William Dean Howells: Short Stories Summary

William Dean Howells: Short Stories Summary


“Editha” is probably Howells’ most often anthologized short story. The title character Editha Balcom pushes her fiancé to enlist in the Spanish-American War. George, the fiancé, is far less inclined to romanticize the coming war than she, but Editha puts the marriage on the line. George winds up getting a commission as a captain and takes into battle with him a letter from she has written outlining this ultimatum. Naturally, he dies in battle which leads to a showdown with George’s grieving mother afterward pitting empty patriotic fervor against realistic apprehension of consequences.

The Magic of a Voice

A story about falling in love at first sound. Stephen Langbourne overhears two women talking in the next room of a hotel and convinces himself he’s fallen in love with one of them named Barbara. He manages to find out her name and correspond and even receives a photo confirming she looks as beautiful as she sounded. When he goes to actually meet her however, he learns that the photo was a prank and that Barbara is actually quite plain. Nevertheless, he realizes that he really does love her and the story ends with the promise of a happily-ever-after.

A Difficult Case

The titular case is Ransom Hilbrook, a faithful member of the congregation of Rev. Clarence Ewbert. The case at hand is Ewbert’s having lived an unsatisfying life and thus having no desire for promises of a Christian afterlife in which he remains the same person and the only difference is where he is. What makes the case especially difficult is that Ewbert’s wife is herself embittered that members of upper society have failed to become part of the congregation and thus her husband is wasting time on a man she does not see as fit for such energy. One day she essentially kicks Hilbrook out of her house and insists on a vacation for her husband, during which time Hillbrook dies, alone and unredeemed, but broken by the uncharitable lack of kindness displayed by the minister’s wife.

The Angel of the Lord

One of a collection of what came to be known as Howells’ Turkish Room stories in which a novelist narrator is the agency through which a psychologist named Wanhope delivers a strange and digressive analysis of a couple named Ormond. The narrative touches upon the real-life group of poets collectively known as the Graveyard School, then-current fascination with psychic research and

The Pumpkin Glory

One of Howells’ stories for children in which a father retells a story to his children they’ve heard so many times they interrupt whenever there is a change. The story is about two pumpkins seeds and a Jack-O-Lantern that comes to life. The story ends with the reminder that there really is no moral to this story.

The Torture of Colonel Crawford

A short story that is a retelling of the revenge aftermath of the Gnadenhutten massacre in which nearly 100 members of the Delaware tribe were killed by a colonial militia. In retaliation, the titular Colonel He endured humiliation, torture and being burned at the stake. The story concludes with an opinion that the massacre was the greater infamy because it was done under the law of the white man. The lesson to take from the historical record, the story suggests, is relevant in this age of torture and “enhanced interrogation.” When American overlooks its own laws and indulges in the behavior of a lesser enemy, it is corrupts its own status.

Christmas Every Day

An exercise in irony in which a little girl’s wish that every day could be Christmas show the nightmarish consequences of what such a seemingly wonderful event might cause. A fairy makes the little girl’s wish come true and then, when she realizes the error of her wish, helps to reverse it. This story was adapted into a 1995 Family Channel made-for-TV movie and then remade a decade later as "Christmas Do-Over" with an adult protagonist making the wish.

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