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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Thursday, July 28, 2016

Howells's place in literatue then and now

Evan Connell's intro to the Library of America edition of William Dean Howells's The Rise of Silas Lapham niecly delineates the two aspects of WDH's career: among the most popular writers in America at mid-life, in teh 1880s and 90s, say, ranked up there w/ Twain and close friend of Henry James, but in the later years - he lived to about 1920 and continued writing into his 80s it seems - he was completely out of touch and largely forgotten (Connell notes that WDH received an unsolicited invite to take a correspondence course in writing!). In the 19th century, he was looked up to as a realist, interested in ordinary people and their lives, a great fan of Turgenev, often compared w/ Balzac, and looking back you can see that, yes, these were his influences (although Silas Lapham was not exactly about ordinary Bostonians) but you also see that his characters are flat, two-dimensional, easy to see around their edges, never surprising to us nor strikingly human and vulnerable - they are pieces on a board of a plot that he works out, slowly and carefully. As noted in an earlier post, his characters to wrestle w/ moral and ethical dilemmas, which gives the novel its value, but the characters feel like illustrations, examples, types (the ambitious businessman, the old-money blueblood, etc. - the women even less distinct though they often get the best lines!) - not like people. As we moved farther away from the word in which WDH lived, his fiction seems lost in its era, unlike Twain and James, both eminently readable a century later. And in fact that's what happened - literature moved so rapidly away from WDH and his placid style: he seems a thousand years away from the American writers who emerged at the end of his life or just after: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, to name just the major triumvirate: they're plots so much more inventive and ambitious, their characters so much more fully delineated, their language so advanced. At the end, Howells is a little dull and probably always was, even to the well-mannered readers of his day.

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