Tuesday, February 16, 2016

He felt like a good man - William Dean Howell's A Modern Instance

A Modern Instance (1882), William Dean Howells.  This is the first Howells novel I have read.  Once upon a time, it was a famous book, much read.  Even now, it is one of two Howells novel still in print from Penguin Classics, along with The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885), and it is also available in a Library of America collection (where I read it), which means two editions are currently available.  I’ve never come across a book blogger who has read it, but it ain’t dead yet.

The novel is about a young couple's bad marriage, one that turns sour because the husband turns out to be a much smaller man than he first appears and the wife has limited options.  I get into the 1880s and 1890s and suddenly I am reading a surprising amount of divorce fiction.

The way the husband embraces and settles into his limitations is psychologically acute, the wife’s self-delusions a bit less so, or a bit more familiar, although she becomes fairly complex, too.  A character, near the end, finds himself in “awe of her ignorance” (Ch. 39, 563); he stood in for me pretty well.

This is the husband, repairing some damage after a fight:

His heart was full; he was grateful for the mercy that had spared him; he was so strong in his silent repentance that he felt like a good man.  (Ch. 22, 386)

That last part should be read with as much irony as possible.  Similarly, this is the wife’s father, staying in Boston, missing his little town in Maine:

He suffered from the loss of identity which is a common affliction with country people coming to town.  The feeling that they are of no special interest to any of the thousands the meet bewilders and harasses them; after the searching neighborhood of village life, the fact that nobody would meddle in their most intimate affairs if they could, is a vague distress.  The Squire not only experienced this, but, after reigning so long as the censor of morals and religion in Equity[, Maine], it was a deprivation for him to pass a whole week without saying a bitter thing to any one.  (Ch. 22, 394)

Small insights about regular people, but it’s the small accumulation of petty grievances that wreck the marriage.  As the novel darkened, it began to remind me of Sister Carrie (1899), as in a scene where the husband begins to fantasize about the end of his marriage, about escaping it.  “His thoughts wandered to conditions, to contingencies of which a man does not permit himself even to think without a degree of moral disintegration” (Ch. 30, 478) – what if they had never married, or never met, or if he ran off.  Howells never gets as dark as, say Leo Tolstoy in The Kreutzer Sonata (1889), where in the exact parallel scene the husband thinks mostly about death, his wife’s and his own.  American fiction could only go so far, perhaps.


  1. I recently read "The New York Stories" of Edith Wharton (a NYRB collection) and there was a lot of stuff about divorce in there, too. Same general time frame, I believe. It must've been a hot topic.

    I like the prose you quote, and the small insights. Small insights about regular people are just my thing.

    The only WDH I've read is "A Sleep and a Forgetting," which was good but not great. This looks interesting. I'd never heard of it.

  2. I read it long ago, but my aging Swiss cheese mind fails to remember anything about it except the author and his central position in American realism. The Rise of Silas Lapham is a better reading experience.

  3. Once I have read another Howells novel, I will write a bit about a William Pritchard essay from a few years ago in which he reads several less famous Howells novels. In summary, "good but not great." But good.

    I just read Wharton's first book of short stories, from 1899. Alongside What Maisie Knew (1897) it seems that by the late 1890s writers were pushing harder on the topic.

    I assume "better reading experience" is the same as "better book"? "read it long ago" - I suspect that is the common experience with this novel.

  4. "Better" is so often a vague and not very useful subjective modifier, and I admit to no critic's expertise, so instead I simply say that I vaguely recall enjoying _TROSL_ more than _AMI_, but that says more about me and the reading circumstances (i.e., both read for an AmLit course) than about the book. As I am I guess an advocate lately for reader-response critical and post-structural theories, I leave to difference readers in different circumstances to arrive at their own subjective assessments. In fact, over the past several decades I have gotten so weary with theories of criticism that I probably should make no claim on behalf of any theoretical approach. Nevertheless, for whatever it is worth, you now have my half-baked response to your question/comment.

  5. I have no problem with "better." It's the phrase "reading experience" that I have never understood.

    You enjoyed one book more than the other - now that I understand.

  6. A "better book" may not be a "better reading experience". The Good Soldier may be the better book, but The Unbearable Bassington is the better reading experience.

  7. I have enjoyed few books as much as I have enjoyed The Good Soldier.

    I am glad that this "reading experience" language has not infected other arts. "Sure, the Beatles are good, but I find the Rolling Stones give a better listening experience."

    "Better reading experience" should be reserved for comparing the features of e-readers.

    Tell me if the book is good (and how good, and how it is good), and leave the reading experience to me (and my cat, and my local craft brewer).

    1. I am glad that this "reading experience" language has not infected other arts. "Sure, the Beatles are good, but I find the Rolling Stones give a better listening experience." WRong art, perhaps: "Sure, Boulez is good, but I find Britten gives a better listening experience."
      There is also the kind of goodness. I am quite prepared to accept Boulez's seriousness of purpose and musical ambition but even if he succeeded in what he aimed at I'd still rather listen to Les Illuminacions.
      It may not be a pretty phrase but it is a valid distinction, I think.

    2. Yes, the kind of goodness - that was on my list as "how."

      Some people like Boulez more than Britten. I like the Rolling Stones better than either. Who cares?

    3. Labouring the point for the last time, one book may actually be a better book than another but the other could be "a better reading experience". Obvious examples are Orwell's "good bad books", with enormous flaws, whereas there are genuinely able intelligent and talented writers with every writerly quality but interest.

    4. Labour, but useful labor. You're right - as a critic I need to make room for lots of different types of good art, and to allow art to be good in lots of different ways, some of which can even be, as you note, conventionally bad.

      I like to think that Wuthering Expectations has been widely open to such distinctions, but it is an ongoing effort.

  8. Oh, how I wish I hadn't blurted out that phrase. I could have spared myself the ridicule. Ain't blogging a bitch sometimes.

  9. We're the ones that care about words, right?

  10. But I sometimes think you take yourself all too seriously even at the expense of others. Life is too short for intolerance and superiority. I'm too humble and beaten down by life to be so intolerant of anyone or anything, including words.

  11. I take literature pretty seriously; myself much less so. None of which is at anyone's "expense." You can defend your position. Nor is there anything like "intolerance," or I do not understand how you are using the term.

    You remember how D. G. Myers would argue, yes? Not too serious. Appropriately serious.

  12. Like a moth to the flame, I'm drawn to the argument about "reading experience," which I consider a valid concept, but my entry into the argument will be delayed until I think more and do my homework, especially focusing on reader response and reception theory. I will use my own blog as the forum in a few days. Stay tuned.

  13. Good. It is a rich topic. I, too, think "reading experience" is a valid concept, although unfortunately used in some radically different ways that I find confusing.

    Search for the term at Myers's site. It is quite interesting how he uses it.

  14. I am guilty of having read it twice in graduate school, and I am guilty of having forgotten it since.

    In regards to the Squire, I note that those writers who escaped small-town Ohio appear to be quite pleased with themselves for doing so, and are a bit strong on those who remain in small towns and rural places, Ohio or not.

  15. I have some fears that A Modern Instance will be too easily forgotten.

    "[A] bit strong," boy aren't they.