December 7, 2010

A Foregone Conclusion: best of all your books

On December 7, 1874, Edmund Clarence Stedman (pictured left) wrote to William Dean Howells (below) that he had just read the latter's A Foregone Conclusion. Stedman, himself a poet and advocate for copyright law, admitted, "I... like it the best of all your books."

A Foregone Conclusion (the name borrows from a line in Othello) features a Catholic Priest, Don Ippolito, who admits his love for a woman named Florida. The story, told through the eyes of Mr. Ferris, drew some criticism from Catholics (including poet John Boyle O'Reilly) but scholar Susan M. Griffin suggests the story really undercuts the realism vs. idealism debate in literature.

In the eyes of Stedman, however, the story was flawless. Having read it in installments in The Atlantic Monthly (which Howells edited), he refers to the "gradual but steady progress in construction" of the story. He also praises Howells for his ability to manage several separate characters, noting: "This is a faculty which every schoolgirl seems to have, and which men of brains have to train themselves in by sheer force of intellect and practice."

In the same letter, Stedman also offered Howells a poem, "The Skull in the Gold Drift," for him to consider for publication. That, and his tendency for over-the-top praise of his friends (which was repaid in kind), can leave us skeptical of his assessment of A Foregone Conclusion.

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