- 13 Late-19th-Century Literature
Henry James and Mark Twain notwithstanding, W. D. Howells once again stands atop the literary world of the late 19th century. The keynote event is the publication of a new Howells biography, yet his influence is explicitly acknowledged in a wide array of academic work, much of which is only in small part about his literature and criticism. Indeed, only the Civil War looms larger over the period in this year's scholarship, the lingering wounds and legacies of which are discussed perhaps a bit more than usual. Other themes that emerge in this year include the ever-increasing attention paid to the construction of whiteness, to the literature of imperialist nation building, to the high-culture contributions of women writers, and to the place of biography and autobiography in literature. Finally, an eye-opening take on the role of popular poetic forms marks this year as well.
Without a doubt, in the year's scholarship on Howells pride of place belongs to Susan Goodman and Carl Dawson's William Dean Howells: A Writer's Life (Calif.). It may seem trite to point out that a person's life was usually much more complex than was often depicted, and, to be sure, Goodman and Dawson are far from guilty of so facile a declaration. Rather, what these latest Howells biographers succeed admirably in demonstrating, through a remarkable interweaving of text and context, is that Howells's writings—fiction, criticism, and an impressively [End Page 263] vast selection of letters—provide ample evidence of a life far darker and more complicated than has been assumed by all but the most dedicated of readers. They describe their project as an attempt "to go beyond the fictions [Howells] himself created about his life and the fictions that have grown up since: the boy of his memoirs (a boy like any other, only better); the sophisticated editor in his easy chair; the timid and emotionally scarred writer; the benevolent dean of letters." To this end, Goodman and Dawson illuminate the many public and private personae that Howells skillfully cultivated, weaving together discussions of fiction and criticism with the life situations and relationships that contextualize both the composition and the reception of those works. Howells's at times idealistic but always pragmatic ideas about the value of literature are always on view, as are his constant negotiations with publishers, editors, and others involved in the market side of literature. His outrage over the Haymarket trials is wonderfully paired in a chapter with his sadness over the death of his daughter, while his relationships with and mentoring of fellow writers are all richly detailed. In short, this biography presents a compelling and fully rounded portrait of an emotionally, psychologically, politically, and aesthetically complex writer.
A number of journal contributions further attest to the relevance of Howells's words both in their time and now. Amanda Claybaugh's extraordinarily insightful essay "The Autobiography of a Substitute: Trauma, History, Howells" (YJC 18: 45–65) begins with one particularly influential moment in Howells's life, namely, his occupation of a consulship in Venice during the Civil War. Taking up a question that vexed Howells through much of his career—why was there no satisfactory literary expression of the Civil War—Claybaugh answers that essentially missing the war led writers such as Howells and others who had literally or figuratively been substituted for in the ranks into a trauma of silence. Consequently, Howells, in efforts that Claybaugh characterizes as anticipating the canonical texts of trauma theory, develops a series of tropes based on substitution and amputation in order to give voice to that which has been silenced: the emotional experience of the war. Claybaugh traces both figurative and literal substitutions in The Rise of Silas Lapham and A Hazard of New Fortunes in order to argue that what most concerned Howells was that the substituted soldier be brought back into view culturally and historically. The latter novel also interests Patricia J. Sehulster, who in "The Unanswerable Woman Question in William Dean Howell's A Hazard of New Fortunes" (ATQ 19: 115–31) [End Page 264] argues that this novel does...