Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The old people thought it all beautiful - some William Dean Howells prose

My case against A Modern Instance has two main parts.  First:

They had got down to Charles street, and Halleck took out his watch at the corner lamp.

“It isn’t at all late yet; only half-past eight.  The days are getting shorter.”

“Well?”  (Ch. 20, 369-70)

And so on.  Too much of this dull artless flat stuff.  Compared to his contemporaries – James and Twain, obviously, but also Trollope, Crane, even Dreiser, Howells has a weak, undistinguished voice.

Second, the novel has an authorial stand-in character who is brought in to discuss the problems of the novel whenever Howells loses confidence in his dramatization of them.  For some reason this character is given a subplot, and a proposal scene, and the end of the novel, although no reader besides Howells himself has ever had the slightest interest in Atherton the ironic attorney.  Maybe he is actually a parody of an authorial mouthpiece.

The case for, aside from what I wrote yesterday, includes this description of a baby:

… she had passed out of slippery and evasive doughiness into a firm tangibility that made it a pleasure to hold her.  (28, 452)

This description of Indiana:

… the spring night, whose breath softly buffeted their cheeks through the open window, had gathered over those eternal corn-fields, where the long, crooked winrows, burning on either hand, seemed a trail of fiery serpents writhing away from the train as it roared and clamored over the track.  (39, 567)

This theater entrance:

They passed in through the long colonnaded vestibule, with its paintings and plaster casts and rows of birds and animals in glass cases on either side and she gave scarcely a glance at any of those objects endeared by association if not by intrinsic beauty to the Boston play-goer: Gulliver, with the Lilliputians swarming upon him; the painty-necked ostriches and pelicans; the mummied mermaid under a glass-bell; the governors’ portraits; the stuffed elephant; Washington crossing the Delaware; Cleopatra applying the Asp; Sir William Pepperell, at full length on canvas and the pagan months and seasons in plaster, – if all these are indeed the subjects – were dim phantasmagoria…  (13, 302-3)

Painty-necked!  And that crack at the end by Howells.  This bizarre place, where it seems that Howells has wandered into a Melville novel, is Moses Kimball’s Museum theater, recognizable to any Bostonian of the time.  I will bet that A Modern Instance is read more in Boston than anywhere else.  It has a lot of good Boston flavor.

A great many of the people seemed to be taking hulled-corn and milk; baked beans formed another favorite dish, and squash-pie was in large request.  Marcia was not critical; roast-turkey for Bartley and stewed chicken for herself with cranberry-pie for both seemed to her a very good and sufficient dinner…  (14, 312)

Very American, that passage.

Ordinary life with moments of melodrama and coincidence, as if Howells wants to assure me he is not above it; flat arguments mixed with fine descriptions; plain old things side by side with Boston’s best grotesquerie.  “The old people thought it all beautiful,” Howells writes at one point (19, 361).  I don’t think they’re completely wrong.


  1. wasn't howells a good friend of twain's? surprising he didn't pick a little more ironic humor. or maybe he did and i just don't see it...

  2. A good friend of both Twain and James. And later Crane and many others. Yet his own ironic sense was quite mild.