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Of Literature (Entire) by William Dean Howells

Part 8 out of 15

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the surf and floundered towards the steps of a machine; then I saw that
it was evidently not a barrel, but a lady, and after that I never dared
carry my researches so far. I suppose that the bathing-tights are more
becoming in some cases than in others; but I hold to a modest preference
for skirts, however brief, in the sea-gear of ladies. Without them there
may sometimes be the effect of beauty, and sometimes the effect of

For the convenience and safety of the bathers there were, even in the
last half of September, some twenty machines, and half as many bath-men
and bath-women, who waded into the water and watched that the bathers
came to no harm, instead of a solitary lifeguard showing his statuesque
shape as he paced the shore beside the lifelines, or cynically rocked in
his boat beyond the breakers, as the custom is on Long Island. Here
there is no need of life-lines, and, unless one held his head resolutely
under water, I do not see how he could drown within quarter of a mile of
the shore. Perhaps it is to prevent suicide that the bathmen are so
plentifully provided.

They are a provision of the hotel, I believe, which does not relax itself
in any essential towards its guests as they grow fewer. It seems, on the
contrary, to use them with a more tender care, and to console them as it
may for the inevitable parting near at hand. Now, within three or four
days of the end, the kitchen is as scrupulously and vigilantly perfect as
it could be in the height of the season; and our dwindling numbers sit
down every night to a dinner that we could not get for much more love or
vastly more money in the month of August, at any shore hotel in America.
It is true that there are certain changes going on, but they are going on
delicately, almost silently. A strip of carpeting has come up from along
our corridor, but we hardly miss it from the matting which remains.
Through the open doors of vacant chambers we can see that beds are coming
down, and the dismantling extends into the halls at places. Certain
decorative carved chairs which repeated themselves outside the doors have
ceased to be there; but the pictures still hang on the walls, and within
our own rooms everything is as conscientious as in midsummer. The
service is instant, and, if there is some change in it, the change is not
for the worse. Yesterday our waiter bade me good-bye, and when I said I
was sorry he was going he alleged a boil on his cheek in excuse; he would
not allow that his going had anything to do with the closing of the
hotel, and he was promptly replaced by another who speaks excellent
English. Now that the first is gone, I may own that he seemed not to
speak any foreign language long, but, when cornered in English, took
refuge in French, and then fled from pursuit in that to German, and
brought up in final Dutch, where he was practically inaccessible.

The elevator runs regularly, if not rapidly; the papers arrive
unfailingly in the reading-room, including a solitary London Times, which
even I do not read, perhaps because I have no English-reading rival to
contend for it with. Till yesterday, an English artist sometimes got it;
but he then instantly offered it to me; and I had to refuse it because I
would not be outdone in politeness. Now even he is gone, and on all
sides I find myself in an unbroken circle of Dutch and German, where no
one would dispute the Times with me if he could.

Every night the corridors are fully lighted, and some mornings swept,
while the washing that goes on all over Holland, night and morning, does
not always spare our unfrequented halls and stairs. I note these little
facts, for the contrast with those of an American hotel which we once
assisted in closing, and where the elevator stopped two weeks before we
left, and we fell from electricity to naphtha-gas, and even this died out
before us except at long intervals in the passages; while there were
lightning changes in the service, and a final failure of it till we had
to go down and get our own ice-water of the lingering room-clerk, after
the last bell-boy had winked out.


But in Europe everything is permanent, and in America everything is
provisional. This is the great distinction which, if always kept in
mind, will save a great deal of idle astonishment. It is in nothing more
apparent than in the preparation here at Scheveningen for centuries of
summer visitors, while at our Long Island hotel there was a losing bet on
a scant generation of them. When it seemed likely that it might be a
winning bet the sand was planked there in front of the hotel to the sea
with spruce boards. It was very handsomely planked, but it was never
afterwards touched, apparently, for any manner of repairs. Here, for
half a mile the dune on which the hotel stands is shored up with massive
masonry, and bricked for carriages, and tiled for foot-passengers; and it
is all kept as clean as if wheel or foot had never passed over it. I am
sure that there is not a broken brick or a broken tile in the whole
length or breadth of it. But the hotel here is not a bet; it is a
business. It has come to stay; and on Long Island it had come to see how
it would like it.

Beyond the walk and drive, however, the dunes are left to the winds, and
to the vegetation with which the Dutch planting clothes them against the
winds. First a coarse grass or rush is sown; then a finer herbage comes;
then a tough brushwood, with flowers and blackberry-vines; so that while
the seaward slopes of the dunes are somewhat patched and tattered, the
landward side and all the pleasant hollows between are fairly held
against such gales as on Long Island blow the lower dunes hither and yon.
The sheep graze in the valleys at some points; in many a little pocket of
the dunes I found a potato-patch of about the bigness of a city lot, and
on week-days I saw wooden-shod men slowly, slowly gathering in the crop.
On Sundays I saw the pleasant nooks and corners of these sandy hillocks
devoted, as the dunes of Long Island were, to whispering lovers, who are
here as freely and fearlessly affectionate as at home. Rocking there is
not, and cannot be, in the nature of things, as there used to be at Mount
Desert; but what is called Twoing at York Harbor is perfectly

It is practicable not only in the nooks and corners of the dunes, but on
discreeter terms in those hooded willow chairs, so characteristic of the
Dutch sea-side. These, if faced in pairs towards each other, must be as
favorable to the exchange of vows as of opinions, and if the crowd is
ever very great, perhaps one chair could be made to hold two persons.
It was distinctly a pang, the other day, to see men carrying them up from
the beach, and putting them away to hibernate in the basement of the
hotel. Not all, but most of them, were taken; though I dare say that on
fine days throughout October they will go trooping back to the sands on
the heads of the same men, like a procession of monstrous, two-legged
crabs. Such a day was last Sunday, and then the beach offered a lively
image of its summer gayety. It was dotted with hundreds of hooded
chairs, which foregathered in gossiping groups or confidential couples;
and as the sun shone quite warm the flaps of the little tents next the
dunes were let down against it, and ladies in summer white saved
themselves from sunstroke in their shelter. The wooden booths for the
sale of candies and mineral waters, and beer and sandwiches, were flushed
with a sudden prosperity, so that when I went to buy my pound of grapes
from the good woman who understands my Dutch, I dreaded an indifference
in her which by no means appeared. She welcomed me as warmly as if I had
been her sole customer, and did not put up the price on me; perhaps
because it was already so very high that her imagination could not rise
above it.

The hotel showed the same admirable constancy. The restaurant was
thronged with new-comers, who spread out even over the many-tabled
esplanade before it; but it was in no wise demoralized. That night we
sat down in multiplied numbers to a table d'hote of serenely unconscious
perfection; and we permanent guests--alas! we are now becoming transient,
too--were used with unfaltering recognition of our superior worth. We
shared the respect which, all over Europe, attaches to establishment, and
which sometimes makes us poor Americans wish for a hereditary nobility,
so that we could all mirror our ancestral value in the deference of our
inferiors. Where we should get our inferiors is another thing, but I
suppose we could import them for the purpose, if the duties were not too
great under our tariff.

