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Summer's Last Stand
Rediscovering William Dean Howells
Harold K. Bush Jr.

In 1871, William Dean Howells, an emerging author on the East Coast whose campaign biography of Abraham Lincoln had landed him an overseas consular job as a standard (and expected) reward for services rendered, made a visit back to his roots in Ohio with his father. There they spent the evening at the home of future president James Garfield, who was at the time most notable as a genuine Civil War hero. While they all lingered on the front porch of Garfield’s home, Howells began to unravel tales of his many meetings with some of the great New England literary lights, such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and even the great Emerson himself. Garfield leaped to his feet and invited to the porch his friends and family, so that they might come and listen to the wonderful words falling from the lips of his young, well-traveled friend.

 This charming anecdote illuminates not only the connectedness of the young Howells but also the critical genius and storytelling abilities of this vastly underrated writer. Garfield certainly got it. Not long afterwards, the literary establishment of Boston began to get it, especially after Howells became editor of the prestigious Atlantic Monthly in 1871 at the ripe old age of thirty-four. His first novel, The Wedding Journey, appeared the following year. But it was in his editorial position at the Atlantic, and later at the rival Harper’s Magazine, that Howells did some of his most effective work: identifying and nurturing some of the most important writers of his era.

What often gets ignored these days, however, is how important Howells was himself as arguably the exemplary novelist of the American nineteenth century. If I were to create a list of American writers whose works deserve wider attention these days, Howells would be at or near the top. Not only was Howells one of the culture’s most influential editors and mentors throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, he is arguably the most underrated novelist in all of our national literature. Somehow his highly structured, deeply informed, and purely written fictions, such as A Modern Instance, The Rise of Silas Lapham, Annie Kilburn, or A Hazard of New Fortunes, have almost completely disappeared from college curricula. The lone exception these days is Silas Lapham, of course, but even this recognizable masterpiece is often one of the final cuts in an era of many American masterpieces, as teachers pare down the reading list from twelve to ten to eight and now, most commonly, about seven books per semester.

Howells

That is a very fine short list of novels, but my favorite is probably the largely forgotten Indian Summer. For one thing, it is unusual among his works for being set abroad. Howells’s infatuation with Italy (where Mr. Lincoln sent him as US Consul in Venice during the Civil War) is charming even as it makes an important contribution to our understanding of the cultural cachet of living in Europe and taking the “grand tour.” And no doubt Howells continued to dream about Italy throughout his adult life, as a sheer highlight of wonder and romance. Such is its symbolic resonance here—and perhaps it helps explain my own predilection for Indian Summer. Howells and I, it turns out, share the experience of being smitten by Italy.

The opening scene depicts a veteran Indiana newsman named Colville, sitting on the Ponte Vecchio of Florence, the gorgeous “Old Bridge” spanning the Arno River. Although he is taking in one of the most famous, breathtaking scenes in all of Europe, this journalist from the Middle West wishes instead that he were back home in Indiana, taking in the sights from a bridge over the river in scenic Des Vaches, Indiana, where he edited the newspaper for two decades.

Calling the location for which he is pining a “cow-town,” as the name implies, is precisely the kind of wit that is worked throughout the novel. In French, “vache” as an adjective is rather tricky—it can refer to something either liked or disliked, and it can also imply something rather dense or stupid. As a noun, it can also act as a sort of insult. Overall, “vache” has many strange and often contradictory usages in colloquial French, some of which Howells surely understood. In any event, the choice of the term for the name of his beloved city is an illustration of the genius with which Howells regularly constructed his tales. In this case, it registers the simultaneous reverence and horror for the town of his past. We might say, the name gestures toward the love-hate relationship his hero has for the old lands of his youth.

There is something at once absurd and yet charming about this old Middle Westerner, seated in the center of the splendor of the Italian Renaissance, and yet somehow wishing vainly to be back in the Hoosier State. Absurd, and yet like most things in the stories of William Dean Howells, oddly suited to the old tricks of newspapermen like Colville, the likeable protagonist. Colville has left the newspaper at which he has spent the strength and passions of his youth—a paper for which he has poured out his sweat, turning it into the chief organ of the entire region of the state. But in one presidential election, he had made the mistake of supporting the wrong candidate (a non-Republican, the mark of Cain in Indiana), and as a result he had lost all credibility and decided to sell his share of the profitable paper. Then, like many newly affluent Americans after the war, he decides to go abroad for a time and see the wonders of old Europe. Not surprisingly, Colville had not always wanted to be a journalist. In his younger days, he dreamed of becoming an architect, and his favorite dreamweaver was John Ruskin, the romantic chronicler of the beauties to be found in places such as Rome, Florence, and Venice—the holy trinity of the Grand Tour, all located in the jewel of Europe, Italy. And yet, as the novel opens upon this jewel called Florence, there he sits, wishing to be back in Des Vaches. Old habits die hard, it seems.

The title of the novel, like the persistent nostalgia for Des Vaches, Indiana, ramifies with a number of intricate meanings. Indian summer generally is used today in the same way that it was in the 1880s: it refers to the sudden appearance in mid- to late-autumn of a period of unusual warmth and sunshine. It is summer’s last stand, in the face of the inevitable commencement of frigid winter. One can see immediately how this is a wonderful metaphor for human life and sexuality, and especially within the context of this lonely newsman, given one final shot at romance in the capital of wonder and romance for the entire western world. First and foremost, the title suggests what today we might call the onset of a mid-life crisis, a phenomenon that is not altogether unusual in the lives of mid-to late-fortysomethings who have themselves given the best years of their lives to the profession of their choice. For Colville, going off to Italy to study the buildings is sort of like today’s mid-life banker buying a red Porsche or a Harley, growing a ponytail, roaming planet Earth in search of exotic new pleasures. But here, Colville’s rebirth is set to occur in the center of human Renaissance, fittingly enough.  The concept of Indian summer thus constitutes a second chance, one final leap into our future—and our pasts.

