WDHS Reviews and Commentary


Note: A few months ago, after making some brief, interesting comments about Howells and Updike in a private e-mail exchange, Terry Oggel offered to develop those ideas in a public posting for the HOWELLS-L list. He recently sent me the piece attached below, adding his hope that it would stimulate comments from listmembers.    –D. Campbell

“Is John Updike our Howells?”
I’ve been struck for some time now about the similarity between William Dean Howells and John Updike.  For one thing, their relationship to the reading public seems similar–Updike in his fiction and his non-fiction seems to assume the same role: in his fiction, as chronicler of white middle-class life in the last half of the 20th century in America, and in his non-fiction as spokesman for that kind of writer-public relationship in his non-fiction, born of the same kind of moral responsibility which the writer has to show what life is, presumably for society’s eventual improvement.Of course there are many differences–the angst of Rabbit and the general much less “smiling well-to-do-actualities” of his vision; and of course the sex.  But these are differences in degree, not of kind, the differences within the Updike America, not differences in his view of fiction or of the role of fiction-writer.

He is as strongly moral as WDH in his fiction and in his non-fiction–that’s a huge part of the similarity.  He, too, has a “theory of the novel,” which he admires WDH for having and which he says is not common among writers, and his is like Howells’, and consciously so.  In genres, I think the only difference is that he hasn’t written plays–but maybe he has?  His volumes of long and short fiction, unequalled in our time except by Joyce Carol Oates in sheer amount I’d say and that would include Nobel Prize winner Saul Bellow, matches WDH’s.  His non-fiction, also unequalled by any other contemporary writer I think, is likewise similar to WDH’s: reviews of his contemporaries in the U.S. and internationally; something like a literary editorship in the New Yorker off and on for lengthy periods of time, and most important of all, lengthy essays on earlier American writers which show how remarkably anchored he is in an American literary tradition and which show how much he sees himself as being in that tradition–specifically, the “realist” strain in it.  He is a student of his connection with his past, and in his lengthy 1987 New Yorker essay on WDH, one of two extended pieces of writing on WDH that I know of, he shows how serious and determined he is about fulfilling this role.  (The other lengthy retrospective American-writer essay I know of by Updike is on Hawthorne, whom he admires, in no small part, for his moral vision but whom, as I recall, he sees himself as not being like–Hawthorne is chosen because he represents an earlier mode, not one that meets the needs and tastes of a modern world.)  (The other lengthy piece of writing is an introduction to Indian Summer in a 1990 Library of America edition [currently out of print, alas].)

Furthermore, in and around the edges of writing on other topics, I’ve noticed, Updike tucks in a connection with WDH–always positive as regards WDH.  For example, just to take a very recent case, in his review of Richard Powers’ Gain, while placing the writer within the context of his 20th c. contemporaries (Joyce, Pynchon, Gladdis, Vollmann, Wallace) Updike connects this novel unexpectedly, almost oddly, with Howells’s The Rise of Silas Lapham (New Yorker [July 27, 1998] 76).

Others (besides Updike himself) seem also to have noticed this similarity between WDH and JU:  James Atlas, for one, in a 1998 retrospective review of Nobel-Prize-for-Lit.-winner (1975) Saul Bellow, goes out of his way to invoke Updike’s praise of Bellow who, Updike said, had sat atop American letters longer than anyone since Howells (New Yorker [24 & 31 1998] 97; Atlas, it seems to me, in invoking Updike in this way implies that the same Nobel honor could legitmately go to Updike–he lauds Bellow for Updike-like excellencies).

The clearest voice on this WDH-JU connection comes from Updike himself–in his trenchant, highly respectful final three sentences in his July 13, 1987 New Yorker retrospective on Howells (subtitled “Howells as anti-novelist”):

In 1903, I know not why, Charles Eliot Norton showed Howells some letters that Henry James had written him, likening Howells, with his fine style, to “a poor man holding a diamond and wondering how he can use it.”  Howells’ response was patience, brave, and defiant: he wrote Norton, “I am not sorry for having wrought in common, crude material so much; that is the right American stuff … [ellipsis in original].  I was always, as I still am, trying to fashion a piece of literature out of the life next at hand.”  It is hard to see, more than eight decades later, what else can be done. (88)

What do others on the Howells list think about this, I wonder?  I’d be 
interested to hear.

Terry Oggel
I too have been struck by the Howells-Updike connection, most powerfully when I read James Schiff’s “Updike Ignored: “The Contemporary Independent Critic” (American Literature, September, 1995, 531-552). I realized that at many points in the article the name Updike could be replaced withCritic” (American Literature, September, 1995, 531-552). I realized that at many points in the article the name Updike could be replaced with Howells and make perfect sense. (I’ll quote a couple below.) So strong, in fact, was this sense of connection that when I got to the first sentence of Schiff’s conclusion–“As a critic Updike most resembles Henry James”–I marked out James and wrote “WDH !” in the margin of my copy.
Now for some of those sentences in which the names are interchangeable:

” . . . by writing so much criticism in such respected periodicals, Updike acquires for himself such powerful presence in the reviewing world that novelists and writers assigned to review his books may be less likely to attack him.” (537–shades of Thomas Wentworth Higginson on WDH)

“More important in evaluating Updike as a critic is his role in redrawing the global literary map by introducing foreign writers to American readers and contextualizing them within the international literary scene.” (540) readers and contextualizing them within the international literary scene.” (540)

“In serving American readers, Updike has also served foreign and American writers, providing them, through his stature as a novelist and his affiliation with the New Yorker, a high degree of visibility. An appreciative review by Updike can significantly enhance a writer’s reputation . . . ” (542)

