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The Dean of American Letters:
The Late Career of William Dean Howells
John W. Crowley. The Dean of American Letters: The Late Career of William Dean Howells. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1999. xii + 146 pp.
If there is one area of Howells studies that remains sorely underdeveloped, it is The Dean's final quarter century. Long after the "Howells revival" of the mid-twentieth century, Edwin Cady's landmark critical biography, The Realist at War (1958), stands as the only major scholarly text to address Howells's late work with any sort of depth or complexity. [End Page 497] Even Kenneth Lynn's 1971 biography essentially ignores Howells's final two decades.
To be fair, it is generally agreed that Howells's literary and critical output after 1895 is inferior to the work that preceded it. The firecracker polemics of the "Editor's Study" (1886-92) gave way to the armchair ruminations of the "Editor's Easy Chair" (1902-19). The sophisticated social entanglements of A Hazard of New Fortunes were supplanted by a long string of novels that even Howells recognized as second-rate. Nevertheless, there are many diamonds in the rough, including the late novel The Son of Royal Langbrith and important critical essays on Ibsen, James, Zola, Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class, and a red-hot dismissal of Barrett Wendell's Literary History of America. Throughout it all there is the larger question of The Dean of American Letters, a cultural icon so revered in his day that the role finally made Howells uncomfortable. "It is at the worst," he confided in a letter to Henry James, "part of the divine madness of an affair in which I still struggle to identify my accustomed self."
John W. Crowley's The Dean of American Letters examines the construction—and posthumous deconstruction—of a literary icon. His critical stance combines a careful consideration of Howells's biography with a cogent if limited analysis of the early-twentieth-century literary marketplace that produced The Dean. Crowley begins with the hard-working author who, by the mid-1890s, was fetching top dollar for his work. (One of the most interesting sections of The Dean contains a detailed examination of Howells's workload for the year 1893.) Among the market forces that led to the construction of The Dean are the 1899 lecture tour designed to capitalize on Howells's name recognition (and which brought us the excellent essay "Novel-Writing and Novel-Reading"); the influence of a then-recent American invention, the newspaper interview; and a vigorous promotion and advertising campaign at the hands of Colonel Harvey's House of Harper, which culminated in the famous seventy-fifth birthday celebration attended by President Taft. If Howells died a literary icon, he did not remain one for long. Crowley also traces the deconstruction of The Dean in the 1920s and 1930s at the hands of H. L. Mencken, Sinclair Lewis, and Van Wyck Brooks, among others.
While this general narrative is well known, what emerges in Crowley's superbly written book is a tightly focused examination of the [End Page 498] making and unmaking of a literary icon in the marketplace. Crowley's deft use of biographical context adds additional layers of complexity. For example, he suggests that Howells's impersonal tone throughout much of the 1902 essay "The Man of Letters as a Man of Business" is a mask designed to conceal "Howells's underlying dis-ease about his own career in relation to his political and moral convictions. [. . .] Howells unflinchingly recognized the practical aristocrat in himself as well as the theoretical socialist." Such sensitive analysis is characteristic of The Dean of American Letters—a most welcome addition to Howells studies and a book that begins to fill a crucial gap in the field.