On William Dean Howells

William Dean Howells was one of the stalwart gentlemen of American 19th century letters. Best friends with Mark Twain and Henry James, a champion of the work of Emily Dickenson and Stephen Crane among others, he was a wholly self-educated man who began life as a reporter and worked his way up to the editorship of the Atlantic Monthly before retiring to devote himself to fiction. Not that many of his thirty-six novels remain in print, and reading the delightful and inconsequential Indian Summer, it’s possible to see why. It’s rare that gentle, comic literature lasts through the ages, unless you’re Jane Austen. Howells called himself a realist, but he had his own particular take on the term; he didn’t mean realist as a number of late 19th century authors like Dreiser and Zola do, which is to say darkly depressing and in constant touch with a kind of kitchen sink grimness, bringing to the educated public’s attention the reality of poverty, strife and ignorance. What he meant was that he wanted his characters to be honest, ordinary people, as he might find in his strata of society, flawed and well-meaning, good-hearted and self-effacing, bound by the conventions and the restrictions of their day but quietly dreaming of a little local heroism in their souls. These kind of people don’t make it into literature much because they are not the sort to have a great deal happen to them, and Howells was aware of this; but their sorrows and joys were as valid and valuable as anyone else’s, and his treatment of their lives was, if Indian Summer is exemplary, compassionate, sensitive and laconically humourous.

So, the story focuses on Theodore Colville, a 41-year-old American recently deposed from the position of newspaper editor in his home town of Des Vaches after a failed stab at a political career. Not sure what to do with himself, Colville has travelled to Florence where he intends to spend some time resurrecting a youthful dream of becoming an architect. But his memories of Florence are bittersweet; he visited first in his twenties and had his heart broken by a young American woman who dallied with his affections and moved on. We get the impression that, hurt as he was, Colville has used it as an excuse to avoid romantic entanglements ever since.

All that’s about to come to a sticky end, however, as he happens by chance upon a former acquaintance – the widowed Lina Bowen, who used to be the best friend of the woman who broke his heart, her small daughter, Effie, and her youthful, exquisitely beautiful charge, Imogene Graham, who is ‘doing’ Europe under her care. Colville is drawn to his countrywomen and they are delighted by his witty social charm. He’s a minor king of small talk, is Colville, most often ready with an amusing rejoinder to all superficial polite remarks. Little Effie recognises prime father figure material when she sees it and bonds with him. Imogene Graham is seduced by the sad story of his lost romantic attachment and invests a great deal more in the mission of saving him from his solitude than is wise. And as for Lina Bowen, well, there’s the sense of a missed encounter from their first time around in Florence that might be subject to a miraculous reprieve, if only pride, uncertainty and confusion don’t get too much in the way.

There’s another character with a significant role to play, the elderly Mr Waters, a former minister also from America, come to end his days in spiritual contemplation. He’s reached the age where he is both wise and disinclined to meddle in the lives of others, and so his role is to transcend the emotional flurry that surrounds Colville and his women, and to comment upon it from the vast distance of contented, elderly renunciation. ‘The young suffer terribly,’ Mr Waters admits. ‘But they recover. Afterward we don’t suffer so much, but we don’t recover.’ This is a novel that is profoundly concerned with the different stages of humankind, as Colville struggles for most of its length with a midlife crisis, no less real for the lightness with which he attempts to treat it. This is what makes him dangerously susceptible to the dramatic overtures of Imogene Graham, despite the fact that he knows better than to take them seriously. She insists that the question of age is irrelevant between them, when it is evidently a source of great awkwardness. ‘You had better make the most of me as a lost youth,’ Colville advises her. ‘I’m old enough to be two of them.’ But if Colville is at his most easy with little Effie, it’s because something in him is still immature; playing with her, he’s in a comfort zone. The verbal dexterity and wit which make him such an amiable literary protagonist, is what holds the deeper, serious world at bay. Colville has used duty, convention and affability to guard against soul searching and profound emotional disarray, and now, caught up in a romantic muddle with Mrs Bowen and Imogene, he is distinctly out of his depth.

As a romance, it’s quite unromantic, and as a comedy, it’s not laugh out loud funny; but it is rather sweet and touching and frustrating on the way that polite people with nice manners can disclaim responsibility for themselves. Imogene is determined to sacrifice herself in a grand and noble gesture, refusing to attend to what she feels because that would be small-minded and selfish; Mrs Bowen rather got on my nerves, I’m sorry to say, by endlessly telling everyone she utterly and completely refused to instruct them on what to do while emanating ferocious waves of disapproval and tragic despair, and Colville gets stuck between his ladies, wanting to please them all and quite incapable of pleasing either in what he knows is a false situation. They have all abdicated their will for the sake of another who doesn’t want it, and the plot is delicately balanced; it could easily end in lives of bitter but disguised renunciation. The spirit of Colville infuses the book, however, and is, I suspect, highly reminiscent of its author, and so despite the seemingly hopeless tangles of the characters, a happy ending is neatly and satisfyingly brought about. I read this while suffering still from a cold, and feeling unequal to anything demanding or depressing, and it was just the right book for the circumstances. It is gentle and light and kind, a good companion of a novel in times of exile from the thick of life.


13 thoughts on “On William Dean Howells

  1. “It is gentle and light and kind, a good companion of a novel in times of exile from the thick of life.” Books like that are as much of a treasure and as necessary as the heavier, more serious kind.

