From: Short Studies of American Authors (1880)
Author: Thomas Wentworth Higginson
Published: Lee and Shepard 1880 Boston


IT has perhaps been a misfortune to Mr. Howells, that in his position of editor of “The Atlantic Monthly” he has inevitably been shielded from much of that healthful discussion which is usually needed for the making of a good author. Sir Arthur Helps says, that, if ordinary criticism gives us little, it is still worth having: if it is not marked by common sense, it still brings to us the common nonsense, which is quite as important. But the conductor of the leading literary magazine of a nation is very apt to escape this wholesome ordeal. Delicacy of course forbids his admitting any mention of himself, whether for praise or blame, within his own pages. Moreover, his leading literary contemporaries are also his contributors; and for them to discuss him freely, even elsewhere, is like publicly debating the character of one’s habitual host. Compare the position, in this respect, of Mr. Howells and Mr. Henry James, Jr. Their writings are equally conspicuous before the community; their merits are equally marked, and so also are their demerits, real or attributed; yet what a difference in the amount of criticism awarded to each! Each new book by Mr. Howells is received with an almost monotonous praise, as if it had no individuality, no salient points; while each story by Mr. James is debated through and through the newspapers, as if it were a fresh Waverley novel. I see no reason for this difference, except that Mr. Howells edits “The Atlantic Monthly,” and that all other American writers are, as it were, sitting at his table, or wishing themselves there. He must himself regret this result, for he is too essentially an artist not to prize honest and faithful criticism; and it is almost needless to say that his career as an author has been thoroughly modest and free from all the arts of self-praise.

  The peculiar charm of his prose style has also doubtless, had its effect in disarming criticism. He rarely fails to give pleasure by the mere process of writing, and this is much, to begin with; just as, when we are listening to conversation, a musical voice gratifies us almost more than wit or wisdom. Mr. Howells is without an equal in America—and therefore without an equal among his English-speaking contemporaries—as to some of the most attractive literary graces. He has no rival in half-tints, in modulations, in subtile phrases that touch the edge of an assertion and yet stop short of it. He is like a skater who executes a hundred graceful curves within the limits of a pool a few yards square. Miss Austen, the novelist, once described her art as a little bit of ivory, on which she produced small effect after much labor. She underrated her own skill as the comparison in some respects underrates that of Howells; but his field is—or has until lately seemed to be—the little bit of ivory.

  This is attributing to him only what he has been careful to claim for himself. He tells his methods very frankly, and his first literary principle has been to look away from great passions, and rather to elevate the commonplace by minute touches. Not only does he prefer this, but he does not hesitate to tell us sometimes, half jestingly, that it is the only thing to do. “As in literature the true artist will shun the use even of real events if they are of an improbable character, so the sincere observer of man will not desire to look upon his heroic or occasional phases, but will seek him in his habitual moods of vacancy and tiresomeness.”1 He may not mean to lay this down as a canon of universal authority, but he accepts it himself; and he accepts with it the risk involved of a too-limited and microscopic range. That he has finally escaped this peril, is due to the fact that his method went, after all, deeper than he admitted: he was not merely a good-natured observer, like Geoffrey Crayon, Gentleman, but he had thoughts and purposes, something to protest against, and something to say.

  He is often classed with Mr. James as representing the international school of novelists, yet in reality they belong to widely different subdivisions. After all, Mr. James has permanently set up his easel in Europe, Mr. Howells in America; and the latter has been, from the beginning, far less anxious to compare Americans with Europeans than with one another. He is international only if we adopt Mr. Emerson’s saying, that Europe stretches to the Alleghanies. As a native of Ohio, transplanted to Massachusetts, he never can forego the interest implied in this double point of view. The Europeanized American, and, if we may so say, the Americanized Americaa, are the typical figures that re-appear in his books. Even in “The Lady of the Aroostook,” although the voyagers reach the other side at last, the real contrast is found on board ship; and, although his heroine was reared in a New-England village, he cannot forego the satisfaction of having given her California for a birthplace. Mr. James writes “international episodes:” Mr. Howells writes inter-oceanic episodes: his best scenes imply a dialogue between the Atlantic and Pacific slopes.

