Our book today is a sturdy, inviting thing from 1910, the “Library Edition” that combines two books by William Dean Howells, My Literary Passions and Criticism and Fiction. The books were published years apart, and this lovely compendium was a thoughtful gift to me recently from the old lady who reviews the same novel every week for the Silver Spring Scold. She’s an avid reader of Stevereads, where my high regard for William Dean Howells has been no secret over the years.
I smiled at the gift and thumbed through it once its donor had fallen asleep at 7:30 pm, her tiny tummy filled with two whole bites of plain white bread. But I didn’t think I’d actually sink in and read the book anytime soon; after all, I’ve read My Literary Passions and Criticism and Fiction many times apiece, and it’s not like I’ve got any shortage of other things to read. It’s the thought that counts in the giving, not the immediacy of the gift, I thought.
But then I watched the news from Paris unfold on Twitter all evening, and even in the breaks I forced myself to take, all the new books on my shelf felt suddenly uninviting, almost inimical. I suddenly wanted the particular kind of refuge older, familiar books provide. And this lovely William Dean Howells book was right there when I needed it.
Howells was a fresh-faced boy from the barbaric wilds of small-town Ohio when he came to Boston in 1860, and by the time he returned to Massachusetts in 1865 he’d been a long-time friend and correspondent of all the area’s foremost writers and editors. He became an editor at The Atlantic Monthly and transformed himself virtually overnight from a rangy hustler to a pouchy Grand Old Man of Letters, churning out an utterly endless amount of literary pronouncements.
He quickly became a master of a very comfortable prose style, smart and avuncular, although he was always ready to tilt against comfortable opinion when his phlegmatic passions were taken against some sacred cow. And in the late Victorian era when some of these essays first appeared, cows didn’t get much more sacred than Sir Walter Scott, whose flaws Howells irreverently attacks:
He often wrote a style cumbrous and diffuse; that he was tediously analytical where the modern novelist is dramatic, and evolved his characters by means of long-winded explanation and commentary; that, except in the case of his lower-class personages, he made them talk as seldom man and never woman talked; that he was tiresomely descriptive; that on the simplest occasions he went about half a mile to express a thought that could be uttered in ten paces across lots; and that he trusted his readers’ intuitions so little that he was apt to rub in his appeals to them.
But this time around the portions I noticed most came from the back part of this volume, Criticism and Fiction – probably understandable, since the last time I read this little work by Howells I myself wasn’t at the moment a book critic, so now they spoke more directly to me. After all that news from Paris, I didn’t think anything could move me to smile so soon, but I smiled a little at Howells’ mandarin condescension toward the daily-deadline hackery he once needed in order to pay his bills back in the Buckeye State:
He [the critic] seems not to mind misstating the position of any one he supposed himself to disagree with, and then attacking him for what he never said, or even implied; he thinks this is droll, and appears not to suspect that it is immoral. He is not tolerant; he thinks it is a virtue to be intolerant; it is hard for him to understand that the same thing may be admirable at one time and deplorable at another; and that it is really his business to classify and analyze the fruits of the human mind very much as the naturalist classifies the objects of his study, rather than to praise or blame them; that there is a measure of the same absurdity in his trampling on a poem, a novel, or an essay that does not please him as in a botanist’s grinding a plant underfoot because he does not find it pretty. He does not conceive that it is his business rather to identify the species and then explain how and where the specimen is imperfect and irregular. If he could once acquire this simple idea of his duty he would be much more agreeable company than he now is, and a more useful member of society …
A useful member of society! Not an esteemed member, mind you – nothing approaching the celestial stature of an editor – but at least useful! And after all his harrumphing, Howells comes around to theorizing that it doesn’t matter what carping critics do anyway, since they seem to have no effect on the larger currents of literature:
Criticism has condemned whatever was, from time to time, fresh and vital in literature; it has always fought the new good thing in behalf of the old good thing; it has invariably fostered and encouraged the time, the trite, the negative. Yet upon the whole it is the native, the novel, the positive that has survived in literature. Whereas, if bad criticism were the most mischievous thing in the world, in the full implication of the words, it must have been the time, the trite, the negative, that survived.
In other words, Howells never quite aged out of his enormous capacity for being a ninny. But oh, I needed the company of this ninny when I found it! It got me back on my reading feet.
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