Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

'A Difficult Case': W.D. Howells's Impression of Mark Twain

Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

'A Difficult Case': W.D. Howells's Impression of Mark Twain

Article excerpt

There is little doubt today about the nature and extent of the influence of William Dean Howells on Mark Twain, but what of the reverse situation? Is it possible that Howells restricted a long and close friendship with Twain to a personal level and that he never assimilated the relationship to the point of expressing it in his art? "A Difficult Case" (1900) is evidence that Twain did leave his mark on both Howells's thought and art, deepening him and inspiring him to write one of his richest, most skillful, and most powerful short stories.

The story, all Howells scholars agree, has been largely overlooked. Yet, paradoxically, most modern commentators on the story praise it as one of Howells's best. Although their interpretations of it vary, the main point of agreement among them is that a main character, Ransom Hilbrook, resembles Mark Twain. The first person to sense this resemblance was Mark Twain himself. Reading the story as it was published in July and August of 1900 in the Atlantic Monthly, Twain wrote Howells that "I read the Difficult Situation [sic] night before last, & got a world of evil joy out of it" (Smith et al. 719). What has led scholars to link Twain to Hilbrook is that character's objections to the doctrine of the immortality of the soul. In My Mark Twain (1910), Howells described the impact of Twain's belief on Livy Clemens: "After they had both ceased to be formal Christians, she was still grieved by his denial of immortality, so grieved that he resolved upon one of those heroic lies, which for love's sake he held above even the truth, and he went to her, saying that he had been thinking the whole matter over, and now he was convinced that the soul did live after death. It was too late" (32).

Although little has been written about the story, what there is covers a lot of ground. Henry James singled it out for brief praise in a letter to Howells, calling it "beautiful and admirable, ever so true and ever so done" (James 198).(1) Edwin Cady called it one of Howells's "most moving stories," finding it an affirmation of love (Cady 201-02). Edward Wagenknecht saw little in it beyond the story level of a minister who "wears out his health and strength in struggling with the doubts of an aged parishioner," and Howells's "most elaborate discussion of the immortality question in fiction" (Wagenknecht 242, 253). Kenneth Eble briefly describes the story as reflecting Howells's weak faith in a personal God and personal immortality, but recognizes in Hilbrook "a central character, suggestive of Mark Twain" (Eble 201-02). In a recent discussion of the story - and, apparently, the only extended one - John Crowley declares it to be "one of Howells's finest short works," and views it as representing both Howells's transition from realism to romance, and his virtual identification with the Rev. Ewbert's affirmation of "a willed belief in the ideal of love and a commitment to life itself, whatever its mysteries and imperfections" (Crowley 138, 144).

The salient features of "A Difficult Case" are easily summarized. The setting of the story is the town of Hilbrook, which changed its name from West Mallow when Josiah Hilbrook, one of its successful sons, endowed it with a university to be named after him. He also separately endowed a church building and a parsonage in the town, and a fund to support the preaching of the doctrines of the Rixonite church, a small sect to which he belonged, whose distinguishing characteristic was its belief in a "patient waiting upon the divine will, with a constant reference of this world's mysteries and problems to the world to come" (149).

Emily Ewbert, the wife of Rev. Clarence Ewbert, the town minister, admires her husband's verbal ability and resents that so few university people attend his sermons. When Rev. Ewbert discovers that Ransom Hilbrook, a cousin of Josiah, though raised a Rixonite, had lost his faith in an afterlife in the Civil War, he "set himself, with all his heart and soul, to dislodge Hilbrook from his deplorable conviction" (165). …

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