MLA Convention, December 27-30, 1998

"William Dean Howells: Culture Maker? Cultural Marker?"Image courtesy of the Smithsonian archive
Session leader: Howard Horwitz, University of Utah

1. "Howells and the Dialectic of Resentment," Mary V. Marchand, Goucher College
2. "Howells and the Urban Picturesque," Carrie Tirado Bramen, State Univ. of New York, Buffalo ( Note: The full version of this essay has been published in The New England Quarterly 73.1 (March 2000): 82-99.)
3. "William Dean Howells without His Mustache," Augusta Rohrbach, Oberlin College
Respondent: June Howard, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
This well-attended session featured three interesting papers and a perceptive response; despite the inevitable risk of oversimplification,  the papers are briefly summarized below.

In "Howells and the Dialectic of Resentment,"  Mary Marchand noted that "Howells remains the most perceptive critic of the fractures" between wealth and poverty. She drew upon the theories of Pierre Bourdieu and others to demonstrate the ways in which "Howells saw more deeply than most into the predicament of the petit bourgeoisie." According to Bourdieu, social newcomers like Silas Lapham and his family are trapped into a kind of anxious hyperidentification with the class to which they aspire; their "hypercorrectness betrays anxiety," and, "in fearing to do too little, they inevitably do too much," as in the episode of Silas's gift to charity.  Bourdieu's theory suggests that "unhappy passion for" an authenticity that cannot be acquired creates hatred for the other, a hatred that here breaks through the surface of the novel of manners.  Marchand argues for Howells's skill and subtlety in portraying the Laphams' attempts to "will an unconscious state," the kind of assurance and careless unconsciousness of the upper class.  Aware that, as Bourdieu later argued, "resentment is finally a submissive role," Howells understood well  the "corrosive dialectic of resentment" that animates The Rise of Silas Lapham.

Carrie Tirado Bramen's "Howells and the Urban Picturesque" focused on Howells's perspective on the late nineteenth-century city as a site of "residual fear but also as an emerging site of the modern."  Critics such as Dana Brand, Alan Trachtenberg, Amy Kaplan, and Richard Lymon have described Howells's disgust at the city, but Bramen finds that Van Wyck Brooks's analysis captures something more of Howells's complex relationship to the city.  Drawing on Edmund Burke's well-known categories of the sublime, the beautiful, and the picturesque, Bramen proposes that the "aesthetic of the picturesque"--in this case, an "urban picturesque"--provides a "discourse of color and variety" within which Howells can come to terms with the city in varying ways in Suburban Sketches, Impressions and Experiences, and other works.  Noting that "the picturesque requires distance," Bramen demonstrates through an analysis of several works the ways in which "walking threatens to turn the distance of the picturesque into uncomfortable confrontation." [Note: The full article from which this paper is drawn was published in The New England Quarterly (March 2000).  See the Howells Recent Bibliography page for the citation.]

Augusta Rohrbach's "William Dean Howells without His Mustache" drew on extensive research in the Houghton Library to examine Howells's construction of  and representation of himself as a "man of letters."  In a series of slides, Rohrbach contrasted the more conventional  and well-known pictures of Howells with a series of unpublished images that show a decidedly less "official" Howells--sitting under a tree holding a straw hat, pouring a drink in the Kittery Point library--and, of course, the picture of Howells without his mustache. Also drawing on Howells's diaries and account books, Rohrbach's analysis focused on "William Dean Howells as a received image and other images of the man" as well as the role that "money and the market played" throughout three phases of his career.

In her response, June Howard noted that the purpose of the panel had been to look at Howells in ways that go beyond the image of Howells as the dean of American letters. Noting that perhaps the Coreys and other aristocrats are less unconscious of the responses of the Laphams than they would like to appear, she suggested that the work of Paul DiMaggio and David Scoby would help to clarify the issue of "the relational process of the gaze" in Silas Lapham.  She also called attention to the ways in which Howells constructs himself as "allied to the great mass of wage workers" (in "The Man of Letters as a Man of Business") but also as a capitalist who keeps careful accounts (as Rohrbach indicated) of his production.  Howard believes that Christophe Den Tandt's new book describes an urban sublime in which "the terror of the city is in itself a pleasure." Warning that the "constructed personas in the essays are not to be trusted," Howard closed with a speculation that our perceptions of Howells are complicated because "we don't really like to think about the social position of academics as a professional-managerial class."

A lively question period followed the session; one question that received several comments was "Whom would you consider to be the Howells figure (or to occupy the same position of importance in American letters) today?"

If the panelists would like to have their abstracts on this page, please e-mail them to the address below.

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