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William Dean Howells

Most of us are familiar with the great figures of 19th century American fiction: Twain, Melville, Hawthorne, Poe. We know less about the context in which they wrote, and in which they were read: the other writers on the scene, the competition they snarked about and the cliques they joined. It’s like being presented with a map showing Oslo, Paris, Dublin and Athens all by themselves, and then trying to imagine the rest of Europe, the spaces and cultures in between, and how these very, very different places fit together enough to be considered part of a single whole.

William Dean Howells was perhaps the most important literary figure in his day, to those who lived his day with him. To the rest of us, though, he’s just another moustachio’d dude with three names, wearing uncomfortable-looking woolen clothes. No, he’s not the one who wrote “Thanatopsis” (that’s William Cullen Bryant), nor is he the one who made the famous “Cross of Gold” speech at the 1896 Democratic National Convention, in favor of bimetalism (that’s William Bryan Jennings). This one, William Dean Howells, was the longtime editor of The Atlantic Monthly, and then, later, Harper’s Magazine. He was the first president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and widely feted as the “Dean of American Letters.” He was a personal friend of Sam Clemens. He was the publisher, maybe even the discoverer, of Henry James. And so on.

I chose A Hazard of New Fortunes for this first “real” installment of Trawling Gutenberg because I’m still on my New York City reading kick, and this one nicely fills the chronological gap between Washington Irving and Henry James. Also, Howells was kind of cute, in a Chelsea bear bar kind of way. I am not above informationally stalking the attractive male dead (ask me about the hot, hot, hot but unfortunately-named and ultimately ill-starred Harry Bolles someday, for example; I know all there is to know).

On to the book itself. I’m sorry to report that it’s a difficult slog.

Henry James famously admonished fiction writers to “show, don’t tell.” We can hardly fault Howells for not following the future advice of his own young discovery. But still, as a modern reader, it’s hard to get through all the telling that goes on here, undramatized and hypercompressed information that we are much more accustomed to seeing played out anecdotally rather than summarily. For example, try choking down this big old clot of expository, action-free prose:

They often accused each other of being selfish and indifferent, but she
knew that he would always sacrifice himself for her and the children; and
he, on his part, with many gibes and mockeries, wholly trusted in her.
They had grown practically tolerant of each other’s disagreeable traits;
and the danger that really threatened them was that they should grow too
well satisfied with themselves, if not with each other. They were not
sentimental, they were rather matter-of-fact in their motives; but they
had both a sort of humorous fondness for sentimentality. They liked to
play with the romantic, from the safe vantage-ground of their real
practicality, and to divine the poetry of the commonplace. Their peculiar
point of view separated them from most other people, with whom their
means of self-comparison were not so good since their marriage as before.
Then they had travelled and seen much of the world, and they had formed
tastes which they had not always been able to indulge, but of which they
felt that the possession reflected distinction on them. It enabled them
to look down upon those who were without such tastes; but they were not
ill-natured, and so they did not look down so much with contempt as with
amusement. In their unfashionable neighborhood they had the fame of being
not exclusive precisely, but very much wrapped up in themselves and their

The main thing this book has going for it, to the contemporary reader, is the long sequence in which Mr. and Mrs. March, the protagonists, look for an apartment in New York City. It was apparently as difficult and frustrating an experience immediately after the Civil War, and in exactly the same ways, as it is today. If you’ve ever made that search yourself — as I have — you can’t help but enjoy those parts of the book.

But even that stuff is marred by, um, other stuff:

One of those colored men who soften the trade of janitor in many of the
smaller apartment-houses in New York by the sweetness of their race let
the Marches in, or, rather, welcomed them to the possession of the
premises by the bow with which he acknowledged their permit. It was a
large, old mansion cut up into five or six dwellings, but it had kept
some traits of its former dignity, which pleased people of their
sympathetic tastes. The dark-mahogany trim, of sufficiently ugly design,
gave a rich gloom to the hallway, which was wide and paved with marble;
the carpeted stairs curved aloft through a generous space.

“There is no elevator?” Mrs. March asked of the janitor.

He answered, “No, ma’am; only two flights up,” so winningly that she
said, “Oh!” in courteous apology, and whispered to her husband, as she followed
lightly up, “We’ll take it, Basil, if it’s like the rest.”

“If it’s like him, you mean.”

“I don’t wonder they wanted to own them,” she hurriedly philosophized.
“If I had such a creature, nothing but death should part us, and I should
no more think of giving him his freedom!”

“No; we couldn’t afford it,” returned her husband.

I know that these kinds of conversations probably happened among middle-class couples in the wake of the Civil War in America, even among sympathetic, educated, north-eastern, probably Republican (meaning: liberal and elitist) couples. To pretend otherwise would be to do a disservice to our history and to the people (which is to say, all of us) still living with the consequences of the choices our ancestors made (or had forced upon them) vis a vis race, and slavery, and human rights, and war. I’m not asking for a Politically Correct purge here. It’s not that I hold this kind of stuff against Howells personally.

But, dude, it jars.

It jars in a way that Huckleberry Finn’s racism does not. Huck’s racism, or, to be more specific, his belief that he should be racist, even though his actions (his “sins,” as he calls them) prove that he is not, is very much the point of the book, the real journey. Here, casual racism is just local color thrown in at random and forgotten, as if it didn’t matter. And for these characters, it didn’t. Which, in turn, makes them feel completely alien to me, and keeps me from wanting to hang out with them.

I wouldn’t recommend this book to be read for pleasure. As a historical artifact, or even as an object of literary study, sure. But not for fun, or enlightenment, or any other reason I can think of. I haven’t given up on Howells himself, though, and reserve the right to return to his body of work at some date in the future. I think maybe his literary criticism or other non-fiction might be worth looking into. We’ll see.