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Of Henry James and Howells, 1925

ISSUE:  Autumn 1925

William Dean Howells, a Study.
By Oscar W. Firkins. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. $4.00.

The Pilgrimage of Henry James. By Van Wyck Brooks. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co. $2.50.

Neither Henry James nor Howells can yet be assigned to his permanent place in the history of American literature: James died in 1916, Howells not until 1920. This final placing—or embalming—neither Mr. Brooks nor Mr. Firkins has attempted to do. What they have done—working from widely variant premises and in very different ways—has been to present two very in ­teresting examples of contemporary criticism as applied to two masters of a just-past generation.

Twenty years ago, when both James and Howells were in their prime, it must surely have seemed to most Americans that Howells—president of the Academy, editor, critic, and patron of young realists—was a far more important and influential figure than the distinguished exile James, then toiling alone in England to produce novels of increas ­ing complexity and—some said—beauty, which as time went on, it seemed, fewer and fewer people read. Flippant persons, aliens like Mr. George Moore, might remark con ­temptuously that “Henry James went to France and read Tourguenieff. W. D. Howells stayed at home and read Henry James.” No matter for that! We knew—we Americans—that Howells, who had remained with us to steep himself in our life, who had reproduced its varied phases almost literally, who had enunciated the dicta that we ac ­cepted, had surely chosen the better way. There was sub ­stance to his writing—none of the fine-spun complexities, the tortured hair-splittings that somehow perplexed and irritated us in James! Today, Time’s whirlgig seems some ­how to have curiously veered round upon itself. Five years after Howells’s death, the overwhelming majority of his hundred odd volumes are simply frankly unread, and unless present tendencies are checked, it seems fair to believe that the man will endure as an historic stimulating force, an in ­citer of the local color movement, a chronicler of social his ­tory, rather than as the great creator of literature that he seemed to be in the days when Mark Twain declared him, in respect of certain salient qualities of style, “without his peer in the English-speaking world.” With James the situation is now very different. While it would be futile to pretend that he is a “popular” writer, his greatness as an artist is almost universally conceded: his ardent following makes up in affection what it lacks in numbers; his influence on the psychological trend in contemporary fiction has been quite out of proportion to his actual circulation.

Mr. Firkins does not accept for himself this judgment of Howells, though he recognizes it as the prevailing view. His long and careful study is, in a sense, a protest against it: nothing could make him happier than to feel that his work had helped to avert the fate he fears for Howells, that of surviving as a reputation rather than as a living force. The book is kindly, even lovingly, written: the author’s genuine and manly affection for his subject is evident on every page. Howells was not, like Dickens or Rabelais, an exuberant writer, who captures your heart forthwith or else goads you into violent opposition. Nor did he, like Meredith or Browning, like James himself, possess peculi ­arities, idiosyncracies which seem to call somehow for im> mediate reaction. With most readers, I suppose the lack of temperament, the absence of color, the rather tepid quality in his writing tend to foster only mild reactions. But it is evident that Mr. Firkins has reacted both deeply and sin ­cerely, and it is well that he should seek to share the re ­sult with us who have seen and felt less.

Taken alone, much of the Firkins praise seems a little ex ­travagant. Thus, “My Literary Passions” reminds one “sometimes of the indomitableness of Stevenson, and some ­times of the vibrancy of Keats.” “The Shadow of a Dream” possesses “a Shakespearean depth of awe and won ­der in the face of the mysteries of pain and guilt that em ­bitter and enlarge our lives.” Howells’s observation is pro ­nounced “perfect;” his psychology, “marvelous.” Mr. Fir ­kins doubts “if there be any man of our time except Tolstoi in whom life was so prevailingly articulate, in whom utter ­ance has so nearly kept pace with sensibility.” But the other side of the ‘scutcheon is not wholly unobserved. Here Mr. Firkins finds that Silas Lapham lacks body, that “Anne Kilburn” is badly made, and that the civilization of Al-truria is “ladylike.” He knows Howells’s limitations of theme and temperament: “If Mr. Howells were cast upon a desert island, a hackman would meet him on the edge of the surf, and a waiter would offer him a menu on the first available grass-plot of the primeval forest.”

