of New Fortunes, The Kentons, all admirable, do not stand more than measurably forth from the remainder of his novels. He must be studied rather in his total work, as the intimate historian of his age, who produced the most extended and accurate transcript of American life yet made by one man. Geographically, indeed, he was limited in the main to Ohio, New England, and New York, and to those parts of Europe and America in which Ohioans, New Englanders, and New Yorkers spend their vacations. He was conditioned, too, by his historical position as editor and arbiter so long in Boston at the declining end of an epoch, when taste ran rather to discipline than to variety or vividness, rather to decorum than to candor, rather to learning than to experience, rather to charm than to passion. Howells, indeed, instead of resting on the palms and laurels he already had, rose to meet the new world, contending as well as he could in his natural silver tone with the alternating tones of gold and iron Which have lately dimmed the voice of Boston. But that in his creed and his temperament which had made him amenable to Boston lay deeper than its influences. On every ground he preferred to walk close to the commonplace, believing that the true bulk of life is always to be found there. "It will not do," he wrote, speaking in Their Silver Wedding Journey of the ducal palace at Weimar, "to lift either houses or men far out of the average; they become spectacles, ceremonies; they cease to have charm, to have character, which belong to the levels of life, where alone there are ease and comfort, and human nature may be itself, with all the little delightful differences [which are] repressed in those who represent and typify." Does not Howells here reveal himself as the most democratic of novelists? Fenimore Cooper and Hawthorne, both democrats, could still never leave off complaining that democracy lacks the elements of saliency and color upon which they thought the prosperity of the novelist depends. What his predecessors shrank from, Howells ardently embraced, thoroughly satisfied to portray the plain universe which lay before him, in a style which, as he said of that of Jane Austen, whom, he preferred to all the novelists in English, is "the elect speech of life expressing itself without pretending to emotions not felt, but finding human nature sufficient for its highest effects."
The question is whether Howells's practice, matched the serene consistency of his creed; and the truth is that he shrank from some of its consequences. His gentle nature would not permit him to follow men out of the cheerful sun into those darknesses of the mind and the soul which also belong to the commonplace. He clung to the day as Hawthorne to the night. Having planned just after A Modern Instance to write a novel which should take some of its characters to Hong-Kong, he abandoned it because in "reading up" for his Chinese chapters he had come across details of the night side of the city which horrified and disturbed him into unwillingness to touch the material again. Like Emerson, he closed his eyes to evil and its innumerable traces. His America, transcribed so fully as it: is, is still an America of the smooth surfaces. Great peaks of drama do not rise upon it; passion does not burrow into it nor adventure run over it with exciting speed. Not quite as a Puritan or a pedant, Howells none the less employed a selective, a respectable, an official realism. He chose his subjects as a sage chooses his conversation, decently. To state these limitations is, however, to accuse Howells of nothing worse than the uncommon sin of too much gentleness. They ask him to stand on the mountain of fame a little further off from Ibsen and a little nearer Irving; nearer Thackeray than Tolstoy; nearer Daudet than Balzac. They remind his austerer critics that Goldsmith has outlasted a dozen austerer novelists. They challenge the historian to assert that work artistically flawless, which lacks malice or intensity, cannot be kept alive by ease and grace and charm, by kind wisdom and thoughtful mirth. Perhaps just his excess of gentleness, like his perfection of art, was needed to civilize American fiction by bringing it home from the frontier to the daily life of the settlements.