William Dean Howells: Short Stories

Criticizing American Exceptionalism in "Editha" 12th Grade

William Dean Howells publicly opposed the Spanish-American War of 1898, believing that it was more of an evasive attempt by the United States to achieve territorial and economical expansion of Spanish colonial nations like Cuba and the Philippines, rather than an indefinitely unselfish effort to liberate Cuba from Spain. In “Editha”, Howells characteristically portrays the contrasting opinions of those who supported the war, and those who denounced it. Although it is never specifically mentioned to have been the Spanish-American War which the story revolves around, it has been widely accepted that the story’s political context corresponds and reflects that of the 1898 war against Spain.

As an advocate of Leo Tolstoy’s – the Russian novelists’ – ideas of nonviolence, Howells proved no reluctance in condemning war or violence of any kind. He brilliantly conveys his antipathetic views of war through the protagonist, Editha, by painting her as a shallow individual; one with no thoughts of her own, who is quick to echo chauvinistic phrases of the newspapers. She is introduced as a woman whose engagement to one George Gearson had been decided “without, as it were, thinking”. What is certain however, is that “she had always supposed...

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