Page:The Cambridge History of American Literature, v3.djvu/96

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78
The Later Novel

Venetian Life (1866) and Italian Journeys (1867), one of the happiest of our literary travellers. From such work he moved, by the avenue of journalism, only gradually to fiction. On his return to the United States in 1865 he became, first, editorial contributor to The Nation for a few months, and then assistant editor of the Atlantic until 1881.

The literary notices which he wrote for the Atlantic during these years of preparation would show, had he written nothing else, how strong and steady was his drift toward his mature creed. Not alone by deliberate thought nor even by the stimulus of polemic was he carried forward, but rather by a natural process of growth which, more than an artistic matter, included his entire philosophy. From his childhood he had been intensely humane—sensitive and charitable. This humaneness now revealed itself as a passionate love for the truth of human life and a suspicion, a quiet scorn, of those romantic dreams and superstitious exaggerations by which less contented lovers of life try to enrich it or to escape it. “Ah! poor Real Life,” he wrote in his first novel, “can I make others share the delight I find in thy foolish and insipid face?” Perhaps Their Wedding Journey (1871) ought hardly to be called a novel, but it is a valuable Howells document in its zeal for common actuality and in its method, so nearly that of his travel books. A Chance Acquaintance (1873), more strictly a novel, for the first time showed that Howells could not only report customs and sketch characters felicitously but could also organize a plot with delicate skill. A young Bostonian, passionately in love with an intelligent but unsophisticated inland girl, who returns his love, is so little able to overcome his ingrained provincial snobbishness that he steadily condescends to her until in the end he suddenly sees, as she sees, that he has played an ignoble and vulgar part which convincingly separates them. Nothing could be more subtle than the turn by which their relative positions are reversed. The style of A Chance Acquaintance, while not more graceful than that of Howells’s earlier books, is more assured and crisp. The central idea is clearly conceived and the outlines sharp without being in any way cruel or cynical. The descriptions are exquisite, the dialogue both natural and revealing, and over and through all is a lambent mirth, an undeceived