Born in a little village in Ohio over seventy years ago, and growing up with small Latin and less Greek, Mr. Howells may fairly be called a self-educated man. Just why the epithet "self-made" should be applied to those non-college-graduates who succeed in business, and withheld from those who succeed in poetry and fiction, seems not entirely clear. Perhaps it is tacitly assumed that those who become captains of industry achieve prominence without divine assistance; whereas men of letters, with or without early advantages, and whether grateful or not, have unconscious communication with hidden forces. Be this as it may, the boy Howells had little schooling and no college. All the public institutions in the world, however, are but a poor makeshift in the absence of good home training; and the future novelist's father was the right sort of man and had the right sort of occupation to stimulate a clever and ambitious son. The elder Howells was the editor of a country newspaper, which, like a country doctor, makes up in[Pg 57] variety of information what it loses in spread of influence. The boy was a compositor before he was a composer, as plenty of literary men since Richardson have been; he helped to set up lyrics, news items, local gossip, the funny column, and patent medicine advertisements. From mechanical he passed to original work, both in his father's office and in other sanctums about the state; sometimes acting not only as contributor, but "moulding public opinion" from the editor's chair. And indeed he has never entirely stepped out of the editorial rôle. During an amazingly busy life as novelist, dramatist, poet, and foreign diplomat, Mr. Howells has acted as editorial writer on the Nation, the Atlantic, the Cosmopolitan Magazine, and Harper's Monthly. I think he would sometimes be appalled at the prodigious amount of merely "timely" articles that he has written, were it not for the fact that during his long career he has never published a single line of which he need feel ashamed.
Type-setters and printers are commonly men of ideas, who have interesting minds, and are good to talk with. Mr. Howells was certainly no exception to the rule, and to the foundation of his early education as a compositor and journalist he added four years of study of the Italian language and literature in the pleasant environment of Venice. He has[Pg 58] always been a man of peace; and it is interesting to remember that during the four years of tumultuous and bloody civil war, Mr. Howells was serving his country as a United States Consul in Italy, and at the same time preparing to add to the kind of fame she most sorely needs. The "woman-country" never meant to him what it signified to Browning; but it has always been an inspiration, and he would have been a different person without this foreign influence. Besides some critical and scholarly works on Italian literature, much of his subsequent writing has been done beyond the Alps, and the plot of one of his foremost novels develops on the streets of Florence. And in another and wholly delightful story, we have the keen pleasure of seeing Italian life and society through the eyes of Lydia Blood.
He formally began a literary career by the composition of a volume of poems, as Blackmore, Hardy, Meredith, and many other novelists have seen fit to do. He is not widely known as a poet to-day, though all his life he has written more or less verse without achieving distinction; for he is essentially a prosateur. In 1872, twelve years after the appearance of his book of poems, came his first successful novel, Their Wedding Journey. This story is written in the style that is responsible for its author's fame and popularity; it is thoroughly[Pg 59]typical of the whole first part of his novel-production. It has that quiet stingless humour, clever dialogue, and wholesome charm, that all readers of Mr. Howells associate with his name. In other words, it is a clear manifestation of his own personality. Now as to the permanent value and final place in literature of these American novels, critics may differ; but there can be only one opinion of the man who wrote them.
