William Dean Howells
Is it true that the sun of a man's mentality touches noon at
forty and then begins to wane toward setting? Doctor Osler is
charged with saying so. Maybe he said it, maybe he didn't; I
don't know which it is. But if he said it, I can point him to a
case which proves his rule. Proves it by being an exception to
it. To this place I nominate Mr. Howells.
I read his VENETIAN DAYS about forty years ago. I compare
it with his paper on Machiavelli in a late number of HARPER, and
I cannot find that his English has suffered any impairment. For
forty years his English has been to me a continual delight and
astonishment. In the sustained exhibition of certain great
qualities--clearness, compression, verbal exactness, and unforced
and seemingly unconscious felicity of phrasing--he is, in my
belief, without his peer in the English-writing world. SUSTAINED.
I entrench myself behind that protecting word. There are others
who exhibit those great qualities as greatly as he does, but only
by intervaled distributions of rich moonlight, with stretches of
veiled and dimmer landscape between; whereas Howells's moon sails
cloudless skies all night and all the nights.
In the matter of verbal exactness Mr. Howells has no superior,
I suppose. He seems to be almost always able to find that
elusive and shifty grain of gold, the RIGHT WORD. Others have
to put up with approximations, more or less frequently; he
has better luck. To me, the others are miners working with the
gold-pan--of necessity some of the gold washes over and escapes;
whereas, in my fancy, he is quicksilver raiding down a riffle--no
grain of the metal stands much chance of eluding him. A powerful
agent is the right word: it lights the reader's way and makes it
plain; a close approximation to it will answer, and much
traveling is done in a well-enough fashion by its help, but we do
not welcome it and applaud it and rejoice in it as we do when THE
right one blazes out on us. Whenever we come upon one of those
intensely right words in a book or a newspaper the resulting
effect is physical as well as spiritual, and electrically prompt:
it tingles exquisitely around through the walls of the mouth and
tastes as tart and crisp and good as the autumn-butter that
creams the sumac-berry. One has no time to examine the word and
vote upon its rank and standing, the automatic recognition of its
supremacy is so immediate. There is a plenty of acceptable
literature which deals largely in approximations, but it may be
likened to a fine landscape seen through the rain; the right word
would dismiss the rain, then you would see it better. It doesn't
rain when Howells is at work.
And where does he get the easy and effortless flow of his
speech? and its cadenced and undulating rhythm? and its
architectural felicities of construction, its graces of
expression, its pemmican quality of compression, and all that?
Born to him, no doubt. All in shining good order in the
beginning, all extraordinary; and all just as shining, just as
extraordinary today, after forty years of diligent wear and tear
and use. He passed his fortieth year long and long ago; but I
think his English of today--his perfect English, I wish to say--
can throw down the glove before his English of that antique time
and not be afraid.
I will got back to the paper on Machiavelli now, and ask the
reader to examine this passage from it which I append. I do not
mean examine it in a bird's-eye way; I mean search it, study it.
And, of course, read it aloud. I may be wrong, still it is my
conviction that one cannot get out of finely wrought literature
all that is in it by reading it mutely:
Mr. Dyer is rather of the opinion, first luminously
suggested by Macaulay, that Machiavelli was in earnest, but must
not be judged as a political moralist of our time and race would
be judged. He thinks that Machiavelli was in earnest, as none
but an idealist can be, and he is the first to imagine him an
idealist immersed in realities, who involuntarily transmutes the
events under his eye into something like the visionary issues of
reverie. The Machiavelli whom he depicts does not cease to be
politically a republican and socially a just man because he holds
up an atrocious despot like Caesar Borgia as a mirror for rulers.
What Machiavelli beheld round him in Italy was a civic disorder
in which there was oppression without statecraft, and revolt
without patriotism. When a miscreant like Borgia appeared upon
the scene and reduced both tyrants and rebels to an apparent
quiescence, he might very well seem to such a dreamer the savior
of society whom a certain sort of dreamers are always looking
for. Machiavelli was no less honest when he honored the
diabolical force than Carlyle was when at different times he
extolled the strong man who destroys liberty in creating order.
But Carlyle has only just ceased to be mistaken for a reformer,
while it is still Machiavelli's hard fate to be so trammeled in
his material that his name stands for whatever is most malevolent
and perfidious in human nature.
You see how easy and flowing it is; how unvexed by ruggednesses,
clumsinesses, broken meters; how simple and--so far as you or I
can make out--unstudied; how clear, how limpid, how understandable,
how unconfused by cross-currents, eddies, undertows; how seemingly
unadorned, yet is all adornment, like the lily-of-the-valley;
and how compressed, how compact, without a complacency-signal
hung out anywhere to call attention to it.
There are twenty-three lines in the quoted passage. After reading
it several times aloud, one perceives that a good deal of matter
is crowded into that small space. I think it is a model
of compactness. When I take its materials apart and work them
over and put them together in my way, I find I cannot crowd the
result back into the same hole, there not being room enough. I
find it a case of a woman packing a man's trunk: he can get the
things out, but he can't ever get them back again.
The proffered paragraph is a just and fair sample; the rest
of the article is as compact as it is; there are no waste words.
