William Dean Howells by Mark Twain
Is it true that the sun of a man's mentality touches noon at forty and
then begins to wane toward setting? Doctor Osler is charged with saying
so. Maybe he said it, maybe he didn't; I don't know which it is. But if he
said it, I can point him to a case which proves his rule. Proves it by
being an exception to it. To this place I nominate Mr. Howells.
I read his VENETIAN DAYS about forty years ago. I compare it with his
paper on Machiavelli in a late number of HARPER, and I cannot find that
his English has suffered any impairment. For forty years his English has
been to me a continual delight and astonishment. In the sustained
exhibition of certain great qualities—clearness, compression, verbal
exactness, and unforced and seemingly unconscious felicity of phrasing—he
is, in my belief, without his peer in the English-writing world.
SUSTAINED. I entrench myself behind that protecting word. There are others
who exhibit those great qualities as greatly as he does, but only by
intervaled distributions of rich moonlight, with stretches of veiled and
dimmer landscape between; whereas Howells's moon sails cloudless skies all
night and all the nights.
In the matter of verbal exactness Mr. Howells has no superior, I suppose.
He seems to be almost always able to find that elusive and shifty grain of
gold, the RIGHT WORD. Others have to put up with approximations, more or
less frequently; he has better luck. To me, the others are miners working
with the gold-pan—of necessity some of the gold washes over and
escapes; whereas, in my fancy, he is quicksilver raiding down a riffle—no
grain of the metal stands much chance of eluding him. 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. Whenever
we come upon one of those intensely right words in a book or a newspaper
the resulting effect is physical as well as spiritual, and electrically
prompt: it tingles exquisitely around through the walls of the mouth and
tastes as tart and crisp and good as the autumn-butter that creams the
sumac-berry. One has no time to examine the word and vote upon its rank
and standing, the automatic recognition of its supremacy is so immediate.
There is a plenty of acceptable literature which deals largely in
approximations, but it may be likened to a fine landscape seen through the
rain; the right word would dismiss the rain, then you would see it better.
It doesn't rain when Howells is at work.
And where does he get the easy and effortless flow of his speech? and its
cadenced and undulating rhythm? and its architectural felicities of
construction, its graces of expression, its pemmican quality of
compression, and all that? Born to him, no doubt. All in shining good
order in the beginning, all extraordinary; and all just as shining, just
as extraordinary today, after forty years of diligent wear and tear and
use. He passed his fortieth year long and long ago; but I think his
English of today—his perfect English, I wish to say—can throw
down the glove before his English of that antique time and not be afraid.
I will got back to the paper on Machiavelli now, and ask the reader to
examine this passage from it which I append. I do not mean examine it in a
bird's-eye way; I mean search it, study it. And, of course, read it aloud.
I may be wrong, still it is my conviction that one cannot get out of
finely wrought literature all that is in it by reading it mutely:
Mr. Dyer is rather of the opinion, first luminously suggested by Macaulay,
that Machiavelli was in earnest, but must not be judged as a political
moralist of our time and race would be judged. He thinks that Machiavelli
was in earnest, as none but an idealist can be, and he is the first to
imagine him an idealist immersed in realities, who involuntarily
transmutes the events under his eye into something like the visionary
issues of reverie. The Machiavelli whom he depicts does not cease to be
politically a republican and socially a just man because he holds up an
atrocious despot like Caesar Borgia as a mirror for rulers. What
Machiavelli beheld round him in Italy was a civic disorder in which there
was oppression without statecraft, and revolt without patriotism. When a
miscreant like Borgia appeared upon the scene and reduced both tyrants and
rebels to an apparent quiescence, he might very well seem to such a
dreamer the savior of society whom a certain sort of dreamers are always
looking for. Machiavelli was no less honest when he honored the diabolical
force of Caesar Borgia than Carlyle was when at different times he
extolled the strong man who destroys liberty in creating order. But
Carlyle has only just ceased to be mistaken for a reformer, while it is
still Machiavelli's hard fate to be so trammeled in his material that his
name stands for whatever is most malevolent and perfidious in human
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
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.
The proffered paragraph is a just and fair sample; the rest of the article
is as compact as it is; there are no waste words. The sample is just in
other ways: limpid, fluent, graceful, and rhythmical as it is, it holds no
superiority in these respects over the rest of the essay. Also, the choice
phrasing noticeable in the sample is not lonely; there is a plenty of its
kin distributed through the other paragraphs. This is claiming much when
that kin must face the challenge of a phrase like the one in the middle
sentence: "an idealist immersed in realities who involuntarily transmutes
the events under his eye into something like the visionary issues of
reverie." With a hundred words to do it with, the literary artisan could
catch that airy thought and tie it down and reduce it to a concrete
condition, visible, substantial, understandable and all right, like a
cabbage; but the artist does it with twenty, and the result is a flower.