The personality of Mr. Howells, as shown both in his objective novels and in his subjective literary confessions, is one that irresistibly commands our highest respect and our warmest affection. A simple, democratic, unaffected, modest, kindly, humorous, healthy soul, with a rare combination of rugged virility and extreme refinement. It is exceedingly fortunate for America that such a man has for so many years by common consent, at home and abroad, been regarded as the Dean of American Letters. He has had more influence on the output of fiction in America than any other living man. This influence has been entirely wholesome, from the standpoint of both morals and Art. He has consistently stood for Reticent Realism. He has ridiculed what he is fond of calling "romantic rot," and his own novels have been a silent but emphatic protest against "mentioning the unmentionable." Every now and then there has risen a[Pg 60] violent revolt against his leadership, the latest outspoken attack coming from a novelist of distinction, Gertrude Atherton. In the year 1907 she relieved her mind by declaring that Mr. Howells has been and is a writer for boarding-school misses; that he has never penetrated deeply into life; and that not only has his own timidity prevented him from courageously revealing the hearts of men and women, but that his position of power and influence has cast a blight on American fiction. Thanks to him, she insists, American novels are pale and colourless productions, and are known the world over for their tameness and insipidity. Mrs. Atherton has been supported in this revolt by many very young literary aspirants, who lack her wisdom and her experience, and whose chief dislike of Mr. Howells, when finally analysed, seems to be directed against his intense ethical earnestness. For, at heart, Mr. Howells resembles most Anglo-Saxon novelists in being a moralist.
It is true that American novelists and playwrights are at one great disadvantage as compared with contemporary Continental writers. Owing to the public conscience, they are compelled to work in a limited field. The things that we leave to medical specialists and to alienists are staple subject-matter in high-class French and German fiction. In a European dictionary there is no such word as[Pg 61] "reserve." French writers like Brieux protest that American conceptions of French morals are based on the reading of French books whose authors have no standing in Paris, and whose very names are unknown to their countrymen. But this protest fades before facts. The facts are that Parisian novelists and dramatists of the highest literary and social distinction, who are awarded national prizes, admitted to the French Academy, and who receive all sorts of public honours, write and publish books, which, if produced in the United States by an American, would bar him from the houses and from the society of many decent people, and might cause his arrest. At any rate, he would be regarded as a criminal rather than as a hero. I have in mind plays by Donnay, recently elected to the French Academy; plays by Capus, who stands high in public regard; novels by Regnier, who has received all sorts of honours. These men are certainly not fourth- and fifth-class writers; they are thoroughly representative of Parisian literary taste. Regnier has not hesitated to write, and the editors have not hesitated to accept, for the periodical L'Illustration, which goes into family circles everywhere, a novel that could not possibly be published in any respectable magazine in America. I do not say that Americans are one peg higher in morality than Frenchmen; it may be that we are hypocrites,[Pg 62] and that the French are models of virtue; but the difference in moral tone between the average American play or novel and that produced in Paris is simply enormous.
The modern German novel is no better than the French. Last night I finished reading Sudermann's long and powerful story, Das hohe Lied. I could not help thinking how entirely different it is in its subject-matter, in its characters, in its scenes, and in its atmosphere, from the average American novel. Now of course the subject that arouses the most instant interest from all classes of people, both young and old, innocent and guilty, is the subject of sex. A large number of modern successful French and German novels and plays contain no other matter of any real importance—and would be intolerably dull were it not for their dealing with sexual crimes. The Continental writer is barred by no restraint; when he has nothing to say, as is very often the case, he simply plays his trump card. The American, however, is not permitted to penetrate beyond the bounds of decency; which shuts him off from the chief field where European writers dwell. He must somehow make his novel interesting to his readers, just as a man is expected to make himself interesting in social conversation, without recourse to pruriency or obscenity.
Leaving out of debate for a moment the moral[Pg 63] aspect of Art, is it necessarily true that novels which plunge freely into sex questions are a more faithful representation of life than those that observe the limits of good taste? I think not. The men and women in many Continental stories have apparently nothing to do except to gratify their passions. All the thousand and one details that make up the daily routine of the average person are sacrificed to emphasise one thing; but this, even in most degraded Sybarites, would be only a part of their actual activity. I believe that A Modern Instance is just as true to life as Bel-Ami. It would really be a misfortune if Mrs. Atherton could have her way; for then American novelists would copy the faults of European writers instead of their virtues. The reason why French plays and French novels are generally superior to American is not because they are indecent; and we shall never raise our standard merely by copying foreign immorality. The superiority of the French is an intellectual and artistic superiority; they excel us in literary style. If we are to imitate them, let us imitate their virtues and not their defects, even though the task in this case be infinitely more difficult.