One of the best features of the book is the general sum ­mary of Howells’s themes at the beginning of the long chap ­ter on fiction: “In these forty volumes, adultery is never pictured; seduction never; divorce once and sparingly (‘A Modern Instance’); marriage discordant to the point of cleavage, only once and in the same novel with the divorce; crime only once with any fullness (‘The Quality of Mercy’); politics never; religion passingly and superfici ­ally; science only in crepuscular psychology; mechanics, athletics, bodily exploits or collisions, very rarely.” More positively the themes are summarized: (1) love; (2) travel and foreign sojourn; (3) literature and art; (4) ethics, “dealing largely with the puritanized, the romanticized, and the commercially brutalized conscience;” (5) psychology; (6) social problems, mainly “the problem of self-support” and “those inequalities of fortune which divide and disgrace our industrial civilization.” This may not be “stimulating” criticism to the somewhat jaded palates that have been regaled with Mr. Mencken, but there is no denying that it is informative and useful.

Architecturally, Mr. Firkins finds Howells distinctly lacking in the longer novels. Of these, only “Indian Sum ­mer” is judged structurally apt. “In no case whatever has he been wholly fortunate in the conduct of a double or multi ­ple plot.” The critic observes also a tendency of the novels to run aground before the end of the course has been reached, but he explains the difficulty, not on the ground of incom ­petence, but rather by reference to Howells’s increasing in ­difference to art, his too-literal application of his theory that the novel is merely a reflection of life. The style is studied with some care, being judged best in the middle period, and thereafter declining. The middle-period is not dated pre ­cisely, but the examples are chosen from “The Minister’s Charge,” 1886, and “An Imperative Duty,” 1892.

The chapter on criticism, I confess I find a little wavering. Here Mr. Howells is judged “a great critic because in ‘Criticism and Fiction,’ he voiced with power and au ­thority the principle to which the fiction of the future may look for its standard and inspiration.” Yet at once we are shown the shortcomings of the Howells theory: how it led its proponent steadily in the direction of formless art, fos­tered the photographic ideal, induced him to minimize the interpenetrating power of personality, and caused disin ­tegration in his own style. It is a little hard to see how one concerning whom so many reservations must be made, whose theory failed, in his own case, even vulgarly to “work,” can be called a “great critic.” In general, I think Mr. Firkins’ book suffers considera ­bly from a seriatim treatment, consequent upon the author’s determination to be thoroughly comprehensive, to pass judgment on every single scrap of Howells that ever got itself between covers. At times we seem to be reading a “Student’s Guide to Howells.” At times the book has the flavor of a dissertation. Nevertheless, it is a cause for self-congratulation that a work so lacking in the “timely” and the sensational elements as this one can get itself published in America today, and especially in such beautiful format. The volume must be accounted a worthy contribution to American criticism.

Six years ago, in “The Ordeal of Mark Twain,” Mr. Van Wyck Brooks set out to prove that the American humorist was a suppressed genius, a potential satirist of the first mag ­nitude, whose gifts were crushed by the deplorable puritan-ism and obscurantism of the land in which he lived, and whose satire turned in revenge upon itself and poisoned the springs of his own life. What the evidence amounted to, when the author came to sum it up, was that Mark Twain’s mother had made him promise to be a good boy, that his wife didn’t like him to write against the missionaries, and that Mr. Howells now and then deleted a swear-word in his manu ­scripts. This year the Brooks theory is one that will un ­doubtedly take its proponent straight into the hearts of all “hundred per cent Americans”—or that would if “hundred per cent Americans” could read criticism. It is in short that the going of Henry James to Europe was a complete mis ­take, that he should have remained in America with How ­ells, saturating himself in native material. Once again, as in the case of the “Mark Twain,” the performance is enter ­taining beyond belief. Once again, every available scrap of evidence is made so beautifully to fit the theory that— with all due respect to Mr. Brooks’s unimpeachable sin ­cerity—the reader cannot help perversely suspecting that each would fit any other theory about as well. And once again, i cannot overcome a feeling of regret that so brilliant a critic should be so absolutely carried away by his own ideas. As it is, it is only the prose of the book to which I can offer unqualified praise. Stylistically, “The Pilgrim ­age of Henry James” is a book to get drunken upon. Its English is one continuous delight from the first page to the last.

