A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico
October 13, 2005 Volume 36 / Number 2

 

The Master and the Dean: Literary Criticism of Henry James and William Dean Howells Rob Davidson

Rob Davidson, Department of English, has published The Master and the Dean: The Literary Criticism of Henry James and William Dean Howells (University of Missouri Press, 2005). Davidson, born and raised in Duluth, Minnesota, is in his fourth year at CSU, Chico. He teaches creative writing and American literature.

A fiction writer (Field Observations: Stories, University of Missouri Press), Davidson finds his own literary roots in the "American Realism" that Henry James and William Howells exposited in their criticism and demonstrated in their fiction. He said, "All of the things I hold dear go back to these two guys."

We know James and Howells primarily for their fiction, especially James (Portrait of a Lady, The Golden Bowl), even though they were also the major critics of their time. They were contemporaries, writing at the same time, and also friends for more than 50 years. According to a Missouri Book News review, Davidson is the first scholar to take on a comprehensive comparative study of the two. It is also the first book-length study of James’s literary criticism to be published since the early 1980s and the first-ever book-length study of Howells’s criticism.

At the time (late 19th and early 20th centuries), Howells was better known than James—an editor and critic as well as a preeminent author. Their backgrounds contrasted greatly: Howells dropped out of high school but gave himself a first-rate education. He was a businessman and an editor of a newspaper before he became editor of The Atlantic Monthly, where he printed and championed such well-known authors as Mark Twain, Stephen Crane, Charlotte Gilman, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and Charles W. Chesnutt.

James was born into a wealthy family, the son of Henry James Sr., a well-known intellectual of the mid-19th century, and the brother of William James, psychologist and philosopher. He and William were educated at some of the finest schools in both Europe and the United States. He spent much of his adult life living in Europe, primarily London. James wrote the first psychological novels, which were less about plot than psychological discovery. Of utmost concern to him was the moral nature and responsibility of fiction writing.

As editor of The Atlantic Monthly, Howells was well known and respected. He was charismatic and versatile—a playwright and a poet as well as a fiction writer and critic. In his book, Davidson explores the question of why he disappeared as a literary giant and popularly read novelist. Davidson suggests that writers that came soon after, in particular H.L. Mencken and Sinclair Lewis, tore him down on “moral” grounds. In the wake of World War I, they thought Howells was “too genteel,” and Lewis actually attacked Howells’s reputation in his Nobel Prize speech, and Howells’s literary reputation never really recovered. Davidson and other scholars contest this perception of a “genteel” Howells, who was—especially in the 1880s and 1890s—deeply influenced by socialism and Tolstoy’s Christian humanism.

Davidson suggests that during the last 20 years of his life, Howells was writing social commentary in code and that he was dealing with race, class, and sexuality. “He began writing in a new way, dropped the conventions he had used and began writing ‘literary reportage.’ We might call it creative non-fiction—might be a stretch to say he invented it,” said Davidson. “In the book, I try to shed light on this era in his writing.”

John W. Crowley, author of numerous books and essays on American writers, said of Davidson’s book, “Consistently intelligent, thoroughly researched, gracefully written. … This is an excellent study, probably the definitive study of the criticism of James and Howells.”

—Kathleen McPartland