  2. Hello! This is my first visit to your blog and I’ve enjoyed reading about this author I’d never heard of. I loved Henry James when I read him in my late teens and the way you’ve described Indian Summer reminded me of some of his themes and characters – he’s on my t.b.re-r list, for when I can retire from my money-earning job. Your final sentence of this review has set me off on a meander about the order in which books might be read – i.e. the possible effect of the mood that was engendered by the previous book, and how it might enhanced or counteracted by the one you read next.
    Indian Summer sounds just the thing to turn to after something intense and disturbing, like Sebastian Faulks’ Engleby.

  3. Howells is a fine writer. There are two volumes of his novels available from the Library of America, and they left me wanting more. There was also an interesting bio of him published a few years ago, which showed just how important he was as an editor. (And a big champion of Henry James and Mark Twain.) His novels are really enjoyable, and do stand up to time.

  4. Oh, I can see how reading something gentle and sweet can be just the right thing sometimes! Just perfect for illness or being in the middle of a busy semester. Perhaps that’s when I should do my own Howells reading. I can see why authors like Howells might not make it into the most serious of literary lists, but also why he’d stick around, at least for a while, not terribly popular perhaps, but still there for people who want something smart but not too difficult.

  5. This sounds like the sort of book to be squirreled away until you need to spend time with people you might quite like to be friends with on a cold dank sniffly afternoon. I must try and get a copy. By the way, when I read “worked his way up to the editorship of the Atlantic Monthly before retiring to devote himself to fiction” i initially thought you meant to the ‘reading’ of fiction, which seems like an extremely good idea to me.

  6. I read The Rise of Silas Lapham as an undergrad and at the time either because I was snobby and wanted to spend more time reading the difficult Henry James or because I really wasn’t in a place to grasp the social issues the book examines, we didn’t get along and ever since I have been rather prejudiced against the poor Mr. Howells. Your review has softened me a bit and perhaps someday I will give him another try.

  7. Yes, I’m with Grad and others. This sounds wonderfully appealing material. And I agree there’s often a sorry grimness attending the category of ‘realism’ that I personally find a little soul-destroying. There’s lightness in life, too, and levity.

  8. I’ve not read anything by him so far, but I think I really ought to. It’s funny, as soon as you said “American” and “realism”, I thought of Dreiser. I’m pleased to see it’s a different sort – I can’t get on with Dreiser at all. Dorothy Parker sums up my feelings about him: Theodore Dreiser / Should ought to write nicer. 😛

  9. p.s. As I lay awake nursing my insomnia this morning, LL, I realised I ought to have clarified that I know lightness and levity actually mean the same thing, only that I was thinking specifically of lightness of being, and levity very much in terms of humour, which is always my association with its use. Strange what comes to me in the middle of a sleepless night!

  10. Lilian – couldn’t agree more! If I’m feeling troubled then all I crave is a book in which nothing bad happens, and it’s really hard to find one! This was a gentle, charming read and I was most appreciative of that.

    Christine – hello and welcome! So nice of you to drop by and comment. There’s an amusing bit in the novel where two characters actually discuss whether the situation they find themselves in is more suited to a James novel or a Howells novel – it’s a cute, self-conscious moment that actually works quite well. I like your idea about the progression through books, with each acting as a response to what preceded. I can’t read two books from the same genre one after another. However much I’ve enjoyed a book, I need something different up next. I think you are quite right that this would make a good antidote to Engleby!

    Kirk – I will have to look out for that biography, as it would be interesting to know more about him. I certainly didn’t find this old-fashioned in the sense of antiquated or dull. It came from another world and time, but that was very much part of its charm.

    Thomas – The novel you mention crops up in the introduction as one of Howell’s better known works. I’ll have to look out for it. This is definitely a sort of American Forster-type novel, and a delight.

    Dorothy – that’s exactly it. We tend to preserve Sturm und Drang, but this sort of novel is equally insightful and equally valuable. I would love to know what you think of it if you get around to reading it. I do warmly recommend it as a book to chill out to, to calm down, to rejuvenate or to detox.

    Ann – lol! I love the idea of devoting myself to reading fiction. Perhaps I should think seriously about a plan for doing just that…? I think you have your eye in perfectly for the kind of occasion that suits this book. I’d love to know what you make of it if you do get hold of a copy.

    Stefanie – oh I know so well how reading something at the wrong time or in the wrong mood can just put you off an author. I’m intrigued now to read the novel you mention (too long a title to type!) as I’ve heard it’s the one that has lasted the best of his. I would not think him a good author for teens, though. His is definitely a perspective best savoured in a quiet and contemplative middle age.

    Grad – this is indeed a gentle and charming novel, and one that could be read as a port in any emotional storm. Thinking of you.

    Doctordi – isn’t it odd how realism actually ends up referring to various types of experience that constitute only a fraction of most people’s lives? I often feel that way about super-violent representations. I’ll be told over and again that such violence exists and therefore we should look hard at it, and yet I am most thankful to say that so far (touch wood) I have avoided the worst sorts of conflagration (the mob has yet to reach Cambridge). And I like your distinction between lightness and levity very much although I would wish a better night’s sleep for you if I could!

    Jenny – lol! That’s hilarious, good old Dorothy Parker. I keep meaning to read Dreiser, and then I find myself picking up something with jokes in. I do have a profoundly frivolous streak! 🙂

    Casey – how nice to see you again, if you are the Casey of old, and welcome, if you are a new Casey! I admit I was tempted by a lovely NYRB copy of the book and knew nothing about the author. But it all turned out well in the end. 🙂

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