Sunday, November 30, 2008

William Dean Howells

William Dean Howells is one of those American writers of whom I’ve only been peripherally aware. His paperbacks have been floating around our house forever, though they have remained largely unread, because I understood that he was “second-rate.” Second-class novels are resigned to abysmal fates: they lie inert and dusty forever unless someone takes them idly off the shelf. Our grandmothers may have read them, but we have considered ourselves too modish and posh for such unfashionable literature. After bingeing on Sinclair Lewis’s satires, however, Howells, famous for his realistic “domestic” novels and skewering of capitalism, seemed the next logical step..

“Where’s Howells?” I asked. I looked over my glasses.


“Which do you recommend?”

Vaguely: “I’ll bring you a pile.”

“Just one.”

The pile grew. I considered his science fiction novel, A Traveler from Arturia, but decided to start with a more conventional, characteristic work. I chose A Hazard of New Fortunes (a classic reminiscent of Henry James, and why it took me so long to get around to it I’ll never know).

A Hazard of New Fortunes is brilliantly written and structurally convoluted , a luminous example of the “new realism” of the late 19th century. Howells controls the threads of his New York unobtrusively and the detailed, reflective, almost businesslike story unfolds in a subtly organized manner. The focus of A Hazard of New Fortunes is the inception of a literary magazine: its many employees s comprise a complete society, who are transplanted to New York to pursue “new fortunes." They come from all classes and economic strata: poor artists and writers, intellectual editors and publishers, shrewd businessmen and backers, nouveau riche, middle class, and genteel poor. All are connected to the new literary magazine. There are many, many protagonists: in Part One the March family reluctantly leave Boston for New York after March loses his insurance job. Fulkerson, the founder of the new magazine, has recruited him through sheer bluster to take a chance on being the editor. In Part Two we meet Beaton, a moody artist, and Alma Leighton, an illustrator, whom he has dropped after luring her and her mother to New York. The publisher, the son of a nouveau riche farmer who has made a fortune in real estate after being forced off the family farm, has no interest in the literary business, particularly as regards making money, and his sisters miserably live alone in a great house, unable to make friends in New York, having hoped to break into "society." (Their religious mother and their shrewd monied father care nothing about it.)

Howell, the son of an itinerant newspaperman and printer,worked as a journalist in his youth and eventually became editor-in-chief of The Atlantic Monthly. He wrote 13 novels and three works of criticism. Among his friends were Henry James and Mark Twain.

He is one of the best writers I’ve discovered this year.


Ellen said...

Howells suffered badly from depression and his biographers tell of this. Not all his books are as good as _Hazard_. Some are weak, but most I've read are superb. Let me recommend _A Modern Instance_ next (about a divorce), one Henry James like one with the word _Summer_ in it (about a time in Italy) and his two travel books, and if you liked _Babbitt_, _The Rise of Silas Lapham_, and _Wedding Journey_ (he and his wife Isabel took the same ride I and my first husband did) ... and .... :)

Mad Housewife said...

Thank you for the recommendations. I know nothing about Howells's life and will have to lind a biography. I'm glad I read one of his better books; it was carte blanche here.