We have not yet imported the idea of a European hotel in any respect,
though we long ago imported what we call the European plan. No travelled
American knows it in the extortionate prices of rooms when he gets home,
or the preposterous charges of our restaurants, where one portion of
roast beef swimming in a lake of lukewarm juice costs as much as a
diversified and delicate dinner in Germany or Holland. But even if there
were any proportion in these things the European hotel will not be with
us till we have the European portier, who is its spring and inspiration.
He must not, dear home-keeping reader, be at all imagined in the moral or
material figure of our hotel porter, who appears always in his shirt-
sleeves, and speaks with the accent of Cork or of Congo. The European
portier wears a uniform, I do not know why, and a gold-banded cap, and he
inhabits a little office at the entrance of the hotel. He speaks eight
or ten languages, up to certain limit, rather better than people born to
them, and his presence commands an instant reverence softening to
affection under his universal helpfulness. There is nothing he cannot
tell you, cannot do for you; and you may trust yourself implicitly to
him. He has the priceless gift of making each nationality, each
personality, believe that he is devoted to its service alone. He turns
lightly from one language to another, as if he had each under his tongue,
and he answers simultaneously a fussy French woman, an angry English
tourist, a stiff Prussian major, and a thin-voiced American girl in
behalf of a timorous mother, and he never mixes the replies. He is an
inexhaustible bottle of dialects; but this is the least of his merits, of
his miracles.

Our portier here is a tall, slim Dutchman (most Dutchmen are tall and
slim), and in spite of the waning season he treats me as if I were
multitude, while at the same time he uses me with the distinction due the
last of his guests. Twenty times in as many hours he wishes me good-day,
putting his hand to his cap for the purpose; and to oblige me he wears
silver braid instead of gilt on his cap and coat. I apologized yesterday
for troubling him so often for stamps, and said that I supposed he was
much more bothered in the season.

"Between the first of August and the fifteenth," he answered, "you cannot
think. All that you can do is to say, Yes, No; Yes, No." And he left me
to imagine his responsibilities.

I am sure he will hold out to the end, and will smile me a friendly
farewell from the door of his office, which is also his dining-room, as I
know from often disturbing him at his meals there. I have no fear of the
waiters either, or of the little errand-boys who wear suits of sailor
blue, and touch their foreheads when they bring you your letters like so
many ancient sea-dogs. I do not know why the elevator-boy prefers a suit
of snuff-color; but I know that he will salute us as we step out of his
elevator for the last time as unfalteringly as if we had just arrived at
the beginning of the summer.


It is our last day in the hotel at Scheveningen, and I will try to recall
in their pathetic order the events of the final week.

Nothing has been stranger throughout than the fluctuation of the guests.
At times they have dwindled to so small a number that one must reckon
chiefly upon their quality for consolation; at other times they swelled
to such a tide as to overflow the table, long or short, at dinner, and
eddy round a second board beside it. There have been nights when I have
walked down the long corridor to my seaward room through a harking
solitude of empty chambers; there have been mornings when I have come out
to breakfast past door-mats cheerful with boots of both sexes, and door-
post hooks where dangling coats and trousers peopled the place with a
lively if a somewhat flaccid semblance of human presence. The worst was
that, when some one went, we lost a friend, and when some one came we
only won a stranger.

Among the first to go were the kindly English folk whose acquaintance we
made across the table the first night, and who took with them so large a
share of our facile affections that we quite forgot the ancestral
enmities, and grieved for them as much as if they had been Americans.
There have been, in fact, no Americans here but ourselves, and we have
done what we could with the Germans who spoke English. The nicest of
these were a charming family from F-----, father and mother, and son and
daughter, with whom we had a pleasant week of dinners. At the very first
we disagreed with the parents so amicably about Ibsen and Sudermann that
I was almost sorry to have the son take our modern side of the
controversy and declare himself an admirer of those authors with us.
Our frank literary difference established a kindness between us that was
strengthened by our community of English, and when they went they left us
to the sympathy of another German family with whom we had mainly our
humanity in common. They spoke no English, and I only a German which
they must have understood with their hearts rather than their heads,
since it consisted chiefly of good-will. But in the air of their sweet
natures it flourished surprisingly, and sufficed each day for praise of
the weather after it began to be fine, and at parting for some fond
regrets, not unmixed with philosophical reflections, sadly perplexed in
the genders and the order of the verbs: with me the verb will seldom
wait, as it should in German, to the end. Both of these families, very
different in social tradition, I fancied, were one in the amiability
which makes the alien forgive so much militarism to the German nation,
and hope for its final escape from the drill-sergeant. When they went,
we were left for some meals to our own American tongue, with a brief
interval of that English painter and his wife with whom we spoke, our
language as nearly like English as we could. Then followed a desperate
lunch and dinner where an unbroken forest of German, and a still more
impenetrable morass of Dutch, hemmed us in. But last night it was our
joy to be addressed in our own speech by a lady who spoke it as admirably
as our dear friends from F-----. She was Dutch, and when she found we
were Americans she praised our historian Motley, and told us how his
portrait is gratefully honored with a place in the Queen's palace, The
House in the Woods, near Scheveningen.


She had come up from her place in the country, four hours away, for the
last of the concerts here, which have been given throughout the summer by
the best orchestra in Europe, and which have been thronged every
afternoon and evening by people from The Hague.

One honored day this week even the Queen and the Queen Mother came down
to the concert, and gave us incomparably the greatest event of our waning
season. I had noticed all the morning a floral perturbation about the
main entrance of the hotel, which settled into the form of banks of
autumnal bloom on either side of the specially carpeted stairs, and put
forth on the roof of the arcade in a crown, much bigger round than a
barrel, of orange-colored asters, in honor of the Queen's ancestral house
of Orange. Flags of blue, white, and red fluttered nervously about in
the breeze from the sea, and imparted to us an agreeable anxiety not to
miss seeing the Queens, as the Dutch succinctly call their sovereign and
her parent; and at three o'clock we saw them drive up to the hotel.
Certain officials in civil dress stood at the door of the concert-room to
usher the Queens in, and a bareheaded, bald-headed dignity of military
figure backed up the stairs before them. I would not rashly commit
myself to particulars concerning their dress, but I am sure that the
elder Queen wore black, and the younger white. The mother has one of the
best and wisest faces I have seen any woman wear (and most of the good,
wise faces in this imperfectly balanced world are women's) and the
daughter one of the sweetest and prettiest. Pretty is the word for her
face, and it showed pink through her blond veil, as she smiled and bowed
right and left; her features are small and fine, and she is not above the
middle height.

As soon as she had passed into the concert-room, we who had waited to see
her go in ran round to another door and joined the two or three thousand
people who were standing to receive the Queens. These had already
mounted to the royal box, and they stood there while the orchestra played
one of the Dutch national airs. (One air is not enough for the Dutch;
they must have two.) Then the mother faded somewhere into the
background, and the daughter sat alone in the front, on a gilt throne,
with a gilt crown at top, and a very uncomfortable carved Gothic back.
She looked so young, so gentle, and so good that the rudest Republican
could not have helped wishing her well out of a position so essentially
and irreparably false as a hereditary sovereign's. One forgot in the
presence of her innocent seventeen years that most of the ruling princes
of the world had left it the worse for their having been in it; at
moments one forgot her altogether as a princess, and saw her only as a
charming young girl, who had to sit up rather stiffly.

