Howells: A Century of Criticism

Howells: A Century of Criticism

Howells: A Century of Criticism

Howells: A Century of Criticism

Excerpt

Few American writers have been so central to literature in so many ways and for so many years as William Dean Howells. Yet, as with many authors who are historically important, Howells' works are more read about than read. Even when they are read, the reader is not likely to become at once aware of Howells' high position among American writers of the late nineteenth century.

A great change in temper has taken place from his time to our own. Compared with either popular or serious novels of today, Howells' fiction is not so much dated as dull. And yet, despite the quietness of the commonplace, a number of Howells' novels have won a following. The Rise of Silas Lapham, A Hazard of New Fortunes, A Modern Instance, and Indian Summer are now in paperbacks, and if not widely read by the general public, are becoming staples of college literature courses. Howells wrote no book as widely accepted as Huckleberry Finn, no body of fiction as attractive to the critic as Henry James's. But being third to Mark Twain and Henry James is no small distinction, and Howells is clearly that.

More, Howells was the American man of letters in ways that neither Mark Twain nor James could claim. The journalism of which he often tired exercised a continuing influence on the practice of American fiction from the 1870's on. So great did this influence become that the writers growing up in the early twentieth century had to break from Howells' kind of realism to establish their own literary manner. In a somewhat similar way, Howells himself had broken from the tradition of the sentimental novel, the vogue of the romance, in the 1870's and 1880's.

The ups and downs of Howells' reputation are easy to chart. Howells' first appearance among the New England men of letters turned out to be, as Holmes said to Lowell, "the laying on of hands." From Lowell through James T. Fields, Howells was passed on the power and prestige that went with being the editor of the Atlantic.

Author Advanced search

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.