The Compromise of Silas Lapham
The limitations of his work are also the limitations of his insight and his imagination, and this fact, fully understood in all its bearings, makes any effort to point out those limitations ungracious in appearance and distasteful in performance; if personal feeling were to control such matters, one would content himself with an expression of hearty admiration for work so full of character, and of sincere gratitude for a delicate intellectual pleasure so varied and so sustained.
—HAMILTON WRIGHT MABIE, “A TYPICAL NOVEL” (1885)
Hamilton Wright Mabie’s 1885 review of The Rise of Silas Lapham could be used as a primer for the art of the patronizing backhanded compliment. Writing in the genteel Andover Review, Mabie praises William Dean Howells faintly for his “evident fidelity to a constantly advancing ideal of workmanship,” for his “earnestness,” and for his “exacting conscientiousness,” then goes on to suggest that writing a truly substantial book may simply be beyond Howells’s reach. “If he has failed to touch the deepest issues, and to lay bare the more obscure and subtle movements of passion and purpose, it has been through no intellectual willfulness or lassitude; he has patiently and unweariedly followed such clews as he has been able to discover, and he has resolutely held himself open to the claims of new themes and the revelations of fresh contacts with life.” Howells holds himself back in one essential particular, and this, Mabie diagnoses, is the cause of his novel’s “failure”: “Mr. Howells never identifies himself with his characters, never becomes one with them in the vital fellowship and communion of the imagination; he constructs them with infinite patience and skill, but he never, for a moment, loses consciousness of his own individuality.” Howells has not been closed-minded, writes Mabie, but he lacks the ability to capitalize on his efforts because he remains too personally distanced from his characters. Bemoaning the waste of literary effort and potential on “commonplace” and un-Ideal subjects, Mabie finally argues that Howells’s failings are endemic to realist literary projects and indicts the entire mode for “its hardness, its lack of vitality, its paralysis of the finer feelings and higher aspirations, its fundamental defect on the side of the imagination.”1
Mabie’s review has become a frequently cited episode of literary history, with Mabie cast as the standard-bearer for exhausted romantics waging a futile war against the newer, more vigorous realism.2 But Frank Norris was already terming Howells’s novels “respectable as a church and proper as a deacon” in 1901, and Howells’s reputation would get closer to Mabie’s during the ascendance of literary “modernism” in the 1920s and 1930s. In these decades, Mabie and Howells were most frequently classed together as “genteel critics,” in George Santayana’s resonant phrase; for example, in his 1930 Nobel Prize lecture, Sinclair Lewis ridiculed Howells as “a pious old maid whose greatest delight was to have tea at the vicarage.”3 By 1937, Malcolm Cowley was sure enough of Howells’s gentility to register ironic surprise that a reference to dynamite in the manuscript of Lapham had been censored by the Century magazine, a bastion of gentility: “Even William Dean Howells sometimes failed to meet [Century editor Richard Watson Gilder’s] schoolmistressly standards.”4 Howells and Mabie could even be mentioned in the same dismissive breath, as in Burton Rascoe’s summation that “the literature controlled, acknowledged and accepted by the Gilders, Henry Mills Aldens, the Hamilton Wright Mabies and the Howellses was prim, desiccated, proper and puritanical.”5
In short, the classification of Mabie and Howells as either diametric opposites or brothers under the skin depends more on literary-political maneuvering than on clearly delineated ideological differences. The result is in part a function of the workings of literary history, and the ways that the writers of such histories are themselves jockeying for aesthetic positions. But it is also because Mabie and Howells are slippery targets, both of them astonishingly prolific and culturally ubiquitous over the course of lengthy careers. Both were canny businessmen of letters, appearing in highbrow and mass-market media as the need arose, and both were willing to accommodate the requirements of their various audiences. This perspective is lost when we look just at their writings in the pages of literary magazines like the Atlantic Monthly or the Outlook, or when we focus on novels and critical pieces published in book form without considering their initial appearance as serials in magazines like the Ladies’ Home Journal. When we investigate the Howells-Mabie relationship through the lens of both men’s involvement with the Journal, we can see that the requirements of the mass audience trumped any previously staked ideological claims. In the pages of the Journal, a periodical that both constructed and reflected a popular aesthetic zeitgeist, realism became a literary brand, and desirable cultural capital. Particular texts and authors acquired status by their association with the realist label. But this supposed “realism” actually looked a lot like “sentiment” or “romance”—categories which, like “realism,” became evacuated of any ideological underpinnings and became labels used primarily to signal literature that was comfortable, moral, or reassuring. And in the pages of the Journal, both Mabie and Howells came to validate the aesthetics and reading practices of the traditions they had repudiated in other venues.
Howells was not a victim of this compromise but was a willing participant whose appearance in the Journal in the 1890s solidified his status as an author and critic of note, bolstered the magazine’s literary credentials, and gave Journal readers the chance to say they had read their Howells. Ten years later, Howells’s The Rise of Silas Lapham would be second only to Thackeray’s Vanity Fair in the number of recommendations in Mabie’s Journal columns. After establishing the ways that Howells was branded as cultural capital in the pages of the Journal, and identifying the openings he himself left for “reading up” readers, we can see how easy it is for Mabie’s favorite Howells novels—Lapham, The Lady of the Aroostook, and A Hazard of New Fortunes—to serve as the accidental conduits for a host of unintended messages.
The Journal and the Dean I: The Coast of Bohemia
Edward Bok, the editor of the Ladies’ Home Journal, was not generally inclined towards humility; his plans for the Journal were grandiose, and by the 1890s he had the means to pursue them. Though he was the editor of a magazine that appeared to be solely focused on homemaking and fashion, his goal, as he describes it in his autobiography, was that of “putting into the field of American magazines a periodical that should become such a clearinghouse as virtually to make it an institution.”6 Once he felt satisfied that his advice columnists had done this work in the domestic departments, it was time to “give . . . his magazine the literary quality it needed” and to do so by usurping the rights of more-established literary periodicals to big-name authors. “The two authors of that day who commanded more attention than any others were William Dean Howells and Rudyard Kipling,” Bok contends, so naturally he pursued their works for his magazine. Writing in the third person, Bok describes the acquisitional legerdemain—or perhaps more accurately, espionage—he employed in securing back-to-back Howells serials:
[Bok] bought Mr. Howells’s new novel, “The Coast of Bohemia,” and arranged that Kipling’s new novelette upon which he was working should come to the magazine. Neither the public nor the magazine editors had expected Bok to break out along these more permanent lines, and magazine publishers began to realize a new competitor had sprung up in Philadelphia. Bok knew they would feel this; so before he announced Mr. Howells’s new novel, he contracted with the novelist to follow this with his autobiography. This surprised the editors of the older magazines, for they realized that the Philadelphia editor had completely tied up the leading novelist of the day for his next two years’ output.7
It was a publishing ambush and, at least in Bok’s retrospective version of events, an important moment in the Journal’s quest for literary respectability, even if the signing of the contracts mattered more than the actual content of Howells’s pieces. Bok notes that Howells’s ability to confer legitimacy on the Journal made his large advances worthwhile in the mind of the magazine’s publisher, Cyrus Curtis, whose chief concern was advertising opportunity and revenue. “[Bok] paid Mr. Howells $10,000 for his autobiography, and Mr. Curtis spent $50,000 in advertising it. ‘It is not an expense,’ he would explain to Bok, ‘it is an investment. We are investing in a trade-mark. It will all come back in time.’”8 In combination with the $5,000 payment for Coast, the Journal was paying dearly for the chance to attract big-money advertisers; Curtis began using Howells’s name while courting advertisers as soon as the ink was dry on these contracts.9 The Atlantic and its ilk rarely committed such sums, nor could they command such an audience for Howells; in the pages of the Journal, he would be able to reach nearly a million subscribers.10 For a man committed to “raising the tone of American life through literature,” the opportunity to offer a literary autobiography to this audience would have been attractive in and of itself; the size of the advances also, doubtless, contributed their blandishments.11
Thus it was that, from December 1892 through March 1895, the Ladies’ Home Journal would be able to deliver to its readers and advertisers the work of William Dean Howells. While the Journal serialized material representing both arenas of Howells’s literary production—his literary critical work and his fictional work—it is important to note that Bok’s interest in Howells did not extend to an embrace of either Howellsian realism or Howellsian notions of “proper” reading. Howells is a brand for Bok, and for Curtis; he helps burnish the Journal’s “trade-mark.” The Howells texts’ substance is, in the final analysis, less important than their sheer presence, and this relative lack of concern about substance can go far to explain any of the apparent contradictions we see between the Journal’s editorial stances and the things that appear in Howells. As we have already seen in chapter 1, the Journal was more eclectic than monolithic, a posture guided by the necessity of appealing to a broad swath of the American population. Howells’s texts are part of that eclecticism, though the paratextual presentation of the two serials also works to control the reception of both, acknowledging and ensuring that the reader of Howells remains first and foremost a reader of the Journal.
