Analysis of William Dean Howells’s Novels

Throughout his career as a fiction writer, William Dean Howells worked against the sentimentality and idealization that pervaded popular American literature in the nineteenth century. He pleaded for characters, situations, behavior, values, settings, and even speech patterns that were true to life. While twentieth century readers came to take such elements for granted, the fact remains that in Howells’s day he was regarded as something of a literary radical. One indication of his radicalism was his preference for character over plot in his fiction: He was far less interested in telling a good story (albeit his stories are good) than in presenting flesh-and-blood characters who think, feel, make mistakes, and are products of genetic, social, and economic conditions—in other words, who are as imperfect (and as interesting) as real people. Howells did not indulge in meticulous psychological analyses of his characters, as did his friend Henry James, and his plots tend to be far more linear and straightforward than are the convoluted and carefully patterned ones of James. Nevertheless, he was an innovative and influential writer who changed the quality of American fiction.

A Modern Instance
A hallmark of Howells’s advocacy of realism was his interest in topics that were taboo in Victorian times. Such a topic was divorce, which in the nineteenth century was still regarded by much of society as scandalous and shameful, and that Howells used as the resolution of his first major novel, A Modern Instance. This was not a “divorce novel” per se, as was maintained by several of Howells’s shocked contemporaries, but in an era when “they married and lived happily ever after” was a fictional norm, the divorce of Bartley and Marcia Hubbard was quite unpalatable. Given the situation of the characters, however, the breakup was almost inevitable—in a word, “realistic.” AsWilliam M. Gibson explains in his excellent introduction to the Riverside edition of A Modern Instance (1957), the story apparently germinated when Howells saw an impressive performance of Euripides’ Medea in Boston in the spring of 1875, and in fact the working title of the novel was The New Medea. The novel’s genesis and working title are significant, for the story’s female protagonist harbors a passion which is both overpowering and destructive.

Marcia Gaylord, the only child of Squire Gaylord and his self-effacing wife, Miranda, grows up in Equity, Maine, in an era when the state’s once-impressive commercial prominence has all but decayed. Her domineering but indulgent father and her ineffectual mother have failed to mold Marcia’s personality in a positive way, and this lack of a strong character, interacting with an environment caught in economic, cultural, political, and spiritual decline, compels Marcia to leave Equity while rendering her utterly unequipped to deal with the outside world. Not surprisingly, she becomes enamored of the first attractive young man to happen her way: Bartley Hubbard, editor of the newspaper of Equity. Superficially, Hubbard has all the earmarks of the hero of a romantic novel: Orphaned young, he is intelligent enough to have succeeded at a country college, and with his education, charm, and diligence, he seems well on his way to a career in law. There, however, the Lincolnesque qualities end. Ambitious, manipulative, shrewd, unscrupulous, and self-centered, Bartley is the worst possible husband for the shallow Marcia, and after a courtship rife with spats, jealousy, and misunderstandings (even the short-lived engagement is the result of misinterpreted behavior), the ill-matched pair elope and settle in Boston.

The remainder of the novel is an analysis of the characters of Marcia and Bartley as they are revealed by the social, professional, and economic pressures of Boston, and a concomitant study of the deterioration of their marriage. Marcia is motivated by her sexual passion for Bartley and her deep emotional attachment to her father— an attachment so intense that she names her daughter after him and attempts to force Bartley into following in his footsteps as a lawyer. Locked into the roles of wife and daughter, Marcia has no separate identity, no concrete values, no sense of purpose. As Marcia struggles with her disordered personality, Bartley’s becomes only too clear: His success as a newspaperman is the direct result of his being both shrewd in his estimation of the low level of popular taste, and unscrupulous in finding material and assuming (or disavowing) responsibility for it.

Bartley’s foil is a native Bostonian and former classmate, Ben Halleck. A wealthy man without being spoiled, a trained attorney too moralistic to practice law, and a good judge of character who refuses to use that talent for ignoble ends, Halleck is all that Bartley Hubbard could have been under more favorable circumstances. Even so, Ben does not fit into the world of nineteenth century America: As is graphically symbolized by his being crippled, Ben cannot find a satisfying occupation, a meaningful religion, or a warm relationship with a woman. In fact, it is Howells’s trenchant indictment of the social, economic, and spiritual problems of nineteenth century America that not a single character in A Modern Instance is psychically whole. To further compound his difficulties, Ben loves Marcia, having adored her for years after noticing her from afar as a schoolgirl in Maine. In his efforts to aid her by lending money to Bartley and pressuring her to stand by her husband, Ben unwittingly contributes to Bartley’s abandonment of Marcia, to her resultant emotional crisis, and to the devastating divorce in Indiana.

