Three Works by William Dean Howells

Contact Us (2005-6)

These readings showed the author’s ability to capture the social mores of late nineteenth and early twentieth century America, by means of vivid precise description. “Christmas Every Day” read by Susan Denny for, was basically a morality-tale about a little girl asking her father to tell her an alternative bedtime story that did not involve three little pigs, three bears, or other familiar characters. He came up with a tale of another little girl who went to the Christmas fairy and asked whether it could be Christmas every day. The fairy duly obliged; and from then on every day began with presents being stacked round the tree, families opening such presents, singing Christmas carols and eating sweetmeats. For the first few days everyone enjoyed the experience, but as time progressed, they became tired of doing the same things. The Fourth of July celebrations became carol services; people received so many presents that they began to throw them away; turkeys ran out so that there were none left for Thanksgiving; and far from being a time of goodwill, Christmas became a form of social anarchy. This Groundhog Day-style tale culminated with a familiar moral, as the fairy eventually lifted the spell once the girl understood that Christmas should only come but once a year. It was livened by Howells’ talent for precise description of the middle-class social milieu of the time, where material things really mattered.


Dennis Sayers’ reading of My Mark Twain, also for, recalled Howells’ encounters with the famous author (who was then known as Samuel Clemens). Clemens/Twain was a flamboyant character with his red hair and flaming moustache, and a fondness for wearing loud white suits and an Oxford gown. He enjoyed shouting and offending others, and playing pranks for fun. At the same time Clemens/Twain enjoyed long lunches with his fellow-literati, including Howells but other luminaries such as Brett Harte. Boston at that time (the mid-19th century) was a prosperous community, a world of ordered houses and commercial prosperity, which nonetheless provided a congenial community for budding authors. Some of them tried to publish books on their own; others eked out an existence through subscription publication.


By contrast the world of early twentieth-century New York depicted in The Whole Family (1908), read by an unnamed author on the website was highly stratified. Budding authors were frowned upon; it was much more important for men to acquire a profession, or at least go into a vocation that could make sufficient money to support their wives and families. Women on the other hand were expected to fulfil their expected duties of being wives and mothers; they could have an education, but they should expect it to go very far. Howells spent a lot of time focusing on the rights and wrongs of co-education; whilst giving the chance for young men and women to fraternize with one another (and thereby offering the prospect for them to find future marriage partners), it provided a potential threat to the social order, as it gave them the chance to think beyond the roles prescribed for them by their environment. Young men in particular might be tempted to fraternize too much with women; while the women might wish to learn too much. The Whole Family follows in the tradition of other works of the period – notably by Edith Wharton in her New York Tales – of creating a milieu where tradition, family responsibility and social standing really mattered. Everyone had to work hard to maintain the family’s status, and ensure its future health. Howells is also aware of the gradually emerging power of the media; in this story the family use the local press to announce their child’s engagement, in an article that they choose to write themselves. Not only can they manufacture a suitable image for themselves, but they also show how the media becomes a symbol of social stability. This is profoundly ironic, in view of the fact that the gradual emergence of various forms of media – for example, the kinematograph or other forms of moving picture – were symbolic of profound social change in America at that time. The Whole Family provides a classic example of how hegemonies work to absorb and neutralize such changes. The novel – a bizarre experiment where twelve authors each contributed one chapter (Howells wrote only the first chapter) – represents the complete antithesis of My Mark Twain. Whereas the Twain work celebrates the individual, The Whole Family (as the title implies) values the ethics of community. Howells’ achievement in both works was to capture the mores in such a way as to render them understandable to contemporary readers.