At the end of the programme the Queens rose and walked slowly out, while
the orchestra played the other national air.


I call them the Queens, because the Dutch do; and I like Holland so much
that I should hate to differ with the Dutch in anything. But, as a
matter of fact, they are neither of them quite Queens; the mother is the
regent and the daughter will not be crowned till next year.

But, such as they are, they imparted a supreme emotion to our dying
season, and thrilled the hotel with a fulness of summer life. Since they
went, the season faintly pulses and respires, so that one can just say
that it is still alive. Last Sunday was fine, and great crowds came down
from The Hague to the concert, and spread out on the seaward terrace of
the hotel, around the little tables which I fancied that the waiters had
each morning wiped dry of the dew, from a mere Dutch desire of cleaning
something. The hooded chairs covered the beach; the children played in
the edges of the surf and delved in the sand; the lovers wandered up into
the hollows of the dunes.

There was only the human life, however. I have looked in vain for the
crabs, big and little, that swarm on the Long Island shore, and there are
hardly any gulls, even; perhaps because there are no crabs for them to
eat, if they eat crabs; I never saw gulls doing it, but they must eat
something. Dogs there are, of course, wherever there are people; but
they are part of the human life. Dutch dogs are in fact very human; and
one I saw yesterday behaved quite as badly as a bad boy, with respect to
his muzzle. He did not like his muzzle, and by dint of turning
somersaults in the sand he got it off, and went frolicking to his master
in triumph to show him what he had done.


It is now the last day, and the desolation is thickening upon our hotel.
This morning the door-posts up and down my corridor showed not a single
pair of trousers; not a pair of boots flattered the lonely doormats. In
the lower hall I found the tables of the great dining-room assembled, and
the chairs inverted on them with their legs in the air; but decently,
decorously, not with the reckless abandon displayed by the chairs in our
Long Island hotel for weeks before it closed. In the smaller dining-room
the table was set for lunch as if we were to go on dining there forever;
in the breakfast-room the service and the provision were as perfect as
ever. The coffee was good, the bread delicious, the butter of an
unfaltering sweetness; and the glaze of wear on the polished dress-coats
of the waiters as respectable as it could have been on the first day of
the season. All was correct, and if of a funereal correctness to me, I
am sure this effect was purely subjective.

The little bell-boys in sailor suits (perhaps they ought to be spelled
bell-buoys) clustered about the elevator-boy like so many Roman sentinels
at their posts; the elevator-boy and his elevator were ready to take us
up or down at any moment.

The portier and I ignored together the hour of parting, which we had
definitely ascertained and agreed upon, and we exchanged some compliments
to the weather, which is now settled, as if we expected to enjoy it long
together. I rather dread going in to lunch, however, for I fear the
empty places.


All is over; we are off. The lunch was an heroic effort of the hotel to
hide the fact of our separation. It was perfect, unless the boiled beef
was a confession of human weakness; but even this boiled beef was
exquisite, and the horseradish that went with it was so mellowed by art
that it checked rather than provoked the parting tear. The table d'hote
had reserved a final surprise for us; and when we sat down with the fear
of nothing but German around us, we heard the sound of our own speech
from the pleasantest English pair we had yet encountered; and the
travelling English are pleasant; I will say it, who am said by Sir Walter
Besant to be the only American who hates their nation. It was really an
added pang to go, on their account, but the carriage was waiting at the
door; the 'domestique' had already carried our baggage to the steam-tram
station; the kindly menial train formed around us for an ultimate
'douceur', and we were off, after the 'portier' had shut us into our
vehicle and touched his oft-touched cap for the last time, while the
hotel facade dissembled its grief by architecturally smiling in the soft
Dutch sun.

I liked this manner of leaving better than carrying part of my own
baggage to the train, as I had to do on Long Island, though that, too,
had its charm; the charm of the whole fresh, pungent American life, which
at this distance is so dear.

LITERATURE AND LIFE--Some Anomalies of the Short Story

by William Dean Howells


The interesting experiment of one of our great publishing houses in
putting out serially several volumes of short stories, with the hope that
a courageous persistence may overcome the popular indifference to such
collections when severally administered, suggests some questions as to
this eldest form of fiction which I should like to ask the reader's
patience with. I do not know that I shall be able to answer them, or
that I shall try to do so; the vitality of a question that is answered
seems to exhale in the event; it palpitates no longer; curiosity flutters
away from the faded flower, which is fit then only to be folded away in
the 'hortus siccus' of accomplished facts. In view of this I may wish
merely to state the problems and leave them for the reader's solution,
or, more amusingly, for his mystification.


One of the most amusing questions concerning the short story is why a
form which is singly so attractive that every one likes to read a short
story when he finds it alone is collectively so repellent as it is said
to be. Before now I have imagined the case to be somewhat the same as
that of a number of pleasant people who are most acceptable as separate
householders, but who lose caste and cease to be desirable acquaintances
when gathered into a boarding-house.

Yet the case is not the same quite, for we see that the short story where
it is ranged with others of its species within the covers of a magazine
is so welcome that the editor thinks his number the more brilliant the
more short story writers he can call about his board, or under the roof
of his pension. Here the boardinghouse analogy breaks, breaks so
signally that I was lately moved to ask a distinguished editor why a book
of short stories usually failed and a magazine usually succeeded because
of them. He answered, gayly, that the short stories in most books of
them were bad; that where they were good, they went; and he alleged
several well-known instances in which books of prime short stories had a
great vogue. He was so handsomely interested in my inquiry that I could
not well say I thought some of the short stories which he had boasted in
his last number were indifferent good, and yet, as he allowed, had mainly
helped sell it. I had in mind many books of short stories of the first
excellence which had failed as decidedly as those others had succeeded,
for no reason that I could see; possibly there is really no reason in any
literary success or failure that can be predicted, or applied in another

I could name these books, if it would serve any purpose, but, in my
doubt, I will leave the reader to think of them, for I believe that his
indolence or intellectual reluctance is largely to blame for the failure
of good books of short stories. He is commonly so averse to any
imaginative exertion that he finds it a hardship to respond to that
peculiar demand which a book of good short stories makes upon him. He
can read one good short story in a magazine with refreshment, and a
pleasant sense of excitement, in the sort of spur it gives to his own
constructive faculty. But, if this is repeated in ten or twenty stories,
he becomes fluttered and exhausted by the draft upon his energies;
whereas a continuous fiction of the same quantity acts as an agreeable
sedative. A condition that the short story tacitly makes with the
reader, through its limitations, is that he shall subjectively fill in
the details and carry out the scheme which in its small dimensions the
story can only suggest; and the greater number of readers find this too
much for their feeble powers, while they cannot resist the incitement to
attempt it.

My theory does not wholly account for the fact (no theory wholly accounts
for any fact), and I own that the same objections would lie from the
reader against a number of short stories in a magazine. But it may be
that the effect is not the same in the magazine because of the variety in
the authorship, and because it would be impossibly jolting to read all
the short stories in a magazine 'seriatim'. On the other hand, the
identity of authorship gives a continuity of attraction to the short
stories in a book which forms that exhausting strain upon the imagination
of the involuntary co-partner.