“Though a number of American writers are exploring the territory to which Updike refers, he seems to be suggesting that America’s wealth and security have limited the scope of its fiction. This criticism applies to no one more than to Updike himself, who has often been criticized for focusing too much on moral anxiety in upper-middle-class suburbia.” (544)

“In addition to his familiarity with foreign literature, Updike has a number of other qualities that make him a particularly strong critic: intimate knowledge of the novelist’s craft; the ability to write in what Harold Bloom refers to as ‘a major style’; tremendous intelligence and erudition; and an understanding of and need to comment upon a writer’s entire oeuvre. . . . As for Updike’s style, even his harshest critics find much to admire. . . . The key to understanding Updike’s style is his use of metaphor . . ..” (546; I have begun keeping a list of Howells’ metaphors for reading and writing literature, starting with the comparison to stage-coach travel with which he begins his review of Miss Ravenel’s Conversion; they are many and delicious)

And so on. Schiff’s only direct comparison of Howells and Updike is based on (and bring up the “Twilight Zone” theme to underscore the eerie comparison) the exact same quote with which Terry Oggel ended his piece on the WDH-JU connection. After quoting Updike’s remark “It is hard to see, more than eight decades later, what else can be done” Schiff asserts “Yet Updike’s taste for ‘accuracy’ and ‘lifelikeness’ need not suggest that he is a devotee of Howells’s kind of realism, which avoids both sexuality and despair,” precisely the point Terry answers. Finally, what most interests me is the purpose Schiff identifies for his project: “If Updike is, then, one of the most visible, prolific, successful, and (for some) brilliant critics in contemporary American literature, why are there no studies of his work in this area? . . . My objective in these pages is to present the first sustained treatment of Updike’s critical prose and to define Updike as a critic.” (532, 535) Setting aside the words “contemporary” and “first,” I suggest that Schiff’s paper on Updike is a good reminder of how much more there is to discover about Howells as a critic. Thank goodness we now have those three fat Indiana edition volumes of selected Howells criticism to work with. And thanks to Terry Oggel for a provocative posting!
Peg Wherry
Weber State University

Don L. Cook, reviewer. William Dean Howells in St. Augustine. Edited, with an essay by William McGuire. Special issue of El Escribano: The St. Augustine Journal of History. Vol. 35, 1998, ix, 121 pp.  $14.95 + $2.95 shipping and handling. Available from the St. Augustine Historical Society, 271 Charlotte Street, St. Augustine, FL 32084. ATT: Mike Usina.  (904) 824-2872/Fax (094) 824-2569.

This volume of El Escribano consists of three pieces by W. D. Howells plus six drawings by John Mead Howells and a preface and essay by the editor, William McGuire.  In addition to the drawings by Howells’ son, John, there are reproductions of four photographs, one engraving and two relief portraits of Howells.

In the preface, the editor explains his connection with Howells: Mr. McGuire was born in the same year as Howells’ last visit to St. Augustine (1918), and only a block from the Alcazar hotel (built by Mr. McGuire’s great-great-uncle) where Howells and his daughter Mildred were staying.  Mr. McGuire was unaware of this connection until 1980 when a quotation from Howells’ essay “A Confession of St. Augustine” aroused his curiosity.  His research eventuated in a thirty-page essay, “Howells the Nomad,” which traces Howells’ various residences after he left Ohio for Venice.  He devotes the last third of the essay to a very detailed account of the hotels and houses that Howells and his daughter occupied during their visits to St. Augustine between 1915 and 1918, and the restaurants they frequented, the movies they saw, or might have seen, and other events of interest in St. Augustine during this period.

The text of Howells’ “A Confession of St. Augustine” is reprinted from Harper’s Monthly Magazine, April-May 1917.  Mr. McGuire says nothing about his editorial method.  He does specify that he “found that 1917 volume of Harper’s” in the Princeton University Library where he also “came upon his Selected Letters, edited by William M. Gibson and Christoph K. Lohmann.”  In the sixth volume of the Letters he found the second Howells essay he reprints, “Eighty Years and After.”  McGuire explains that the “original manuscript is the property of William White Howells who has given permission for the present publication.  WDH made extensive changes before the essay was published in Harper’s.  That and the 1983 version are the basis of the following text.”  McGuire’s “That” is a little ambiguous, but a cursory check of the textual apparatus for the Selected Letters suggests that McGuire’s text is the critical text established for the letters volume.

The provenance of the text for “Eighty Years and After” reprinted by McGuire would not matter greatly, since he selected the best critical text available, except that the third Howells item in El Escribano is not a reprint of a critically established text but rather the first published form of The Home-Towners, a lengthy fragment of a novel Howells left unfinished.  Mr. McGuire reports that the novel exists in three forms: (A) a forty-one page combination typescript and holograph, (B) a thirty-five page typescript incorporating some of the holography changes in (A), and (C) a third typescript “the same as draft B, with many holograph corrections made apparently by MH (Mildred Howells), the result of proofreading and comparison with draft A.  This is the source of the present version.” This is all the information McGuire provides about this establishment of the text he prints.

Since the fragment of The Home-Towners is the only item in the volume that is not already in print, it is a shame that it is not accompanied by a critical apparatus that would allow scholars to assess the reliability of the text and study its genesis.  Even as a fragment The Home-Towners is an important text for the study of Howells’ ideas and style.  As his son, John, commented in a letter to Mildred “He read me the first part, up to a lynching. . . . What strikes me is that it is a new treatment of the Modern South.  Instead of everlastingly treating the South as if it had only a romantic Civil War atmosphere, it shows the new South in its horrid flat muddy hopeless truth.”  Howells’ handling of a lynching from the point of view of a convalescent northern newspaperman is especially interesting when one remembers that William Faulkner was later to receive the American Academy’s Howells Medal for fiction.  We are grateful to have the unfinished novel drawn to our attention.


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