Page:The Cambridge History of American Literature, v3.djvu/102

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The Later Novel

the National Institute’s gold medal “for distinguished work in fiction.”

The Institute rightly judged that, important as Howells is as critic and memoir-writer, he must be considered first of all a novelist. His later books of fiction make up a long list. That he could produce such an array of fiction is sign enough that he had not been overpowered by humanitarianism; a better sign is the fact that these later novels are even kinder, gayer, mellower than the early ones. In them his investigation moves over a wide area, which includes the solid realism of The Landlord at Lion’s Head (1897) and The Kentons (1902); the sombre study of a crime in The Quality of Mercy (1892); the keen statement of problems in An Imperative Duty (1892) and The Son of Royal Langbrith (1904); happier topics as in Miss Bellard’s Inspiration (1905); and, very notably, subtle explorations of what is or what seems to be the supersensual world in The Shadow of a Dream (1890), Questionable Shapes (1903)—short stories, Between the Dark and the Daylight (1907)—short stories, and The Leatherwood God (1916), which last, the study of a frontier impostor who proclaims himself a god, best hints at Howells’s views of the relation between the real world which he had so long explored and so lovingly portrayed and those vast spaces which appear to be beyond it for the futile tempting of religionists and romanticists.

Holding so firmly to his religion of reality, and with his varied powers, it is not perhaps to be wondered at that Howells produced in his fourscore books the most considerable transcript of American life yet made by one man. Nor, of course, should it be wondered at, that in spite of his doctrine of impersonality the world of America as he has set it down is full of his benignance and noble health, never illicit or savage and but rarely sordid. His natural gentleness and reserve, even more than the decorous traditions of the seventies and eighties, kept him from the violent frankness of, say, Zola, whose books Howells thought “indecent through the facts that they nakedly represent.” What Howells invariably practiced was a kind of selective realism, choosing his material as a sage chooses his words, decently. Most of his stories end “happily,” that is, in congenial marriages with good expectations. He did not mind employing one favoured situ-