Tuesday, June 28, 2005

In a time of dissent, what is patriotism? from Boston.com

In a time of dissent, what is patriotism?

WASHINGTON -- When the American literary lion William Dean Howells turned 75, in 1912, New York's superintendent of libraries asked him for some words of wisdom that could be read to children. Howells chose a subject that bristles with tension even now, 93 years later, as a vastly different United States prepares to celebrate its own birthday.

''While I would wish you to love America most because it's your home, I would have you love the whole world and think of all the people in it as your countrymen," Howells wrote. ''You will hear people more foolish than wicked say 'Our country, right or wrong,' but that is a false patriotism and bad Americanism. When our country is wrong she is worse than other countries when they are wrong, for she has more light than other countries, and we somehow ought to make her feel that we are sorry and ashamed for her."

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Howells in Timeline Magazine

The October-December 2005 (volume 21, numbers
5-6) issue of Timeline,
a publication of the Ohio Historical Society,
has an article
about Howells: "Dean of American Letters: William Dean Howells," by
Victoria Nelson. The piece includes photographs of William Cooper
and Mary Dean Howells, the young Howells family (WDH, Elinor,
and the children), an architectural sketch of "Red Top," and
pictures of Howells and his contemporaries.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Adam Gopnik's Review of new Howells Biography

From Adam Gopnik's review in The New Yorker of Susan Goodman and Carl Dawson's new biography of Howells:

Almost the first thing that every essay about the nineteenth-century American novelist William Dean Howells announces is that no one writes essays about William Dean Howells anymore; his eclipse is his identity. Yet in every decade since his death, in 1920, he has found strong advocates—and, although one might think that he needs to be argued for because he is distant from us, each new Howells has oddly resembled the critic who offers him. Howells is somehow both the road not taken and the street where we live.

For the critic and historian Van Wyck Brooks, writing in the nineteen-thirties, Howells was a wise but essentially sunny New England patriot, who had absorbed enough European culture to be serious without absorbing so much as to be cynical, the model of a modernized but not corrupted American author. For Alfred Kazin, in the forties, Howells was a democratic poet, an urban rhapsodist, a realist with a singing heart. For Lionel Trilling, writing in the fifties, Howells was a trembling modern liberal, with a strong social conscience but a fastidious distaste for democratic ecstasies, a writer who, like Trilling, grasped the disappearance of tragedy in bourgeois society, yet lamented its loss. For John Updike, in the eighties, Howells was the original and still unvanquished prophet of the “anti-novel”—the American novelist who recognized the middling nature of American society, and who, rejecting both romantic hysteria and a too inward-turning formalism, made all that could be made of the commonplace life of the American middle classes. Since the fate of most writers is oblivion, as the fate of most species is extinction, this is not at all a bad haul.

Now, in the first full-force scholarly biography in decades—“William Dean Howells: A Writer’s Life” (California; $34.95), by Susan Goodman and Carl Dawson—we have Howells more or less whole and more or less straight. Goodman and Dawson are professors at the University of Delaware, and though their biography, respectful and even reverent, is easily the best that Howells has received, it seems unlikely to alter his eclipse. One actually feels a little sorry that something—a homoerotic scandal à la Eakins, an incident of cross-dressing, a moment of possible incest, a spanking given or received—hasn’t come up to help his cause. A good, gentle, conscientious Howells remains admirable but not very vital. There are dark shadows and grief in his life, particularly the illness and death of his beloved daughter, Winifred, who languished for years, suffering from one of those nameless Alice James-type diseases. But Winifred’s illness remains decently unsensationalized in the new book, and the possibility—which more Freudian, or merely Chekhovian, biographers might have entertained—that her illness was some kind of protest against the constant and exhausting public praise of her father’s wholesomeness and rectitude is left politely unconsidered.

So Howells remains without a wound to make him draw his bow, and a woundless writer feels too remote from us to be much loved. What did Howells lust for, what songs made him smile, what, as they say in Hollywood script conferences, did he want? “To be a leading man of letters” is, really, no one’s answer to that question. The human questions seem, for so humane a writer, still unanswered. What his new biographers do, superbly, is to situate Howells in the places where he found himself. It turns out that Howells’s is a tale of four cities: Columbus, Ohio, where he came of age, and which in his mind always represented virtue; Boston, which was his home during his salad days, and which represented intellect; Venice, which represented old Europe and sex. And then New York, which represented—well, what New York represented for Howells is a deep question. Answering it might give us a Howells for these nervous noughts: a poet of middle-class precariousness, of terrorist threats and immigrant renewals, of tarnished gilded ages and plutocratic triumph and liberal embattlement. Howells was the first writer to intuit that the circumstances of New York City—its density, its devotion to commerce and to the commercial laws of chance and hazard and hope—demanded a new way of writing, outside the model even of the radical realist, Zolaesque novel. His was the first “delirious” New York in American prose, and he gives us still something of the sound and taste of our own delirium.