The three years of Howellsian homage began with fiction, in the form of the serialization of The Coast of Bohemia, whose rather conventional romance plot was set against a gentle critique of the contemporaneous New York art scene. While there is a good deal of subtle criticism of the position of women in the art world in Coast, the romance plot, bolstered by insistent accompanying illustrations, no doubt took precedence for the Journal readership. Cornelia and Ludlow “meet-cute” amid artistic atrocities at a midwestern county fair; she is a provincial girl with cosmopolitan potential, he an aesthete-in-training newly returned from a pilgrimage to France. We know Ludlow and Cornelia are meant for each other by the way he praises her talent faintly (“Nothing is commoner than the talent and beauty of American girls. But they’d better trust to their beauty”) and the way she determines to correct his misperceptions (“It would be fun to show him, some day, that even so low down a creature as a girl could be something”).12 Cornelia’s spunkiness and Ludlow’s offhand recommendation land her in New York at an artists’ academy, where she becomes friends with the novel’s comic relief, the wealthy art-dabbler Charmian Maybough. Cornelia has more raw talent than Ludlow, who is stymied by overthinking both his technique and his choice of subject, and this conflict nearly renders their relationship untenable. But despite a misunderstanding over the reemergence of an erstwhile suitor of Cornelia’s in the penultimate installment, we open the October 1893 issue relieved to see a huge illustration of Cornelia and Ludlow in wedding garb, exiting a church, over the caption “They were married at Pymantoning.” In the two-column denouement, we learn that while Ludlow tries halfheartedly to support Cornelia’s artistic career after the wedding, he is no more successful than he was before. He outwardly claims that “she had the rarer gift,” but Cornelia is not convinced of his performance. Little wonder, since he spends much of his time inserting himself into her work:
He painted passages and incidents in her pictures, sometimes illustratively, and sometimes for the pleasure of having their lives blended in their work, and he tried to see how nearly he could lose his work in hers. He pretended that he learned more than he taught in the process, and that he felt in her efforts a determining force, a clear sense of what she wanted to do that gave positive form and direction to what was vague and speculative in himself.13
Cornelia’s voice, which has been dominant throughout the novella, essentially disappears in the denouement, just as her image disappears into a clump of hollyhocks in Ludlow’s new, critically panned painting. “It was probably intended to express a moment of electric passion; but there was something so forced, and at the same time so ineffectual in the execution of the feebly fantastic design, that it became the duty of impartial criticism to advise Mr. Ludlow, if he must continue to paint at all, to paint either girls or flowers, but not both at once, nor both together, nor convertibly.”14 Cornelia, whose aesthetic sensibilities are impeccable, had not wanted Ludlow to show the painting, but “here, as often elsewhere, she found him helpless to yield to her, even though he confessed that she was right.” By the last paragraphs of the story, he is answering for her at a dinner, and Cornelia has been effectively subsumed into marriage. The final words of the piece are Charmian’s, as she laments that “now, I’m afraid [Cornelia’s] going to be perfectly respectable.”15 Like Henrietta Stackpole’s final assessment of Isabel Archer at the end of The Portrait of a Lady, Charmian’s evaluation is an imperfect attempt to cinch the ending of the novel, to allay the distresses of any readers who mourn the suppression of certain aspects of a sympathetic heroine’s character. And as we shall see in the case of Portrait, this benediction can serve a compensatory function for that dissatisfied reader; Charmian remains single, vocal, and artistically productive, and if the moments of the text in which Howells undermines her as a potential heroine may be overlooked, she can serve as an alternative heroine. Indeed, in William Dean Howells: A Critical Study (1922), Delmar Gross Cooke contends that Charmian is “the one fundamentally well-balanced and clear-sighted character in the novel,” this at the same time that he cites the way she “cleverly arranges her studio . . . with a low-hung canvas ceiling to simulate poverty.” Focusing on Charmian’s “innate common sense, which Howells conceals from the reader as artfully as she conceals it from herself,” Cooke is able to salvage the novel from a critique that would find it a plebian, or philistine, failure because of the “foolish tragedy of Cornelia.” Charmian, Cooke asserts, “is constantly saving the aberrant natures surrounding her from lapsing into vapidity”—the novel is therefore not about the triumph of the marriage plot but about the salvation of Charmian from such a quotidian fate.16
The novel’s availability for alternate readings renders The Coast of Bohemia in many ways a perfect Ladies’ Home Journal fiction piece. There may have been some readers who, with Cooke, recentered their readings on Charmian after the conventional marriage ending, but it is more likely that the marriage would have been embraced by the Journal audience. The illustrations that accompany each installment work to reinforce the romance plot as the central concern of the text; even scenes that are written as triptychs, such as a scene in which Cornelia, Charmian, and Ludlow have a snack in Charmian’s studio, are illustrated as tête-à-têtes between Ludlow and Cornelia, Charmian receding into the shadows on the side of the image.17 The reader who is guided by such images would probably find the novel’s ultimate reinscription of the normative middle-class marriage with its standard gender roles reassuring. While our heroine, Cornelia, is spunky and talented, she is also an active participant in the marriage market throughout the novel and is focused on her social life as much as she is on her artistic career. As such, she is a prototypical Journal heroine, offering some vicarious rebellion to the middle-class reader, but ultimately validating her own position in a stable, standard marriage plot.
The novel’s domestication of an ostensibly exotic segment of society is likewise a customary Journal move. While the characters are artists, they are genteel artists, with sufficient financial resources, who embrace bohemia as an aesthetic pose rather than a true lifestyle. Howells plays this for laughs, as in an extended passage where Charmian struggles against her mother’s dictum that, while it need not be tidied, her studio should be dusted every morning (“But don’t you see, mamma, that if you have it regularly dusted, it can never have any sentiment, any atmosphere?”); chokes on a cigar which she decides to smoke though its previous purpose had been purely decorative (Ludlow subsequently compliments her on her “perfect pallor”); and attempts to find the perfectly bohemian snack to accompany afternoon tea prepared over a spirit lamp (the winner: popcorn served in an overturned Japanese shield).18 The potential edgy artistic threat of bohemia is thoroughly undercut by these silly scenes, in which even the more “legitimized” artist, Ludlow, emerges as ridiculous. And while Howells will occasionally suggest that there is a “true” bohemia whose artistic lifestyle is genuinely felt, not a pose, the Journal audience may certainly leave Howells’s text with the sense that all bohemian gestures are, indeed, ridiculous, that all “bohemians” are just playing at aesthetic superiority and edginess. This notion would no doubt be comforting for the Journal reader, particularly one removed from even the “coast” of bohemia, whose interests in the precincts of culture were sincere but unalloyed with a sense of either security or authority, as evidenced by the tone of numerous Journal articles explaining the significance of various works of art.
Alongside Jonathan R. Eller, we may contend, then, that “The Coast of Bohemia . . . proved that Howells could write fiction for and about genteel American women.”19 For any Journal reader still hesitant about Howells because of his reputation as a hard-line realist, it would have been reassuring, perhaps even functioning as a gateway novel to the more canonical of Howells’s productions. And for any Journal reader unclear as to what titles would belong in this category, the first issue after the conclusion of The Coast of Bohemia would obligingly include a list in the introduction to My Literary Passions.
The Journal and the Dean II: My Literary Passions
In November 1893, the Journal prefaced the serialization of My Literary Passions with a brief biography by Howells’s close friend and realist coreligionist Hjalmar Hjorth Boyeson. As a project in branding, the essay is exemplary; it works to reconstruct Howells, elite proponent of realism, as Howells, family man and avuncular guide to the kind of reading that can make one a success in life. The piece takes up two four-column pages and is generously illustrated with a large portrait of Howells (the “most recent” one, “considered by him to be the most satisfactory one extant”), a photograph of the man at work, and a rough sketch of the humble exterior of his midwestern birthplace.20 These pictures are not only visual markers of the important components of Howells’s life—humble birth to lavish success—but the captions also lay claim to Howells’s time, and render him a product to be consumed exclusively by the Journal audience. Howells sat in his study, on a particular day and at a particular time, to have his portrait “taken specially for the Journal while writing his autobiographical papers for this magazine.” The Journal audience would not, then, be a group of outsiders accidentally encountering a work that was literarily out of their range; Howells, the man of letters, had indeed written My Literary Passions expressly for them. It is a flattering notion, for the reader, and a self-congratulatory move on the part of the Journal, and yet another component of the branding of Howells taking place in the biography that accompanies the pictures.
Boyeson’s biography covers primarily the period of Howells’s life before he became editor of the Atlantic Monthly, tracing his humble origins and his rise, by dint of hard work and self-sacrifice, through the journalistic ranks. Once it arrives at Howells’s East Coast career, the sketch treats his literary production only briefly, with a hasty chronological catalog of his literary output to date. This haste results in some unusual spot assessments of Howells’s fiction—The Rise of Silas Lapham is “unquestionably the most American novel which an American has ever produced”21—but it also signals the fact that Howells was well known to the readers of the Journal as one of the most significant authors of the day. Indeed, it was his notoriety that made My Literary Passions such a publishing event for the Journal, particularly since it was a series explicitly produced for, and in extensive consultation with, the Journal’s editor, Edward Bok. In the preface to a 1909 book version of the series, Howells recollects that “the name was thought by the friendly editor of the popular publication where [the chapters] were serialized a main part of such inspiration as they might be conjectured to have, and was, as seldom happens with editor and author, cordially agreed upon before they were begun.”22 Howells had originally proposed to Bok a memoir, titled “My Book Friends,” in 1892. Bok offered $4,200 in payment, a sum considerably less than the $5,000 he had recently promised for the publication of Coast of Bohemia. When Howells countered with a request for $5,000, Bok agreed, pending the expansion of the text and a reconsideration of the approach.23 In a letter dated 24 September 1892, Bok gently suggested to Howells,
I think your idea of the series “My Book Friends” is an excellent one in the main, but, and it is a big “but”: I fear that the interest, so far as the public is concerned, would centre & end—that is, practically—, with your reading in the English. It might, in a measure, extend to the French, but when it came to your German, Spanish and Italian reading I am afraid the interest would lag. I know only too well from a close association with the importing department of the Scribners how little interest there is in foreign literature outside the French & the German. . . . In short, the great, popular interest which is so essential to a large success now-a-days—& that is the only kind of success I want to make with anything from your pen—would be, I fear, lacking for the series as a whole.24
Success became the keyword for Bok’s approach in the negotiations, in fact; he was doubtlessly already thinking about the way he would brand Howells for his magazine. He continued his letter with a countersuggestion that Howells reframe the series as “My Literary Life” or “My Literary Autobiography,” explicitly evoking the popular genre of exemplary biography in his description of the result. “In this you might, of course, tell of your reading, but it would give a wider scope of interest to thousands of the public who are ever absorbed in the course of a successful man’s life from its beginning.”25 Bok wanted Howells to present himself as a model of the successful man; the reading was somewhat secondary to Bok’s considerations, really a concession to the predilections of his subject. Reading thereby also becomes somewhat antithetical to the “practical” interests of the Journal readership, an adjunct to the progress of Howells’s career. It will fall to the editorial apparatus, to the Boyeson introduction and the marketing of the series, to reframe reading as the means of Howells’s success, and therefore in itself a practical activity.