  It was long expected that there would appear some sequel to his “Chance Acquaintance.” Bostonians especially wished to hear more of Miles Arbuton: they said, “It is impossible to leave a man so well-dressed in a situation so humiliating.” But the sequel has, in reality, come again and again; the same theme re-appears in “Out of the Question,” in “The Lady of the Aroostook;” it will re-appear while Mr. Howells lives. He is really contributing important studies to the future organization of our society. How is it to be stratified? How much weight is to be given to intellect, to character, to wealth, to antecedents, to inheritance? Not only must a republican nation meet and solve these problems, but the solution is more assisted by the writers of romances than by the compilers of statistics. Fourth of July orators cannot even state the problem: it almost baffles the finest touch. As, in England, you may read every thing ever written about the Established Church, and yet, after all, if you wish to know what a bishop or a curate is, you must go to Trollope’s novels, so, to trace American “society “ in its formative process, you must go to Howells; he alone shows you the essential forces in action. He can philosophize well enough on the subject, as where he points out that hereditary wealth in America as yet represents “nothing in the world, no great culture, no political influence, no civic aspiration, not even a pecuniary force, nothing but a social set, an alien club life, a tradition of dining.”2 But he is not at heart a philosopher; he is a novelist, which is better, and his dramatic situations recur again and again to the essential point.

  It is this constant purpose which gives dignity and weight to his American delineations, even where he almost wantonly checks himself and disappoints us. Were he merely, as some suppose, a skilful miniature-painter of young girls at watering places, his sphere would he very circumscribed. At times he seems tempted to yield to this limitation—during his brief foray into the path of short dramatic sketches, for instance. These sketches provoked comparison with innumerable French trifles, which they could not rival in execution. “Private Theatricals” oilers the same thing on a larger scale, and under still greater disadvantages. Mrs. Farrell reveals herself, at the first glance, as a coquette too shallow and vulgar to be really interesting; and she never rises above that level until she disappears from the scene, flinging her last net for the cow-boy in the pasture. Her habit of flirting is a garment deliberately put on, an armor that creaks in the wearing. But if you wish to see how a Frenchman draws a coquette, read “Le Fiancé de Mlle. St. Maur,” by Cherbuliez. The coquetry of Mme. d’Arolles is always round her as an atmosphere, intangible, all-embracing, fold within fold; she coquets even with a rudimentary organ in herself that might be called her conscience; and then, besides this enveloping atmosphere, she wears always a thin garment of social refinement that seems to shield her even when the last shred of decorum is about to drop. She is a thoroughly artistic creation; in watching her never so closely, you cannot see the wires pulled; but in “ Private Theatricals” we seem constantly to have notice given, “Please observe, Mrs. Farrell is about to attitudinize!”

  The moral of all this is, that Mr. Howells cannot be, if he would, an artist per se, like Droz, in reading whose brilliant trifles we are in a world where the execution is all, the thought nothing, and the moral less than nothing. Nor does he succeed, like Thackeray, in making a novel attractive without putting a single agreeable character into it: Thackeray barely accomplished this in “Vanity Fair;” Mr. Howells was far less successful in the most powerful and least satisfactory of all his books, “A Foregone Conclusion.” The greatest step he has ever taken, both in popularity and in artistic success, has been won by trusting himself to a generous impulse, and painting in “The Lady of the Aroostook “ a character worth the pains of describing. The book is not, to my thinking, free from faults: the hero poses and proses, and the drunken man is so realistic as to be out of place and overdone; but the character of the heroine seems to me the high-water mark of Mr. Howells. It has been feared that he would always remain the charming delineator of people who were, after all, undersized,—heroes and heroines like the little figurines from Tanagra, or the admirable miniature groups of John Rogers. He has now allowed himself a bolder sweep of arm, a more generous handling of full-sized humanity; and with this work begins, we may fain believe, the maturity of his genius.

1 Their Wedding Journey, p. 86.
2 Their Wedding Journey, p. 69.

All Sub-Works of Short Studies of American Authors (1880):
PDF Sub-Works open in a new tab. Close the tab when done viewing to return here.