Then, what is the solution as to the form of publication for short
stories, since people do not object to them singly but collectively, and
not in variety, but in identity of authorship? Are they to be printed
only in the magazines, or are they to be collected in volumes combining a
variety of authorship? Rather, I could wish, it might be found feasible
to purvey them in some pretty shape where each would appeal singly to the
reader and would not exhaust him in the subjective after-work required of
him. In this event many short stories now cramped into undue limits by
the editorial exigencies of the magazines might expand to greater length
and breadth, and without ceasing to be each a short story might not make
so heavy a demand upon the subliminal forces of the reader.

If any one were to say that all this was a little fantastic, I should not
contradict him; but I hope there is some reason in it, if reason can help
the short story to greater favor, for it is a form which I have great
pleasure in as a reader, and pride in as an American. If we have not
excelled all other moderns in it, we have certainly excelled in it;
possibly because we are in the period of our literary development which
corresponds to that of other peoples when the short story pre-eminently
flourished among them. But when one has said a thing like this, it
immediately accuses one of loose and inaccurate statement, and requires
one to refine upon it, either for one's own peace of conscience or for
one's safety from the thoughtful reader. I am not much afraid of that
sort of reader, for he is very rare, but I do like to know myself what I
mean, if I mean anything in particular.

In this instance I am obliged to ask myself whether our literary
development can be recognized separately from that of the whole English-
speaking world. I think it can, though, as I am always saying American
literature is merely a condition of English literature. In some sense
every European literature is a condition of some other European
literature, yet the impulse in each eventuates, if it does not originate
indigenously. A younger literature will choose, by a sort of natural
selection, some things for assimilation from an elder literature, for no
more apparent reason than it will reject other things, and it will
transform them in the process so that it will give them the effect of
indigeneity. The short story among the Italians, who called it the
novella, and supplied us with the name devoted solely among us to fiction
of epical magnitude, refined indefinitely upon the Greek romance, if it
derived from that; it retrenched itself in scope, and enlarged itself in
the variety of its types. But still these remained types, and they
remained types with the French imitators of the Italian novella. It was
not till the Spaniards borrowed the form of the novella and transplanted
it to their racier soil that it began to bear character, and to fruit in
the richness of their picaresque fiction. When the English borrowed it
they adapted it, in the metrical tales of Chaucer, to the genius of their
nation, which was then both poetical and humorous. Here it was full of
character, too, and more and more personality began to enlarge the bounds
of the conventional types and to imbue fresh ones. But in so far as the
novella was studied in the Italian sources, the French, Spanish, and
English literatures were conditions of Italian literature as distinctly,
though, of course, not so thoroughly, as American literature is a
condition of English literature. Each borrower gave a national cast to
the thing borrowed, and that is what has happened with us, in the full
measure that our nationality has differenced itself from the English.

Whatever truth there is in all this, and I will confess that a good deal
of it seems to me hardy conjecture, rather favors my position that we are
in some such period of our literary development as those other peoples
when the short story flourished among them. Or, if I restrict our claim,
I may safely claim that they abundantly had the novella when they had not
the novel at all, and we now abundantly have the novella, while we have
the novel only subordinately and of at least no such quantitative
importance as the English, French, Spanish, Norwegians, Russians, and
some others of our esteemed contemporaries, not to name the Italians. We
surpass the Germans, who, like ourselves, have as distinctly excelled in
the modern novella as they have fallen short in the novel. Or, if I may
not quite say this, I will make bold to say that I can think of many
German novelle that I should like to read again, but scarcely one German
novel; and I could honestly say the same of American novelle, though not
of American novels.


The abeyance, not to say the desuetude, that the novella fell into for
several centuries is very curious, and fully as remarkable as the modern
rise of the short story. It began to prevail in the dramatic form, for a
play is a short story put on the stage; it may have satisfied in that
form the early love of it, and it has continued to please in that form;
but in its original shape it quite vanished, unless we consider the
little studies and sketches and allegories of the Spectator and Tatler
and Idler and Rambler and their imitations on the Continent as guises of
the novella. The germ of the modern short story may have survived in
these, or in the metrical form of the novella which appeared in Chaucer
and never wholly disappeared. With Crabbe the novella became as
distinctly the short story as it has become in the hands of Miss Wilkins.
But it was not till our time that its great merit as a form was felt, for
until our time so great work was never done with it. I remind myself of
Boccaccio, and of the Arabian Nights, without the wish to hedge from my
bold stand. They are all elemental; compared with some finer modern work
which deepens inward immeasurably, they are all of their superficial
limits. They amuse, but they do not hold, the mind and stamp it with
large and profound impressions.

An Occidental cannot judge the literary quality of the Eastern tales; but
I will own my suspicion that the perfection of the Italian work is
philological rather than artistic, while the web woven by Mr. James or
Miss Jewett, by Kielland or Bjornson, by Maupassant, by Palacio Valdes,
by Giovanni Verga, by Tourguenief, in one of those little frames seems to
me of an exquisite color and texture and of an entire literary
preciousness, not only as regards the diction, but as regards those more
intangible graces of form, those virtues of truth and reality, and those
lasting significances which distinguish the masterpiece.

The novella has in fact been carried so far in the short story that it
might be asked whether it had not left the novel behind, as to perfection
of form; though one might not like to affirm this. Yet there have been
but few modern fictions of the novel's dimensions which have the beauty
of form many a novella embodies. Is this because it is easier to give
form in the small than in the large, or only because it is easier to hide
formlessness? It is easier to give form in the novella than in the
novel, because the design of less scope can be more definite, and because
the persons and facts are fewer, and each can be more carefully treated.
But, on the other hand, the slightest error in execution shows more in
the small than in the large, and a fault of conception is more evident.
The novella must be clearly imagined, above all things, for there is no
room in it for those felicities of characterization or comment by which
the artist of faltering design saves himself in the novel.


The question as to where the short story distinguishes itself from the
anecdote is of the same nature as that which concerns the bound set
between it and the novel. In both cases the difference of the novella is
in the motive, or the origination. The anecdote is too palpably simple
and single to be regarded as a novella, though there is now and then a
novella like The Father, by Bjornson, which is of the actual brevity of
the anecdote, but which, when released in the reader's consciousness,
expands to dramatic dimensions impossible to the anecdote. Many
anecdotes have come down from antiquity, but not, I believe, one short
story, at least in prose; and the Italians, if they did not invent the
story, gave us something most sensibly distinguishable from the classic
anecdote in the novella. The anecdote offers an illustration of
character, or records a moment of action; the novella embodies a drama
and develops a type.

It is not quite so clear as to when and where a piece of fiction ceases
to be a novella and becomes a novel. The frontiers are so vague that one
is obliged to recognize a middle species, or rather a middle magnitude,
which paradoxically, but necessarily enough, we call the novelette.
First we have the short story, or novella, then we have the long story,
or novel, and between these we have the novelette, which is in name a
smaller than the short story, though it is in point of fact two or three
times longer than a short story. We may realize them physically if we
will adopt the magazine parlance and speak of the novella as a one-number
story, of the novel as a serial, and of the novelette as a two-number or
a three-number story; if it passes the three-number limit it seems to
become a novel. As a two-number or three-number story it is the despair
of editors and publishers. The interest of so brief a serial will not
mount sufficiently to carry strongly over from month to month; when the
tale is completed it will not make a book which the Trade (inexorable
force!) cares to handle. It is therefore still awaiting its
authoritative avatar, which it will be some one's prosperity and glory to
imagine; for in the novelette are possibilities for fiction as yet
scarcely divined.

