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Notes to Their Wedding Journey

By William Dean Howells, 1871, 1887

with illustrations by Clifford Carleton, 1895, 1916

See a note to the text


William Dean Howells wrote about 40 novels, as well as dozens of plays. In his 60 years as an author he served as the "dean," as editor of the Atlantic Monthly and, from 1881, as editor of Harper's. His work connected the romantics of the 1840s with the modernists after his death in 1920. In his career he was friends to all the major writers, from Hawthorne to Mark Twain, and encouraged young authors such as Stephen Crane and Henry James. After a mid-life crisis, Howells moved from Boston to New York and turned to writing realistic novels of city life with a socialist or utopian flavor.

His first successful novel, Their Wedding Journey, is of interest then, not only because it remains a gently humorous book of American manners, but because we can see from Howells's notes how he tried to move from the romanticism of his early Heine-like poems, to the realism of his later novels.

In the introduction to the Howells Selected Edition of 1968, John K. Reeves points to one example [xxiii]. Howells wrote this in his diary:

Broadway was crowded and seemed black with heat. My heart labored terribly, and after getting my tickets we took an omnibus to ride down to the first druggists. I did not find any till I reached the Astor House. By this time my arms and legs felt as if they had gone to sleep, and I was ready to faint. I ran in with Elinor [his wife], and told the apothecary I thought I was affected by the heat. He gave me instantly aromatic ammonia in plain soda to drink, and gave Elinor a handkerchief full of ice to rub over my head. I felt better directly, but was unable to leave for an hour and more, and was then very weak. Pushed out straight to Shepards.--Men who came in and looked at me. Succession of soda drinkers.

In the novel, as Reeves notes, Howells used his imagination to transmute this personal incident into a fictional narrative of another's experience. The first-person narrator who appears in the first paragraph of the novel rarely intrudes later into the bridal couple's story. Howells hides his own poetry behind a humorous veil.

Reeves states that Howells in other editorial modifications to the diary accounts shows that he was trying to tone down the romantic flowerings, but that Howells was mightily gratified by Longfellow's praise of the romantic touch of the nun's presentation of the rose in the Quebec hospital.

Critics generally applauded the serialized chapters and the book. John G. Whittier wrote to Howells Oct. 10, 1871, "Nothing so graceful and pleasant has appeared for a long time." A Harper's reviewer commented, "the charm of Mr. Howells's style prevents his book from being in any sense commonplace, and we read it with wonder at the eyes which see so much to entertain and amuse where ordinary eyes see little or nothing." The Christian Union reviewer [V, 1872, 142] wrote: "It is our American life exactly as we all see it. We are confident that we could write such a book ourselves, and we are equally confident on second thought that it would be barren of interest to the public at large."

The gentle humor throughout the book appealed to many readers. The Boston Globe reviewer wrote:

"[Howells's] humor, however vivid in form, is subtle and elusive in its essence. He depends, perhaps, somewhat too much on the feeling of humor in his readers to appreciate his own. Everybody understands such a humorist as Mark Twain, because he storms down on our sense of the ludicrous in an overwhelming flood of eccentricity, oddity, and caricature. We roar with laughter as we read. Howells, on the contrary, has the true Addisonian touch; hits his mark in the white; and, instead of provoking uproarious laghter strives to evoke that satisfied smile which testifies to the quiet enjoyment of the reader. The humor is the humor of a poet." [Reeves xxxii]

The far-seeing historian and critic Henry Adams (he was to write his first novel, Democracy,, a decade later) reviewed the book in the North American Review, CXIV (April, 1872) 444-45:

An interesting question presents itself to the cautious critic who reads this little book, and who does not care to commit himself and his reputation for sound judgment irretrievably to the strength of such a gossamer-like web: it is whether the book will live. Why should it not live? If extreme and almost photographic truth to nature, and remarkable delicacy and lightness of touch, can give permanent life to a story, why should this one not be read with curiosity and enjoyment a hundred or two hundred years hence? Our descendants will find nowhere so faithful and so pleasing a picture of our American existence, and no writer is likely to rival Mr. Howells in this idealization of the commonplace. The vein which Mr. Howells has struck is hardly a deep one. His dexterity in following it, and in drawing out its slightest resources, seems at times almost marvellous, a perpetual succession of feats of sleight-of-hand, all the more remarkable because the critical reader alone will understand how difficult such feats are, and how much tact and wit is needed to escape a mortifying failure. Mr. Howells has a delicacy of touch which does not belong to man. One can scarcely resist the impression that he has had feminine aid and counsel, and that the traitor to her sex has taken delight in revealing the secret of her own attractions, so far at least as she knows it; for Mr. Howells, like the rest of mankind, after all his care and study, can only acknowledge his masculine incompetence to comprehend the female character. The book is essentially a lovers' book. It deserves to be among the first of the gifts which follow or precede the marriage offer. It has, we believe, had a marked success in this way, as a sort of lovers' Murray or Appleton; and if it can throw over the average bridal couple some reflection of its own refinement and taste, it will prove itself a valuable assistant to American civilization.

After his death, Howells's reputation declined rapidly, although his socialism appealed to critics of the 1930s. More recently, academic studies have revived interest in Howells's writings and some of his books have remained in print. We present here on the World Wide Web the illustrated version of Their Wedding Journey as an example of beautiful book publication adapted to the modern online world. Any brides reading it may please receive it as our personal gift to them, even though it lacks a white binding.

Of some interest might be a comparison between this work and a journey Nathaniel Hawthorne took to Niagara in September of 1832, some of which was told in sketches and stories that were intended to be printed in The Story Teller frame narrative. Note that the magazine pieces were not attributed to Hawthorne nor entirely collected in book form until after Howells wrote this work.

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