Carefully avoiding the traditional happy ending, Howells completes his story with a scene of human wreckage: Bartley, unscrupulous newspaperman to the end, is shot to death by a disgruntled reader in Arizona; Squire Gaylord, emotionally destroyed by defending his daughter in the divorce suit, dies a broken man; Ben, unsuccessful as a schoolteacher in Uruguay, flees to backwoods Maine to preach; and Marcia returns to the narrow world of Equity, her beauty and spirit long vanished. Interesting, complex, and bitter, A Modern Instance so strained Howells’s emotional and physical well-being that he suffered a breakdown while writing it. The “falling off” of energy and style in the second part of the novel that so many commentators have noticed may be attributed to the breakdown, as well as to the related stress engendered by the serious psychosomatic illness of his beloved daughter Winny; it should be borne in mind, however, that the novel’s singularly unhappy ending cannot be attributed to either crisis. The book’s conclusion, planned from the story’s inception, was itself meant to be a commentary on a nation buffeted by spiritual, social, and economic change.

The Rise of Silas Lapham
On a level with A Modern Instance is Howells’s best-known novel, The Rise of Silas Lapham. Serialized in the Century magazine from November, 1884, to August, 1885, and published in book form in the late summer of 1885, The Rise of Silas Lapham takes a realistic look at the upheavals in late nineteenth century America by focusing on the archetypal self-made man. Colonel Silas Lapham of Lumberville, Vermont, has made a fortune in the paint business by virtue of hard work, honest dealings, and the help and guidance of a good woman, his wife, Persis. The sentimental portrait of the self-made American captain of industry is significantly compromised, however, by the fact that Lapham owes much of his success to simple luck (his father accidentally found a superb paint mine on his farm) and to an early partner’s capital (Rogers, a shadowy and rather demonic figure whom Lapham “squeezed out” once his paint business began to thrive). Even more compromising is the fact that Lapham’s great wealth and success cannot compensate for his personality and background: Boastful, oafish (his hands are “hairy fists”), and devoid of any aesthetic sensibility, Lapham seeks to buy his way into proper Boston society by building a fabulous mansion on the Back Bay and encouraging a romance between his daughter and Tom Corey, a Harvard graduate with “old” Boston money.

The Coreys are, in fact, foils of the Laphams: Tom’s father, Bromfield Corey, is also indirectly associated with paint (he has a talent for portraiture), but having inheritedsubstantial wealth, he has never worked, preferring instead to live off the labors of his ancestors. Ultimately, neither man is acceptable to Howells: Lapham, for all his substantial new wealth, is vulgar and ambitious; Bromfield Corey, for all his old money and polish, is lethargic and ineffectual. The wives do not fare much better. Persis Lapham is burdened with a Puritan reserve that at vital moments renders her incapable of giving her husband emotional support, and Anna Corey, despite her fine manners, is stuffy and judgmental.

The most admirable characters in the novel are two of the five children. Penelope Lapham is a quick-witted, plain girl with a passion for reading George Eliot, while Tom Corey is an educated, enterprising young man who sincerely wants an active business career. Although clearly Pen and Tom are ideally suited to each other, their relationship almost fails to materialize because virtually everyone in the novel—and the reader as well—naturally assumes Tom to be attracted to young Irene Lapham, who is strikingly pretty, beautifully attired, and considerably less intellectually endowed than her sister. In his campaign for realism in literature, Howells intentionally blurs the distinctions between the world of reality (where people like Pen and Tom fall in love) and the world of sentiment (where beautiful, empty-headed Irene is the ideal girl). The blurring is so complete that the Laphams, brainwashed by the romanticized standards of nineteenth century American life, almost deliberately scuttle Pen’s relationship with Tom simply because pretty Irene had a crush on him first. The level-headed Reverend Sewell, with his realistic belief in the “economy of pain,” is needed to convince the parties involved that they were acting out of “the shallowest sentimentality” rather than common sense in promoting Irene’s match with Tom.

As part of his questioning of nineteenth century sentimentality, Howells specifically attacks one of its most graphic manifestations, the self-made man. In the heyday of the Horatio Alger stories, Howells presents a protagonist who to many Americans was the ultimate role model: a Vermont farm lad who became a Boston millionaire. Howells’s undermining of Lapham is, however, so meticulous and so complete—he even opens the novel with Lapham being interviewed by sardonic Bartley Hubbard (of A Modern Instance) for the “Solid Men of Boston” series in a local pulp newspaper— that the reader is left uncertain whether to admire Lapham for his sound character and business achievements, or to laugh at him for his personality flaws and social blunders. This uncertainty is attributable to the unclear tone of the novel, as George Arms points out in his excellent introduction to The Rise of Silas Lapham (1949). The tone is, in fact, a major flaw in the novel, as are some episodes of dubious worth (such as the ostensible affair between Lapham and his typist) and Howells’s disinclination to develop some potentially vital characters (such as Tom Corey’s uncle and Lapham’s financial adviser, James Bellingham). A more fundamental problem is Howells’s refusal to face squarely the matter of morality: He never fully resolves the complex relationship between Lapham and his ex-partner Rogers, a relationship that raises such questions as whether good intentions can serve evil ends, and to what extent one has moral obligations toward business associates, friends, and even strangers.