The novelette can have almost as perfect form as the novella. In fact,
the novel has form in the measure that it approaches the novelette; and
some of the most symmetrical modern novels are scarcely more than
novelettes, like Tourguenief's Dmitri Rudine, or his Smoke, or Spring
Floods. The Vicar of Wakefield, the father of the modern novel, is
scarcely more than a novelette, and I have sometimes fancied, but no
doubt vainly, that the ultimated novel might be of the dimensions of
Hamlet. If any one should say there was not room in Hamlet for the
character and incident requisite in a novel, I should be ready to answer
that there seemed a good deal of both in Hamlet.

But no doubt there are other reasons why the novel should not finally be
of the length of Hamlet, and I must not let my enthusiasm for the
novelette carry me too far, or, rather, bring me up too short. I am
disposed to dwell upon it, I suppose, because it has not yet shared the
favor which the novella and the novel have enjoyed, and because until
somebody invents a way for it to the public it cannot prosper like the
one-number story or the serial. I should like to say as my last word for
it here that I believe there are many novels which, if stripped of their
padding, would turn out to have been all along merely novelettes in

It does not follow, however, that there are many novelle which, if they
were duly padded, would be found novelettes. In that dim, subjective
region where the aesthetic origins present themselves almost with the
authority of inspirations there is nothing clearer than the difference
between the short-story motive and the long-story motive. One, if one is
in that line of work, feels instinctively just the size and carrying
power of the given motive. Or, if the reader prefers a different figure,
the mind which the seed has been dropped into from Somewhere is
mystically aware whether the seed is going to grow up a bush or is going
to grow up a tree, if left to itself. Of course, the mind to which the
seed is intrusted may play it false, and wilfully dwarf the growth, or
force it to unnatural dimensions; but the critical observer will easily
detect the fact of such treasons. Almost in the first germinal impulse
the inventive mind forefeels the ultimate difference and recognizes the
essential simplicity or complexity of the motive. There will be a
prophetic subdivision into a variety of motives and a multiplication of
characters and incidents and situations; or the original motive will be
divined indivisible, and there will be a small group of people
immediately interested and controlled by a single, or predominant, fact.
The uninspired may contend that this is bosh, and I own that something
might be said for their contention, but upon the whole I think it is

The right novel is never a congeries of novelle, as might appear to the
uninspired. If it indulges even in episodes, it loses in reality and
vitality. It is one stock from which its various branches put out, and
form it a living growth identical throughout. The right novella is never
a novel cropped back from the size of a tree to a bush, or the branch of
a tree stuck into the ground and made to serve for a bush. It is another
species, destined by the agencies at work in the realm of unconsciousness
to be brought into being of its own kind, and not of another.


This was always its case, but in the process of time the short story,
while keeping the natural limits of the primal novella (if ever there was
one), has shown almost limitless possibilities within them. It has shown
itself capable of imparting the effect of every sort of intention,
whether of humor or pathos, of tragedy or comedy or broad farce or
delicate irony, of character or action. The thing that first made itself
known as a little tale, usually salacious, dealing with conventionalized
types and conventionalized incidents, has proved itself possibly the most
flexible of all the literary forms in its adaptation to the needs of the
mind that wishes to utter itself, inventively or constructively, upon
some fresh occasion, or wishes briefly to criticise or represent some
phase or fact of life.

The riches in this shape of fiction are effectively inestimable, if we
consider what has been done in the short story, and is still doing
everywhere. The good novels may be easily counted, but the good novelle,
since Boccaccio began (if it was he that first began) to make them,
cannot be computed. In quantity they are inexhaustible, and in quality
they are wonderfully satisfying. Then, why is it that so very, very few
of the most satisfactory of that innumerable multitude stay by you, as
the country people say, in characterization or action? How hard it is to
recall a person or a fact out of any of them, out of the most signally
good! We seem to be delightfully nourished as we read, but is it, after
all, a full meal? We become of a perfect intimacy and a devoted
friendship with the men and women in the short stories, but not
apparently of a lasting acquaintance. It is a single meeting we have
with them, and though we instantly love or hate them dearly, recurrence
and repetition seem necessary to that familiar knowledge in which we hold
the personages in a novel.

It is here that the novella, so much more perfect in form, shows its
irremediable inferiority to the novel, and somehow to the play, to the
very farce, which it may quantitatively excel. We can all recall by name
many characters out of comedies and farces; but how many characters out
of short stories can we recall? Most persons of the drama give
themselves away by name for types, mere figments of allegory, and perhaps
oblivion is the penalty that the novella pays for the fineness of its
characterizations; but perhaps, also, the dramatic form has greater
facilities for repetition, and so can stamp its persons more indelibly on
the imagination than the narrative form in the same small space. The
narrative must give to description what the drama trusts to
representation; but this cannot account for the superior permanency of
the dramatic types in so great measure as we might at first imagine, for
they remain as much in mind from reading as from seeing the plays. It is
possible that as the novella becomes more conscious, its persons will
become more memorable; but as it is, though we now vividly and with
lasting delight remember certain short stories, we scarcely remember by
name any of the people in them. I may be risking too much in offering an
instance, but who, in even such signal instances as The Revolt of Mother,
by Miss Wilkins, or The Dulham Ladies, by Miss Jewett, can recall by name
the characters that made them delightful?


The defect of the novella which we have been acknowledging seems an
essential limitation; but perhaps it is not insuperable; and we may yet
have short stories which shall supply the delighted imagination with
creations of as much immortality as we can reasonably demand. The
structural change would not be greater than the moral or material change
which has been wrought in it since it began as a yarn, gross and
palpable, which the narrator spun out of the coarsest and often the
filthiest stuff, to snare the thick fancy or amuse the lewd leisure of
listeners willing as children to have the same persons and the same
things over and over again. Now it has not only varied the persons and
things, but it has refined and verified them in the direction of the
natural and the supernatural, until it is above all other literary forms
the vehicle of reality and spirituality. When one thinks of a bit of Mr.
James's psychology in this form, or a bit of Verga's or Kielland's
sociology, or a bit of Miss Jewett's exquisite veracity, one perceives
the immense distance which the short story has come on the way to the
height it has reached. It serves equally the ideal and the real; that
which it is loath to serve is the unreal, so that among the short stories
which have recently made reputations for their authors very few are of
that peculiar cast which we have no name for but romanticistic. The only
distinguished modern writer of romanticistic novelle whom I can think of
is Mr. Bret Harte, and he is of a period when romanticism was so
imperative as to be almost a condition of fiction. I am never so
enamoured of a cause that I will not admit facts that seem to tell
against it, and I will allow that this writer of romanticistic short
stories has more than any other supplied us with memorable types and
characters. We remember Mr. John Oakhurst by name; we remember Kentuck
and Tennessee's Partner, at least by nickname; and we remember their
several qualities. These figures, if we cannot quite consent that they
are persons, exist in our memories by force of their creator's
imagination, and at the moment I cannot think of any others that do,
out of the myriad of American short stories, except Rip Van Winkle out of
Irving's Legend of Sleepy Hollow, and Marjorie Daw out of Mr. Aldrich's
famous little caprice of that title, and Mr. James's Daisy Miller.

