- The Master and the Dean: The Literary Criticism of Henry James and William Dean Howells
Rob Davidson’s book usefully complements Michael Anesko’s Letters, Fictions, Lives: Henry James and William Dean Howells. As Davidson notes, the authors’ responses to each other’s ideas were often indirect, appearing not only in the letters and reviews compiled by Anesko but in essays dealing with larger issues. “The Art of Fiction,” for example, tactfully addresses combatants in the realism war triggered by Howells’s “Henry James, Jr.,” while “The Science of Criticism,” with its argument for selectivity, takes aim at the democratic values articulated in Howells’s “Editor’s Study” columns. Davidson also identifies the points of convergence and divergence that make realism a necessary yet elusive concept. As pragmatists, both writers sought accommodation with the mass market, which favored engaging plots; but as idealists, they argued for moral fiction dependent on subtlety of characterization and perspective, the practice of Turgenev serving as a touchstone. In retrospect, the authors’ disagreements are even more significant, especially in the context of their roles as critics. The aesthetic of Howells, explains Davidson, was “outwardly directed” (22) toward a civic and educative mission. Thus the young Howells, unlike the early James, could appreciate Dickens’s novels and Whitman’s poetry, while the mature Howells welcomed new authors ignored by James despite the latter’s belated recognition of “opportunities.” James’s key objective was to create an audience for his own specialized fiction, a project culminating in the prefaces. In the next century James influenced his academic successors, the New Critics, whereas Howells’s efforts prefigured those of activists seeking to broaden the canon. Davidson’s account of this contest will be of interest both to historians of fiction and to teachers still trying to explicate the competing goals of literary study. [End Page 208]
At times James’s antipathy to Howells’s program was so pronounced that Davidson’s commentary seems too bland. James’s treatment of Howells as an author of “light” literature signaled his intolerance of the marriage plot and of vernacular characters, while his boredom with Tolstoy’s appearance in the “Editor’s Study” revealed his lack of sympathy with Howells’s political and ethical commitments. Even “A Letter to Mr. Howells” (1912), treated by Davidson as a straightforward tribute, illustrates James’s penchant for barbed metaphor: “you have had the advantage . . . of sitting up to your neck, as I may say—or at least up to your waist—amid the sources of your inspiration” (Anesko 451–52). Such irony should warn those tempted to overvalue James as an American social critic.
Also worthy of stronger analysis is Howells’s growing sophistication as a reader of James. Instead of reacting to his rival’s barbs, Howells learned from “the master” without relinquishing his own point of view. Whereas the young editor worried over James’s elitism, the mature critic’s review of The Tragic Muse suggests his awareness of the novel’s homosocial themes, and the dialogue in “Mr. Henry James’s Later Work” (1903) is artfully designed to foster appreciation of indeterminacy and painterly technique. (“You cannot get behind the figures in any picture. They are always merged in their background” [Anesko 386]). A problem for interpreters, however, is that the quality of Howells’s later criticism—and that of James as well—is notably uneven. Davidson devotes too much space to such forgettable texts as Howells’s Heroines of Fiction and James’s “The New Novel,” efforts undermined by their authors’ disengagement from their subjects.
More deserving of attention are the conflicts within James’s critical canon, most clearly discernible in his ambivalent reviews. To assert, as Davidson does, that for James morality was “primarily an aesthetic question” (33) is to ignore the critic’s struggle with values that resisted conflation. Consider in particular James’s attempts to justify his preference for the fiction of George Eliot (morally profound though aesthetically flawed) to that of Flaubert (aesthetically superior but...