The sample is just in other ways: limpid, fluent, graceful, and
rhythmical as it is, it holds no superiority in these respects
over the rest of the essay. Also, the choice phrasing noticeable
in the sample is not lonely; there is a plenty of its kin
distributed through the other paragraphs. This is claiming much
when that kin must face the challenge of a phrase like the one in
the middle sentence: "an idealist immersed in realities who
involuntarily transmutes the events under his eye into something
like the visionary issues of reverie." With a hundred words to
do it with, the literary artisan could catch that airy thought
and tie it down and reduce it to a concrete condition, visible,
substantial, understandable and all right, like a cabbage; but
the artist does it with twenty, and the result is a flower.
The quoted phrase, like a thousand others that have come
from the same source, has the quality of certain scraps of verse
which take hold of us and stay in our memories, we do not
understand why, at first: all the words being the right words,
none of them is conspicuous, and so they all seem inconspicuous,
therefore we wonder what it is about them that makes their
message take hold.
The mossy marbles rest
On the lips that he has prest
In their bloom,
And the names he loved to hear
Have been carved for many a year
On the tomb.
It is like a dreamy strain of moving music, with no sharp
notes in it. The words are all "right" words, and all the same
size. We do not notice it at first. We get the effect, it goes
straight home to us, but we do not know why. It is when the
right words are conspicuous that they thunder:
The glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome!
When I got back from Howells old to Howells young I find him
arranging and clustering English words well, but not any better
than now. He is not more felicitous in concreting abstractions
now than he was in translating, then, the visions of the eyes of
flesh into words that reproduced their forms and colors:
In Venetian streets they give the fallen snow no rest. It
is at once shoveled into the canals by hundreds of half-naked
FACCHINI; and now in St. Mark's Place the music of innumerable
shovels smote upon my ear; and I saw the shivering legion of
poverty as it engaged the elements in a struggle for the
possession of the Piazza. But the snow continued to fall, and
through the twilight of the descending flakes all this toil and
encountered looked like that weary kind of effort in dreams, when
the most determined industry seems only to renew the task. The
lofty crest of the bell-tower was hidden in the folds of falling
snow, and I could no longer see the golden angel upon its summit.
But looked at across the Piazza, the beautiful outline of St.
Mark's Church was perfectly penciled in the air, and the shifting
threads of the snowfall were woven into a spell of novel
enchantment around the structure that always seemed to me too
exquisite in its fantastic loveliness to be anything but the
creation of magic. The tender snow had compassionated the
beautiful edifice for all the wrongs of time, and so hid the
stains and ugliness of decay that it looked as if just from the
hand of the builder--or, better said, just from the brain of the
architect. There was marvelous freshness in the colors of the
mosaics in the great arches of the facade, and all that gracious
harmony into which the temple rises, or marble scrolls and leafy
exuberance airily supporting the statues of the saints, was a
hundred times etherealized by the purity and whiteness of the
drifting flakes. The snow lay lightly on the golden gloves that
tremble like peacocks-crests above the vast domes, and plumed
them with softest white; it robed the saints in ermine; and it
danced over all its works, as if exulting in its beauty--beauty
which filled me with subtle, selfish yearning to keep such
evanescent loveliness for the little-while-longer of my whole
life, and with despair to think that even the poor lifeless
shadow of it could never be fairly reflected in picture or poem.
Through the wavering snowfall, the Saint Theodore upon one
of the granite pillars of the Piazzetta did not show so grim as
his wont is, and the winged lion on the other might have been a
winged lamb, so gentle and mild he looked by the tender light of
the storm. The towers of the island churches loomed faint and
far away in the dimness; the sailors in the rigging of the ships
that lay in the Basin wrought like phantoms among the shrouds;
the gondolas stole in and out of the opaque distance more
noiselessly and dreamily than ever; and a silence, almost
palpable, lay upon the mutest city in the world.
The spirit of Venice is there: of a city where Age and
Decay, fagged with distributing damage and repulsiveness among
the other cities of the planet in accordance with the policy and
business of their profession, come for rest and play between
seasons, and treat themselves to the luxury and relaxation of
sinking the shop and inventing and squandering charms all about,
instead of abolishing such as they find, as it their habit when
not on vacation.
In the working season they do business in Boston sometimes,
and a character in THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY takes accurate note
of pathetic effects wrought by them upon the aspects of a street
of once dignified and elegant homes whose occupants have moved
away and left them a prey to neglect and gradual ruin and
progressive degradation; a descent which reaches bottom at last,
when the street becomes a roost for humble professionals of the
faith-cure and fortune-telling sort.
What a queer, melancholy house, what a queer, melancholy
street! I don't think I was ever in a street before when quite
so many professional ladies, with English surnames, preferred
Madam to Mrs. on their door-plates. And the poor old place has
such a desperately conscious air of going to the deuce. Every
house seems to wince as you go by, and button itself up to the
chin for fear you should find out it had no shirt on--so to
speak. I don't know what's the reason, but these material tokens
of a social decay afflict me terribly; a tipsy woman isn't
dreadfuler than a haggard old house, that's once been a home, in
a street like this.