The final discussion of the title seems to have taken place in person, in a meeting proposed by Bok in a letter to Howells dated 1 October 1892. After mentioning two letters he had received from Howells (neither of which has survived), Bok writes, “[I] would like to have a personal talk with you upon this general subject, and I think it will be much easier for us to reach a conclusion than through any quantity of letters . . . in a personal conversation I am sure we can arrange the general scope of the series.” Though there is no documentary evidence that the meeting ever took place, Howells’s acknowledgment of Bok’s role in the selection of the title suggests that Bok was able to carry his point somehow, even before Howells began writing the memoir. As we will see, Howells in his writing did not stick faithfully to Bok’s preferences—obscure foreign literature in the original constitutes a good deal of his reminiscence—but the framework of a rags-to-riches story does organize the series and is legible underneath the bildungsroman sensibility of the piece as a whole. In the serialized publication, Howells mentions nearly ninety authors and devotes considerable time to assessing literary movements in general.26 While there is no explicit charge in the piece to present Howells’s reading as a “program” of reading to be followed by others, the avuncular tone of the piece, and its hagiographic framing, makes this implication clear: Howells’s reading produced a Howells, so it may presumably behoove any ambitious individual to follow his lead. Lest this portrait look exclusively masculine, Howells also becomes a paragon of domestic virtue in the Boyeson introduction; the female audience of the Journal can thereby look to Howells as an exemplar not only for her husband and sons but for herself and her daughters as well.
Boyeson’s profile reinforces the notion that My Literary Passions belongs in the genre of exemplary autobiography, and even goes so far as to extend this functionality to realist literature as a whole. Its operating assumption is that Howells, from humble and non-eastern origins, had managed to become “the foremost man of letters in the United States who is yet in the active exercise of his talents,” occupying this position, at least, “since the death of James Russell Lowell.”27 Howells was therefore, in theory, an ideal literary guide for Journal readers, who were likewise not members of the New England literati, and whose families likely resembled Howells’s more than Lowell’s. The Boyeson piece functions, moreover, to predispose the readers of the Journal towards Howells, and perhaps to ameliorate some of the more prickly and self-aggrandizing moments which are in the offing in My Literary Passions. Readers are introduced to Howells’s stance on realism, for example, via the contention that “mature and cultivated readers” should prefer “a narrative dealing in a vigorous and luminous style with the problems of life which they are themselves daily encountering, and with characters which they recognize as being flesh of their flesh and bone of their bone.”28 Rather than be frightened by the prospect of bleakness in realism, readers might now think of realism as a potential guide to coping with the realities of daily modern life. Realism, in other words, could function like an advice manual, as an exemplary narrative about people like oneself or people one might wish to be like. By suggesting this instrumental reading for realism, Boyeson takes the first step towards the kind of instrumentalism Mabie would fully embrace in his Journal columns ten years later.
Boyeson could not make a case for realism in the pages of the mass-market Journal without addressing romanticism. Romanticism was, in the 1890s, still more popular than realism, even if realism was generally acknowledged to be the more highbrow literary mode. It is because of his reputation for “hurting the feelings of the admirers of Walter Scott, and bringing down upon his head the wrath of the worshipers of Dickens” that Howells needed such a careful introduction to the readership of the Journal. For Boyeson to attack romance directly would be to invite the same kind of counterproductive hostile reaction; he therefore chooses instead a time-honored indirect approach: the appeal to the concerned parental mind. He offers that “the romantic novel, with its hairbreadth escapes and unwholesome excitement” has a deleterious effect on young minds, “distorting their views of life and by so much incapacitating them for the battle with actuality.”29 As we shall see, in My Literary Passions Howells will repeatedly discuss his own “passion” for romances, a youthful predilection which apparently did not render him unfit to live in the world. Boyeson’s piece, however, is concerned more with preparing the reader to read Howells sympathetically, even at the risk of cognitive dissonance.
The appeal to parents, particularly mothers, continues with a determinedly heartwarming portrait of the Howells family at home. We see Howells’s children as young children no older than eleven, wide-eyed, precociously literary, with charmingly childish nicknames. Howells himself appears a doting father, generous with his time, performing the bedtime ritual nightly, and dispensing gentle solace when his children are sad. One can hardly find fault with the man who is the patriarch of this adorable family, in which “the tender and considerate conduct of each toward all made domestic life beautiful, and love found its expression in caresses as naturally as mirth seeks vent in laughter and grief in tears.”30 This description of course might have been excerpted from any number of the sentimental domestic novels or short stories that Howells had delegitimized in his Harper’s Editor’s Study columns, where he rejected sentimentality out of hand and insisted on realism as a corrective to a romanticism grown “effete,” “exhausted,” and ultimately, overrefined.31 But again, Boyeson has a clear goal in mind: winning over the Journal audience. Given the rest of the magazine’s editorial and fictional content, its readers are likely to be more receptive to his subject if his home can be shown as a model of domestic tranquility. And so, Boyeson packages Howells as the angel of the hearth: “I have never seen a more beautiful instance of the spontaneity, the inevitability with which a rich and lovable personality radiates its own genial warmth and light through all relations, the closer as well as the more remote.”32 What better animating spirit to offer literary advice in these pages? And what better model, given the obvious influence of Howells’s lifetime of reading clearly on his domestic circle? The Howells family circa 1872 is the closing image of Boyeson’s piece; the anachronism of the portrait might not register with the Journal reader, an oversight that ultimately works to garner more sympathetic identification with Howells.33 His daunting authority and gatekeeping function vis-à-vis high-culture literary realism, for the purposes of the Journal audience, become secondary to his identity as a family man, even though it is his literary reputation that presumably lends My Literary Passions its authority.
Howells begins his series in the spirit of Boyeson’s introduction, by effacing his intellectual reputation and instead insisting on the affective quality of his literary experience. He insists in the opening of the first installment that he “shall try not to use authority,” touting not the full extent of his reading (which one imagines has been considerable and would therefore be daunting) but rather writing “only of those books, or of those authors that I have felt a genuine passion for.”34 But it does not take long for Howells to turn critical; while he admits to reading, in his boyhood, serialized adventure stories from the newspaper, he cannot resist noting that the name of the author of these stories, Emerson Bennett, “will be strange to polite ears,” nor can he resist a parting shot that simultaneously indicts the literature of his youth and promotes his current preferences for literary realism:
[The stories] must have been bad stuff for the most part, and yet there was something in the author’s wish to deal with the annals and legends of his own region that I still respect. They could have taught me nothing of the art which has since employed so great a part of my life but what I should have been the wiser for instantly forgetting, and, in fact, I did forget it all and very thoroughly; but I cannot help smiling to think that these wildly romantic historical novels were the first fiction I willingly read or greatly enjoyed. They were not imaginably the training of a realist, but at that time I should probably have despised realism as hotly as the grown-up children despise it now.35
Granted, readers unsympathetic to realism may have avoided Howells’s piece in the first place, but Howells is hardly performing outreach by branding any Journal reader with ambivalent feelings towards realism a “grown-up child.” It is worth noting, too, that Gulliver’s Travels, initially mentioned as a lead-in to the Bennett stories, has fallen away in Howells’s rush to excuse, and then to fairly condemn, his boyhood reading of historical, romantic genre fiction. It is worth noting, by way of comparison, that Mabie will later explain to his Journal audience that he comes not to condemn, but to praise, and promises that he will rigorously avoid mentioning any book or author for the purposes of rejecting it. Howells, on the other hand, allows indictment to enter into a work whose title insists on a positive stance, because he has disavowed so many of the “passions” he describes. By the parameters Howells sets for himself—he will discuss the literature for which he has a “passion”—he is required to mention Bennett, but he does so only to suggest that youthful indiscretion can ultimately be overcome and that even an inclination that has found the wrong outlet (like his inclination for regional fidelity) may eventually find the proper channels, to good effect. These rhetorical gymnastics, which are repeated throughout the serial, are the condition of possibility, it seems, for Howells to appear in the pages of the Journal.
