Saturday, March 16, 2013

Mark Twain on William Dean Howells

Because Twain is so often considered a satirist, many of his readers, and possibly even his critics, often forget that the author was, first and formost, just that: an author, a person who writes and studies writing. It is easy to box up and label Twain as nothing more than a funnyman, but, upon close inspection, it is clear that he was much more than someone who could only make others laugh.
        This can all be seen in Twain's nonfictional essay, titled, "William Dean Howells," which is, very appropriately, about William Dean Howells, a fellow writer of the realism genre, much like Twain himself.
Twain’s essay, even just in prosody, is very unlike that of Howell’s writing. Twain writes very colloquially and with a very easy-to-understand level of diction and sentence structures. Howells, on the other hand, is known for writing deep, eloquent sentences that, to a modern reader, may not be the easiest to understand.
Twain claims that one of the biggest things that Howells has going in his favor, in terms of writing at least, is Howell’s ability to locate and utilize “the right word;”
“He seems to be almost always able to find that elusive and shifty grain of gold. A powerful agent is the right word: it lights the reader's way and makes it plain; a close approximation to it will answer, and much traveling is done in a well-enough fashion by its help, but we do not welcome it and applaud it and rejoice in it as we do when THE right one blazes out on us.”
Twain also says that it is not only Howells’ diction that makes him so outstanding a writer, but it is also everything else about him: his flow of speech, his rhythm, his construction, his expression, his quality of compression, and so on. All of this, which is so necessary for a great writer, was born to Howells, Twain asserts. He did not earn it or learn it, like many people have done. This great ability was simply assigned to Howell at birth, as if he was inherently meant to be a fantastic writer.
Twain says that, in order to determine whether a piece of literature is truly passable in the sense of compactness and clarity, the piece must be read aloud. And Howell’s works truly pass this test.
“You see how easy and flowing it is; how unvexed by ruggednesses, clumsinesses, broken meters; how simple and—so far as you or I can make out—unstudied; how clear, how limpid, how understandable, how unconfused by cross-currents, eddies, undertows; how seemingly unadorned, yet is all adornment, like the lily-of-the-valley; and how compressed, how compact, without a complacency-signal hung out anywhere to call attention to it.
There are twenty-three lines in the quoted passage. After reading it several times aloud, one perceives that a good deal of matter is crowded into that small space. I think it is a model of compactness. When I take its materials apart and work them over and put them together in my way, I find I cannot crowd the result back into the same hole, there not being room enough. I find it a case of a woman packing a man's trunk: he can get the things out, but he can't ever get them back again.”
Finally, Twain holds one last technique of Howell’s in the highest regard. He says that it is Howell’s sense of “stage direction,” the little section of clarifying description that follows a quote, that wins him over completely. It is these stage directions, one of the “little things,” that Howells so brilliantly executes.
There is another thing which is contentingly noticeable in Mr. Howells's books. That is his "stage directions"—those artifices which authors employ to throw a kind of human naturalness around a scene and a conversation, and help the reader to see the one and get at meanings in the other which might not be perceived if entrusted unexplained to the bare words of the talk. Some authors overdo the stage directions, they elaborate them quite beyond necessity; they spend so much time and take up so much room in telling us how a person said a thing and how he looked and acted when he said it that we get tired and vexed and wish he hadn't said it all.”
“But I am friendly to Mr. Howells's stage directions; more friendly to them than to any one else's, I think. They are done with a competent and discriminating art, and are faithful to the requirements of a stage direction's proper and lawful office, which is to inform. Sometimes they convey a scene and its conditions so well that I believe I could see the scene and get the spirit and meaning of the accompanying dialogue if some one would read merely the stage directions to me and leave out the talk.”
We must call into question all of Twain’s profuse and utter praising of Howell, especially because Twain is such a known satirist. It is a possibility that Twain is exaggerating his feelings about Howells in order to come off as sincere, though it is far more likely that Twain is exaggerating his feelings about Howells in order to prove his point that Howells is, in fact, none of the things that Twain says that he is. I suppose that this could be seen as a typical transgression among realist writers. It is more “realistic” for the writers of this movement to actually write about their issues with one another instead of other movements when writers may have ignored their issues with one another completely. It might also be considered more realistic that the authors aren’t so direct with their qualms with each other, and instead, they are slight and backhanded.
Perhaps Twain came across the exchange of letters that Howells and Daisy Miller author Henry James, another realist, wrote about each other. Howells himself writes about James in a very sarcastic and caustic manner, calling James “a very great literary genius” and saying that “it is he that is shaping and directing American fiction.” Similarly, it is possible that Twain is taking Howells’ essay on James and flipping it, using the same technique upon Howells himself.
James, on the other side of things, is less sarcastic and more direct. James says of Howells:
“He thinks scarcely anything too paltry to be interesting, that the small and the vulgar have been terribly neglected, and would rather see an exact account of a sentiment or a character he stumbles against everyday than a brilliant evocation of a passion or a type he has never seen and does not even particularly believe in.”
Here, James criticizes Howells of his subscription to realism, claiming that Howells has taken it too far, to the point where his writings have surpassed the point of an interesting new viewpoint into everyday lives to that of one which is utterly plain and boring. In short, James criticizes Howells, a realist, of being too real. This, to me, seems like an intrinsically flawed argument. One should not hold it against a duck for quacking, after all.

Original source
Howells' and James' letters

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