And, granting what Mrs. Atherton says, that the reticence of American fiction is owing largely to the influence of Mr. Howells, have we not every reason to be grateful to him? Has not the modern[Pg 64] novel a tremendous influence in education, and do we really wish to see young men and women, boys and girls, reading stories that deal mainly with sex? Is it well that they should abandon Dickens, Thackeray, and Stevenson, for the novel in vogue on the Continent? It is often said that French fiction is intended only for seasoned readers, and is carefully kept from youth. But this is gammon, and should deceive only the grossly ignorant. As if anything nowadays could be kept from youth! With the exception of girls who are very strictly brought up, young people in Europe have the utmost freedom in reading. In one of Regnier's novels, which purports to be autobiographical, the favourite bedside book of the boy in his teens is Mademoiselle de Maupin. In a secret ballot vote recently taken by a Russian periodical, to discover who are the most popular novelists with high-school boys and girls in Russia, it appeared that of all foreign writers Guy de Maupassant stood first. Is this really a desirable state of affairs? Suppose it be true, as it probably is, that the average Russian, German, or French boy of seventeen is intellectually more mature than his English or American contemporary—are we willing to make the physical and moral sacrifice for the merely mental advance? Is it not better that our boys should be playing football and reading Treasure Island, than that they should[Pg 65] be spending their leisure hours in the manner described by Regnier?
Mr. Howells's creed in Art is perhaps more open to criticism than his creed in Ethics. His artistic creed is narrow, strict, and definite. He has expressed it in his essays, and exemplified it in his novels. His two doctrinal works, Criticism and Fiction, and My Literary Passions, resemble Zola's Le Roman Expérimental in dogmatic limitation. The creed of Mr. Howells is realism, which he has not only faithfully followed in his creative work, but which he uses as a standard by which to measure the value of other novelists, both living and dead. As genius always refuses to be measured by any standard, and usually defies classification, Mr. Howells's literary estimates of other men's work are far more valuable as self-revelation than as adequate appraisal. Indeed, some of his criticisms seem bizarre. Where works of fiction do not run counter to his literary dogmas, he is abundantly sympathetic and more than generous; many a struggling young writer has cause to bless him for powerful assistance; apparently there has never been one grain of envy, jealousy, or meanness in the mind of our American dean. But, broadly speaking, Mr. Howells has not the true critical mind, which places itself for the moment in the mental attitude of the author criticised; he is primarily a creative[Pg 66] rather than a critical writer. Here he is in curious opposition to his friend and contemporary, Henry James. Mr. James is a natural-born critic, one of the best America has ever produced. His essay on Balzac was a masterpiece. His intellectual power is far more critical than creative; as a novelist, he seems quite inferior to Mr. Howells. And his best story, the little sketch, Daisy Miller, was properly called by its author a "study."
Mr. Howells's literary career has two rather definite periods. The break was caused largely by the influence of Tolstoi. The earlier novels are more purely artistic; they are accurate representations of American characters, for the most part joyous in mood, full of genuine humour, and natural charm. A story absolutely expressive of the author as we used to know him is The Lady of the Aroostook. As a sympathetic and delightful portrayal of a New England country girl, this book is one of his best productions. The voyage across the Atlantic; the surprise caused by Lydia's name and appearance, and homely conversation. "I want to know!" cried Lydia. The second surprise caused by her splendid singing voice. The third surprise caused to the sophisticated young gentleman by discovering that he was in love with her. His rapture at his glorious good-fortune in saving the drunken wretch from drowning, thus acting as[Pg 67] hero before his lady's eyes; her virginal experiences in Italy; the final happy consummation—all this is in Mr. Howells's best vein, the Howells of thirty years ago. The story is full of observation, cerebration, and human affection. As Professor Beers has remarked, if Mr. Howells knows his countrymen no more intimately than does Henry James, at least he loves them better. This charming novel was rapidly followed in the next few years by a succession of books that are at once good to read, and of permanent value as reflections of American life, manners, and morals. These were A Modern Instance, A Woman's Reason, The Rise of Silas Lapham, and Indian Summer; making a literary harvest of which not only their author, but all Americans, have reason to be justly proud.
