Home | Literary Movements  | Timeline  |  American Authors | American Literature Sites

James on Howells, Howells on James

For more on the relationship between James and Howells, see Michael Anesko's Letters, Fictions, Lives: Henry James and William Dean Howells (New York: Oxford U P, 1997).

Henry James on Howells

"William Dean Howells,"Harper's Weekly 30 (19 June 1886): 394-395.

He is animated by a love of the common, the immediate, the familiar and vulgar elements of life, and holds that in proportion as we move into the rare and strange we become vague and arbitrary; that truth of representation, in a word, can be achieved only so long as it is in our power to test and measure it.  He thinks scarcely anything too paltry to be interesting, that the small and the vulgar have been terribly neglected, and would rather see an exact account of a sentiment or a character he stumbles against every day than a brilliant evocation of a passion or a type he has never seen and does not even particularly believe in.  He adores the real, the natural, the colloquial, the moderate, the optimistic, the domestic, and the democratic; looking askance at exceptions and perversities and superiorities, at surprising and incongruous phenomena in general.  One must have seen a great deal before one concludes: the world is very large, and life is a mixture of many things; she by no means eschews the strange, and often risks combinations and effects that make one rub one's eyes.  Nevertheless, Mr. Howells's stand-point is an excellent one for seeing a large part of the truth, and even if it were less advantageous, there would be a great deal to admire in the firmness with which he has planted himself. . . . Mr. Howells hates an artificial fable and a denouement that is pressed into the service; he likes things to occur as they occur in life, where the manner of a great many of them is not to occur at all. He has observed that heroic emotion and brilliant opportunity are not particularly interwoven with our days, and indeed, in the way of omission, he has often practised in his pages a very considerable boldness.

1867, letter to Charles Eliot Norton

Howells is now monarch absolute of the Atlantic, to the increase of his profit and comfort.  His talent grows constantly in fineness, but hardly, I think, in range of application.  I remember your saying some time ago that in a couple of years when he had read Saine-Beuve, etc. he would come to his best.  But the trouble is he will never read Sainte-Beauve, nor care to.  He has little intellectual curiosity; so here he stands with his admirable organ of style, like a poor man holding a diamond and wondering how he can use it.  it's rather sad, I think, to seem Americans of the younger set so unconscious and unambitious of the commission to do the best.

William Dean Howells on James

From The Century (November 1882)

Page images of "Henry James, Jr." article from Cornell's Making of America project
.pdb version for PalmPilot

The art of fiction has, in fact, become a finer art in our day than it was with Dickens and Thackeray. We could not suffer the confidential attitude of the latter now, nor the mannerism of the  former, any more than we could endure the prolixity of Richardson  or the coarseness of Fielding. These great men are of the past--they and their methods and interests; even Trollope and  Reade are not of the present. The new school derives from Hawthorne and George Eliot rather than any others; but it studies  human nature much more in its wonted aspects, and finds its  ethical and dramatic examples in the operation of lighter but not  really less vital motives. The moving accident is certainly not  its trade; and it prefers to avoid all manner of dire  catastrophes. It is largely influenced by French fiction in  form; but it is the realism of Daudet rather than the realism of  Zola that prevails with it, and it has a soul of its own which is  above the business of recording the rather brutish pursuit of a  woman by a man, which seems to be the chief end of the French  novelist. This school, which is so largely of the future as well as the present, finds its chief exemplar in Mr. James; it is he who is shaping and directing American fiction, at least. It is  the ambition of the younger contributors to write like him; he  has his following more distinctly recognizable than that of any  other English-writing novelist. Whether he will so far control  this following as to decide the nature of the novel with us  remains to be seen. Will the reader be content to accept a novel which is an analytic study rather than a story, which is apt to  leave him arbiter of the destiny of the author's creations? Will he find his account in the unflagging interest of their  development? Mr. James's growing popularity seems to suggest that this may be the case; but the work of Mr. James's imitators  will have much to do with the final result.

  In the meantime it is not surprising that he has his imitators.   Whatever exceptions we take to his methods or his results, we cannot deny him a very great literary genius. To me there is a  perpetual delight in his way of saying things, and I cannot  wonder that younger men try to catch the trick of it. The disappointing thing for them is that it is not a trick, but an inherent virtue. His style is, upon the whole, better than that of any other novelist I know; it is always easy, without being  trivial, and it is often stately, without being stiff; it gives a  charm to everything he writes; and he has written so much and in  such various directions, that we should be judging him very  incompletely if we considered him only as a novelist. His book of European sketches must rank him with the most enlightened and  agreeable travelers; and it might be fitly supplemented from his  uncollected papers with a volume of American sketches. In his  essays on modern French writers he indicates his critical range  and grasp; but he scarcely does more, as his criticisms in "The  Atlantic" and "The Nation" and elsewhere could abundantly  testify.

 There are indeed those who insist that criticism is his true vocation, and are impatient of his devotion to fiction; but I suspect that these admirers are mistaken. A novelist he is not, after the old fashion, or after any fashion but his own; yet since he has finally made his public in his own way of  story-telling--or call it character-painting if you prefer,--it  must be conceded that he has chosen best for himself and his  readers in choosing the form of fiction for what he has to say.   It is, after all, what a writer has to say rather than what he has to tell that we care for nowadays. In one manner or other the stories were all told long ago; and now we want merely to know what the novelist thinks about persons and situations. Mr.  James gratifies this philosophic desire. If he sometimes forbears to tell us what he thinks of the last state of his people, it is perhaps because that does not interest him, and a  large-minded criticism might well insist that it was childish to  demand that it must interest him.

I am not sure that any criticism is sufficiently large-minded for this. I own that I like a finished story; but then also I like those which Mr. James seems not to finish. This is probably the position of most of his readers, who cannot very logically account for either preference. We can only make sure that we have here an annalist, or analyst, as we choose, who fascinates  us from his first page to his last, whose narrative or whose  comment may enter into any minuteness of detail without fatiguing  us, and can only truly grieve us when it ceases.