A Trollope among the Brahmins?: Howells’s Rise of Silas Lapham and the Reform of the Fallen Novel

by Harry Heuser

Passion and the Individual Talent

“I have never greatly loved an author without wishing to write like him,” William Dean Howells remarks as he ushers us into his private library for the engaging excursion that is My Literary Passions (18).  “I have now no reluctance to confess,” Howells continues,

that it was a long time before I found it best to be as like myself as I could, even when I did not think so well of myself as of some others.  I hope I shall always be able and willing to learn something from the masters of literature and still be myself, but for the young writer this seems impossible.  (18-19)

To the inquisitive visitor eager to conjecture just in how far the volumes on the shelves—and not merely those Howells chose to put on display for us there—correspond with the ones penned by the tour guide himself, the “anxiety of influence” conveyed in above passage must seem a veritable invitation to linger long after the echoes of the author’s anecdotes, charming though they may be, have given way to thought-conjuring silence.

Such inspired stillness, of course, can be but of short duration, as it must in turn give way to the lively chatter of scholars eager to share their findings (or, shall we say, surmises?).  “Realism,” remarks one,

had been [Howells’s] literary faith from his earliest days, his characteristic faith ever since he had known that his profession lay in the commonplace and the average. . . .  He had absorbed realism from a dozen different sources—the eighteenth-century Italian dramatist Goldoni, the Spanish novelists Benito Galdós and A. Palacio Valdés, Turgenev and Tolstoy, Jane Austen (along with Tolstoy a prime favorite), Daudet, Mark Twain, and Henry James.  (Kazin 7; emphasis added)

“It was clearly Heine rather than Turgenev or Tolstoy that first stimulated the young Howells into using literature as a vehicle to express real life instead of the extravagances of overworked and tired romanticism,” asserts another (Marovitz 354; emphasis added).  Of both “the commonplace” and “real life” we shall have more to say presently; of methods and degrees of absorption or stimulation but little.  And if we feel compelled, nonetheless, to add yet another name to the list of authors conjoined with Howells de par le réalisme, we offer it here not in a study of general realist tendencies, but rather in one of propensities particular to Howells.  We do not wish to make a catalogue of literature, but a dialogue.  We concur with Lionel Trilling who holds that

[w]e have all too many American writers who live for us only because they can be so neatly “placed,” whose life in literature consists of their being influences or precursors, or of being symbols of intellectual tendencies, which is to say that their life is not really in literature at all but in the history of culture.  (83)

Yet whereas Trilling suspects this to be the very “fate to which we must abandon Howells” (83), we, dear reader, shall not lead our author to the altar only to declare him cursed to be precursor or doomed to be disciple, only to relinquish his living art (and ours) as sacrifices to the worshippers of cultural historicism.  We suggest an affinity of two writers since it has suggested itself to us during our reading of The Rise of Silas Lapham, a propinquity that has heretofore remained if not entirely unacknowledged, so at least insufficiently explored.  The only lengthy study to date appears to be a dissertation titled “Courtship, Marriage, and Community in the Novels of Anthony Trollope and William Dean Howells,” which seeks to establish that “in their fiction Trollope and Howells each in his way worked to sustain the dominant codes of his society by criticizing and offering to correct its weaknesses and errors” (Thomas).  Our movens behind augmenting above list of names is not to place Howells “neatly” but rather to inquire how Howells sought to position himself in the literary continuum.  The kindred writer we think of—our title signals as much—is Anthony Trollope.

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