William Dean Howells's Spiritual Quest(ioning) in a "World Come of Age"

By Wortham, Thomas | Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview

William Dean Howells's Spiritual Quest(ioning) in a "World Come of Age"


Wortham, Thomas, Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature


   If He could doubt on His triumphant cross,    How much more I, in the defeat and loss    Of seeing all my selfish dreams fulfilled,    Of having lived the very life I willed,    Of being all that I desired to be?    My God, my God! Why hast thou forsaken me? (1) 

WHEN this short poem by William Dean Howells was first published in Harper's Monthly in December 1894, its author was widely recognized as one of the leading voices in American letters, a man who wielded enormous power and influence in the intellectual and literary life of the country, a position that eventually earned him the dubious title of "Dean of American Literature." But as the poem reveals, he was a much troubled man, desperate to find a way out of or beyond the meaninglessness life sometimes seemed to have become. A few years earlier, Howells had published another poem in the same magazine with the title, "What Shall It Profit," recalling Jesus's warning to his followers in Mark 8:36, "For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?"

   If I lay waste and wither up with doubt    The blessed fields of heaven where once my faith    Possessed itself serenely safe from death;    If I deny the things past finding out;    Or if I orphan my own soul of One    That seemed a Father, and make void the place    Within me where He dwelt in power and grace,    What do I gain by that I have undone? (poem 43) 

Howells, born in 1837, was of that American generation along with Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Henry and William James, and Henry Adams that came of intellectual age just in time to meet full-force the varieties of "Darwinism" and "the Victorian dilemma." Even as a boy he had with his father, William Cooper Howells, read George Eliot's translation of David Friedrich Strauss's The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined (1846), and as a result most of the son's ability to believe in supernaturalism was destroyed, and, as he later told Owen Wister, for several decades he took "it for granted that no well-read man had any faith" (713). Like so many others of his time and place he became an agnostic. But he did not stop questioning the meaning and consequences of the Christian faith, about which he was remarkably well-informed and, as the numerous quotations, references and echoes of the Bible in his works testify, that faith tradition had an enormous influence upon his understanding of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer would later call "the world come of age" and mankind's place in it.

The passage from Bonhoeffer that I have in mind appears in his Letters and Papers from Prison, those writings of this great German theologian that survive from the two years he spent in Nazi prisons before his martyrdom in 1945:

   ... we cannot be honest unless we recognize that we have to live in    the world--'etsi deus non daretur' [as if God did not exist] ...    Thus our coming of age leads us to a truer recognition of our    situation before God. God would have us know that we must live as    those who manage their lives without God. The same God who is with    us is the God who forsakes us (Mark 15:34 ["My God, my God, why    have you forsaken me?"]). The same God who makes us to live in the    world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom    we stand continually. Before God, and with God, we live without    God. God consents to be pushed out of the world and onto the cross;    God is weak and powerless in the world and in precisely this way,    and only so, is at our side and helps us. Matt. 8:17 ["He took our    infirmities and bore our diseases"] makes it quite clear that    Christ helps us not by virtue of his omnipotence but rather by    virtue of his weakness and suffering! This is the crucial    distinction between Christianity and all religions. (478-79) 

It has now been nearly fifty years since I first discovered the work of William Dean Howells, and my fascination with his achievement has only increased during that time. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

William Dean Howells's Spiritual Quest(ioning) in a "World Come of Age"
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen
Items saved from this article
  • Highlights & Notes
  • Citations
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Search by... Author
    Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

    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.