Somewhere along in the eighties Mr. Howells came fully within the grasp of the mighty influence of Tolstoi, an influence, which, no matter how beneficial in certain ways, has not been an unmixed blessing on his foreign disciples. What the American owes to the great Russian, and how warm is his gratitude therefor, any one may see for himself by reading My Literary Passions. It is indeed difficult to praise the maker of Anna Karenina too highly; but nobody wanted Mr. Howells to become a lesser Tolstoi. When we wish to read Tolstoi, we know where to find him; we wish Mr. Howells[Pg 68] to remain his own self, shrewdly observant, and kindly humorous. The latter novels of the American show the same kind of change that took place in Björnson, that has also characterised Bourget; it is the partial abandonment of the novel as an art form, and its employment as a social, political, or religious tract. Mr. Howells's saving sense of humour has kept him from dull extremes; but when A Hazard of New Fortunes appeared, we knew that there was more in the title than the writer intended; our old friend had put on Saul's armour. As has been suggested above, this change was not entirely an individual one; it was symptomatic of the development of the modern novel all over the world. But in this instance it seemed particularly regrettable. We have our fill of strikes and labour troubles in the daily newspaper, without going to our novelist for them. With one exception, it is probable that not a single one of Mr. Howells's novels published during the last twenty years is as good, from the artistic and literary point of view, as the admirable work he produced before 1889. The exception is The Kentons (1902), in which he returned to his earlier manner, in a triumphant way that showed he had not lost his skill. Indeed, there is no trace of decay in the other books of his late years; there is merely a loss of charm.
I think that Indian Summer, despite its immense[Pg 69] popularity at the time of publication, has never received the high praise it really deserves. It is written in a positive glow of artistic creation. I believe that of all its author's works, it is the one whose composition he most keenly enjoyed. The conversations—always a great feature of his stories—are immensely clever; I suspect that as he wrote them he was often agreeably surprised at his own inspiration. The three characters, the middle-aged man and woman, and the romantic young girl, are admirably set off; no one has ever better shown the fact that it is quite possible for one to imagine oneself in love when really one is fancy-free. The delicate shades of jealousy in the intimate talks between the two women are exquisitely done; the experience of the grown woman contrasting finely with the imagination of the young girl. The difference between a man of forty and a woman of twenty, shown here not in heavy tragedy, but in the innumerable, convincing details of daily human intercourse, is finely emphasised; and we can feel the great relief of both when the engagement tie is broken. This story in its way is a masterpiece; and anyone who lacks enthusiasm for its author ought to read it again.
His most powerful novel is probably A Modern Instance. This, like many American and English fictions, first appeared in serial form—a fact that[Pg 70] should be known before one indulges in criticism. The old objection to this method was that it led the writer to attempt to end each section dramatically, leaving the reader with a sharp appetite for more. The movement of the narrative, when the book was finally published as a whole, resembled a series of jumps. Someone has said, that even so fine a novel as Far from the Madding Crowd was a succession of brilliant leaps; whether or not this was caused by its original serial printing, I do not know. This difficulty would never appear in Mr. Howells, at all events; because his stories do not impress us by their special dramatic scenes, or supreme moments, but rather by their completeness. The other objection, however, has some force here—the fact that details may be extended beyond their artistic proportion, in a manner that does not militate against the separate instalments, but is seen to mar the book as a whole. The logging camp incident in A Modern Instance is prolonged to a fault. Proportion is sacrificed to realism. From this point of view, it is well to remember that The Newcomes appeared in single numbers, whereas Henry Esmond was published originally as a complete work.