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Literary Map of New York City

See also the Howells entry in the Literary Map of New York City in the New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/packages/html/books/20050605_BOOKMAP_GRAPHIC/

The Address of the Xenophon

From Randy Cohen, "We Mapped Manhattan," in The New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2005/06/05/books/review/05RAND01.html? (free registration required):

Some mysteries remain -- the apartment of J. D. Salinger's nomadic Glass family, who seem to move from East to West Side; the address of the Xenophon, where William Dean Howells's March family found a sublet in ''A Hazard of New Fortunes.'' Nor could we confidently pin down the office of Bartleby the Scrivener, despite many good suggestions from readers, including Ann Sullivan-Cross's. Having had a job at 14 Wall Street -- ''like working in a dead letter office, at the depths of a dark world governed by dark laws'' -- she felt sure she recognized the spot; she pointed out, moreover, that Melville's brother Allan had a law office at that address.

Postmodern Fog Has Begun to Lift

Postmodern Fog Has Begun to Lift
from the Los Angeles Times

[ . . . ] Postmodern theorists, promoting a fluid sense of identity, were only the latest step in unhinging art and discourse from any stable sense of the real world. Just as political upheaval left people physically insecure and globalization left them economically insecure, postmodernism was part of a complex of changes that left them feeling morally insecure, uncertain about who they were or what they really knew.

For some, there was a newfound freedom in all this. But many Americans today, sensing that the foundations of their world have crumbled, feel a deep nostalgia for something solid and real. Surrounded by a media culture, adrift in virtual reality, they seek assurance from their own senses. They turn to what John Dewey called "the quest for certainty."

I see evidence of this in my own field of literary studies, which has long been in the vanguard of postmodernism. In his book "After Theory," a widely discussed obituary for decades of obfuscation that he himself had helped to promote, Terry Eagleton mocks "a certain postmodern fondness for not knowing what you think about anything."

To understand the changes that shook the modern world, my students and colleagues have returned in recent years to long-neglected writers in the American realist tradition, including William Dean Howells, Theodore Dreiser, Stephen Crane, Sinclair Lewis, Edith Wharton and Willa Cather. For readers like me who grew up in the second half of the 20th century on the unsettling innovations of modernism, and who were attuned to its atmosphere of crisis and disillusionment, the firm social compass of these earlier writers has come as a surprise. [. . . ]

Indian Summer

From Newsday.com: Recommended reading

A lesser-known entry in the Americans-in-Europe genre, the school of novels ruled by Edith Wharton and Henry James, William Dean Howells' comedy of manners, "Indian Summer," (New York Review Books, $14) is as sublime as they come. As the title implies, this is a book about a season on the cusp, specifically the season of middle-age in the life of Howells' hero, Theodore Colville. A 40-year-old Midwestern newspaper publisher who finds himself in Florence after selling his business, Colville runs into another American, Lina Bowen, whom he knew years before as the intimate of a woman he loved who jilted him. Mrs. Bowen, now widowed, is spending the season in Florence with her young daughter, Effie, and a friend's 20-year-old daughter, Imogene.

It should be plain from that setup that Colville and Imogene fall for each other. Howells' description of this mutual infatuation is like listening to a melody that's a few beats off the rhythm. No one can quite surrender to the sweetness because no one really believes in it. From the moment Colville and Imogene 'fess up their feelings, they realize they're trapped.

In the finest line of her ace introduction, Wendy Lesser says, "Middle age ... is the period of life at which one first senses what it means to become a part of the past."

"Indian Summer" is not, however, a tragic novel. Ultimately, it's one of those rare works (like Ron Shelton's film "Bull Durham") about the deep, unexpected satisfactions to be found in compromise. [. . . ]

Rediscovering Howells

From the New York Sun (unfortunately, only paid subscribers can access much more than this):

Other than English majors and literary scholars, who reads William Dean Howells? If your project is 19th-century American fiction, then Hawthorne, Melville, James, Twain, Crane, and the early Wharton and Dreiser head the list. Yet Howells wrote magnificent travel books (he was U. S. consul in Venice), and at least three novels that deserve their place in the canon. "A Modern Instance" (1882) is a shrewd and diverting study of a corrupt and womanizing Boston journalist, Bartley Hubbard; "The Rise of Silas Lapham" (1885) dramatizes the fate of a self-made Vermont businessman; "A Hazard of New Fortunes" (1890), set in New York City, reflects profound misgivings about rampant capitalism.

WDH and Vaudeville

From "Vaudeville's brief, shining moment" at City-Journal.org

In the new century, these performances that cost so little—rarely more than $1— and gave so much, beguiled not just the common folk but intellectuals, too. As novelist William Dean Howells wrote in Harper’s, “I am an inveterate vaudeville-goer, for the simple reason that I find better acting, and better drama, than you get on your legitimate stage.”

W. Ninth St. turns 180

From W. Ninth St. turns 180: Highlights from a history of socialites ... (NY Times; free registration required)

Other wordsmiths arrived, shuffling up and down W. Ninth like a pack of cards in pursuit of Lady Luck. In 1870, author Bret Harte got comfy at 16 W. Ninth on his sister’s sofa. In 1888, William Dean Howells breezed through 46 W. Ninth St. for three months. For a few months in 1918, Edna St. Vincent Millay and her sister Norma sniffled in unheated lodgings on W. Ninth when her first book, “Renascence,” was published