Howells also seems to have made concessions to the Journal audience in his selection of texts to discuss. Of the texts and authors mentioned in My Literary Passions, the majority would in fact be considered “romantic” as opposed to “realist.” Rather than validate the romance, however, Howells evokes these texts ultimately to criticize their romantic content. He spends considerable time excusing his youthful reading that seems inconsistent with his eventual preference for realist literature, finding in even the most avowedly romantic texts the roots of his realist inclinations and taking every opportunity to make pointed asides about realism’s critics. When discussing Shakespeare, he states: “In those early days I had no philosophical preference for reality in literature, and I dare say if I had been asked, I should have said that the plays of Shakespeare where reality is the least felt were the more imaginative; that is the belief of the puerile critics still; but I suppose it was my instinctive liking for reality that made the great Histories so delightful to me, and that rendered Macbeth and Hamlet vital in their very ghosts and witches.”36 Of Thackeray, he notes: “I reveled in the romanticism of Henry Esmond, with its pseudo-eighteenth-century sentiment, and its appeals to an overwrought ideal of gentlemanhood and honor.”37 Regarding Ik Marvel, on the other hand, Howells is surprisingly unapologetic, describing a very romantic scene of reading to go along with a sentimental text: “The book is associated especially in my mind with one golden day of Indian summer, when I carried it into the woods with me, and abandoned myself to a welter of emotion over its page. I lay under a crimson maple, and I remember how the light striking through it flushed the print with the guiles of the foliage.”38 Unlike the newspaper adventure story, this Thoreauvian sylvan idyll is never even remotely repudiated by Howells, who seems unembarrassed in joining at least a million other nineteenth-century readers who entered into the “detached intimacy” offered by Marvel.39 When Howells narrates his revelatory reading of Heinrich Heine, he takes another swipe at his critical opponents, “a great many children supposed to be grown-up,” who have remained partisans of the romance into their adulthood.40
Howells spends a good deal of his time detailing his youthful attraction to Spanish literature, an interest initially spurred by his love of Don Quixote. In the August 1894 installment, for example, he describes writing away to specialty booksellers in New York to purchase more Spanish literature: “I dare say that my letters were sufficiently pedantic, and filled with a simulated acquaintance with all Spanish literature. Heaven knows what they must have thought, if they thought anything, of their queer customer in that obscure little Ohio village; but he could not have been queerer to them than to his fellow-villagers, I am sure.”41 Howells then describes, with purple prose that seems at once ironic, and then perhaps not so much so, the fervid scenes of reading that ensued once his books arrived from New York: “The paper and ink had a certain odor which was sweeter to me than the perfumes of Araby. The look of the type took me more than the glance of a girl, and I had a fever of longing to know the heart of the book, which was like a lover’s passion.” Howells offers equally torrid descriptions of his work translating and reading the poetry of Heine: “It seemed to me the make of a highly intellectual orgy, and I should be glad if I could enjoy anything as much now.”42 Howells takes the charge to write about his “passions” seriously, and perhaps a bit literally, and the result tends towards the hermetic and, indeed, the onanistic. The text is sometimes uncomfortably confessional, and certainly tests the limits of the Journal’s customary propriety. Howells indulges even as he contends forcefully for the expurgation of some literary texts, hoping “that what is lewd and ribald in the great poets shall be left out of such editions as are meant for general reading, and that the pedant-pride which now perpetuates it as an essential part of those poets will no longer have its way.”43 He can be even blunter, in fact: “The filthy thought lives with the filthy rhyme in the ear, even when it does not corrupt the heart or make it seem a light thing for the reader’s tongue and pen to sin in kind.”44
Howells does resist some of the requirements of the Journal readership by promoting serendipitous and leisured reading. Such casualness is the antithesis of the reading plans that will later form a part of Mabie’s columns and that even accompanied My Literary Passions in the pages of the Journal. This cavalier attitude ultimately works to preserve a degree of Howellsian mystique; his reading practices should not be too accessible, or anyone could become a cultural arbiter for him- or herself. In the February 1894 installment, for example, Howells adamantly tells readers: “The book which you read from a sense of duty, or because for any reason you must, does not make friends with you.”45 He admits that, while such a book may “yield you an unexpected delight,” it is only because the book is too strong not to impress even the most unworthy of minds. Even more deadly to Howells’s reading experience has been the reading of books for review, because this was self-interested reading:
I have usually been aware that the book was subtly withholding from me the best a book can give, since I was not reading it for its own sake and because I loved it, but for selfish ends of my own, and because I wished to possess myself of it for business purposes, as it were. The reading that does one good, and lasting good, is the reading that one does for pleasure, and simply and unselfishly, as children do. Art will still withhold herself from thrift, and she does well, for nothing but love has any right to her.46
Though Howells cannot expect that his Journal audience will ever read books for formal review, he likens such reading to the systematic reading programs of clubs or of reading manuals. The “profit” motive, construed both literally and figuratively here (one presumes he was being paid for those reviews) taints the reading experience and prevents the full realization of reading’s benefits. Choosing instead to talk of the “lasting good” that can come of reading, Howells disingenuously suggests that his readers could avoid “tainted” reading by approaching books innocently—but of course no reader of his would be able to do so, having read the great man’s opinion of those books. This insistence is not only out of touch with his audience’s position as readers of his text; it is also out of touch with the likely position of his audience with respect to both finances and leisure time. Howells is not quite a literary popularizer, though he has been placed in that position by the framing of his serial in the Journal; this role would not be filled until Mabie joined the magazine in 1902.
One imagines, for example, that Howells would have had mixed feelings about the programs of study that had just been promoted by J. Macdonald Oxley’s “Literary Improvement Clubs” in the Journal for January 1894. In this article, Oxley offers for reading groups four possible formats that will be “both interesting and profitable,” all of which run directly counter to Howells’s cautions against dutiful and self-interested reading. In one of Oxley’s models, for example, the organizer of the society would assign each member a different representative work by one author for presentation to the whole circle. This is an efficient way, Oxley notes, of helping each member determine “whether or not [the author under investigation] is an author to be cultivated,” one tailor-made for busy modern readers.
To busy men and women many of the most promising authors of the day are little more than names met with from time to time in the papers or magazines. They know nothing of their relative worth, and think they have not time to find out for themselves. Now if they would join a reading circle, and, taking for granted that the standard authors, the Hawthornes, Scotts, Thackerays, Coopers, Tennysons and Poes, are already sufficiently known, would confine their attention to living authors, they would inevitably find their range of literary vision wonderfully widened, and would soon be able to step surely where otherwise they would not dare to venture.47
There would need to be strict guidelines for the club, Oxley notes, particularly with regard to time; the members should arrive at each meeting promptly, and each work should be discussed in no more than twenty minutes. The presentations should be completed by ten o’clock to allow ample time for discussion. If the twenty-minute rule is not followed, Oxley warns, “non-adherence thereto may shipwreck the circle”; to avoid such disaster, a timekeeper should be appointed. Finally, Oxley genteelly suggests, “no member should feel bound to point out flaws when really there is not sufficient time to indicate all the excellences.” Interestingly enough, and probably not coincidentally, given the Journal’s preoccupation with Howells in 1894, Oxley suggests that Howells be one possible subject for such a club, provided that all of the genres in which he has worked are adequately covered by the readers. Oxley’s officious tone runs directly counter to Howells’s asserted objections to reading programs, but the format of My Literary Passions has already undercut Howells’s ideal of leisured, peripatetic reading. The very presence of Howells’s literary autobiography, likewise, belies his stated objections to self-interested reading, or reading for “profit.” The cautions against dutiful reading need not, then, pose an insurmountable contradiction for the Journal reader; indeed, the genteel, disinterested ideal could easily be preserved in the midst of “dutiful” practice.
Howells’s text contains other genteel remnants, which are likewise maintained side by side with their opposing practices. The idea of a “friendship” with books seems to have been at the center of Howells’s thoughts from his initial conception of the project, which he had originally proposed to Bok as “My Book Friends.”48 It is somewhat surprising coming from Howells, who, in his fiction, worked towards the elision of the authorial voice in the text, as did other realist novelists. Barbara Hochman has shown that the desire to “get at the author” was persistent with late-nineteenth and early twentieth-century audiences despite realist authors’ attempts to flee such scrutiny, and, as we shall see, Mabie validated his readers’ desires to think of their reading as a “conversation” with the author.49 But it would be a mistake to see Howells’s references to friendly reading as a capitulation to his Journal audiences’ perceived desires; he is, rather, setting up such reading as a complement to his more explicit rejections of romanticism. In his discussion of Shakespeare, for example, Howells draws an interesting distinction between befriending a character within the pages of a book and thinking one might be friends with a real-life manifestation of that character. Howells fancies his sixteen-year-old self uniquely appreciative of Falstaff, contending that he “fully conceived of Falstaff’s character, and entered into the author’s wonderfully humorous conception of him.” At the same time, he is compelled to note that “[a]s to Falstaff personally, or his like, I was rather fastidious, and would not have made friends with him in the flesh, much or little.”50 It seems a little unusual to need to contend that one would not be friends with Falstaffian figures in “real life,” but one might begin to understand this as an adjunct to Howells’s gradual decoupling of the personal author from the text. So, for example, while Howells had held a “fancied converse” with many of the authors he mentions, he does not do so with Hawthorne, in part because “Hawthorne himself seemed a remote and impalpable agency, rather than a person whom one might actually meet,” though Howells did in fact end up meeting him in person.51
The first twelve installments of the series proceed in this vein, leaving the impression more of a literary cautionary tale than of an exemplary literary biography. It turns out that most of these “passions,” while important to Howells in his youth, remain significant largely insofar as he has grown through and then beyond them. Little wonder, then, that in the December 1894 display advertisement of coming attractions for the following year (an annual feature in the Journal), readers are promised that “Mr. Howells’ Literary Autobiography will continue through a portion of the year and increase in charm and interest as he reaches the reading of contemporary authors whose books are now in everyone’s hands.”52 Had Journal readers expressed to the editors that they were neither charmed by Howells’s attacks on his critics nor interested in the vagaries of obtaining Spanish literature in the original? The marketing department must have at least discerned these reactions as distinct possibilities. This difficulty was of course anticipated by Bok in his negotiations with Howells for the series. Bok did not win this editorial battle, but one imagines that he knew his audience well and that there was indeed waning interest in Howells’s “passions” for obscure literature in the original language.
While the Journal’s circulation continued to increase during the serialization of My Literary Passions, it would be difficult to attribute causality to Howells’s memoir as opposed to, for example, the ongoing series “Wives of Famous Pastors.” And while Howells does wax more contemporary in the final three installments of My Literary Passions, the overall tone of the piece remains the same. In the penultimate installment, for example, Howells offers what he confesses are embarrassing admissions about great works of literature he has not read or did not read until quite late in his career:
Long after I had thought never to read it—in fact when I was nel mezzo del commin di nostra vita—I read Milton’s Paradise Lost, and found in it a splendor and majestic beauty that justified the fame it wears, and eclipsed the worth of those lesser poems which I had always stupidly and ignorantly accounted his worthiest. In fact it was one of the literary passions of the time I speak of, and it shared my devotion for the novels of Tourguénief and (shall I own it?) the romances of Cherbuliez. After all, it is best to be honest, and if it is not best, it is at least easiest; it involves the fewest embarrassing consequences; and if I confess the spell that the Revenge of Joseph Noirel cast upon me for a time, perhaps I shall be able to whisper to the reader behind my hand that I have never yet read the Aeneid of Virgil; the Georgics, yes; but the Aeneid, no.53
This oddly fastidious and embarrassed confession about having read and enjoyed a French dime novel functions as an entrée to the even greater admission that he has never read Virgil’s epic. It is as if Howells is trying to gain credibility with his less-sophisticated readers, as just another one of the many who enjoys trashy novels and who has not read Virgil’s masterpiece, but he cannot stomach the result. Not only does he introduce the move with an unattributed citation in Italian (easily recognizable to his Atlantic audiences, but perhaps less so to Journal readers), he quickly and almost compulsively identifies himself as an elite reader again by telling his audience that he has read Virgil’s didactic Georgics—the more “realistic” poems, as opposed to his more romantic eclogues. The end result is hardly the portrait of a man of the people. As an adviser his moves are equally clunky; he elevates Paradise Lost only at the expense of other Milton poetry such as, perhaps, “Il Penseroso” or the “Ode on Christ’s Nativity,” the only two Milton works that would be recommended by Mabie. Ultimately, Howells is tone-deaf when it comes to his Journal audience, even when he is trying to assert his camaraderie with them.
