- Indian Summer’s Critique and Celebration of the Epistolary Novel
W. D. Howells’ 1886 novel Indian Summer includes both a critique of the epistolary novel as a literary form and a celebratory homage to the moral consciousness of the form’s most famous proponent, Samuel Richardson. The six letters exchanged between the characters of this non-epistolary novel set in nineteenth-century Italy emphasize the difficulty of correctly interpreting the emotional content and motivation of any given piece of writing, implicitly questioning the ability of an epistolary novel to convey its characters’ true feelings and to form a coherent narrative. The novel’s youthful “international” heroine, Imogene Graham, writes two emotional letters that especially recall the emotional appeals of Richardson’s Pamela. Imogene’s two letters bookend the others in the novel, and their melodrama unconsciously creates the romantic difficulties that make the other letters necessary and ultimately drive the plot. Criticizing Richardson’s assumption that familiar letters can convey an “unfiltered” glimpse of their writers’ minds, an idea that is very important for the success of his epistolary novels, Indian Summer proposes that letters are actually more likely to conceal their writers’ feelings than to reveal them. In fact, in stressful social situations, such as the ritualized nineteenth-century courtship described in the novel, letters can inspire imaginary emotions as easily as describing real ones. Illustrating the necessity for writers to restrain emotion in their correspondence, Howells’ older characters reinforce the advice on letter writing found in contemporary etiquette manuals, especially where courtship is concerned. However, Howells does not ultimately condemn Imogene for the comedic misunderstandings that her melodramatic epistles cause. What he criticizes in the form of the epistolary novel and his own literary [End Page 112] heroine prepares the reader for what Howells most admires in her nature and in Richardson’s work as a whole. Imogene Graham and Samuel Richardson’s shared devotion to social change ultimately makes their awkward self-expression and incomplete self-knowledge forgivable.
An essay that Howells wrote for his “Editor’s Easy Chair” column in Harper’s Monthly in August 1902 shows the mixture of chagrin and admiration for Richardson that informed his earlier novel.1 The essay was prompted by the appearance of a new edition of Richardson’s works edited by William Lyon Phelps.2 Howells contrasts Phelps’ careful appraisal of Richardson with the “literary idolatry” that the eighteenth-century author enjoyed during his own life. He delights in listing what he considers exaggerated emotional reactions to Richardson’s work. He notes “the Lepsic rhetorician Gellert was inspired to invent a comparative of immortal especially for the author.” He mentions Diderot’s contention that Richardson deserved a place next to Euripides, Sophocles, and Moses on his bookshelf (156). Finally, he expresses amazement that even the worldly Mary Wortley Montague declared that she would “sob over his works in a most scandalous manner.” Howells declares that Richardson “divined the copious sources of Sentiment” all too easily; in fact, he used “a wand something too like a schoolmaster’s rod” in this endeavor. He scoffs at the “flattering, fluttering women” affected by his works and those who wrote “tear-stained pages” to Richardson begging him to spare the life of the heroine in his novel Clarissa (156, 157). Howells forgets that he had provoked a similarly extreme reaction when Indian Summer was serialized—a woman wrote to him “to beg advance sheets of the novel before she died” and he was nearly taken in by the hoax.3
Howells criticizes both Richardson’s use of the epistolary form as well as his overt sentimentality. Richardson can be “as preposterous as you please; he is insufferably verbose; he is ignorant of manners; he is as formless, as sentimental, as philistine, as commonplace, as any that hate him have ever said.” Richardson’s initial inspiration for Pamela struck Howells as particularly comical: “meaning to compose a complete letter-writer for the use of people in humble life, . . . [he] presently [found] himself in the heart of one of the most affecting and fatiguing fictions in the language” (157). Howells does not think that the epistolary form actually fit the subject of Pamela...