English Literature » Mark Twain » William Dean Howells

William Dean Howells by

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  OUNTRY 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 blood.

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 Richard.)

“. . . 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.

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