But this slight defect is more than atoned for by the power shown in the depiction of character. This is a study of degeneration, not dealing with remote characters in far-off historical situations,[Pg 71] but brought home to our very doors. One feels that this dreadful fate might happen to one's neighbours—might happen to oneself. It seems to me a greater book in every way than Romola, though I am not prepared to say that Mr. Howells is a greater novelist than George Eliot. There is all the difference between Tito Melema and Bartley Hubbard that there is between a fancy picture and a portrait. Mr. Howells is fond of using Shakespearian quotations as titles; witness The Counterfeit Presentment, The Undiscovered Country, The Quality of Mercy, and A Modern Instance. Now the word "modern," as every student of Shakespeare knows, means in the poet's works almost the opposite of what it signifies to-day. "Full of wise saws and modern instances" is equivalent to saying prosaically, "full of sententious proverbs and old, trite illustrations." In the Shakespearian sense, Mr. Howells's title might be translated "A Familiar Example"—for it is not only a story of modern American life, it portrays what is unfortunately an instance all too familiar. Bartley Hubbard is the typical representative of the "smart" young American. He is not in the least odious when we first make his acquaintance. His skill in address and in adaptation to society assure his instant popularity; and at heart he is a good fellow, quite unlike a designing villain. He would rather do[Pg 72] right than do wrong, provided both are equally convenient. He simply follows the line of least resistance. Nor is he by nature a Bohemian; he loves Marcia, is proud of her fresh beauty, and enjoys domestic life. Then he has the fascinating quality of true humour. His conversations with his wife, when he is free from worry, are exceedingly attractive to the impersonal listener. He is just like thousands of clever young American journalists—quick-witted, enterprising, energetic, with a sure nose for news; there is, in fact, only one thing the matter with Bartley. Although, when life is flowing evenly, he does not realise his deficiency, he actually has at heart no moral principle, no ethical sense, no honour. The career of such a man will depend entirely upon circumstances; because his standard of virtue is not where it should be, within his own mind, but without. Like many other men, he can resist anything but temptation. Whether he will become a good citizen or a blackleg, depends not in the least upon himself, but wholly upon the events through which he moves. Had he married exactly the right sort of girl, and had some rich uncle left the young couple a fortune, it is probable that neither his friends, nor his wife, nor even he himself, would have guessed at his capacity for evil. He would have remained popular in the community, and died both lamented and respected.[Pg 73] But the difficulty is that he did not marry wisely, and he subsequently became short of cash. Now, as some writer has said, it does not matter so much whether a man marries with wisdom or the reverse, nor whether he behaves in other emergencies with prudence or folly; what really matters is how he behaves himself after the marriage, or after any other crisis where he may have chosen foolishly. But Bartley, like many other easy-going youths, was no man for adverse circumstances. Almost imperceptibly at first his degeneration begins; his handsome figure shows a touch of grossness; the refinement in his face becomes blurred; drinking ceases to be a pleasure, and becomes a habit. Meanwhile, as what he calls his bad luck increases, quarrels with his wife become more frequent; try as he will, there is always a sheaf of unpaid bills at the end of the month; his home loses its charm. The mental and spiritual decline of the man is shown repulsively by his physical appearance. No one who has read the book can possibly forget his broad back as he sits in the courtroom, and the horrible ring of fat that hangs over his collar. The devil has done his work with such technique that Bartley as we first see him, and Bartley as we last see him, seem to be two utterly different and distinct persons and personalities; it is with an irrepressible shudder that we recall the time when this coarse, fat sot was[Pg 74] a slender, graceful young man, who charmed all acquaintances by his ease of manner and winsome conversation. And yet, as one looks back over his life, every stage in the transition is clear, logical, and wholly natural.
