William Dean Howells Critical Essays

William Dean Howells American Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

As a writer, an editor, and a literary critic, Howells led the revolt against nineteenth century sentimentality in fiction, and he was largely responsible for the dominance of the realistic school of writing in twentieth century American literature.

Although strongly influenced by Russian realistic writers, Howells’s initial interest in realism was the result of his reaction to the excessive sentimentalism which characterized the popular romantic novels of his day—the kind of literature referred to as “Slop, Silly Slop” in The Rise of Silas Lapham. Howells disliked this kind of writing for several reasons. In the first place, he felt that it failed to serve any practical purpose. Capitalizing on what he called the “cheap and meretricious,” this sentimental fiction stirred the emotions but provided little, if any, intellectual stimulus. As a social activist, Howells considered this a major flaw. The novel, the supreme literary form, he felt, should be intellectually stimulating.

As a convert to socialism who was sensitive to the social and economic problems of his time, Howells was convinced that through fidelity to truth, the realistic novelist could sow seeds which eventually would result in significant changes not only in the lives of individual readers but in the United States as a whole as well. Ultimately, the concept that the novel has this indirect, slow-moving power became one of the prime tenets of Howells’s literary theory. Whatever else he might have been attempting in his novels, each one was in some way designed to sow seeds which, he hoped, would sprout and grow and be harvested in the reader’s experience. In Howells’s opinion, the realistic novel could be a prime factor in the initiation of needed social change.

Howells also objected to sentimental fiction because readers formed erroneous ideas about life as a result of having read it. Because the writers of popular fiction were not committed to presenting life as it really is, readers were encouraged to entertain false hopes, or were prompted to act in a manner which resulted in strained relationships. In his novels, Howells’s characters frequently attribute the problems they face to the unrealistic ideas others have picked up from the novelists. In A Modern Instance, for example, Ben Halleck, who is attempting to understand Marcia Hubbard says, “Isn’t there a theory that women forgive injuries, but never ignominies?” Atherton, the lawyer, replies that while this is what the novelists teach, experience makes him doubt their skill as prophets.

The use of Atherton to express one of his own opinions is characteristic of Howells as a novelist. In the realistic novel, Howells held, the writer should supply everything the reader needs to get the picture, but the writer should not intrude. In his own novels, he avoids intrusion through the use of chorus characters. As in ancient Greek dramas, these chorus characters provide commentary on issues raised in the novels. In Howells’s major novels, certain individuals appear from time to time to debate moral or philosophical issues in Howells’s place. Characters such as Atherton in A Modern Instance, Sewell in The Rise of Silas Lapham, the Reverend Mr. Waters in Indian Summer, and the March couple in A Hazard of New Fortunes allow Howells to be present but invisible.

One of the problems Howells faced as a pioneer in the field of realistic literature was the conservatism of the literary establishment. In Criticism and Fiction (1891), Howells observed that new authors were judged by comparisons with recognized authors and not by their fidelity to their own experiences. As a result, young writers who imitate the way they have heard people talk are made to feel unworthy by the “stupid people” who want the characters in modern novels to speak like those in William Shakespeare’s plays. Writers are trained to take out the “life-likeness” and put in the “book-likeness.”

For the most part, Howells was successful in putting “life-likeness” into his novels. His carefully conceived characters, whose speech echoes the language of the street, work well together in credible actions and settings. Taken as a whole, Howells’s novels provide the modern reader with a panoramic view of the life and manners of a whole social group and era. In the opinion of some critics, however, Howells’s view is too panoramic. It has been observed that his careful documentation often bogs down, primarily because of his conviction that nothing in life is insignificant. This all-inclusiveness has prompted Howells’s critics to suggest that he is capable of making a literary mountain out of a commonplace molehill. While they grudgingly admit that Howells is true to a realist’s commitment to writing nothing he has not heard or seen, they often add that Howells has seen and heard nothing worth telling—but feels a compulsion to tell it anyway.

Another criticism of Howells is that his novels often lack a discernible plot or end rather inconclusively, leaving a number of dangling loose ends. While this criticism has a certain validity, it should be noted that Howells was more interested in a realistic portrayal of life than he was in a carefully worked-out plot. As a realist, Howells could not avoid the fact that life moves at a slower pace than that demanded by a plot. In addition, life often raises more questions than it answers. Because of his commitment to realism, Howells often found himself dealing with situations which, if he maintained his realistic approach, could not be resolved. If his novels ended inconclusively, or with some loose ends here and there, this happened because he was forced to confess, as Atherton confesses at the end of A Modern Instance, “I don’t know.”

A Modern Instance

First published: 1882

Type of work: Novel

Two years after being abandoned, a young woman travels to Indiana to contest her self-indulgent husband’s unfounded petition for divorce.

A Modern Instance, the first complete treatment of divorce in a serious American novel, was the most intense study of American society that Howells had done up to that point in his writing career.

In the novel, Howells uses the divorce theme to portray the widening cultural divisions in American society, and in this way, A Modern Instance anticipates many of Howells’s later novels in both its style and preoccupations. Old and new, rural and urban, life in the West and life in the East, and traditional orthodoxy and modern intellectual skepticism are compared in a series of contrasts which reveal Howells’s concern with the social and economic problems of his time. Characteristically, minor characters are used as a chorus to discuss, debate, and analyze issues and questions raised as the story develops.

There is a touch of irony in Howells’s choice of a title, which is taken from the description, in Shakespeare’s As You Like It (1599-1600), of the well-fed justice who is “[F]ull of wise saws and modern instances.” The modern instance is the marriage and divorce of Marcia Gaylord and Bartley Hubbard, characters who also appear in The Rise of Silas Lapham, and the novel deals primarily with the question of justice. The “wise saws” in this modern instance are the answers various characters in the novel give to the question, “If judgment must be based on any human activity (such as divorce), should the judgment be based on the motive which prompted the action or on the consequences of the activity?”

One of the first “wise saws” appears early in the novel, when Bartley wounds his printer, Henry Bird, and then attempts to excuse his action. The doctor treating Henry’s concussion responds, “Intentions have very little to do with physical effects.” Later in the novel, as Marcia’s party travels to Indiana to contest Bartley’s divorce petition, Squire Gaylord tells Ben Halleck that the group is traveling to Indiana solely in the interest of preventing a great wrong. His argument is that people act and the consequences follow inevitably. “We’ve got nothing to do with their motive,” he tells Ben Halleck.

Back in New York, Eustace Atherton and his wife, Clara, are also discussing the relationship of cause and effect to the Hubbard divorce. Atherton is of the opinion that whatever her intentions, Marcia set in motion a series of events leading to an inevitable conclusion when she eloped with Bartley. Atherton points out...

(The entire section is 3529 words.)