But unlike the denizens of Howells’s lifetime, today people often do not realize that the term derives from a stereotype of the Native Americans. In the same sense as the old term “Indian giver,” it suggests the trickster qualities that those natives were supposed to show in their behaviors. Thus, Indian summer can mean that this idea of a second chance is nothing more than an illusion. The sunny days of seventy-five degrees in mid-November are pleasant enough, but cold and windy snowstorms are just around the corner. The title also, ironically, sounds almost like “Indiana Summer”—invoking, again, that nostalgia for his old station in Hoosier life. Thus the title of the novel represents the torn sentiments of its author and of the culture in which it was written. It is never altogether clear how we are to understand this lengthy stay in Europe by Colville. Or rather, perhaps this is precisely the issue at stake: to what extent can we escape our pasts and reinvent ourselves in a new (or old) world? Is rebirth even possible, even in the city most known for the rebirth of human civilization?

As such, the novel becomes, though set in Italy, quintessentially a story about the American identity. And for me, facing roughly the same stage of my career as Colville does in the novel, Indian Summer resonates deeply with both the pride I feel for what I have accomplished, as well as the insecurity and the longing for something more—the sheer yearning of those earlier days, when I thought the world held so much beauty that I might actually explode if I thought about it too much. I feel great poignancy for old Colville, knowing that I’m a lot like him.

This luminously engaging story about Victorians leisurely enjoying the beauty of Florence should convince every reader of the stunning virtuosity of its author, his sheer talent for the apt phrase and the lively verb. Howells was not only a wonderful builder of a long tale, but his sentence-level attention to finding the precise wording is almost unparalleled in nineteenth-century American literature. He was certainly recognized as a master craftsman throughout almost his entire career by his peer writers, including his good friend Mark Twain, who was no slouch at turning a perfect sentence. By way of illustration, we can turn to a couple of examples of his well-wrought sentences: regarding Colville’s melancholy he states, “He was no longer young, that was true; but with an ache of old regret he felt that he had not yet lived his life, that his was a baffled destiny, an arrested fate.”  And his sketch of Colville’s lamentable dancing is brief and comical: “He walked around like a bear in a pen; he capered to and fro with a futile absurdity. . .”

Much more could be said about the merits of Indian Summer, but I would not want to spoil the tale for those who might actually pick it up and read it for themselves. Colville does indeed change, but Howells is no mere romancer: the two important women who come into his life represent different kinds of futures, and the reader figures out the solution at precisely the moment when Colville does. And like Colville, we are introduced ever so slowly and gently to the high society of the Florence of that era, with all its mannerisms and effects. The subtle masks of many of the characters are as mysterious to the reader as they often are to our intrepid hero, so that another joy is to perceive bit by bit the reality of a lost world of wealth and decadence, all seen through the fresh eyes of a neophyte. On these and other scores, it’s a very fine novel.

 

All of this praise should lead to a particular question: Whatever happened to William Dean Howells? Once a staple in the teaching of American literature, his work is often little more than an afterthought these days. Like other notable novelists who produced a great deal and had a monumental impact on our national literature and on the international literary scene (such as Sinclair Lewis, John Steinbeck, Pearl Buck, and lately Saul Bellow, all of whom won the Nobel Prize), Howells no longer commands the attention that he once did from either teachers or general readers.

The reasons for this are unclear. Besides the diminishing stamina for novel-reading among our youth, as Facebook, Twitter, texting, and e-mail become the dominant modes of literary expression, it is still not immediately obvious why Howells has become lost in the shuffle of our national literary history, especially by teachers. Perhaps my readers will forgive me for suggesting that some of it is undoubtedly due to the fact that, like Steinbeck and Lewis, Howells is one of those dead white males who have been asked to give up their seats on the canonical bus, making way for the entrance of numerous other writers onto college syllabi. And it is proper that these new voices have emerged, of course. Our national literature is much richer for the rediscovery in the past thirty years of the powerful fictions produced by, for example, African Americans and women.  But it is unfortunate that in expanding our curricula to include them, we have simultaneously required that some of our most prolific writers of truly accomplished fiction have been asked to leave. A few of those exiled passengers plead from the bench of a lonely bus-stop, none more than Howells, who deserves more time in today’s English classroom. Several of his novels are both teachable and enjoyable, that magical combination for which all teachers are constantly searching.

In the early twenty-first century, Howells may be on the verge of becoming a “minor” figure, at least for some critics and historians. But he was recognized for most of his lifetime as living up to his apt middle name: he was the “dean” of American letters. As Mark Twain liked to call him, he was “the Boss.” A more robust recognition of Howells’s place in American literary history is the proper perspective from which a recovery of some of Howells’s great achievements might proceed. He has bus fare in one hand, and a suitcase full of fine works in the other. I say we make room for this very old and very crafty passenger.

 

Hal Bush teaches American literature and culture at Saint Louis University and is the author of two books and numerous articles on topics ranging from American literary figures to the pragmatics of teaching and reading.

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