James and Howells: Two Realistic Novelists
James and Howells: Two Realistic Novelists
The Dangers of Fiction. In the early days of the American republic, critics considered fiction a swoon inducing form that muddled the heads and the morals of readers (most of them susceptible young women). Many early novels did indeed focus on crime, intrigue, and illicit sexuality. A book peddler might advertise his wares with the cry “Seduction! Revolution! Murder!” William Hill Brown (1765-1793), whose The Power of Sympathy (1789) is generally considered the first American novel, admitted that “this species of writing hath not been received with universal approbation.” Eager to win approvai for his novel, Brown emphasized its positive qualities: “the dangerous Consequences of SEDUCTION are exposed, and the Advantages of FEMALE EDUCATION set forth and recommended.” Although the novel form had eased into respectability by the 1870s—thanks to popular American authors such as James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851), Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864), and Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896)—the taint of the past remained.
From Romance to Realism. As Henry James noted in 1884, “The old superstition about fiction being ‘Wicked’ has doubtless died out, . . . but the spirit of it lingers in a certain oblique regard directed toward any story which does not more or less admit that it is only a joke.” No longer “wicked,” late-nineteenth-century fiction remained (in James’s opinion) moralistic, melodramatic, and resolutely “make-believe”—despite the fact that, as James argued, “the only reason for the existence of a novel is that it does attempt to represent life.” During the 1860s and 1870s a handful of American authors attempted to “represent life” realistically in fiction. Rebecca Harding Davis (1831-1910), author of Life in the Iron Mills (1861), declared it her mission “to dig into this commonplace, this vulgar American life, and see what is in it.” Union army veteran John William De Forest (1826-1906) published Miss Ravenel’s Conversion from Secession to Loyalty (1867), the first novel to offer a realistic assessment of the Civil War, and Edward Eggleston (1837-1902), an Indiana author, dissected the American heartland in The Hoosier Schoolmaster (1871). Not until the 1880s and 1890s, however, did “realism” become entrenched in American letters.
The Dean of American Letters. Ohio native William Dean Howells (1837-1920) moved to Boston in 1865, determined to crash the ranks of the American literary establishment. His arrivai in Boston coincided with the final flush of New England literary glory. On earlier visits to Boston, Howells had been lucky enough to meet several of his literary idols, including Ralph Waldo Emerson,
Nathaniel Hawthorne, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and James Russell Lowell. Joining the staff of the preeminent American literary magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, in 1865, Howells was becoming a member of the club. He worked at The Atlantic for fifteen years, serving as editor-in-chief from 1871 to 1881. From his chair at The Atlantic —and later as a columnist for Harper’s Monthly (1886-1892, 1900-1920)—Howells nurtured young talents such as Hamlin Garland, Stephen Crane, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Frank Norris. In his own fiction Howells pioneered the art of American realism. His novels include A Modern Instance (1882), which tackled the then-taboo subject of divorce; The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885), about an ethically tormented Boston businessman; and A Hazard of New Fortunes (1889), a tale of New York City (the novelist’s home after 1888) that reflects Howells’s increasingly liberal political viewpoint.
A Citizen of the World. Howells’s brand of fiction had its detractors as well as its advocates. Some readers quite simply found realism dull. In one of the Devil’s Dictionary entries that he began writing in 1881 the humorist Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914) defined realism as
“The art of depicting nature as it is seen by toads. The charm suffusing a landscape painted by a mole, or a story written by a measuring-worm.” Henry James (1843-1916)—one of Howells’s lifelong friends and one of the greatest prose stylists of the age—did his best to elevate the “charm” quotient of American realism. James grew up in a wealthy, cosmopolitan family. He spent his youth in New York, Newport, and Europe; studied for one academic year at Harvard Law School (1862-1863); and spent much of his adulthood overseas, eventually becoming a British citizen. Whereas Howells relied for effect on descriptions of external phenomena, James probed emotions and psyches. James described one critical scene in The Portrait of a Lady (1881)—a scene in which the heroine, Isabel Archer, meditates by a fireplace—as “a representation simply of her motionlessly seeing and an attempt withal to make the mere still lucidity of her act as ‘interesting’ as the surprise of a caravan or the identification of a pirate.” In early works such as Roderick Hudson (1876), Daisy Miller (1879), and The Portrait of a Lady James examined the effect of European society on the American character. During the mid 1880s James wrote two “politicai” novels: The Bostonians (1886), a critique of the women’s movement, and The Princess Casamassima (1886), a critique of politicai anarchism. During the 1890s and into the early twentieth century, James’s work became more dense and more explicitly concerned with minute shifts in mood and manner. The Spoils of Poynton (1897), The Wings of the Dove (1902), The Ambassadors (1903), and The Golden Bowl (1904) are among his major works from this period. A relentless selfcritic, James kept a series of notebooks and—in his final years—painstakingly revised nearly ali of his published fiction for publication in the New York Edition (1907-1918) of his works. “Humanity is immense, and reality has a myriad forms,” he once wrote; “the most one can affirm is that some of the flowers of fiction have the odor of it, and others have not.”
Cathy N. Davidson, Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986);