October 4, 2011

Howells: very slowly and reluctantly

"I am working very hard at my story here, which takes shape very slowly and reluctantly," William Dean Howells wrote to Henry James on October 4, 1882 from France. "I shall never again, I hope, attempt to finish a thing so long thrown aside."

The story in question, A Woman's Reason, would be published the next year, though it was started four years before Howells wrote this note. In another letter around this period, he admitted, "I have had such a good time that I have been unable to do so much even as kill a consumptive girl, or make a lover homesick enough to start home from China and get wrecked on an atoll in the South Pacific." Dining out "four times a week" and traveling through Europe was making him too happy.

Howells, who was hailed then and now as a master of literary realism, took an odd turn in A Woman's Reason — one which critics noticed. In A Woman's Reason, a well-born woman named Helen Harkness loses access to an inheritance when her father dies bankrupt. Helen is saved when her fiancĂ©, long thought dead, returns from a shipwreck. As he references in his letter to James, Howells kept the story at sea for too long. He spends 80 pages describing the character's shipwreck and the adventure which followed.

"After promising to give us sound realistic work," one critic complained, Howells "has descended to the function of producing lollipops." James warned his friend away from "factitious glosses." Howells, in turn, admitted to Mark Twain that A Woman's Reason bore "the fatal marks of haste and distraction." Modern scholar Elsa Nettels noted the shipwreck scene was "the most palpable example in Howells's work of the kind of contrivance he deplored in romantic novels."

*Much of the information from this post comes from Letters, Fictions, Lives: Henry James and William Dean Howells (1997), edited by Michael Anesko. I also consulted Language, Race, and Social Class in Howells's America (1988) by Elsa Nettels.

No comments:

Post a Comment