Friday, May 6, 2016

There was talk some years ago about novels going out - the rigid artistry of Howells

“The test of the value of Mr. Howells’ work will come fifty years from now, when his sheaf of novels will form the most accurate, sympathetic and artistic study of American society yet made by an American.”

That is Hamlin Garland as quoted by cub reporter Stephen Crane as found in “Howell Discussed at Avon-by-the-Sea” (1891, Library of America, p. 457).  Garland calls A Modern Instance “the greatest, most rigidly artistic novel ever written by an American.” 

“Well,” submitted Irene.  (The Rise of Silas Lapham, last line of Ch. 17)

The characters in Silas Lapham, Bostonian and Vermontian alike, frequently begin sentences with “Well,” or use the word as a sentence.  Writers are told not to mess around with alternatives to “said,” but Howells is comically skilled in that department and I can see how he leads other writers astray.

The critic William Pritchard wrote a helpful appreciation in the Winter 2011 issue of The Hudson Review (“Howells and the Right American Stuff”) in which he traces the Rise of William Dean Howells, by which like Howells he also means the fall, the slow fade of the most powerful American Man of Letters (editor, critic, champion) of the late 19th century at the hands of H. L. Mencken (“uninspired and hollow…  elegant and shallow,” p. 560) and others.

Pritchard takes for granted that the core of Howells’s novels are the 1880s run – A Modern Instance (1882), The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885), Indian Summer (1886), and A Hazard of New Fortunes (1889) – are significant novels; he reads a couple of earlier novels and four later obscurities.  He is like a book blogger, pawing through this forgotten stuff.  He notes that because these novels are so unknown

my procedure will be more scattershot and partial in an attempt to bring out some of the pungent style of each novel [now we see why I like this essay so much].  This is done in hopes that putative readers may find a well-stocked library with these novels on their shelves, having been borrowed last in, say, 1905 or thereabouts.  (561)

The implicit question is “What have we lost?” by abandoning these books for others.  They’re all good books, obviously.  Pritchard picks out the tormented, even Dostoevskian embezzler of The Quality of Mercy (1892), and the amusing portrait of the publishing industry in The World of Chance (1893) among other passages and characters.  Sort of sad, all of this good writing and inventiveness now necessarily forgotten because the novels that contain it are not quite good enough.

It will happen to Silas Lapham, too.  The biggest loss will be Chapter 14, the long dinner party scene, the peak of the rise of Silas Lapham, where “the talk [runs] off upon a subject that Lapham had never heard talked of before,” meaning novels:

“There was talk some years ago,” said James Bellingham, “about novels going out.”

“They're just coming in!” cried Miss Kingsbury.

Yes, that’s the spirit!


  1. interesting post; Howells sounds like a stand up guy. i tried Hamlin Garland once and couldn't abide his writing - sort of resembled the great plains, flat and boring...

  2. Howells as a figure is pretty interesting, setting his books aside.

    I think I'm with you on Garland. How is "rigidly artistic" a compliment?