Indian Summer reflects an American realist’s interest in the phenomenon of the surge of Americans who traveled abroad after the Civil War. Both of the other major novelists with whom William Dean Howells is usually bracketed had already explored this theme, Mark Twain hilariously in The Innocents Abroad (1869) and Henry James with great sophistication in a series of novels and tales beginning with The American (1876-1877).
In many ways, Howells, who was one of the first American critics to recognize the genius of Twain and James, occupies a position between them. Indian Summer, like The Innocents Abroad, although in a much less satirical and pointed way, registers the humorous aspects of American tourists’ and expatriates’ experiences in Europe. Howells’s naïve young Americans face dangers that they realize only dimly, if at all, but, unlike their Jamesian equivalents, they usually manage to avoid catastrophes. Indeed, Imogene Graham’s main danger in Florence is the possibility of her marrying another American—the well-intentioned but plainly inappropriate Colville.
Howells uses the Italian setting to provide a backdrop for his novel, but he is less interested in the cultural collisions between American innocents and European predators than in the uneasy relationship between two Americans—a man in his Indian summer and a woman in the early spring of her adulthood—and a man’s slowly developing relationship with a woman near his age. This second relationship is complicated by the conflict between her love for him and her obligations as Imogene Graham’s chaperone. Imogene is always referred to, not unjustifiably, as a “girl.” She is only slightly more mature than James’s Daisy Miller. It is because she is a beauty living in the city where Colville had fallen in love seventeen years earlier that she becomes the object of his romantic yearnings. The reader soon recognizes Colville’s folly in pursuing her and not Lina Bowen, a mature and still beautiful woman much better suited to Colville at this stage of his life.
Though Howells’s hero is foolish, he is basically a gentleman, courtly in a lighthearted way and eager to please not only...
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