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.


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