Mr. Howells's pictures are not mere stiff, hard, accurate
photographs; they are photographs with feeling in them, and
sentiment, photographs taken in a dream, one might say.
As concerns his humor, I will not try to say anything, yet I
would try, if I had the words that might approximately reach up
to its high place. I do not think any one else can play with
humorous fancies so gracefully and delicately and deliciously as
he does, nor has so many to play with, nor can come so near
making them look as if they were doing the playing themselves and
he was not aware that they were at it. For they are unobtrusive,
and quiet in their ways, and well conducted. His is a humor
which flows softly all around about and over and through the mesh
of the page, pervasive, refreshing, health-giving, and makes no
more show and no more noise than does the circulation of the
There is another thing which is contentingly noticeable in
Mr. Howells's books. That is his "stage directions"--those
artifices which authors employ to throw a kind of human
naturalness around a scene and a conversation, and help the
reader to see the one and get at meanings in the other which
might not be perceived if entrusted unexplained to the bare words
of the talk. Some authors overdo the stage directions, they
elaborate them quite beyond necessity; they spend so much time
and take up so much room in telling us how a person said a thing
and how he looked and acted when he said it that we get tired and
vexed and wish he hadn't said it all. Other authors' directions
are brief enough, but it is seldom that the brevity contains
either wit or information. Writers of this school go in rags, in
the matter of state directions; the majority of them having
nothing in stock but a cigar, a laugh, a blush, and a bursting
into tears. In their poverty they work these sorry things to the
bone. They say:
". . . replied Alfred, flipping the ash from his cigar."
(This explains nothing; it only wastes space.)
". . . responded Richard, with a laugh." (There was nothing
to laugh about; there never is. The writer puts it in from
habit--automatically; he is paying no attention to his work; or
he would see that there is nothing to laugh at; often, when a
remark is unusually and poignantly flat and silly, he tries to
deceive the reader by enlarging the stage direction and making
Richard break into "frenzies of uncontrollable laughter." This
makes the reader sad.)
". . . murmured Gladys, blushing." (This poor old shop-worn
blush is a tiresome thing. We get so we would rather Gladys
would fall out of the book and break her neck than do it again.
She is always doing it, and usually irrelevantly. Whenever it is
her turn to murmur she hangs out her blush; it is the only thing
she's got. In a little while we hate her, just as we do
". . . repeated Evelyn, bursting into tears." (This kind
keep a book damp all the time. They can't say a thing without
crying. They cry so much about nothing that by and by when they
have something to cry ABOUT they have gone dry; they sob, and
fetch nothing; we are not moved. We are only glad.)
They gavel me, these stale and overworked stage directions,
these carbon films that got burnt out long ago and cannot now
carry any faintest thread of light. It would be well if they
could be relieved from duty and flung out in the literary back
yard to rot and disappear along with the discarded and forgotten
"steeds" and "halidomes" and similar stage-properties once so
dear to our grandfathers. But I am friendly to Mr. Howells's
stage directions; more friendly to them than to any one else's, I
think. They are done with a competent and discriminating art,
and are faithful to the requirements of a state direction's
proper and lawful office, which is to inform. Sometimes they
convey a scene and its conditions so well that I believe I could
see the scene and get the spirit and meaning of the accompanying
dialogue if some one would read merely the stage directions to me
and leave out the talk. For instance, a scene like this, from
THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY:
". . . and she laid her arms with a beseeching gesture on
her father's shoulder."
". . . she answered, following his gesture with a glance."
". . . she said, laughing nervously."
". . . she asked, turning swiftly upon him that strange, searching glance."
". . . she answered, vaguely."
". . . she reluctantly admitted."
". . . but her voice died wearily away, and she stood looking
into his face with puzzled entreaty."
Mr. Howells does not repeat his forms, and does not need to;
he can invent fresh ones without limit. It is mainly the
repetition over and over again, by the third-rates, of worn and
commonplace and juiceless forms that makes their novels such a
weariness and vexation to us, I think. We do not mind one or two
deliveries of their wares, but as we turn the pages over and keep
on meeting them we presently get tired of them and wish they
would do other things for a change.
". . . replied Alfred, flipping the ash from his cigar."
". . . responded Richard, with a laugh."
". . . murmured Gladys, blushing."
". . . repeated Evelyn, bursting into tears."
". . . replied the Earl, flipping the ash from his cigar."
". . . responded the undertaker, with a laugh."
". . . murmured the chambermaid, blushing."
". . . repeated the burglar, bursting into tears."
". . . replied the conductor, flipping the ash from his cigar."
". . . responded Arkwright, with a laugh."
". . . murmured the chief of police, blushing."
". . . repeated the house-cat, bursting into tears."
And so on and so on; till at last it ceases to excite. I
always notice stage directions, because they fret me and keep me
trying to get out of their way, just as the automobiles do. At
first; then by and by they become monotonous and I get run over.
Mr. Howells has done much work, and the spirit of it is as
beautiful as the make of it. I have held him in admiration and
affection so many years that I know by the number of those years
that he is old now; but his heart isn't, nor his pen; and years
do not count. Let him have plenty of them; there is profit in
them for us.