May 11, 12
Fans of serious literature
Read in January, 1998, read count: 1
Recently, I was looking over some of my old notes on classics that I've read; that list isn't as long as I'd like, but it was also startling to note how few of the books on it I've actually reviewed on Goodreads. I try to make time to do a book review roughly every week, and if I'm not reviewing a book I've just finished, I take the opportunity to review one that I've already read; but those number in the hundreds, and the choice of which one to review is often rather random. So I've decided, for the rest of this year, to try to concentrate my "retrospective" reviews on the classics as much as I can. (Maybe that will partly make up for flopping royally, as I surely will, on my classics reading challenge for 2012! :-) ) This 19th-century masterpiece of American Realism was an easy choice for the first beneficiary of this agenda.
Critics reckon Howells as one of the three leading masters of Realist fiction in the era between the Civil War and World War I, the other two being Twain and Henry James; but he tends to be the least well known and read of that triumvirate today. That's a shame, because (based on what I've read of all three) his literary gifts were at least the equal of either of the others. And in this novel, which isn't nearly as well-known as it deserves to be (I read it only as background reading for teaching American Literature when we were homeschooling our girls; and I regret that I waited so long to read it!), he created, IMO, a landmark classic of American letters.
There's a lot for the fan of serious "mainstream," or descriptive, fiction to enjoy here: good storytelling that demonstrates that regular life can be the stuff of absorbing fiction; sharply-drawn characters (both male and female, though the focus is more on the former) who aren't stereotypes, and who come very much alive to the reader; a keen authorial eye for social foibles, without being harshly condemning of the characters; and a strong sense of place --Howells wasn't born or bred in Boston, but he lived there long enough to be familiar with it and to evoke it well. This is a tale of family dynamics, of romance with an unexpected twist, of the social conflicts between old and new money in that time and place; a "novel of manners" that succeeds in making that type of fiction more interesting than the conventional label for it sounds. All this is delivered in literate, smooth prose that (despite the 1885 publication date) didn't strike me as noticeably stilted nor convoluted (it really shouldn't be daunting for any intelligent modern reader). But the deepest dimension of truly great fiction is its moral dimension, a core message that bears witness to the bedrock truth that the most important earthly thing in our lives is how we treat each other; and it's here that this novel really shines. Howells casts a penetrating eye over the class snobbery of that day (which isn't really any different now), the false priorities and vanity that promote ostentatious waste of money to buy status, and the myriad small ways that we either treat each other with kindness and respect, or fail to do so. But the central, climactic moral choice of the novel is a single, simple one: will the title character accept his own total financial ruin --or save himself from it by participating (only in the most passive way, by mere silence) in just one dishonest swindle, of people he doesn't even know and will never have occasion to encounter again?