From another point of view this novel is a study of the passion of jealousy. No other American novel, so far as I know, has given so accurate a picture of the gradual and subtle poisoning produced by this emotion, and only one American play,—Clyde Fitch's thoughtful and powerful drama, The Girl with the Green Eyes. It is curious that jealousy, so sinister and terrible in its effects on character, should usually appear on the stage and in fiction as comic. It is seldom employed as a leading motive in tragedy, though Shakespeare showed its possibilities; but one frequently sees it in broad farce. Of all the passions, there is none which has less mirth than jealousy. It is fundamentally tragic; and in A Modern Instance, we see the evil transformation it works in Marcia, and its force in accelerating her husband's degeneration. Marcia is an example of the wish of Keats—she lives a life of sensations rather than of thoughts; and jealousy can be conquered only by mental power, never by emotional. Marcia has no intellectual resources; her love for her husband is her whole existence. She has no more mind than many another American country[Pg 75] girl who comes home from boarding-school. As one critic has pointed out, "she has not yet emerged from the elemental condition of womanhood." Jealousy is, of course, an "animal quality," and Marcia, without knowing it, is simply a tamed, pretty, affectionate young animal. Her jealousy is entirely without foundation, but it causes her the most excruciating torment, and constantly widens the breach between herself and the man she loves. If she had only married Halleck! She would never have been jealous with him. But jealousy is like an ugly weed in a beautiful garden; it exists only where there is love. And a girl like Marcia could never have returned the love of a stodgy man like Halleck. One cannot help asking three vain questions as one contemplates the ruins of her happiness and sees the cause. If she had never met Bartley, and had married Halleck, would she have been better off? are we to understand that she is finally saved by Halleck? and if so, what is the nature of her salvation?
The old sceptical lawyer, Marcia's father, is one of the most convincing characters that Mr. Howells has ever drawn. Those who have lived in New England know this man, for they have seen him often. He is shrewd, silent, practical, undemonstrative, yet his unspoken love for his daughter is almost terrible in its intensity, and finally brings[Pg 76] him to the grave. Although he admires young Bartley's cleverness, he would have admired him more had he been less clever. He has a sure instinct against the young man from the start, and knows there can be only one outcome of such a marriage; because he is better acquainted with the real character of husband and wife than they are with themselves. Squire Gaylord is a person of whose creation any novelist in the history of fiction might be proud.
When A Modern Instance was first published, a contemporary review called it "a book that all praise but none like." I imagine that the unpleasant sensations it awakens in every reader are like those roused by Mr. Barrie's Sentimental Tommy. The picture is simply too faithful to be agreeable. Everyone beholds his own faults and tendencies clearly portrayed, and the result is quite other than reassuring. The book finds us all at home. But, as Gogol, the great Russian, used to say, quoting an old Slavonic proverb, "We must not blame the mirror if the face looks ugly."
It is both instructive and entertaining to try the effect of this novel on a representative group of American college undergraduates. Those who had lived in New England villages, and were familiar with the scenes described, were loud in their praises of the background, and of the Gaylord family.[Pg 77] One young man remarked—he was at Yale—"I know a young journalist who was last year at Harvard, who is going to the devil in very much the same way." Another said, with an experience hardly consonant with his years, that he had known women just as jealous as Marcia. Most of them, however, believed that her jealousy was grossly exaggerated; it looks so like folly to those yet untouched by the passion of love. Another truthful and modest youth said pathetically, "I am too young to appreciate this book." Still another remarked with rare lucidity and definiteness of penetration, "In reading this story somehow something struck me unfavourably." Minor improbabilities in the novel produced the greatest shock—the hot-scotch episode seemed quite impossible, and Mr. Howells was thought to be a poor judge of the effects of whiskey. But the criticism I enjoyed most came from the undergraduate who said in all sincerity, "I think this is a very good book for young ladies to read before getting married." So indeed it is.