Not surprisingly, the end of the novel is less than satisfying: Tom Corey marries Pen Lapham and moves to Mexico, where presumably the disparity in their backgrounds will be less glaring; the financially ruined Laphams return to the old Vermont farm, where ostensibly they are far happier than they were as wealthy Bostonians; and pretty young Irene endures spinsterhood. Despite these problems and an overreliance on dialogue (at times the novel reads like a play), The Rise of Silas Lapham is indeed, as Arms remarks, “a work of competence and illumination” that rightly deserves its status as an outstanding example of late nineteenth century realistic fiction.

A Hazard of New Fortunes
Four years after The Rise of Silas Lapham, Howells published the novel that he personally believed to be his best and “most vital” book: A Hazard of New Fortunes. A long novel (more than five hundred pages), it features a rather unwieldy number of characters who all know one another professionally or socially (indeed, the “it’s a small world” motif is rather strained at times); who possess widely varying degrees of social consciousness; and who come from a number of geographical, economic, and intellectual backgrounds. This cross section of humanity resides in New York City, and the interaction among the remarkably diverse characters occurs as a result of three catalysts: a new magazine titled Every Other Week; a boardinghouse run by the Leightons; and a period of labor unrest among the city’s streetcar workers.

The magazine subplot nicely illustrates Howells’s extraordinary ability to interweave characters, plot, and themes around a controlling element. Every Other Week is a new magazine to be published under the general editorship of one Fulkerson. As its literary editor, he hires Basil March, a transplanted middle-class Indianian who has left his position as an insurance agent in Boston to begin a new life at the age of fifty in New York; as its art editor, there is young Angus Beaton, a shallow ladies’ man and dilettante who cannot escape his humble background in Syracuse; the translator is Berthold Lindau, an elderly, well-read German who had befriended March as a boy and lost a hand in the Civil War; and the financial “angel” of the magazine is Jacob Dryfoos, an uncultured midwestern farmer who has made a fortune through the natural gas wells on his land, and who forces his Christlike son, Conrad, to handle the financial aspects of the magazine as a way of learning about business. The magazine’s cover artist is Alma Leighton, a feminist whom Beaton loves, and a frequent contributor of articles is Colonel Woodburn, a ruined Virginian who boards with the Leightons and whose daughter marries Fulkerson.

Each individual associated with Every OtherWeek perceives the magazine in a different light; each is attracted to it (or repulsed by it) for a different reason. As Every Other Week becomes a success, Howells allows it to drift out of the focus of the novel, leaving the reader to observe the interactions (usually clashes) of the various characters’ personalities, interests, and motives. Lindau, whose social consciousness calls for unions and socialism, is in essential agreement with Conrad Dryfoos, although the latter disdains the German’s advocacy of violence; both men clash with Jacob Dryfoos, who, no longer in touch with the earthy Indiana lifestyle of his early years, believes that prounion workers should be shot. The artist Beaton—who loves the feline quality of Conrad’s sister Christine as much as he loves the independence of Alma Leighton and the goodness of socialite worker Margaret Vance—does not care about economic and social matters one way or another, while ColonelWoodburn advocates slavery.

The character whose attitudes most closely parallel those of Howells himself is Basil March, whose social consciousness grows in the course of the novel as he witnesses the poverty of the New York slums, the senseless deaths of Lindau and Conrad, and the pathetic, belated efforts of Jacob Dryfoos to correct his mistakes through the lavish spending of money. In many respects, March is a projection of Howells’s attitudes and experiences, and his tendency at the end of the novel to make speeches to his wife about labor, religion, and injustice is a reflection of Howells’s reading of Tolstoy. Even so, it would be incorrect to perceive March as the story’s main character. That distinction most properly belongs to Jacob Dryfoos, a sort of Pennsylvania Dutch versionof Silas Lapham whose values, home, lifestyle, and attitude have been undermined forever by the finding of gas deposits on his farm.

Although much of Howells’s fiction deals with social and personal upheaval in late nineteenth century America, nowhere is it more poignantly depicted than in A Hazard of New Fortunes. In the light of this poignancy, it is to Howells’s credit that the novel does not turn into a cold social tract: The characters are flesh-and-blood rather than caricatures. The novel contains considerable humor, most notably in the early chapters dealing with the Marches house-hunting in New York. There is also a surprising emphasis on feminism and a concomitant questioning of marriage and the false behavioral ideals propagated by sentimental fiction. In addition, Howells provides psychological probing (particularly in the form of fantasizing) such as one would expect of James more readily than Howells, and above all there is the aforementioned interweaving of characters, incidents, and themes.