There are finally two problems with Howells as a reading advisor: his reading is far too exclusive, too narrowly literary and intellectual, for the broad audience of the Journal, and his tone is too smug, prescriptive even when it means to be descriptive. He is less like the benevolent Tom Corey of The Rise of Silas Lapham, moderating his advice to fit the needs of his striving audience, than he is like Tom’s father, Bromfield Corey, obsessed with arcane foreign literature and self-congratulatory when it comes to his disapproving reconsiderations of texts that he had enjoyed once in his youth. He discusses frequently literature that he considers “unmeet for ladies,” hardly a useful strategy when writing for an audience primarily (though not entirely) female.54 Bok reminisces that Howells once asked him “how he classified his audience”—perhaps in preparation for My Literary Passions, but the context is unspecified—and that Bok replied, “We appeal to the intelligent American woman rather than to the intellectual type.”55 Presumably Howells then knew to whom he was speaking, but he chose to pursue the “passion” side of the title, producing an inwardly focused bildungsroman rather than Bok’s preferred model of the exemplary biography.
One wonders, then, what the Journal audience was supposed to have gotten from the serial as Howells finally constructed it; why would a famous author’s youthful reading be of any interest unless it was somehow considered a reputable counsel for themselves or, at the very least, for their sons. There is some indication that the series may have been reaching a receptive audience, for at the close of the October 1894 installment a notice is appended that readers sending $1.00 will be sent all of the Journal’s back issues containing My Literary Passions. But this may well have been “nudge” marketing; the prompt to readers in December suggests audience disaffection equally strongly. While Howells was a paragon, he was not a workable model, and his advice far exceeded the Journal audience’s capacity to follow it. Hamilton Wright Mabie’s advice, on the other hand, would be distinctly anti-exemplary; he would offer suggestions, and opinions, but never prescriptions, and as we shall see, this approach seems to have been one of the keys to his success in the pages of the Journal. Mabie never recommends that his readers locate My Literary Passions, nor does he ever mention The Coast of Bohemia. These two Howells texts were not “must reads” for Journal audiences after all—the novel neither significant enough nor entertaining enough, and the literary memoir too critical. Instead, Mabie would come to embrace the novel he is now so famous for maligning—The Rise of Silas Lapham—and two other Howells novels, from different ends of the Howells spectrum: The Lady of the Aroostook and A Hazard of New Fortunes. His embrace of these titles is a function of their capacity to be read either as diverting romances or as cautionary tales for the upwardly mobile, as guides, like Mabie’s columns, to the cultural milieu of the successful. And they, more than Howells’s literary autobiography, would be “practically” interesting to the Journal readership.
In his 1885 review of The Rise of Silas Lapham in the Andover Review, Mabie finally found that the novel, along with James’s Bostonians, had “no throb of life . . . the pulse of feeling, if it beats at all, is imperceptible; and of the free and joyous play of that supreme force which we call genius there is absolutely not one gleam.”56 And yet by the time he was offering advice in the Journal, Mabie would contend that “[i]t may be taken for granted that anything which Mr. Cable, Mr. Howells, Mr. Allen, Mr. Page, Miss Jewett or Miss Wilkins is willing to put before the public will be worth serious attention, though even the best writers sometimes nod” (June 1902, 17). Mabie did not just embrace Howells in a general sense; he seems, by 1902, to have reconsidered his hesitations about Lapham in particular. Lapham appears in a 1903 list of “all the earlier [American] novelists or short-story writers whose work has permanent value . . . [and] the foremost later writers,” along with Howells’s The Lady of the Aroostock and A Hazard of New Fortunes (March 1903, 17). It is also among the selections in the American literature list in his “Courses of Reading for Summer Moods” (July 1903); in “A Short Course in Fiction,” alongside The House of the Seven Gables, Thomas Nelson Page’s Red Rock, David Copperfield, and The Portrait of a Lady (October 1908); in “Novels Descriptive of American Life,” as one of thirty-eight titles (November 1908); and in both the “Novels of Character Study” list and, with The Bostonians and Wharton’s The House of Mirth, in the “Novels of Realism” list (September 1909). In November 1911, Mabie classes Lapham with Treasure Island, Old Creole Days, and Barchester Towers as a novel that will probably join Vanity Fair and Ivanhoe, among others, as perennial popular favorites in libraries. In all, Mabie recommends Lapham more than any other single novel besides Thackeray’s Vanity Fair over the ten-year span of his columns for the Journal (see appendix A). While it is impossible to know with any certainty the reasons for Mabie’s changing opinions, it is clear that, even if Mabie had not revised his aesthetic assessment of Lapham and other realist offerings, he now felt they were novels that belonged on lists directed towards the reader longing for self-culture, as groups of novels that are worth reading. It is likely that he included them because they are novels his readers expected to be told to read.
Mabie writes at length about Howells on a number of occasions, all of which support the idea that he recommended Howells because he thought reading Howells was to be expected or would be “good for” his readers. Early in his tenure, Mabie has the opportunity to introduce Howells on the occasion of the publication of The Kentons. Though the discussion appears at the very end of the column—after a contemplation on the haste of modern life; a quick assessment of Jane Austen as, in contrast, “a novelist of the quiet life”; some thoughts on the value of poetry; and brief reviews of works by the popular novelists F. Hopkinson Smith and Mary Tappan Wright—the page layout flags the Howells discussion as a marquee attraction through images. There is a small picture of Smith at the opening of the column next to the drop cap, but the only other image appears in the center of the page: a stacked diptych subtitled “Mr. William Dean Howells in His Study.” The top picture shows an unoccupied, but sumptuously arrayed, book-lined room; the bottom picture, presumably a reverse shot, is the same picture that accompanied the November 1893 Boyeson sketch of Howells (thrift being a virtue even in wildly popular mass-market publications). As was his habit with established authors whose work he has not previously discussed, Mabie traces the arc of Howells’s career before reviewing the newest contribution; he praises him first as “not only one of our most distinguished writers but . . . also one of our most representative men of letters—one who lives in, for and by literature,” and he goes on to a thumbnail assessment of Howells’s strengths: “He has trained himself for his work by long and intimate familiarity with the most characteristic modern literature, and has become an accomplished craftsman; he understands thoroughly how to construct a story and put it into limpid English.” The latter assessment might be construed as faint praise, but it seems that for the most part, it is Howells’s “lightness” that recommends him to the Journal reader. His novels are “full of delicate characterization, light humor, close observation.” While he has turned at times to more serious subjects, “his touch is still light and deft, and he remains a painter of manners on comparatively small canvases. Two or three times he has handled a larger subject strongly and successfully, and in ‘Silas Lapham’ and ‘A Modern Instance’ he has contributed to our literature novels of an insight and power which will give them great value to later generations” (October 1902, 17). Lapham will become the most-recommended Howells novel in Mabie’s columns, with fourteen mentions, but A Modern Instance will not appear again, supplanted by A Hazard of New Fortunes and The Lady of the Aroostook as Mabie’s other Howells favorites, each mentioned six times.
Despite this nod to “larger” novels, Mabie seems more inclined to spend time with some of Howells’s “lighter” pieces, like the current novel under consideration, The Kentons. In Mabie’s treatment, in fact, The Kentons looks a bit like a fitting Journal piece, at least, until he introduces his oblique critique. It is a portrait of “an average American family,” Mabie contends, “full of natural refinement, of unselfish devotion, but thoroughly unsophisticated; a group of unworldly people, of intense domesticity of habit, excessively self-conscious and endowed with the nervous American temperament.” Are these people with whom one would be interested in spending time? Or is the novel a diagnosis of contemporaneous American social ills? It finally seems the latter—The Kentons is “devoid of striking incidents, and there are pages which drag, not because the novelist fails to do his work well, but because his people are not always interesting.” In the novel, Mabie contends, Howells has captured a range of both positive and negative attributes in the family, and these are mixed together both in the Howellsian representation and in Mabie’s review: “The cleanness of the average American family, its lack of knowledge of the world, the deference of the husband to the wife and the subordination of the parents to the children, the ease with which the American girl becomes slangy without becoming vulgar, the tendency to excessive introspection, and the sharp nervous reactions within the family are deftly suggested” (October 1902, 17). The Kentons, in other words, presents a family that may well resemble the quotidian reality of the Journal reader’s family, but by no means does it resemble the ideals promulgated in the magazine’s pages. As a deviation from that ideal, it is open to the same kinds of critique that Mabie leveled against Lapham in the Andover Review, where he sees it as representative of a realism that
is crowding the world of fiction with commonplace people; people whom one would positively avoid coming in contact with in real life; people without native sweetness or strength, without acquired culture or accomplishment, without the touch of the ideal which makes the commonplace significant and worthy of study. To the large, typical characters of the older novels has succeeded a generation of feeble, irresolute, unimportant men and women whose careers are of no moment to themselves, and wholly destitute of interest to us.57
While its lightness is a potential positive attribute, it extends to the moral realm as well, and The Kentons in the final analysis looks like “a typical [realist] novel.” As a parting shot, Mabie acknowledges the critical stance that could make Howells persona non grata with some Journal readers—his disdain for the romance: “In the young brother, who falls in love with Queen Wilhelmina, Mr. Howells has humorously and good-naturedly made his point about the romantic and semi-historical novel” (October 1902, 17). Even this briefest of allusions would probably remind Mabie’s readers of the central incident of the previous year’s best-selling, romantic, semi-historical novel, George Barr McCutcheon’s Graustark, and would signal the fact that Howells was satirizing that text in his own. Given that the Journal would be offering Beverly of Graustark, the second novel in the series, as a subscriber premium as late as 1906, this allusion might well turn a number of Mabie’s readers against Howells’s text—though it might also attract either those who wanted to follow a literary feud or those who hoped to refine their reading beyond the best-seller list.