The quoted phrase, like a thousand others that have come from the same
source, has the quality of certain scraps of verse which take hold of us
and stay in our memories, we do not understand why, at first: all the
words being the right words, none of them is conspicuous, and so they all
seem inconspicuous, therefore we wonder what it is about them that makes
their message take hold.
The mossy marbles rest
On the lips that he has prest
In their bloom,
And the names he loved to hear
Have been carved for many a year
On the tomb.
It is like a dreamy strain of moving music, with no sharp notes in it. The
words are all "right" words, and all the same size. We do not notice it at
first. We get the effect, it goes straight home to us, but we do not know
why. It is when the right words are conspicuous that they thunder:
The glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome!
When I go back from Howells old to Howells young I find him arranging and
clustering English words well, but not any better than now. He is not more
felicitous in concreting abstractions now than he was in translating,
then, the visions of the eyes of flesh into words that reproduced their
forms and colors:
In Venetian streets they give the fallen snow no rest. It is at once
shoveled into the canals by hundreds of half-naked FACCHINI; and now in
St. Mark's Place the music of innumerable shovels smote upon my ear; and I
saw the shivering legion of poverty as it engaged the elements in a
struggle for the possession of the Piazza. But the snow continued to fall,
and through the twilight of the descending flakes all this toil and
encounter looked like that weary kind of effort in dreams, when the most
determined industry seems only to renew the task. The lofty crest of the
bell-tower was hidden in the folds of falling snow, and I could no longer
see the golden angel upon its summit. But looked at across the Piazza, the
beautiful outline of St. Mark's Church was perfectly penciled in the air,
and the shifting threads of the snowfall were woven into a spell of novel
enchantment around the structure that always seemed to me too exquisite in
its fantastic loveliness to be anything but the creation of magic. The
tender snow had compassionated the beautiful edifice for all the wrongs of
time, and so hid the stains and ugliness of decay that it looked as if
just from the hand of the builder—or, better said, just from the
brain of the architect. There was marvelous freshness in the colors of the
mosaics in the great arches of the facade, and all that gracious harmony
into which the temple rises, of marble scrolls and leafy exuberance airily
supporting the statues of the saints, was a hundred times etherealized by
the purity and whiteness of the drifting flakes. The snow lay lightly on
the golden globes that tremble like peacocks-crests above the vast domes,
and plumed them with softest white; it robed the saints in ermine; and it
danced over all its works, as if exulting in its beauty—beauty which
filled me with subtle, selfish yearning to keep such evanescent loveliness
for the little-while-longer of my whole life, and with despair to think
that even the poor lifeless shadow of it could never be fairly reflected
in picture or poem.
Through the wavering snowfall, the Saint Theodore upon one of the granite
pillars of the Piazzetta did not show so grim as his wont is, and the
winged lion on the other might have been a winged lamb, so gentle and mild
he looked by the tender light of the storm. The towers of the island
churches loomed faint and far away in the dimness; the sailors in the
rigging of the ships that lay in the Basin wrought like phantoms among the
shrouds; the gondolas stole in and out of the opaque distance more
noiselessly and dreamily than ever; and a silence, almost palpable, lay
upon the mutest city in the world.
The spirit of Venice is there: of a city where Age and Decay, fagged with
distributing damage and repulsiveness among the other cities of the planet
in accordance with the policy and business of their profession, come for
rest and play between seasons, and treat themselves to the luxury and
relaxation of sinking the shop and inventing and squandering charms all
about, instead of abolishing such as they find, as is their habit when not
In the working season they do business in Boston sometimes, and a
character in THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY takes accurate note of pathetic
effects wrought by them upon the aspects of a street of once dignified and
elegant homes whose occupants have moved away and left them a prey to
neglect and gradual ruin and progressive degradation; a descent which
reaches bottom at last, when the street becomes a roost for humble
professionals of the faith-cure and fortune-telling sort.
