"I Am as Ever Your Disciple": The Friendship of Hamlin Garland and W. D. Howells

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I suppose we were friends in the beginning, and never foes, because he had strong convictions too, and they were flatteringly like mine. [... T]here was nothing but common ground between us, and our convictions played over it as freely and affectionately as if they had been fancies.

So wrote William Dean Howells in his fullest public account of his life-long friendship with Hamlin Garland ("Mr. Garland's Books" 523). And Garland too remembered their friendship with affection and respect:

During our long friendship I have never heard him utter an unjust criticism or an ill-natured jest. His sympathy, his insight, his soundness of judgment, and especially the dignity and sweetness of his nature have been an inspiration as well as a regulative influence to me as to many others. ("Meetings with Howells" 7)

But when they met in 1887, few would have imagined that the two would become close friends for more than thirty years, with Howells having a profound influence upon Garland at every stage of his career. When they met in the parlor of Lee's Hotel in Auburndale, Massachusetts, on a spring day, the fifty -year old Howells was at the height of his influence, and the twenty-six-year old Garland had only a vague aspiration to become a writer. Although he was filling notebooks with sketches and poems, he had so far managed to publish only a few book reviews, two poems, and one short story.

Garland had first learned of Howells in 1881 when he bought from a disappointed shopkeeper a second-hand copy of The Undiscovered Country. A half-hour's reading impressed him with the "grace and precision" of its style--but apparently not enough to finish the book, for, as Garland later recalled, Howells's style "made some of my literary heroes seem either crude or stilted" and aroused "resentment." As Garland remembered, "I was just young enough and conservative enough to be irritated and repelled by the modernity of William Dean Howells" (Son 227). (1) When Garland arrived in Boston in the fall of 1884 determined to enter the literary profession in some capacity--either as poet, novelist, dramatist, or "professor," he hardly knew what--he discovered the magazines embroiled in a debate over the virtues of realism, whose chief spokesman was Howells. He soon found himself in the anti-Howells camp, for his hero was Hawthorne.2 But in preparing one of his lectures against the new realism he returned to The Undiscovered Country, and this time he finished it. He read The Minister's Charge and liked it enough to review it for the Boston Evening Transcript, where he commended Howells's treatment of character and situation. His enthusiastic response to Howells's unconventional conclusion, in which Lemuel Barker achieves neither the success nor the marriage he had desired, reveals he had decidedly switched to the Howells camp:

To those who like to have all the villains killed and the honest men rewarded, the heroines all married to their respective lovers, and everything comfortably arranged in the last chapter, his ending of the "Minister's Charge" is aggravating, to put it mildly. [...] Art that can be verified is in the ascendancy, with heroes that are actual and heroines that are real. The time will yet come, if it has not already, when the public will recognize Mr. Howells as a public benefactor for replacing morbid, unnatural and hysterical fiction with pure, wholesome and natural studies of real life. ("Lemuel Barker")

The effect of this review, Garland recounts, was far-reaching. The editor of the Transcript, Edward Clement, supplied Garland with a letter of introduction to Howells and with a warning to wait until the smoke from the latest skirmish in the realist war had died down before acting upon it. When Garland presented himself, letter in hand, to Howells, he was both intimidated by the novelist's fame and eager to try out on him his latest theories concerning realism. He described, apparently in some detail, his manuscript of "The Evolution of American Thought," a book-length discussion of American literature based on scientific principles. …