Page:The Cambridge History of American Literature, v3.djvu/103

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85
Howells's Place and Rank

ation—in which a humorous husband and a serious wife find themselves responsible for a young girl during her courtship—so often as to suggest a personal experience. Not without some complaint, he nevertheless not too rebelliously accepted the modern novelist’s fate of writing largely for women, a sex which in Howells’s world appears as often shallow and changeful and almost always quite unreasonable. Thus limited as to subjects by his temper and his times, he was likewise limited as to treatment. On every ground he preferred to make relatively little of impassioned or tragic moments, believing that the true bulk of life is to be represented by its common-places. “It will not do,” he wrote, speaking of the ducal palace at Weimar, “to lift either houses or men far out of the average; they become spectacles, ceremonies; they cease to have charm, to have character, which belong to the levels of life, where alone there are ease and comfort, and human nature may be itself, with all the little delightful differences repressed in those who represent and typify.”[1] (The pendulum had swung far since the days when Cooper and Hawthorne repined over the democratic barrenness of American manners!) No one has written more engaging commonplaces than Howells, though perhaps something like the century which has elapsed since the death of Jane Austen—Howells’s ideal among English novelists—will have to pass before the historian can be sure that work artistically flawless may be kept alive, lacking malice or intensity, by ease and grace and charm, by kind wisdom and thoughtful mirth.

Hawthorne and Mrs. Stowe, romance and sentiment, had divided first honours in American fiction during the twenty years 1850–1870; the seventies belonged primarily to the short story of the school of Bret Harte. The novel of that decade, thus a little neglected, profited in at least one respect: it ceased to be the form of fiction on which all beginners tried their pens and passed rather into the hands of men whose eyes looked a little beyond easy conquests and an immediate market. This fact, with the rapid growth of the artistic conscience in the cosmopolitanizing years which followed the Civil War, serves to explain in part the remarkable florescence, the little renaissance of fiction in the eighties.[2] The short story may specially

  1. Their Silver Wedding Journey (1899), chap. IX.
  2. A Renaissance in the Eighties, Nation, 12 October, 1918.