In The Master and the Dean, Rob Davidson describes Henry James's Prefaces to the New York edition of his novels as "an elaborately choreographed performance by an idealized artist figure with a didactic mission" to create and educate an audience for his fiction (222). If James attempted to choreograph his career through literary criticism, however, he did not dance alone; rather, Davidson's study portrays Henry James and William Dean Howells as engaged in a decades-long transatlantic dance both cooperative and competitive, each author alternately leading or following, occasionally treading on the other's toes but always recovering elegantly. No longer ossified in their aged visages, James and Howells come alive as Davidson brings their younger, more flexible selves to the forefront and then patiently follows the gradual change, growth, and development of ideas in their literary criticism.
Others have attempted to diagram this complex dance, and Davidson draws on the important contributions of scholars like Michael Anesko, whose Letters, Fictions, Lives: Henry James and William Dean Howells explores the ongoing conversation carried out through the two authors' letters, biography, and criticism. Despite continuing interest in James and Howells's lives and letters, however, the authors' literary criticism has received less attention, and much of that has been focused on a few highly influential works, such as James's Prefaces and Howells's problematic Criticism and Fiction. Davidson, on the other hand, considers the entire range of criticism written by both men, including frequently overlooked critical works such as the flawed but interesting Heroines of Fiction by Howells. Master and Dean is arranged chronologically in three large sections (1859–1884, 1885–1897, and 1898–1920); within each section, Davidson examines the authors' critical essays individually and in dialogue with each other. As a result, the published criticism begins to resemble an intense, passionate conversation conducted in extreme slow motion.
Despite the two authors' obvious differences, the long-distance conversation created through their criticism shared one overwhelming purpose: to create a space where their own conceptions of fiction could take center stage. Sometimes this required some shoving. For instance, Howells's 1882 essay "Henry James, Jr." ignited a firestorm of controversy by elevating James to the level of Dickens and Thackeray; James responded by writing "William Dean Howells" in what Davidson calls "an attempt to distance himself from Howells and, in so doing, to quiet the opposition once and for all" (145). The essay [End Page 735] also betrays "James's discomfort with Howells's small perception of evil" (150); indeed, James considered Howells's experience too small and his conception of fiction too shallow to allow true art to take root, but the Master was determined to avoid the Dean's errors by writing criticism that would "create a space for his own creative works to be appreciated" (41).
Howells, meanwhile, wondered whether the space James was defining for himself might be too small, his ideal audience too narrow; early in their relationship, he "senses that James writes to an insular audience of initiated, educated readers" (40). This jockeying for space is evident in the debate over James's biography of Hawthorne, which had at its heart "the larger question of how to view America." While James saw the American scene as "a limited field best left behind" (44), Howells saw America as "a land ripe with potential," a "most fertile site" to grow distinctively American art (45).
The conventional wisdom tends to agree with James, but Davidson discovers a more complex story in the criticism itself. Unraveling the complicated publishing history of the essays collected in Criticism and Fiction, Davidson traces the development of Howells's aesthetic and examines the effects of the shifting contexts of the "smiling aspects" passage. Further, by considering the entire range of Howells's criticism, Davidson reminds us that Howells, though often perceived as a one-note writer, "explored an impressive range of rhetorical styles and critical voices, frequently blurring the boundaries between the 'literary' essay and other genres, including...