No quotation or summary can do full justice to the skill with which the problem has been worked out. Briefly, we see Henry James, the son of his father, afraid of life, shrinking from the crassness, the vulgarity, the commercial ­ism of the American scene; turning, first in imagination, then actually, to Europe, not as it was, but as he fondly pic ­tured it, the Europe of a boy’s dream, the “fairy tale” world of Thackeray, and of the Revue des Deux Mondes. His Puritan delicacy revolts from Paris: he comes to England by a process of exclusion, and here deliberately attempts to saturate himself in English material. In England, how ­ever, he remains essentially an alien. After his American recollections have faded, after he has exhausted as subject the American abroad, he has nothing left to write about. Accordingly he is forced to turn inward. The result of this turn is the “later manner,” a mere empty shell of complexity and qualification, protective coloring, which does not quite succeed in concealing the fact that all substance has passed away from his work, leaving—I suppose—”The Ambassa ­dors” and “The Wings of the Dove” mere shadows of “The Portrait of a Lady” and “Washington Square.”

As is usual in these cases, the theory has just enough truth in it to make it misleading. That James idealized Europe is certain, that there was some measure of disillusionment for him in his actual experiences there is equally certain. But it is not Europe which is to blame when a man so finely or ­ganized as Henry James meets with disillusionment: it is Life! Can anyone seriously suppose that he could have avoided it in America?

Mr. Brooks makes much of James’s lasting affection for America, of the fact that towards the end of his life he once more looked westward for material. But neither of these points prove the theory. There were aspects of the Amer ­ican scene that had always been dear to James, but he had deliberately chosen the Old World notwithstanding, because he believed it to afford a more congenial atmosphere for the development of the art with which for him the meaning of life was bound up. Certainly, life in Europe was not with ­out its difficulties, nor can James ever have imagined it would be. But I cannot believe that he ever seriously re ­gretted his choice. At least, there is no evidence of any re ­consideration in the record of his American visit of 1904-05.

Particularly strained, it seems to me, is Mr. Brooks’s in ­terpretation of the theatrical interlude in James’s career. Here we are asked to believe that James turned to the the ­atre because he had nothing more to say in fiction, because America had faded and he had failed to “get” England. On the stage, mere plot would suffice. This, on page 123. On page 124, we read that James was himself aware at this period that he was floating toward a void, and that he seized the theatre as “an avenue . . . back to the general world of men and things.” It is a little hard to see how Mr. Brooks can be right in both places, and I do not myself believe that he is right in either. James himself, in his let ­ters, describes the reasons for his move; his long-standing interest in the theatre, his hunger for a wider audience than his novels could give him. This, to me, affords an adequate explanation. Nor can I go with Mr. Brooks in his further contention that the novelist’s sense of values had suffered decomposition in England, thanks to his determination to adapt himself to his new environment whether or no.

Personally, I confess myself somewhat unmoved by the tragedy of Henry James, as his latest critic has presented it. Mr. Brooks ranges himself with William James in his opposition to the “later manner,” with the William who wrote, “For God’s sake, say it out!” For myself, I find lit ­tle but delight in the richly tapestried style which James finally developed, and I cannot do other than regard it as the fulfilment, not the erasure, of his earlier promise. Its striking virtues—its beautiful development, its consummate adaptation to the expression of fine shades of meaning, its intimate reflection of a world of finer sensibilities than that which we actually inhabit—all this is implicit in the earlier writings. As early as “The American” he had written: “You may depend upon it that there are things going on inside of us that we understand mighty little about.” As he grew older, he came to understand them better, to desire to share his understanding with others. The development of his style then becomes simply the fashioning of a medium delicate enough and supple enough to suit his material.

There can be no point mow in discussing what might have been, in wishing that James’s development had been halted midway in his career. We must, as Miss Geraldine Farrar has reminded us in another connection, “Let the artist de ­velop in his own orbit, according to his light. . . .” If, in the present stage of our civilization, there are not many who can stand the light of Henry James’s final phase, then that is our misfortune and not his fault. If life for him en ­tailed more disillusion than it does for most of us, then that was simply the price he paid for being—morally and aestheti ­cally—finer than most of us. And if indeed the Europe of his imagination never existed in fact, then so much the greater is his victory, for he himself has created it, has given it bodiment for us in his books. Here, as Mr. Brooks ad ­mits, “It is clothed in a kind of glory that had its source in his own soul.” There are not many authors to whom such an opportunity is given; there are not many who develop so steadily, so beautifully, in their own orbits, according to their lights.


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