Monday, April 4, 2011

An orange cut in the Neapolitan manner

A delicate new rose from a cheap, rough stock

On the pleasures of William Dean Howells
Now that I've read his acknowledged masterpiece, I owe you a book report.
On the basis of two novels from the mid-1880s, I can summarize what I perceive as his virtues.
All of his major characters are handled with equal respect and insight; he is interested in them all.
As much as 9/10 of the text is dialogue, dialogue which may continue for pages or consist of only a word or two, giving us the persons gradually but fully.  He almost never tells us what the author thinks of a character, and he uses speech more than stream of consciousness, and to greater effect.
He has much to convey about the legacy of Puritanism but never preaches about it.
He has the detachment of an essayist rather than a sociologist.  His is a light touch.
Perhaps even more than he could have guessed, his novels are repositories of information, in this case on the 1880s in New England and on industry and finance, too, which he neither glorifies nor condemns.
When he does stop to say something in the author's voice, it is some delightfully well chosen tidbit: of Bromfield Corey at the breakfast table (out of a clear blue sky and without explanation), "He cut his orange in the Neapolitan manner, and ate it in quarters."
His mind and ear seem infallible, for example in the counsel that the Laphams receive from the Reverend Mr. Sewell.  It is simply wonderful.  His friend Henry James can't touch him in this department.
Doubtless, he will come as a surprise nearly a century and a half later, for the essayist's light touch serves an unflinching realist, but if you find Dreiser a little tiresome you will adore Howells.  Similarly, he never makes you feel that you have to be reading for style as such, though he is a consummate stylist.  I downloaded 15 books in a single file, and I can hardly wait till I come to one of the collections of essays.
The picture at the head of this post is the best I can do for an illustration.  That rambling rose from the open-air market, now more than five years in the ground, has done it again, as lovely as it is robust.