In the year 1902, by the publication of The Kentons, Mr. Howells gave us a most delightful surprise. It was like the return of an old friend from a far journey. In literature it was as though Björnson should publish a story like A Happy Boy, or as though Mr. Hardy should give us a tale like[Pg 78] Under the Greenwood Tree. The Kentons is a thoroughly charming international novel, containing the pleasant adventures of an Ohio family on the ocean liner and in Europe, written in the Aroostook style, sparkling with humour, and rich in sympathy and tenderness. Political, social, and ethical problems are conspicuously absent, and the only material used by the writer is human nature. This is one of the best books he has ever written; it has all the charm of Their Wedding Journey, plus the wisdom and observation that come only by years. It is wholesome, healthy, realistic; a thoroughly representative American novel from a master's hand. In a Frenchroman, Bittredge would of course have been a libertine, and one of the girls ruined by him. In The Kentons, he is merely fresh, and though he causes some trouble, everybody in the end is better off for the experience. Mr. Howells seems especially to dislike Frechheit in young men, and he has made the vulgarity and assurance of Bittredge both offensive and absurd. We have too many Bittredges in the United States; and some of them do not lose their bittredgidity with advancing years.
The five members of the Kenton family are wonderfully well drawn, and are just such people as we fortunately meet every day. The purity and sweetness of married and family life are beautifully[Pg 79] exemplified here; they are exactly what we see in thousands of American homes, and constitute the real answer to modern attacks on the conjugal relation. The judge and his wife are two companions, growing old together in simplicity and innocence, happy in the truest sense—loving each other far more in age than in youth, which is perfectly natural in life if not in fiction; because every day they become more necessary to each other and have common interests extending over many years. The scene in their bedroom, as they talk together before slumber, while the old Judge winds up his watch, is a veritable triumph of Art.
The younger daughter Lottie is a vivid portrait of the typical American high-school girl, slangy, superficial, flirtatious, not quite vulgar, and in every emergency with young men fully capable of taking care of herself. After a round of joyous, heart-free, and innocent familiarities with various youthful admirers, she finally becomes an admirable wife and housekeeper. Her sister Ellen is of an opposite temperament, pale, slight, and non-athletic. She is entirely different from the Booth Tarkington or Richard Harding Davis heroine, and in her purity, delicacy, and refinement, takes us back to old-fashioned fiction. As a spectator on the steamer says of her, "that pale girl is adorable." In her shyness and extraordinary loveliness she reminds[Pg 80] us of Turgenev's spiritual Lisa. The scene in the night, where her young brother steals to her bed and pours into her sympathetic ears all the troubled passion and sorrow, all the embarrassment and suffering of his sensitive boy's heart, is exceedingly beautiful and tender. He knows she will understand. And at last it is Ellen, and not Lottie, who becomes the fashionable, aristocratic, New York woman—preserving in her wealthy environment all the fruits of the spirit.
Boyne, the small boy, the "kid brother," is a fine illustration of the enthusiasm for humanity so characteristic of Mr. Howells. It is instructive to compare this little man with the young brother of Daisy Miller. Both are at the age most trying to their elders, and both are faithfully portrayed; but Randolph C. Miller is made particularly obnoxious, even odious, while one cannot help loving Boyne. The difference is that one is drawn with the finger of scorn and the other with the insight of sympathy. Mr. Howells calls Boyne "a mass of helpless sweetness though he did not know it." His romantic love for the young queen of Holland and the burning mortification he suffers thereby, are sufficiently easy to understand. The contrast between the high seriousness with which he takes himself, and the impression he makes on others, is something that every man who looks back will remember. As the[Pg 81] novelist puts it, "He thought he was an iceberg when he was merely an ice cream of heroic mould."
The Kentons, like some other novels by Mr. Howells, may seem to many readers superficial, because it is so largely taken up with the trivial details of daily existence. It is really a profound study of life, made by an artist who has not only the wisdom of the head, but the deeper wisdom of the heart.