- W. D. Howells at Home and on Home:A Recovered 1886 Interview
In the summer of 1886, W. D. Howells welcomed a reporter from the New York World into his Boston home. The interview, published August 21, 1886, and previously unknown to scholarship, covers a wide range of topics, from the handsomely upholstered furniture and well-tended flower beds to the literary, as Howells is asked to share his predictions regarding the future of fiction. The similarities between Howells' real-life residence and the one that he fictively constructed in The Rise of Silas Lapham may have influenced the interviewer's intermingling of the domestic and the literary. There is of course at least one marked difference between the real and the fictional house on "the water side of Beacon Street": Lapham's home is destroyed by fire before construction is completed. Despite this fact, the resemblance is striking, as the interviewer repeatedly insinuates.
Howells gave at least forty-four interviews during his lifetime and Ulrich Halfmann describes him as a "nearly ideal, simultaneously responsive and provocative, interview partner." In 1886, the year that this interview was published, interviews with the author also appeared in the New York Mail and Express, Temple Bar, Critic, and Chicago News. Often complaining of misrepresentation, Howells told one reporter: "Usually I come out so ornate in those interviews that I don't recognize myself." Despite his disillusion with the genre, Howells took the interview process quite seriously. "A newspaper interview," he told a reporter for the New York Sun, "should be as perfect in its way as a poem." 1 [End Page 74] "Wm. D. Howells at Home / A Visit to the Novelist's Pretty House in Boston," New York World, 22 August 1886, p. 10.
Boston, Aug. 21.—A drive down Beacon Street and a short distance beyond in the direction of what is known as the Back Bay Extension is what is one of the delights of Boston. On one side is the famous old Common and the newer but beautiful Public Garden, with its flower beds, miniature lake boats in the shape of swans and a handsome bridge. On the other side the State-House, the houses of James M. Beebe 2 and Gardner Brewer 3 on the site of the old Hancock House, on past the homes of the old aristocrats of Boston. This is the avenue on which lives Mr. William Dean Howells, the novelist. It is the choicest location in all this picturesque city. Beyond the Public Garden there are houses on both sides [of] the street. Mr. Howells's residence is in this part some distance out, on what is called "the Milldam." Strange name for the most fashionable quarter, but Bostonians have a fondness for old associations. Sumptuous dwellings and massive public buildings may be erected here, but to the Bostonian it will always be "the Milldam."
The Howells residence is one of a block. It is one of red brick, with brownstone trimmings. The entrance is reached by a long flight of stone steps. The whole front is nearly covered by a green clinging vine, festoons of which overhang the front door and serve to screen it from the sun, as the house has a full southern exposure. There is a small grass plot in front, such as is usual to city houses. The grass is closely cut, it is not surrounded by any railing and looks all the prettier for it.
The front door opens into a large, square hall, with wide oaken staircase extending above. Here everything looks inviting. Rugs are upon the floor, a ball table, on which is a small tray filled with visitors' cards, stands near the door, and a mirror hangs above. In front is a reception-room, prettily and comfortably furnished, the prevailing color red, which harmonizes well with the oak furnishings and woodwork. Beyond and across the hall is the dining-room, which looks out on Mr. Howells's flower garden. The woodwork of this room is also of oak. Engravings hang upon the walls, and, altogether, it presented a cheerful picture, heightened by the shining light on decanters, wine-glasses and silver on a...