Style and Technique
Howells was capable of strong artistry and irony, as one sees in this bitter short story. In the United States, at the end of the nineteenth century, there was a revival of interest in the historical romance, which overwhelmed the realistic movement. People had tired of the commonplace and photographic in literature. They wanted imagination, and the general reading public was interested in swashbucklers and their swords. Howells complained that these historical romances, with their taste for strange lands, adventure, and sentiment, were poverty-stricken in ideas. Howells theorized that this return of interest in the “romanticistic,” in the sentimentalism that took the form of the historical romance, represented an unconscious revulsion from the shameless imperialism of the Spanish-American War, an effort to get away from the facts of the odious present.
Howells wrote “Editha” in an effort to explode the sentimentalism that led to an interest in the historical romance. Editha blindly and ignorantly believes in the heroic romanticism of war and is totally oblivious to the real consequences of battle. At this time in history, there was a shift in focus from individualism to natural and social forces that seemed to enslave humanity. Émile Zola epitomized this naturalism. Despite the fact that authors were writing about natural and social forces in the hope that people would improve and reform society, by the turn of the twentieth century, people were buying superficial and shallow novels by the millions. By 1900, the historical romance not only had captured the general reading public but also, critics asserted, had reduced the level of culture in the United States. Through his ironic indictment of Editha, Howells criticizes the sentimentality of the day, which counteracted the realism in which he believed.