Throughout the decades, William Dean Howells—our honorable Dean and basically a man of letters—has received the attention that is accorded to major writers; indeed some major writers have received less attention than Howells. He also [End Page 249] has had the good fortune to attract a certain kind of professional/academic critic—the cultural and literary historian—who has found much to explore and to value in "historical fiction." In general, the New Critic has avoided the study of Howells because he is faulty as an artist, even in his major novels, such as A Modern Instance, The Rise of Silas Lapham, and A Hazard of New Fortunes. For a realist, Howells was "unrealistic" in so many ways: with his crowded and formulaic romantic plots, awkward coincidences, and shrill, melodramatic episodes; with a style and an ear that keep his characters and their speeches flat and one-dimensional; with erratic shifts in tone and focus; and with redundant materials that make the novels ponderous and "commonplace."
In The Black Heart's Truth John W. Crowley finds enough evidence, with the aid of Freudian tools, to demonstrate that Howells was so affected by his mental breakdown in 1881 that it damaged his "best" novel, A Modern Instance (1882). Using Edwin H. Cady's pioneering essay "The Neuroticism of William Dean Howells" (1946) as his starting point, Crowley painstakingly traces the life and times of Howells' youth and maturity.
The destructive neuroticism was there beginning in the 1840s—he suffered a breakdown in 1854—to 1865; there was some psychic stability from 1868 to 1881. Howells was disturbed by many things: his relationship with his perfect mother and his imperfect father; conflicts with his brothers; the family's Sweden-borgianism; his fear of abandonment and death (he was convinced that he would die at sixteen); his terror of a harmless village idiot, of stray dogs, and of hydrophobia; his nightmares; his sexual urges, bodi normal and abnormal; his boredom with village life in Ohio; his depression for not having served in the Civil War.
Years later, it was his wife's invalidism and the early death of his daughter Winifred that tormented Howells. For a time, he was even convinced of the emptiness of his idyllic domestic and marital bliss. Early and late, Howells saved himself from destruction by channeling his negative stresses into positive action—his self-education; his study of Spanish, Latin, Greek, French, and German; his reading of novels, such as Don Quixote; his writing—poetry, stories, and journalism; and his editorship of The Atlantic.
Crowley's study would have been fuller and more substantial if he had followed through with some key issues he raises. Unfortunately, as his psychological probings lead into his next-to-last-chapter, "A Modem Instance," he takes the "aesthetic merit of the novel as given, something other critics have amply demonstrated." Along wih the psychological tensions, Crowley could have discovered and discussed the creative tensions—for example, attempts to write three novels in three years—and, more important, Howells' real limitations as an artist.
Crowley raises another provocative issue:
Throughout the 1870s, Howells projected his unconscious life into his characters and portrayed their psychological depths with increasing sophistication, but he did not allow himself to recognize their passional life as his own. His precarious mental balance, in fact, was based upon his not fully making this recognition. Should Howells have lost the protective distance between his inner life and his art, he would have imperiled his very sanity. That is exactly what he did in writing A Modern Instance. [End Page 250]
In an essay on Dostoevsky, Thomas Mann confronted this psychological problem differently: "The truth is that life could never in all its life get on without the morbid; and anything more stupid would be hard to find than the saying that from disease only disease...