If the same qualities come in for the same critique in Howells’s 1902 columns, then, what has changed with regard to Lapham that makes it no longer a typical novel or, at last, renders it a “lasting” novel, whereas, in June 1903, The Kentons is relegated to a more recreational reading list, “Novels for Summer Reading”? While the titles included in the latter are acceptable because of “interest, good workmanship, variety, and wholesome sentiment” (June 1903, 15), and the list makes strange bedfellows of such titles as Just-So Stories and Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch, Lapham is repeatedly considered on a continuum with The Scarlet Letter and The Last of the Mohicans. Perhaps it is the fact that Lapham treats a “larger subject” and does so with “strength,” “insight,” and “power.” These are all code words Mabie uses when describing literature he sees as having canonical potential, in lists “made in response to numerous requests” directed towards “readers who would like to make or renew their acquaintance with English fiction at successive periods in its representative works” (July 1903, 14). Mabie simply needed to address realism in lists that aspired to canonicity, and Lapham had already achieved that canonicity by 1902. By the time Mabie was penning his advice columns for the Journal, he was writing into a set of expectations that included Howells, and Lapham, because Howells had by this time fully assumed the mantle of Dean of American Letters.
Of course, the situation of upwardly striving readers is an abiding concern in Lapham, and Howells is by no means complimentary to the “non-cultivated” reader (SL, 116). A Mabie reader encountering Lapham, directed by lists like the July 1903 “Courses of Reading for Summer Moods,” or by a list of novels up for the designation of “three best American novels” in March 1904, or by the September 1909 list “Novels of Realism,” would no doubt have a complex relationship with the novel’s multiple representations of the upwardly mobile Laphams’ literary pursuits, and to the Coreys’ running commentary on the Laphams’ missteps. Mabie’s readers, encountering Howells, would have found moments that both affirmed and destabilized their sense of their own command of culture; by affirming that his audiences could and should read Lapham, Mabie rendered them more savvy than Penelope Lapham and, ultimately, more likely to identify with many of the Coreys’ intellectual pronouncements. That the desire of the upwardly mobile to acquire reading is so skewered in Lapham would thus become the very impulse that led many readers to Lapham and that gave Tom Corey’s lists of good books for a library an even wider audience. Tom’s suggestions carry an even greater weight by virtue of Silas Lapham’s insistence that he is a “natural-born business man” (SL, 109), a hard worker and a modest one, not despite his Brahmin ancestry but because of it. While the second generation of Coreys—Tom’s father, Bromfield—is dissipated, the family patriarch, Philips Corey, was a businessman like Silas, whose hard work created the financial basis for the later generations’ literary and intellectual sophistication. Indeed, it seems the heroes of the “success” story in Lapham are the eldest and youngest of the Corey family—Philips and Tom—and Bromfield Corey joins Silas Lapham as the cautionary tales against abstracted, impractical literary pursuits and unethical business practices, respectively.
Howells’s own ambiguity towards the Coreys complicates the identificatory positions in scenes like the interview between Tom and Bromfield after Tom has offered a Mabiean list of recommended books for the new Lapham library. Tom wonders aloud to his father about “the average literature of non-cultivated people” (SL, 116), a speculation that, while it comes from the mind of the most generally admirable character in the novel, and the one readers would most naturally identify with Howells himself, would certainly cause some discomfort to readers who were themselves “non-cultivated” but who were trying their best by reading Lapham. Over the course of the conversation, though, there is considerable opportunity for identificatory rearrangement. Bromfield answers Tom’s superior tone with the observation that “the average is pretty low even with cultivated people” and that conciliatory decoupling of literary taste from educational opportunity opens the door for readers to agree with, or to learn from, Tom’s subsequent description of his own reading practice. “I think I read with some sense of literature and the difference between authors. I don’t suppose that people generally do that; I have met people who had read books without troubling themselves to find out even the author’s name, much less trying to decide upon his quality. I suppose that’s the way the vast majority of people read” (SL, 116). The Mabie reader can at this point, secure in the knowledge that he or she is in fact well aware of both Howells’s name and his quality, return to a comfortable and even self-congratulatory camaraderie with the Coreys. Bromfield’s lament that “I don’t suppose that we who have the habit of reading, and at least a nodding acquaintance with literature, can imagine the bestial darkness of the great mass of people—even people whose bonuses are rich, and whose linen is purple and fine” (SL, 117), can be met with a knowing nod by the Mabie devotee who has taken to heart Mabie’s endorsement of the “habit of reading,” a campaign begun in the first line of his inaugural column in 1902 and echoing precisely Bromfield’s phrase. As an added benefit, readers may join Bromfield in his disdain of the owner of “fine linen” whose mental life languishes in darkness, thereby asserting their intellectual superiority over those with pecuniary superiority.
This comfort does not last long, though, because Bromfield quickly identifies the Laphams as the wealthy philistines of his critique, and the Laphams, like the Kentons, look a little like the typical reader of the Journal. Though Bromfield seems skeptical that the Laphams have “knowledge enough to be ashamed of their ignorance,” and we as readers know that Penelope certainly does, Tom concedes only that they do “in certain ways—to a certain degree.” While he defends them as “quick,” and “shrewd and sensible,” Bromfield insists that this designation in itself does nothing to raise them to the state of “civilization”: “All civilization comes through literature now, especially in our country. A Greek got his civilization by talking and looking, and in some measure a Parisian may still do it. But we, who live remote from history and monuments, we must read or we must barbarize” (SL, 118). While all of Bromfield’s pronouncements must be considered as potentially satirical, this one certainly seems to adhere to the underlying principles of the Mabie columns. Reading must go beyond the information-gathering mode of the newspaper and the lecture; it is essential to moving beyond a “primitive” state.
But Bromfield is an ambivalent mouthpiece for this seemingly sage advice; his dilettantish literary and artistic pursuits have bankrupted the once-proud Corey family, and he is reliant on his more practical son to save the family either through his own labor or through marriage to the daughter of a rich captain of industry. Bromfield has lived his life as a romantic, fighting not in the American Civil War, for example, but with Giuseppe Garibaldi’s Red Shirts. He serves as the mouthpiece for a romantic sensibility that the whole novel is metafictionally positioned against: “You can paint a man dying for his country, but you can’t express on canvas a man fulfilling the duties of a good citizen” (SL, 202). Another practical Corey relative, the worldly and industrious Charles Bellingham, repudiates this proclamation from Bromfield, voicing Howells’s realist manifesto: “The commonplace is just that light, impalpable, aërial essence which they’ve never got into their confounded books yet. The novelist who could interpret the common feelings of commonplace people would have the answer to ‘the riddle of the painful earth’ on his tongue” (SL, 202). Turning a Tennyson phrase against the romantics, Howells proposes a subject for literature which will allow a proper relation to literature, and locates its champions firmly in the cosmopolitan world of business.
How, though, might a Mabie reader who comes to Lapham straight from Ik Marvel situate him- or herself with regard to Tears, Idle Tears? Since part of Howells’s literary project was to engender a realist aesthetic sensibility in his reader, it is not entirely unlikely that a Mabie reader would have seen the error of his or her sentimental ways after reading of Penelope Lapham’s odd susceptibility to the excesses of a sentimental novel. Pen is sensible enough to recognize the absurdity of Tears, Idle Tears when she is commenting on it as a novel, but she is unable to resist its ideology when she is presented with the same dilemma in her own life. Countering Tom’s attempts to disinterestedly examine the book’s logics of self-sacrifice, Penelope offers a wholesale condemnation:
But it wasn’t self-sacrifice—or not self-sacrifice alone. She was sacrificing him, too; and for some one who couldn’t appreciate him half as much as she could. I’m provoked with myself when I think how I cried over that book—for I did cry. It’s silly—it’s wicked for anyone to do what that girl did. Why can’t they let people have a chance to behave reasonably in stories? (SL, 217)
One of the pleasures of the text for some Lapham readers is, of course, the ability to recognize that Penelope is recapitulating the mistakes of the Tears, Idle Tears heroine, and to applaud their own condemnation of the false ideal of self-sacrifice. While an easy juxtaposition of the Penelope-Tom plot and the plot of Tears, Idle Tears might seem sufficient to make this connection, and thus evoke such a critique, Howells somehow feels it necessary to draw the connection with a very heavy hand. It hardly seems realistic that Penelope should so quickly revert from discussing the absurdity of “renunciation” in the dime romance to enacting precisely the same renunciation in her own drawing room, particularly since she has been portrayed up to this point as a character with more than her share of common sense. One might go far in explaining this apparent clumsiness on Howells’s part by noting the importance of immediate juxtaposition at this moment: the reader must not be allowed to miss the equation of the Tears, Idle Tears romance and the Lapham romance. To allow any space between the two would be to allow space for the reader to imaginatively differentiate the two—Tears Idle Tears might then be seen to represent false renunciation, but Penelope’s act in Lapham might be redeemable by simple virtue of the widely acknowledged “quality” of Howells’s novel, among other possibilities.
This is not to say that Howells anticipated the canonization of his novel, or would even have anticipated its being recommended to a large mass audience in the pages of a magazine such as the Ladies’ Home Journal; rather, it is to suggest that readerly eccentricities, and the desire to get something in particular out of a text, may well have led Howells to didactic moves like the rather clumsy drawing-room scene between Penelope and Tom. Howells, in other words, could not be certain that his reader would read like Tom, and indeed may have been more reasonably certain that he or she would read like Penelope. It can be no mistake that, after this scene, there is very little discussion of literacy, or of taste in literature, for the remainder of the novel. The education of the reader in the ways of proper reading, and the construction of a mental “bookshelf” to frame the novel, is finished for now, and the reader is to use that knowledge in the assessment of the quasi-romantic plot points that remain in Lapham. Whether the reader would do so is, of course, utterly outside the control of the author, and the embrace of Lapham by a Mabie reader may well have rested on the fact that ultimately, like Cornelia and Ludlow, Penelope and Tom do make a love match.