It appears to be the fact that those writers who have first distinguished
themselves in the novella have seldom written novels of prime order.
Mr. Kipling is an eminent example, but Mr. Kipling has yet a long life
before him in which to upset any theory about him, and one can only
instance him provisionally. On the other hand, one can be much more
confident that the best novelle have been written by the greatest
novelists, conspicuously Maupassant, Verga, Bjornson, Mr. Thomas Hardy,
Mr. James, Mr. Cable, Tourguenief, Tolstoy, Valdes, not to name others.
These have, in fact, all done work so good in this form that one is
tempted to call it their best work. It is really not their best, but it
is work so good that it ought to have equal acceptance with their novels,
if that distinguished editor was right who said that short stories sold
well when they were good short stories. That they ought to do so is so
evident that a devoted reader of them, to whom I was submitting the
anomaly the other day, insisted that they did. I could only allege the
testimony of publishers and authors to the contrary, and this did not
satisfy him.

It does not satisfy me, and I wish that the general reader, with whom the
fault lies, could be made to say why, if he likes one short story by
itself and four short stories in a magazine, he does not like, or will
not have, a dozen short stories in a book. This was the baffling
question which I began with and which I find myself forced to end with,
after all the light I have thrown upon the subject. I leave it where I
found it, but perhaps that is a good deal for a critic to do. If I had
left it anywhere else the reader might not feel bound to deal with it
practically by reading all the books of short stories he could lay hands
on, and either divining why he did not enjoy them, or else forever
foregoing his prejudice against them because of his pleasure in them.

LITERATURE AND LIFE--Spanish Prisoners of War

by William Dean Howells


Certain summers ago our cruisers, the St. Louis and the Harvard, arrived
at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, with sixteen or seventeen hundred Spanish
prisoners from Santiago de Cuba. They were partly soldiers of the land
forces picked up by our troops in the fights before the city, but by far
the greater part were sailors and marines from Cervera's ill-fated fleet.
I have not much stomach for war, but the poetry of the fact I have stated
made a very potent appeal to me on my literary side, and I did not hold
out against it longer than to let the St. Louis get away with Cervera to
Annapolis, when only her less dignified captives remained with those of
the Harvard to feed either the vainglory or the pensive curiosity of the
spectator. Then I went over from our summer colony to Kittery Point, and
got a boat, and sailed out to have a look at these subordinate enemies in
the first hours of their imprisonment.


It was an afternoon of the brilliancy known only to an afternoon of the
American summer, and the water of the swift Piscataqua River glittered in
the sun with a really incomparable brilliancy. But nothing could light
up the great monster of a ship, painted the dismal lead-color which our
White Squadrons put on with the outbreak of the war, and she lay sullen
in the stream with a look of ponderous repose, to which the activities of
the coaling-barges at her side, and of the sailors washing her decks,
seemed quite unrelated. A long gun forward and a long gun aft threatened
the fleet of launches, tugs, dories, and cat-boats which fluttered about
her, but the Harvard looked tired and bored, and seemed as if asleep.
She had, in fact, finished her mission. The captives whom death had
released had been carried out and sunk in the sea; those who survived to
a further imprisonment had all been taken to the pretty island a mile
farther up in the river, where the tide rushes back and forth through the
Narrows like a torrent. Its defiant rapidity has won it there the
graphic name of Pull-and-be-Damned; and we could only hope to reach the
island by a series of skilful tacks, which should humor both the wind and
the tide, both dead against us. Our boatman, one of those shore New
Englanders who are born with a knowledge of sailing, was easily master of
the art of this, but it took time, and gave me more than the leisure I
wanted for trying to see the shore with the strange eyes of the captives
who had just looked upon it. It was beautiful, I had to own, even in my
quality of exile and prisoner. The meadows and the orchards came down to
the water, or, where the wandering line of the land was broken and lifted
in black fronts of rock, they crept to the edge of the cliff and peered
over it. A summer hotel stretched its verandas along a lovely level;
everywhere in clovery hollows and on breezy knolls were gray old farm-
houses and summer cottages-like weather-beaten birds' nests, and like
freshly painted marten-boxes; but all of a cold New England neatness
which made me homesick for my malodorous Spanish fishing-village,
shambling down in stony lanes to the warm tides of my native seas. Here,
every place looked as if it had been newly scrubbed with soap and water,
and rubbed down with a coarse towel, and was of an antipathetic
alertness. The sweet, keen breeze made me shiver, and the northern sky,
from which my blinding southern sun was blazing, was as hard as sapphire.
I tried to bewilder myself in the ignorance of a Catalonian or Asturian
fisherman, and to wonder with his darkened mind why it should all or any
of it have been, and why I should have escaped from the iron hell in
which I had fought no quarrel of my own to fall into the hands of
strangers, and to be haled over seas to these alien shores for a
captivity of unknown term. But I need not have been at so much pains;
the intelligence (I do not wish to boast) of an American author would
have sufficed; for if there is anything more grotesque than another in
war it is its monstrous inconsequence. If we had a grief with the
Spanish government, and if it was so mortal we must do murder for it, we
might have sent a joint committee of the House and Senate, and, with the
improved means of assassination which modern science has put at our
command, killed off the Spanish cabinet, and even the queen--mother and
the little king. This would have been consequent, logical, and in a sort
reasonable; but to butcher and capture a lot of wretched Spanish peasants
and fishermen, hapless conscripts to whom personally and nationally we
were as so many men in the moon, was that melancholy and humiliating
necessity of war which makes it homicide in which there is not even the
saving grace of hate, or the excuse of hot blood.

I was able to console myself perhaps a little better for the captivity of
the Spaniards than if I had really been one of them, as we drew nearer
and nearer their prison isle, and it opened its knotty points and little
ravines, overrun with sweet-fern, blueberry-bushes, bay, and low
blackberry-vines, and rigidly traversed with a high stockade of yellow
pine boards. Six or eight long, low, wooden barracks stretched side by
side across the general slope, with the captive officers' quarters,
sheathed in weather-proof black paper, at one end of them. About their
doors swarmed the common prisoners, spilling out over the steps and on
the grass, where some of them lounged smoking. One operatic figure in a
long blanket stalked athwart an open space; but there was such poverty of
drama in the spectacle at the distance we were keeping that we were glad
of so much as a shirt-sleeved contractor driving out of the stockade in
his buggy. On the heights overlooking the enclosure Gatling guns were
posted at three or four points, and every thirty or forty feet sentries
met and parted, so indifferent to us, apparently, that we wondered if we
might get nearer. We ventured, but at a certain moment a sentry called to
us, "Fifty yards off, please!" Our young skipper answered, "All right,"
and as the sentry had a gun on his shoulder which we had every reason to
believe was loaded, it was easily our pleasure to retreat to the
specified limit. In fact, we came away altogether, after that, so little
promise was there of our being able to satisfy our curiosity further.
We came away care fully nursing such impression as we had got of a spec
tacle whose historical quality we did our poor best to feel. It related
us, after solicitation, to the wars against the Moors, against the
Mexicans and Peruvians, against the Dutch; to the Italian campaigns of
the Gran Capitan, to the Siege of Florence, to the Sack of Rome, to the
wars of the Spanish Succession, and what others. I do not deny that
there was a certain aesthetic joy in having the Spanish prisoners there
for this effect; we came away duly grateful for what we had seen of them;
and we had long duly resigned ourselves to seeing no more, when word was
sent to us that our young skipper had got a permit to visit the island,
and wished us to go with him.


