William Dean Howells, a prolific though never a brilliant writer, attempted to deal conscientiously with the everyday experiences of rather ordinary people. By presenting character and situation in a straightforward manner, he wrote novels characterized chiefly by their moral atmosphere and authentic domestic realism.
The reputation of Howells suffered much from the charge of many critics that his scope was too limited to satisfy the requirements of complexity demanded by sophisticated twentieth century readers. It is argued that his insights into social existence, for example, were based on tenets from a past age that no longer applied; the lack of intense passions and obsessions in the novels, as well as Howells’s failure to explore in depth such areas as human sexuality and capacity for violence, are cited as evidence. Similarly, The Rise of Silas Lapham—the author’s most popular work and in many ways his masterpiece—has been adversely judged by some on the grounds that its plot is too slender to support the weight of its own implications. To support such charges, however, is either to misunderstand the nature of Howells’s moral vision of life, or to overlook its depth and breadth, universality, and applicability to all times and places.
Howells believed in people’s interdependence with one another; he viewed each person’s life as inextricably caught up with the lives of others, thus creating the web of interrelationships that forms societies. Such a belief meant that, for Howells, personal moral lives and social lives were fused; there was no such thing as a purely individual moral act, whether good or evil, since each personal act had its inevitable consequences in the interpersonal or social realm. This in turn led to the morally pragmatic stance that the proper course of action can often be chosen on the basis of which course will result in the most good for the greatest number of people.
This utilitarian viewpoint is reflected in such concepts as the economy-of-pain principle, propounded by Howells through the character of David Sewell in the scene from The Rise of Silas Lapham in which Silas and his wife seek the minister’s advice concerning the love complication between their two daughters and Tom Corey. He tells them that in such a situation, for which no one is to blame, the best solution is the one that will cause suffering to the fewest number of people. In this case, therefore, Penelope would be wrong to sacrifice Tom to Irene, which would make all three persons suffer miserably; she should marry him herself, which would result in the great happiness of two people and the temporary hurt of only one.
Underlying this moral outlook are three basic assumptions: that all aspects of human life, including the social, are infused with moral purpose, thus making society an extremely precious commodity; that the preservation of society depends on human beings overcoming their destructive passions with reason; and that the function of art reveals the superiority of the civilized and reasoning side of human nature over the primitive and ignorant side. Howells’s first assumption was shared by most people in his age, but it was his fervent espousal of the last proposition that placed him at the philosophical head of a group of writers whose aim it was to reveal the morality of life through the use of realism in their fiction. However, Howells abhorred sermonizing,...
(The entire section is 1408 words.)