William Dean Howells and the Irrational

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Author: Ellen F. Wright
Editor: Dennis Poupard
Date: 1985
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay; Excerpt
Length: 3,073 words

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[In the following excerpt, Wright examines a number of Howells's novels to uncover the author's frequent sympathetic portrayal of such “irrational” qualities as sentimentality, impulsiveness, and romantic reverie, a sympathy that many early twentieth-century critics failed to perceive in a writer they had labeled unimaginative and dull.]

The generally prevailing view of Howells as a complacent writer devoted to the ordered and boringly reasonable has of late increasingly come under critical fire. More and more scholars, taking issue with the accepted view, have noted that Howells exhibits a strong, albeit sporadic, interest in the darkly mysterious or irrational side of human nature. They have pointed to characters who suffer psychological or sexual turmoil, show signs of an almost modernist angst or alienation, become involved with the disquietingly spiritualistic, or demonstrate either demonic or mythic dimensions. I would like to add to this body of criticism by calling attention to Howells's emphasis on a different kind of human irrationality, an irrationality which, if less dramatic, is perhaps more pervasive. This is the irrationality which Howells repeatedly describes in his ordinary characters, his normal, nonmythic, nonalienated, nonpsychologically tortured characters. It is an irrationality which has to do with sentiment, with impulsiveness, with whimsy, and with poetry. Not only does Howells focus on these qualities, but he seems to do so in order to approve of them, in order to argue that this kind of gentle irrationality is an essential and desirable part of the human personality. A sensitivity to this approval of the irrational can allow us to evaluate better the artistry of some of Howells's novels, as well as to provide support for the growing consensus that Howells was by no means simply an apologist for the tediously commonsensical.

From the start of his career, Howells praised sentiment in his characters. As they travel in Their Wedding Journey, Isabel and Basil March continually sentimentalize the places and the people they encounter. So, for example, they imaginatively construct “villas and castles and palaces upon all ... eligible building sites,” they turn a man with a sensitive face into the author of a rejected manuscript, and they speculate dreamily on the histories, personalities, and motivations of the early inhabitants of a Canadian convent. The narrator's attitude to all this is accepting: “I do not defend the feeble sentimentality,—call it wickedness if you like,—but I understand it, and I forgive it from my soul.” ... Kitty Ellison in A Chance Acquaintance is another character who has this faculty of imagining other people's lives and of using real life as the starting point for the whimsical construction of elaborate romantic stories. It is, in fact, partially on the basis of her lively imagination that readers judge her to be so much more appealing than her suitor, the stiff Bostonian Miles Arbuton.

These, of course, are early novels, but in his later works Howells continues to praise the sentimental and “unreasonable.” ... A philosophical conversation in another late work, The Vacation of the Kelwyns, focuses explicitly...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420004117