It was just such another afternoon when we went again, but this time we
took the joyous trolley-car, and bounded and pirouetted along as far as
the navyyard of Kittery, and there we dismounted and walked among the
vast, ghostly ship-sheds, so long empty of ships. The grass grew in the
Kittery navy-yard, but it was all the pleasanter for the grass, and those
pale, silent sheds were far more impressive in their silence than they
would have been if resonant with saw and hammer. At several points, an
unarmed marine left his leisure somewhere, and lunged across our path
with a mute appeal for our permit; but we were nowhere delayed till we
came to the office where it had to be countersigned, and after that we
had presently crossed a bridge, by shady, rustic ways, and were on the
prison island. Here, if possible, the sense of something pastoral
deepened; a man driving a file of cows passed before us under kindly
trees, and the bell which the foremost of these milky mothers wore about
her silken throat sent forth its clear, tender note as if from the depth
of some grassy bosk, and instantly witched me away to the woods-pastures
which my boyhood knew in southern Ohio. Even when we got to what seemed
fortifications they turned out to be the walls of an old reservoir, and
bore on their gate a paternal warning that children unaccompanied by
adults were not allowed within.

We mounted some stone steps over this portal and were met by a young
marine, who left his Gatling gun for a moment to ask for our permit, and
then went back satisfied. Then we found ourselves in the presence of a
sentry with a rifle on his shoulder, who was rather more exacting.
Still, he only wished to be convinced, and when he had pointed out the
headquarters where we were next to go, he let us over his beat. At the
headquarters there was another sentry, equally serious, but equally
civil, and with the intervention of an orderly our leader saw the officer
of the day. He came out of the quarters looking rather blank, for he had
learned that his pass admitted our party to the lines, but not to the
stockade, which we might approach, at a certain point of vantage and look
over into, but not penetrate. We resigned ourselves, as we must, and
made what we could of the nearest prison barrack, whose door overflowed
and whose windows swarmed with swarthy captives. Here they were, at such
close quarters that their black, eager eyes easily pierced the pockets
full of cigarettes which we had brought for them. They looked mostly
very young, and there was one smiling rogue at the first window who was
obviously prepared to catch anything thrown to him. He caught, in fact,
the first box of cigarettes shied over the stockade; the next box flew
open, and spilled its precious contents outside the dead-line under the
window, where I hope some compassionate guard gathered them up and gave
them to the captives.

Our fellows looked capable of any kindness to their wards short of
letting them go. They were a most friendly company, with an effect of
picnicking there among the sweet-fern and blueberries, where they had
pitched their wooden tents with as little disturbance to the shrubbery as
possible. They were very polite to us, and when, after that misadventure
with the cigarettes (I had put our young leader up to throwing the box,
merely supplying the corpus delicti myself), I wandered vaguely towards a
Gatling gun planted on an earthen platform where the laurel and the
dogroses had been cut away for it, the man in charge explained with a
smile of apology that I must not pass a certain path I had already

One always accepts the apologies of a man with a Gatling gun to back
them, and I retreated. That seemed the end; and we were going
crestfallenly away when the officer of the day came out and allowed us to
make his acquaintance. He permitted us, with laughing reluctance, to
learn that he had been in the fight at Santiago, and had come with the
prisoners, and he was most obligingly sorry that our permit did not let
us into the stockade. I said I had some cigarettes for the prisoners,
and I supposed I might send them; in, but he said he could not allow
this, for they had money to buy tobacco; and he answered another of our
party, who had not a soul above buttons, and who asked if she could get
one from the Spaniards, that so far from promoting her wish, he would
have been obliged to take away any buttons she might have got from them.

"The fact is," he explained, "you've come to the wrong end for
transactions in buttons and tobacco."

But perhaps innocence so great as ours had wrought upon him. When we
said we were going, and thanked him for his unavailing good-will, he
looked at his watch and said they were just going to feed the prisoners;
and after some parley he suddenly called out, "Music of the guard!"
Instead of a regimental band, which I had supposed summoned, a single
corporal ran out the barracks, touching his cap.

"Take this party round to the gate," the officer said, and he promised us
that he would see us there, and hoped we would not mind a rough walk. We
could have answered that to see his prisoners fed we would wade through
fathoms of red-tape; but in fact we were arrested at the last point by
nothing worse than the barbed wire which fortified the outer gate. Here
two marines were willing to tell us how well the prisoners lived, while
we stared into the stockade through an inner gate of plank which was run
back for us. They said the Spaniards had a breakfast of coffee, and hash
or stew and potatoes, and a dinner of soup and roast; and now at five
o'clock they were to have bread and coffee, which indeed we saw the
white-capped, whitejacketed cooks bringing out in huge tin wash-boilers.
Our marines were of opinion, and no doubt rightly, that these poor
Spaniards had never known in their lives before what it was to have full
stomachs. But the marines said they never acknowledged it, and the one
who had a German accent intimated that gratitude was not a virtue of any
Roman (I suppose he meant Latin) people. But I do not know that if I
were a prisoner, for no fault of my own, I should be very explicitly
thankful for being unusually well fed. I thought (or I think now) that a
fig or a bunch of grapes would have been more acceptable to me under my
own vine and fig-tree than the stew and roast of captors who were indeed
showing themselves less my enemies than my own government, but were still
not quite my hosts.


How is it the great pieces of good luck fall to us? The clock strikes
twelve as it strikes two, and with no more premonition. As we stood
there expecting nothing better of it than three at the most, it suddenly
struck twelve. Our officer appeared at the inner gate and bade our
marines slide away the gate of barbed wire and let us into the enclosure,
where he welcomed us to seats on the grass against the stockade, with
many polite regrets that the tough little knots of earth beside it were
not chairs.

The prisoners were already filing out of their quarters, at a rapid trot
towards the benches where those great wash-boilers of coffee were set.
Each man had a soup-plate and bowl of enamelled tin, and each in his turn
received quarter of a loaf of fresh bread and a big ladleful of steaming
coffee, which he made off with to his place at one of the long tables
under a shed at the side of the stockade. One young fellow tried to get
a place not his own in the shade, and our officer when he came back
explained that he was a guerrillero, and rather unruly. We heard that
eight of the prisoners were in irons, by sentence of their own officers,
for misconduct, but all save this guerrillero here were docile and
obedient enough, and seemed only too glad to get peacefully at their
bread and coffee.

