July 9, 2012

James on Howells: admirably light

The Story of a Play by William Dean Howells received rave reviews from the author's friend Henry James, who called it "admirably light" and infused with "the writer's fundamental optimism." Indeed, James emphasized that optimism in his review of the book, published on July 9, 1898, and noted that Howells created "a world all lubricated with good nature and the tone of pleasantry" in the "short and charming novel."  He went on:

Life, in his pages, is never too hard, too ugly, passions and perversities never too sharp, not to allow, on the part of his people, of such an exercise of friendly wit about each other as may well, when one considers it, minimize shocks and strains. So it muffles and softens, all round, the edges of 'The Story of a Play.'

This was also somewhat of a criticism; James wondered if there was any tragedy in the comic world of theater which Howells presented. "You know," Howells wrote to James in response, "my experience of the theatre was comic, rather than tragical, and I treated of it lightly because it was light." With that said, however, he revealed a strange dramatic tragedy he had just experienced. An actor suggested that he turn his novel The Rise of Silas Lapham into a play, which he did. With the project finished, however, that actor changed his mind and told Howells he "does not want it. What a race!" Nevertheless, Howells told James: "My heart warmed itself over in the glow of your praise."

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