Of Howells’s approximately forty novels written during his long career, at least half a dozen—including A Modern Instance, The Rise of Silas Lapham, and A Hazard of New Fortunes—have endured, a testament not only to their brilliant, realistic evocation of life in late nineteenth century America but also to the distinctive skills, interests, and sensibility of the “Dean of American Letters.”

Major works

Long fiction • Their Wedding Journey, 1872; A Chance Acquaintance, 1873; A Foregone Conclusion, 1875; The Lady of Aroostook, 1879; The Undiscovered Country, 1880; Doctor Breen’s Practice, 1881; A Modern Instance, 1882; A Woman’s Reason, 1883; The Rise of Silas Lapham, 1885; Indian Summer, 1886; April Hopes, 1887; The Minister’s Charge: Or, The Apprenticeship of Lemuel Barker, 1887; Annie Kilburn, 1888; A Hazard of New Fortunes, 1889; The Shadow of a Dream, 1890; An Imperative Duty, 1891; The Quality of Mercy, 1892; The Coast of Bohemia, 1893; The World of Chance, 1893; A Traveler from Altruria, 1894; A Parting and a Meeting, 1896; The Day of Their Wedding, 1896; An Open-Eyed Conspiracy: An Idyl of Saratoga, 1897; The Landlord at Lion’s Head, 1897; The Story of a Play, 1898; Ragged Lady, 1899; Their Silver Wedding Journey, 1899; The Kentons, 1902; The Son of Royal Langbirth, 1904; Miss Bellard’s Inspiration, 1905; Through the Eye of the Needle, 1907; Fennel and Rue, 1908; New Leaf Mills, 1913; The Leatherwood God, 1916; The Vacation of the Kelwyns, 1920; Mrs. Farrell, 1921.
Short fiction: A Fearful Responsibility, and Other Stories, 1881; Christmas Every Day, and Other Stories Told for Children, 1893; Selected Short Stories of William Dean Howells, 1997.
Plays: The Parlor Car, pb. 1876; A Counterfeit Presentment, pb. 1877; Out of the Question, pb. 1877; The Register, pb. 1884; A Sea-Change, pb. 1887; The Mouse-Trap, and Other Farces, pb. 1889; A Letter of Introduction, pb. 1892; The Albany Depot, pb. 1892; The Unexpected Guests, pb. 1893; A Previous Engagement, pb. 1897; An Indian Giver, pb. 1900; Room Forty-five, pb. 1900; The Smoking Car, pb. 1900; Parting Friends, pb. 1911; The Complete Plays of W. D. Howells, pb. 1960 (Walter J. Meserve, editor).
Poetry: Poems of Two Friends, 1860 (with John J. Piatt); Poems, 1873; Samson, 1874; Howells, William Dean 617 Priscilla: A Comedy, 1882; A Sea Change: Or, Love’s Stowaway, 1884; Poems, 1886; Stops of Various Quills, 1895; The Mother and the Father, 1909; Pebbles, Monochromes, and Other Modern Poems, 1891-1916, 2000 (Edwin H. Cady, editor).
Nonfiction: Lives and Speeches of Abraham Lincoln and Hannibal Hamlin, 1860; Venetian Life, 1866; Italian Journeys, 1867; Tuscan Cities, 1885; Modern Italian Poets, 1887; A Boy’s Town, 1890; Criticism and Fiction, 1891; My Year in a Log Cabin, 1893; My Literary Passions, 1895; Impressions and Experiences, 1896; Stories of Ohio, 1897; Literary Friends and Acquaintances, 1900; Heroines of Fiction, 1901; Literature and Life, 1902; Letters Home, 1903; London Films, 1905; Certain Delightful English Towns, 1906; Roman Holidays, 1908; Seven English Cities, 1909; Imaginary Interviews, 1910; My Mark Twain, 1910; Familiar Spanish Travels, 1913; New Leaf Mills, 1913; Years of My Youth, 1916; Eighty Years and After, 1921; The Life and Letters of William Dean Howells, 1928 (M. Howells, editor); A Realist in the American Theatre: Selected Drama Criticism of William Dean Howells, 1992 (Brenda Murphy, editor); Selected Literary Criticism, 1993 (3 volumes); Letters, Fictions, Lives: Henry James and William Dean Howells, 1997 (Michael Anesko, editor).
Children’s literature: Christmas Every Day, and Other Stories Told for Children, 1893.

Source: Notable American Novelists Revised Edition Volume 1 James Agee — Ernest J. Gaines Edited by Carl Rollyson Salem Press, Inc 2008.


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