William Dean Howells continues to stand tall as one of the most prolific writers in American literary history. His body of work includes reams of literary criticism, biographies, essays, travel books and poetry. In the realm of fiction, Howells produced more than thirty plays and dozens of novels. For the modern reader, however, the equally voluminous selection of short stories composed by Howells is likely the literary form most likely to bring satisfaction.
Howells stood at the forefront in transition from sentimentalist and gothic fiction to realism in American literature. His was one of the loudest voices crying for American writers to put an end to the ridiculous plot contrivances of Gothic romance as well as the equation of small town life with the absence of vice and malevolent intentions. In his fiction and his non-fiction, Howells called for writers to turn their attention away from grand mythic tales of unblemished heroes and one-dimensional villains acting out predetermined moral showdowns and focus on commonplace conflict in local settings providing an authentic moral battleground.
Unfortunately for the modern reader, while Howells was unquestionably radical in his time, his vision of Realism today seems not terribly far removed from exactly the kind of early 19th century fiction he railed against. The result is often a strange paradox: stories that promote progressive concepts like equal rights for women and minorities and reject American imperialist politics within comedies of manners pitting aristocratic old money wealth versus vulgar nouveaux riche wealth. Nowhere to be found among the short stories of William Dean Howells—quite literally nowhere—are the examples of the kinds of stories most often associated with turn of the 20th century realism today: Jack London’s adventure stories, Morgan Robertson’s sea stories and Joseph Conrad’s psychological character studies.
Realism meant something very specific to Howells and it did not extend to the Naturalism practiced by authors like Stephen Crane or Theodore Dreiser. Whether writing about a strange romance in “The Magic of a Voice” or framing his narrative as essentially an ecclesiastical debate in “The Angel of the Lord,” the realism of Howells is one pervasively about average people who never exhibit extreme emotions and never somehow discover themselves dropped into a story where exceptional events force them into psychological transformations. Howells was infamously described by one of American’s greatest writers of Realism, Sinclair Lewis, as “a pious old maid whose greatest delight was to have tea at the vicarage.”
His Puritan upbringing allows for no introduction of sexuality into his fiction which inevitably hamstrings a body of work weighted heavily toward depictions of romantic relationships. While Jack London also eschewed any sort of penetrating study of the sexuality of his characters, he mainly wrote stories about individualist pitting themselves against nature. The short stories of Howells pits man against woman, old money against new money, greed against principles and authenticity against the pose. His Puritan strain does not just keep him at arm’s distance from love, but also hate. Extremities of anger and ill-feeling toward others as notably absent as scenes of genuine sexual attraction between lovers. As such, when conflicts arise between the greedy and the principled or the aristocratic and the capitalistic, it is always a muted affair. Perhaps his most famous non-Christmas story, “Editha” is a profound and moving statement on the distinction between genuine patriotism and jingoism and between forming political opinions based on intellectual understanding versus basing them on uninformed emotional reactions. This theme is treated with an emotional tenor not significantly different from stories involving recollections of going to a horse show or when the circus came to the suburbs.
The byword of the fiction of Howells is muted realism. A type of realism that today seems as far removed from reality as the Gothic stories and sentimental novels seemed to Howells. As a result of this muting of the extremities of reality, it becomes clear that the modern reader is almost certain to be more entertained by his short stories than his novels. A few pages of this dulling of the sharp edges of life known as “the good parts” is much easier to take than several hundred pages.