While Penelope and Tom’s marriage does technically fit the definition of a “happy ending,” it is not an entirely comfortable pairing; the two must live together in a self-imposed Mexican exile, which we are told lasts only three years, though their return remains unrepresented in the novel. Howells expends considerable energy describing the Corey family’s uneasy acceptance of the marriage, and their relief that they will not really need to have any social contact with Penelope (“I’m glad she’s going to Mexico. At that distance we can—correspond” [SL, 360]) or with their in-laws. Penelope’s opinions about the estrangement go markedly unremarked: “Whether Penelope, on her side, found it more difficult to harmonize, I cannot say. She had much more of the harmonizing to do, since they were four to one; but then she had gone through so much greater trials before” (SL, 360). Trumping Penelope’s true feelings about her uncomfortable relationship with the Coreys is her ability to retreat into “manners and customs,” insists the Howellsian narrator, who returns forcefully in this penultimate scene. When, on their departure for Mexico, Penelope offers Tom an explanation for a sigh that has no relation to his family or their awkward parting, the narrator explains that
there is no proof that she meant more, but it is certain that our manners and customs go for more in life than our qualities. The price we pay for civilization is the fine yet impossible differentiation of these. Perhaps we pay too much; but it will not be possible to persuade those who have the difference in their favor that this is so. They may be right; and at any rate the blank misgiving, the recurring sense of disappointment to which the young people’s departure left the Coreys is to be considered. That was the end of their son and brother for them; they felt that; and they were not mean or unamiable people. (SL, 361)
The passage shifts very quickly from a consideration of Penelope’s meaning, which is indecipherable even to our omniscient narrator, to an ambivalent acceptance of the superiority of “civilized” manners, and an implicit rejection of the romantic performance of emotion.
This same kind of ambiguity attended the marriage resolution of The Coast of Bohemia, and Howells changes the subject in a similar fashion, by returning his readers to the “moral spectacle” of Silas himself, now happily returned to his homestead in Lapham, Vermont. Minister Sewall and his wife take the role of Charmian Maybough, offering a third-party reading of the Lapham situation that could distance some readers from identification with any of the central characters. Sewall polices reader response for Howells, first by chastising his wife, and any recalcitrant readers, for the residual sentimentality that would make one resentful of Penelope’s triumph with Tom: “That is wrong, cruelly wrong. I’m sure that’s out of your novel-reading, my dear, and not out of your heart. Come! It grieves me to hear you say such a thing as that!” Mrs. Sewell then voices her consolation, which should be the reader’s own: “Oh, I dare say this pretty thing [Irene Lapham] has got over it—how much character she has got!—and I suppose she’ll see someone else” (SL, 363). Though Howells does assure us that Irene has not seen anyone else, Mrs. Sewell’s concession, inaccurate as it may be, remains the cold comfort that exists for the reader who would still adhere to a sentimental economy—and Howells makes certain it is still available for such a reader. The final Lapham-Sewell interview, in which Lapham concludes that he “should have to” do things the same way, is vestigial to the reader focused on the romance plot, but it provides the cautionary note for the reader interested in the novel’s frustrated narrative of financial upward mobility: Lapham has achieved ethical success, but the fact remains that he has to sacrifice pecuniary success only because he first dabbled in unethical business practices. Lapham tells Sewell: “[I]t seems to me I done wrong about Rogers in the first place; that the whole trouble came from that. It was just like starting a row of bricks. I tried to catch up, and stop ‘em from going, but they all tumbled, one after another. It wa’n’t in the nature of things that they could be stopped until the last brick went” (SL, 364). And while the text is ambiguous on this point, a reader can interpret Sewell’s response, offered with “subtle kindness,” as indicating that Silas ultimately deserves his fate because he does not acknowledge that he wronged Rogers in the first place.
“I should be inclined to think—nothing can be thrown quite away; and it can’t be that our sins only weaken us—that your fear of having possibly behaved selfishly toward this man kept you on your guard, and strengthened you when you were brought face to face with a greater”—he was going to say temptation, but he saved Lapham’s pride, and said—“emergency.” (SL, 364)
Sewell hesitates before describing Lapham’s final test as “temptation” and substitutes the more value-neutral “emergency”; but “temptation” is still there for the offering, and the reader may still couch the analysis in those terms. Whether Lapham was immoral or simply unwise, the lesson for the striving Mabie reader is the same: things need not have gone this way. Lapham’s financial fall precipitates his moral rise only because he was not ethical in the first place, but ethics and wealth are not mutually exclusive. Financial success need not be predicated on immorality. Be on the lookout for men like Rogers, treat all your business partners fairly, don’t buy on margin, and read your Howells.
Of Labor Riots and Marriage Plots
The other Howells texts that receive consistent mention in Mabie’s columns are The Lady of the Aroostook (1879) and A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890), with six mentions each. Mabie tended to recommend pairs of novels by authors, particularly when composing lists, and these two novels accompanied Lapham on lists of “novels of realism” and in short courses of fiction. Aroostook appears frequently in the first half of Mabie’s tenure at the Journal; he begins to replace it with Hazard in 1906. Why the shift? Hazard is a far murkier novel than Aroostook, and a novel focused primarily on business, whereas Aroostook rarely strays from the courtship rituals of young, relatively well-heeled New Englanders. Aroostook is an easier novel to read with an eye to learning social mores; the story of an ingénue, it provides a reader with representations of inappropriate behavior in a number of circumstances, and offers internal commentary on that behavior from knowledgeable, moral, and trustworthy characters. Hazard, on the other hand, is a much more ambiguous novel, whose moral center lies somewhere to the side of the frequently too-cavalier protagonist, Basil March. Hazard’s pro-labor conclusion threatens to derail the only engagement in the novel, and the other courtship plot, which follows a couple identical to The Coast of Bohemia’s Ludlow and Cornelia, ends grotesquely. But there is a happy ending to Hazard, in which the proprietorship of a literary magazine is handed over to the pair who knows the most about the venture, the editor and the publicist. Hazard is, in short, the romance of business that Mabie champions in the later period of his Journal columns, and as such becomes the ideal companion to Lapham.
Before Mabie articulates the notion of the romance of business, he readily recommends The Lady of the Aroostook to his Journal audience. Aroostook truly is a comedy of manners that chronicles the unconventional shipboard courtship of a young woman from western Massachusetts, Lydia Blood, by James Staniford, a young man of Boston Brahmin stock. The courtship is unconventional not simply because of the difference in the social standing of the hero and heroine but also because the ship, the Aroostook, is not a passenger steamer but a cargo sailing ship, and the unworldly and unsuspecting Lydia is the only female on board. There are three other passengers aside from the ship’s crew, all three young gentlemen, only one of them engaged to be married. The two single men, of course, fall in love with Lydia, but one is an unreformed alcoholic who was sent aboard for a forced drying-out period and who relapses after the ship’s first port of call. It is through the point of view of Staniford that the reader experiences the Atlantic crossing, and he begins the journey in cynical examination of Lydia, whom he dubs “Lurella” when in confidential conversation with his companion, the affianced Dunham. But Staniford slowly recognizes the native morality and wisdom of Lydia, and finds himself in love just as they are about to disembark in Italy. Staniford determines to tell Lydia of his affections in the conventional order of things, once she is no longer an unaccompanied woman, but the final third of the novel sees Staniford kept, by mishap, from meeting Lydia in Venice to declare his affection and intentions. During this period Howells offers a critique of a hypocritical expatriate Venice through Lydia’s eyes, noting well the contradiction between the city’s fastidious public prudery and its private decadence. When Lydia and Staniford are finally reunited, he shuttles his concerns about the propriety of declaring his attentions to an unaccompanied woman, and the relative freedom afforded to the American girl is finally upheld as superior to the sham protections of the European chaperone.
Aroostook has been read as a companion piece to James’s Daisy Miller, albeit one that diverges from James’s text by affording the innocent American girl some measure of romantic satisfaction.58 Lydia and Staniford settle in California on their marriage, a conclusion which, even if one does not go as far as William Wasserstrom in deeming this an “exile . . . to the antipodes,” does seem to signal Howells’s inability, as John W. Crowley puts it, to “give . . . imaginative form” to the possibility of feminine social freedom in America.59 Even acknowledging that a move to California is a “return” for Lydia, who was after all born there, and taking account of the fact that her worldly aunt, Mrs. Erwin, leaves Venice with her Americanophile husband for the more salutary climate of Santa Barbara, we must concur with Crowley’s assessment of the end of Aroostook as “sketchy,” at best, and therefore just barely offering the desired “happy ending” to his heroine. Even so, we may assume that the gesture that sufficed for the wish fulfillment of many of Mabie’s readers pointed to Aroostook as one of the “best American novels” (June 1905, 28); as the other Howells novel to read in a course providing a “beginning in the best fiction” (October 1905, 20); as a representative novel of American fiction, alongside Lapham and Hazard (March 1903, 17); or as a suitable novel “for older girls” (June 1903, 15). In the review of The Kentons, Mabie evokes Aroostook as the high-water mark for Howellsian “lightness,” praising the way Howells “draw[s] with an affectionate hand an American type of unsophisticated purity and loveliness,” suggesting an ideality in Aroostook that Mabie would find lacking in The Kentons (October 1902, 17). In the recommendation for “older girls,” Mabie lists Aroostook with two other early Howells novels, Their Wedding Journey (1872) and A Chance Acquaintance (1873), both of which are also centrally concerned with the marriage prospects and the “native decency” of young American girls. Crowley notes that A Chance Acquaintance was particularly frustrating for its contemporaneous readers because of its refusal to realize their romantic desires: “Despite the enormity of the mismatch between Kitty and Arbuton, which Howells stressed from first to last, readers of romantic taste chose to overlook Howells’ realistic intentions and to hope against hope that he would find a way to marry the lovers. When he did not, some complained of their frustration and demanded at least a more satisfactorily connubial sequel.”60 Presumably, with the connubial prequel and sequel in hand, Mabie’s “older girl” would be able to sustain her interest through the frustrating conclusion of A Chance Acquaintance; it is telling that this is the only mention of that novel in all of Mabie’s columns. As with Lapham, the more uncomfortable marital resolution of Aroostook was preferable, it seems, to an ending that thwarted the marriage plot.
