YS Endorses: W. D. Howells

March 21, 2007

William Dean Howells was once the biggest name in American literature. howellswd-738119.jpgHe was the long-time editor of The Atlantic Monthly, a playwright, and a poet. Today he is equally best-known (though, not well enough) for his novels and his essays on American Realism, a genre he advocated as well as produced. His most famous novels are The Rise of Silas Lapham, the rags-to-riches story of self-made man amidst the landed Bostonian Gentry, and Indian Summer, the story of a midwestern newspaperman who sells his business and runs off to Florence, the city where he had been jilted as a young man. In real-life, Howells was once the American consul to Florence, a position that no doubt prepared him for his slot as editor of Cosmopolitan (one can only imagine what Howells’ quizzes must have been like).

Howells was one of the earliest members of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and today they award the William Dean Howells Medal every five years to the best American novel of that period. The Medal is made of solid gold. I know this because Thomas Pynchon famously declined the award saying, “The (William Dean) Howells Medal is a great honor, and being gold, probably a good hedge against inflation, too. But I don’t want it. Please don’t impose on me something I don’t want. It makes the (American) Academy (of Arts & Letters) look arbitrary and me look rude… I know I should behave with more class, but there appears to be only one way to say no, and that’s no.”

Perhaps the best testament to Howells’ former fame is this Letter to the Editor of the New York Times written by one of Howells’ closest friends, Mark Twain:

October 4, 1907.


I would like to know what kind of a goddam govment this is that discriminates between two common carriers and makes a goddam railroad charge everybody equal and lets a goddam man charge any goddam price be wants to for his goddam opera box.



Howells it is an outrage the way the govment is acting so I sent this complaint to N. Y. Times with your name signed because it would have more weight.


Though Howells was a giant in his day, time hasn’t been kind to him. Though people still may go on a pilgrimage to Howells’ home in Louisburg Square, that probably has more to do with the general opulence of the surrounds than Howells’ lasting notoriety. Plus, John Kerry lives there. Howells’ eye for real-estate is actually unquestioned. He had a lovely home in Kittery Point, Maine–a home bequeathed to Harvard University and made available to their staff and faculty for vacations and retreats.

So why has time been so unfair to Howells while his friend and contemporary Mark Twain has lived on in infamy? The answer lies in Realism. Consider this excerpt from Howells’ review of Tom Sawyer:

“Mr. Clemens…has taken the boy of the Southwest for the hero of his new book, and has presented him with a fidelity to circumstance which loses no charm by being realistic in the highest degree, and which gives incomparably the best picture of life in that region as yet known to fiction.”

While verisimilitude may be the guiding principle behind Yesterday’s Salad, it is no longer considered the defining feature of literature. Indeed, literature only becomes great when it is separated from realism and the need to mimic reality. In The Invention of Hebrew Prose: Modern Fiction and the Language of Realism, Robert Alter writes about the use of the American vernacular as language of narration in Huckleberry Finn, a use of language that gave the book a folk-resonance that did not exist in his other novels. It was the uniqueness of the narrator, a breaking of form beyond realism, that makes Huckleberry Finn the literary masterwork that Tom Sawyer is not. Interestingly enough, the pretext for Alter’s work is the fact that Hebrew realism seems to have come about before Hebrew was revived as a spoken language. If realism as a genre is incapable of capturing idiosyncrasies, preferring instead truthful perhaps archetypal representations, then the reasons for its failure are clear. Virtuosity, more than anything else, is probably the highest goal of current American art. Then again, I’m not an expert in realism, so please feel free to critique. Irregardless, Howells may have been secretly happy that Pynchon declined his award.

Though Realism may no longer be in vogue, much of Howells work, especially the essays, is as lively today as it ever was. The novels feel dated (he has a very 19th century prose style, though without the psychological tension of a Henry James), but in a good way. Howells novels are a realistic window on a lost America, and the finest evidence we have to the myth of American Society.

5 Responses to “YS Endorses: W. D. Howells”

  1. mina Says:

    Whenever I learn of a formerly prominent artist/author/scholar whose work failed to attain posterity, I’m always inclined to wonder which of today’s literati will meet a similar fate in several centuries, whether through a lack of stylistic innovation or a lack of brilliance. (Howells’ 21st century match…Tom Wolfe?)

    I agree with your idea that Howells’ relative obscurity is a product of his adherence to realism. But I wonder whether this point of distinction–whether or not a novelist could transcend simply creating a “universe of particulars” and play with form–is time-specific? While it’s certainly been a useful qualification from the 18th century (as in, why Fielding and Sterne are better known than Richardson) to the early 20th, it may be that today, after modernism, the relation is inverted–formal experimentation necessitates realism to achieve brilliance.

  2. Kate Says:

    this guy’s a nerd. party on saturday.

  3. oops – “kate” was me, forgot to log out. fuck it. party on saturday.

  4. Harley Says:

    Burt Visotzky once chided me for using “irregardless” in a paper, particularly as I was writing a scathing criticism of another scholar’s work (in particular, its poor use of language). I sent him the OED definition of the word, indicating that I was using the word ironically (the dictionary defines the word as a non-standard or humorous use of “regardless). Cheekily, he asked me a question which I will now put to you: Which way did you mean it: non-standard or humorous?

  5. dailysalad Says:

    I shall respond in reverse order as that is really the only order.

    Harley–“Irregardless” was chosen to add emphasis. It’s considered nonstandard by lexicographers, and redundant, because it uses two negative elements, “ir” and “less”. That being said, Yesterday’s Salad is not a perscriptive dictionary. If the word exists, we reserve the right to mention it. But thanks for the Visotzky story; they’re always welcome.

    Mr. Furry Paws–Party, indeed.

    Kate–we hardly knew ye.

    ERC–Thank you for your comments. The question of whether a work needs to be grounded in reality (or, at least, have a grounding) in order to become great is certainly open for debate. On this I’m not so sure. Part of the probably concerns our definitions of realism. Is “magic realism” grounded in reality, or for that matter, is “hysterical realism?” The success of these genres is obviously in the nexus of the phenomenal elements of our world and the-something-beyond. In that sense you are right that “realism” is employed, and a necessary part of their successes, but this is a much broader imagining of the term than Howells ever had in mind. I guess at heart I’m something of a Bloomian (by way of Shlovsky), and I believe that a masterpiece is created by departing well from recognized tropes: injecting realism into the fantastic and vice versa.

    I shudder at the equation of Howells and Tom Wolfe (more because it’s apt than anything else).

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