What a queer, melancholy house, what a queer, melancholy street! I don't
think I was ever in a street before where quite so many professional
ladies, with English surnames, preferred Madam to Mrs. on their
door-plates. And the poor old place has such a desperately conscious air
of going to the deuce. Every house seems to wince as you go by, and button
itself up to the chin for fear you should find out it had no shirt on—so
to speak. I don't know what's the reason, but these material tokens of a
social decay afflict me terribly; a tipsy woman isn't dreadfuler than a
haggard old house, that's once been a home, in a street like this.
Mr. Howells's pictures are not mere stiff, hard, accurate photographs;
they are photographs with feeling in them, and sentiment, photographs
taken in a dream, one might say.
As concerns his humor, I will not try to say anything, yet I would try, if
I had the words that might approximately reach up to its high place. I do
not think any one else can play with humorous fancies so gracefully and
delicately and deliciously as he does, nor has so many to play with, nor
can come so near making them look as if they were doing the playing
themselves and he was not aware that they were at it. For they are
unobtrusive, and quiet in their ways, and well conducted. His is a humor
which flows softly all around about and over and through the mesh of the
page, pervasive, refreshing, health-giving, and makes no more show and no
more noise than does the circulation of the blood.
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. Other authors' directions are brief enough, but it is seldom that
the brevity contains either wit or information. Writers of this school go
in rags, in the matter of stage directions; the majority of them having
nothing in stock but a cigar, a laugh, a blush, and a bursting into tears.
In their poverty they work these sorry things to the bone. They say:
"... replied Alfred, flipping the ash from his cigar." (This explains
nothing; it only wastes space.)
"... responded Richard, with a laugh." (There was nothing to laugh about;
there never is. The writer puts it in from habit—automatically; he
is paying no attention to his work; or he would see that there is nothing
to laugh at; often, when a remark is unusually and poignantly flat and
silly, he tries to deceive the reader by enlarging the stage direction and
making Richard break into "frenzies of uncontrollable laughter." This
makes the reader sad.)
"... murmured Gladys, blushing." (This poor old shop-worn blush is a
tiresome thing. We get so we would rather Gladys would fall out of the
book and break her neck than do it again. She is always doing it, and
usually irrelevantly. Whenever it is her turn to murmur she hangs out her
blush; it is the only thing she's got. In a little while we hate her, just
as we do Richard.)
"... repeated Evelyn, bursting into tears." (This kind keep a book damp
all the time. They can't say a thing without crying. They cry so much
about nothing that by and by when they have something to cry ABOUT they
have gone dry; they sob, and fetch nothing; we are not moved. We are only
They gravel me, these stale and overworked stage directions, these carbon
films that got burnt out long ago and cannot now carry any faintest thread
of light. It would be well if they could be relieved from duty and flung
out in the literary back yard to rot and disappear along with the
discarded and forgotten "steeds" and "halidomes" and similar
stage-properties once so dear to our grandfathers. 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. For instance, a scene like
this, from THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY:
"... and she laid her arms with a beseeching gesture on her father's
"... she answered, following his gesture with a glance."
"... she said, laughing nervously."
"... she asked, turning swiftly upon him that strange, searching glance."
"... she answered, vaguely."
"... she reluctantly admitted."
"... but her voice died wearily away, and she stood looking into his face
with puzzled entreaty."
Mr. Howells does not repeat his forms, and does not need to; he can invent
fresh ones without limit. It is mainly the repetition over and over again,
by the third-rates, of worn and commonplace and juiceless forms that makes
their novels such a weariness and vexation to us, I think. We do not mind
one or two deliveries of their wares, but as we turn the pages over and
keep on meeting them we presently get tired of them and wish they would do
other things for a change.
"... replied Alfred, flipping the ash from his cigar."
"... responded Richard, with a laugh."
"... murmured Gladys, blushing."
"... repeated Evelyn, bursting into tears."
"... replied the Earl, flipping the ash from his cigar."
"... responded the undertaker, with a laugh."
"... murmured the chambermaid, blushing."
"... repeated the burglar, bursting into tears."
"... replied the conductor, flipping the ash from his cigar."
"... responded Arkwright, with a laugh."
"... murmured the chief of police, blushing."
"... repeated the house-cat, bursting into tears."
And so on and so on; till at last it ceases to excite. I always notice
stage directions, because they fret me and keep me trying to get out of
their way, just as the automobiles do. At first; then by and by they
become monotonous and I get run over.
Mr. Howells has done much work, and the spirit of it is as beautiful as
the make of it. I have held him in admiration and affection so many years
that I know by the number of those years that he is old now; but his heart
isn't, nor his pen; and years do not count. Let him have plenty of them;
there is profit in them for us.