During the second half of his decade at the Journal, Mabie came to mention Hazard more frequently to his audience as the Howells novel to read after they read Lapham. Hazard has considerable potential interest to the informed reader of the Journal, as it is intimately concerned with the question that drove Edwin Bok as he tried to make the Journal a legitimate literary magazine—what kind of literature would appeal to female readers, the Ewig-Weibliche which Basil March’s partner, Fulkerson, continuously evokes. The observant, and long-term, Journal reader might also notice that Alma Leighton and Angus Beaton are precursors to Cornelia and Ludlow in The Coast of Bohemia. Like Cornelia, Alma has come to New York on the recommendation of a young artist who visited her rural hometown on vacation; like Cornelia, Alma takes art lessons and initially holds out hope that her young artist will recommence his courtship. But, unlike Cornelia, Alma is recognized publicly for her skill, and she has illustrations commissioned for the pages of Every Other Week. And unlike Cornelia, Alma decides to focus on her career and to stop paying any attention to the self-absorbed Beaton. When he suggests that they might be able to work together as a married couple, Alma counters with the argument that she would not be able to work with him as an equal: “Second fiddle. Do you suppose I shouldn’t be woman enough to wish my work always less and lower than yours?”61 Alma is not destined to be subsumed by hollyhocks.
Alma feels like a revision of Cornelia, but in fact she was Cornelia’s predecessor. Just three years after the publication of Hazard, Howells enables a marriage between Cornelia and Ludlow that suffers from precisely the kind of dysfunction to which Alma refused to subject herself. Is the resolution different because Howells knew he would be publishing Coast in the Journal? There is no documentary evidence that speaks to this question, but it is an intriguing possibility. Hazard was a successful novel in its time, selling twenty-three thousand copies in its first year.62 Howells did not face ravening crowds who resented his inability to successfully pair Alma, as Edith Wharton would after killing off Lily Bart at the end of The House of Mirth. But Howells did have considerable prejudices against the intellectual capacity of audiences like the one he would have expected from the Journal, and it is not at all surprising that he ended Coast more conventionally than Hazard. Bowing to market pressures was of course something that Howells disdained; indeed, just after the publication of Hazard, a frustrated Howells could hardly keep his language in check after encountering the dreck produced for the holiday market. “There seems,” he observes, “a demand for inferior quality in all of the arts,” primarily because there are people who will never be able to appreciate good work:
Certain sorts of intelligences, which famish upon excellence, pasture with delight upon what is less than excellent. The appetite of youth, indiscriminating and uncultivated, remains the taste through life of a vast multitude of people who never mature aesthetically. These cannot get the good of what is wholly good; they can only get the good of what is partly good; and no doubt it is their need that accounts for the existence of mediocre artists and mediocre works in every kind.63
Literary hierarchies are inevitable, because there is a natural hierarchy of taste that cannot be corrected—the bovine masses will never “pasture” on things that are “wholly good”; they are constitutionally unable to process and benefit from quality art. Though he closes his column with a halfhearted call for “true criticism” to “endeavor patiently to convert [primitive appetites] to a taste for better things,” the prognosis is poor.
Was Mabie attempting to convert the appetites of his readers away from romance, away from sentiment, and away from the expectation of a happy ending, as he recommended they read Hazard? We should not forget, of course, that the novel chronicles a relatively stable mature marriage and that while Beaton is never domesticated, and Conrad Dryfoos is murdered before he can reach an understanding with Miss Vance, one of the young couples does successfully wed. The courtship of Fulkerson and Miss Woodburn is hardly compensatory for all the frustrated romances in the novel, though; it begins late, and the reader is given little satisfaction in the abbreviated development of the relationship. But the final nail in the coffin of the marriage plot is Basil March’s unequivocal speech against the conventional notion of a happy ending, in which he blames novel-reading for people’s unrealistic expectations of marriage. “We get to thinking that there is no other happiness or good fortune in life except marriage; and it’s offered in fiction as the highest premium for virtue, courage, beauty, learning, and saving human life. We all know it isn’t.” March goes even further to propose that a novel should be written “from the anti-marriage point of view . . . begin with an engaged couple, and devote [the] novel to disengaging them, and rendering them separately happy ever after in the dénoûment” (HNF, 479). Seekers after matrimonial happy endings need not apply to Hazard, a novel that imagines an author would “make his fortune” from the demolition of a potential union.
The sentimental is rejected as roundly as the romantic in Hazard. Conrad Dryfoos’s murder is perhaps the apotheosis of the novel’s anti-sentimentality; just before his death, Conrad has a fight with his management-sympathizing father. Wandering the streets in a daze, Conrad then encounters Miss Vance, whose passionate yet delicate sympathies for the working men are in conflict with her fear of “what people would say” (HNF, 420) if she were to talk to the strikers. Miss Vance’s pleas both confirm Conrad’s romantic attraction to her and inspire him to go to the scene of the strike, initially because he hopes to “do something,” to help the strikers in some way, but ultimately because he gets wrapped up in an imagined scenario in which Miss Vance appreciates his ability to understand her desires. “Thinking of her pleasure in what he was going to do, he forgot almost what it was” (HNF, 421). Conrad’s sympathetic impulses spring not from a feeling for the workers but from a feeling for Miss Vance. When he does finally awaken from this reverie it is too late; he cannot prevent a policeman from beating the elderly socialist war veteran Lindau because he himself has already been shot.
The sympathetic impulse, which was motivated more by self-interest than by true feeling for others, is ineffectual. Conrad’s murder does not end the strike, and it does not make his father sympathetic to the strikers. Likewise, Miss Vance’s sympathies are wrongheaded and inadequate; she tries to recompense Conrad’s death by serving the poor as a Sister of Charity, but her motivations in so doing actually come into question from both Basil and Isabel March. Mrs. March “was not sure but that the girl was something of a poseuse, and enjoyed the picturesqueness, as well as the pain; and she wished to be convinced that it was not so” (HNF, 452). Basil, on the other hand, dismisses Miss Vance’s self-sacrifice as an unworkable posture, given that one needs to actually live in the world: “Oh, Christ came into the world to teach us how to live rightly in it, too. If we were all to spend our time in hospitals, it would be rather dismal for the homes” (HNF, 452). Whether self-sacrificial charity is hypocritical or just ill conceived, it is not finally an option in the world of Hazard, and any reader inclined towards sentimentality would find it difficult to stomach this cynical critique.
There is a residuum of both sentiment and romance in Hazard, though, and it can be found in the business plot of the novel. The story of the launch and success of March and Fulkerson’s literary periodical Every Other Week, considered in isolation, gives us the happy ending that the characters’ relationships lack. The plot contains a conventional complication, with the interloping but materially necessary philistine investor Jacob Dryfoos. This complication is resolved by Dryfoos ceding the field, and the magazine, to the rightful pair, and we end with a marriage between March and Fulkerson, and a happily-ever-after denouement in which we see the business partners and friends living and working together in perpetuity. The rhetorics of the novel, particularly near the end, frequently elide the languages of business and romance; after Dryfoos offers to give the magazine to March and Fulkerson, for example, Fulkerson celebrates: “It’s just throwing the thing into our mouths . . . The wedding will be this day week. No cards!” (HNF, 484). It is not immediately apparent that Fulkerson is actually referring to his wedding with Miss Woodburn; it initially sounds like a metaphoric description of the business transaction. His marriage is an adjunct to his business success; the business plot is the real romance.
Mabie tries on numerous occasions to convince his readers of the romantic possibilities of the workplace, and his most rousing argument is offered in a column in which he lists Hazard as one of the best works of fiction published in the previous ten years. “The romance of the workshop,” he argues, “is as pure in quality and is perhaps greater in mass than the romance of the castle and the palace” (March 1904, 16). Though the “workshop” Mabie has in mind sounds a bit more blue-collar than the offices of Every Other Week, the general principles are the same: this romance can be located in the lives of everyday men and women, and its happy ending comes from the protagonist’s elevation through work to a state of psychic and financial felicity. Hazard works this way if we think of March and Fulkerson triumphing over a patronage system to finally control their own business destinies. They are no longer working for someone else, someone who is utterly disinterested in their product, but are working for themselves. If one reads Hazard in this light, several things can fall by the wayside; Lindau and his socialist ideals, for example, become collateral damage, all the more so because they have been marginalized throughout the text by the dialect in which they are proffered. The success of Every Other Week inheres finally not in its aesthetic superiority, and not in its glancing likeness to a shop that is now owned by the workers, but in its sales profile. Despite the desires of many critics to see Hazard as Howells’s attempt to pay tribute to the victims of the Haymarket and New York streetcar-strike riots, in this reading Hazard quite firmly asserts the potential rightness of a capitalist model. March and Fulkerson’s ultimate control over those profits is capitalist, not socialist, or even quasi-socialist.64 If one reads Hazard hoping to achieve someday the measure of success that finds the Marches living comfortably, if not ostentatiously, in a flat over the Every Other Day offices, one need not spend much time contemplating the futility of the labor movement or remembering the heavily accented political views of Lindau.
Though Howells worked to differentiate himself and the realist aesthetic from romance and sentimentality, the echoes of these modes are present enough in his texts to facilitate readers who still want to perform sentimental or romantic readings. By the time Howells was appearing in the Ladies’ Home Journal, he was known as the preeminent American man of letters; the Journal turned this identity into a brand and rendered him accessible cultural capital for its readers. By recommending Howells so frequently to his readers, Hamilton Wright Mabie likewise turned Howells into a line item on a checklist of cultural acquisition. Whatever Howells’s aesthetic project was, to the reader in pursuit of cultural capital it became secondary to the instrumentality of having read Howells. The Dean of American Letters was ultimately one of the more obliging of the American realists when it came to the mass market, offering himself willingly in the pages of its greatest mouthpiece, The Ladies’ Home Journal, and profiting magnificently from the transaction.