Wednesday, July 20, 2016
Why William Dean Howells is worth reading, and why he's largely forgotten
Reading William Dean Howells (for the first time), The Rise of Silas Lapham, ca 1880, in the classy Library of America edition (good, except for the ridiculous footnotes, some things explained for no reason hundreds of other topical references ignored) and, unfortunately, it's easy to see why he's a largely forgotten novelist today, though extremely popular, often linked with his friend Twain, at the time. First, Howells must have had as his motto: Why say things once when you can say them 2, 3, or 4 times? He's anything but subtle; he makes his points about his characters repeatedly. I get the feeling I could doze off while reading and then wake up and keep going and wouldn't miss a thing. His characters are very much what Forster would call two-dimensional: Lapham is a self-made businessman, somewhat crude and unpolished, socially awkward, boastful; his wife is socially more adept and sharp of tongue; older daughter is plain but a wit and a shrewd intellect; younger daughter (Irene) is pretty and sweet and an innocent, and therefore doomed. All fine as far as they go, but we see that they are not, in Forster's terminology, "round" characters because we continually see more about them than they do - we can peer around their edges. For example, long, long before any of the characters know this we can see that the rich, old-money underling, who first falls for Irene and her beauty, will eventually wind up with the much sharper older sister, Penelope. Why can't they see this? But that's Howells's way. On the positive side, Rise of SL is a good social document - reading it we can see very well the key issues of the time - in this case, old $ v new $, the continued rise of the business class, the American spirit of enterprise and hard work v old wealth and class, all good themes, and the novel, if you're willing to skim it, as I am doing (you can get the entire narrative by reading only the quoted dialogue, I think) is reasonably entertaining, a time-passer w/ some historical value. Howells's themes are handled with infinitely more subtlety by some of his near-contemporaries, notably James, but it's worth reading him at least once.