First among them came the men of the Cristobal Colon, and these were the
best looking of all the captives. From their pretty fair average the
others varied to worse and worse, till a very scrub lot, said to be ex-
convicts, brought up the rear. They were nearly all little fellows, and
very dark, though here and there a six-footer towered up, or a blond
showed among them. They were joking and laughing together, harmlessly
enough, but I must own that they looked a crew of rather sorry jail-
birds; though whether any run of humanity clad in misfits of our navy
blue and white, and other chance garments, with close-shaven heads, and
sometimes bare feet, would have looked much less like jail-birds I am not
sure. Still, they were not prepossessing, and though some of them were
pathetically young, they had none of the charm of boyhood. No doubt they
did not do themselves justice, and to be herded there like cattle did not
improve their chances of making a favorable impression on the observer.
They were kindly used by our officer and his subordinates, who mixed
among them, and straightened out the confusion they got into at times,
and perhaps sometimes wilfully. Their guards employed a few handy words
of Spanish with them; where these did not avail, they took them by the
arm and directed them; but I did not hear a harsh tone, and I saw no
violence, or even so much indignity offered them as the ordinary trolley-
car passenger is subjected to in Broadway. At a certain bugle-call they
dispersed, when they had finished their bread and coffee, and scattered
about over the grass, or returned to their barracks. We were told that
these children of the sun dreaded its heat, and kept out of it whenever
they could, even in its decline; but they seemed not so much to withdraw
and hide themselves from that, as to vanish into the history of "old,
unhappy, far-off" times, where prisoners of war, properly belong. I
roused myself with a start as if I had lost them in the past.

Our officer came towards us and said gayly, "Well, you have seen the
animals fed," and let us take our grateful leave. I think we were rather
a loss, in our going, to the marines, who seemed glad of a chance to
talk. I am sure we were a loss to the man on guard at the inner gate,
who walked his beat with reluctance when it took him from us, and eagerly
when it brought him back. Then he delayed for a rapid and comprehensive
exchange of opinions and ideas, successfully blending military
subordination with American equality in his manner.

The whole thing was very American in the perfect decorum and the utter
absence of ceremony. Those good fellows were in the clothes they wore
through the fights at Santiago, and they could not have put on much
splendor if they had wished, but apparently they did not wish. They were
simple, straightforward, and adequate. There was some dry joking about
the superiority of the prisoners' rations and lodgings, and our officer
ironically professed his intention of messing with the Spanish officers.
But there was no grudge, and not a shadow of ill will, or of that stupid
and atrocious hate towards the public enemy which abominable newspapers
and politicians had tried to breed in the popular mind. There was
nothing manifest but a sort of cheerful purpose to live up to that
military ideal of duty which is so much nobler than the civil ideal of
self-interest. Perhaps duty will yet become the civil ideal, when the
peoples shall have learned to live for the common good, and are united
for the operation of the industries as they now are for the hostilities.


Shall I say that a sense of something domestic, something homelike,
imparted itself from what I had seen? Or was this more properly an
effect from our visit, on the way back to the hospital, where a hundred
and fifty of the prisoners lay sick of wounds and fevers? I cannot say
that a humaner spirit prevailed here than in the camp; it was only a more
positive humanity which was at work. Most of the sufferers were
stretched on the clean cots of two long, airy, wooden shells, which
received them, four days after the orders for their reception had come,
with every equipment for their comfort. At five o'clock, when we passed
down the aisles between their beds, many of them had a gay, nonchalant
effect of having toothpicks or cigarettes in their mouths; but it was
really the thermometers with which the nurses were taking their
temperature. It suggested a possibility to me, however, and I asked if
they were allowed to smoke, and being answered that they did smoke,
anyway, whenever they could, I got rid at last of those boxes of
cigarettes which had been burning my pockets, as it were, all afternoon.
I gave them to such as I was told were the most deserving among the sick
captives, but Heaven knows I would as willingly have given them to the
least. They took my largesse gravely, as became Spaniards; one said,
smiling sadly, "Muchas gracias," but the others merely smiled sadly; and
I looked in vain for the response which would have twinkled up in the
faces of even moribund Italians at our looks of pity. Italians would
have met our sympathy halfway; but these poor fellows were of another
tradition, and in fact not all the Latin peoples are the same, though we
sometimes conveniently group them together for our detestation. Perhaps
there are even personal distinctions among their several nationalities,
and there are some Spaniards who are as true and kind as some Americans.
When we remember Cortez let us not forget Las Casas.

They lay in their beds there, these little Spanish men, whose dark faces
their sickness could not blanch to more than a sickly sallow, and as they
turned their dull black eyes upon us I must own that I could not "support
the government" so fiercely as I might have done elsewhere. But the
truth is, I was demoralized by the looks of these poor little men, who,
in spite of their character of public enemies, did look so much like
somebody's brothers, and even somebody's children. I may have been
infected by the air of compassion, of scientific compassion, which
prevailed in the place. There it was as wholly business to be kind and
to cure as in another branch of the service it was business to be cruel
and to kill. How droll these things are! The surgeons had their
favorites among the patients, to all of whom they were equally devoted;
inarticulate friendships had sprung up between them and certain of their
hapless foes, whom they spoke of as "a sort of pets." One of these was
very useful in making the mutinous take their medicine; another was liked
apparently because he was so likable. At a certain cot the chief surgeon
stopped and said, "We did not expect this boy to live through the night."
He took the boy's wrist between his thumb and finger, and asked tenderly
as he leaned over him, "Poco mejor?" The boy could not speak to say that
he was a little better; he tried to smile--such things do move the
witness; nor does the sight of a man whose bandaged cheek has been half
chopped away by a machete tend to restore one's composure.

LITERATURE AND LIFE--American Literary Centers

by William Dean Howells


One of the facts which we Americans have a difficulty in making clear to
a rather inattentive world outside is that, while we have apparently a
literature of our own, we have no literary centre. We have so much
literature that from time to time it seems even to us we must have a
literary centre. We say to ourselves, with a good deal of logic, Where
there is so much smoke there must be some fire, or at least a fireplace.
But it is just here that, misled by tradition, and even by history, we
deceive ourselves. Really, we have no fireplace for such fire as we have
kindled; or, if any one is disposed to deny this, then I say, we have a
dozen fireplaces; which is quite as bad, so far as the notion of a
literary centre is concerned, if it is not worse.

I once proved this fact to my own satisfaction in some papers which I
wrote several years ago; but it appears, from a question which has lately
come to me from England, that I did not carry conviction quite so far as
that island; and I still have my work all before me, if I understand the
London friend who wishes "a comparative view of the centres of literary
production" among us; "how and why they change; how they stand at
present; and what is the relation, for instance, of Boston to other such


Here, if I cut my coat according to my cloth, t should have a garment
which this whole volume would hardly stuff out with its form; and I have
a fancy that if I begin by answering, as I have sometimes rather too
succinctly done, that we have no more a single literary centre than Italy
or than Germany has (or had before their unification), I shall not be
taken at my word. I shall be right, all the same, and if I am told that
in those countries there is now a tendency to such a centre, I can only
say that there is none in this, and that, so far as I can see, we get
further every day from having such a centre. The fault, if it is a
fault, grows upon us, for the whole present tendency of American life is
centrifugal, and just so far as literature is the language of our life,
it shares this tendency. I do not attempt to say how it will be when, in
order to spread ourselves over the earth, and convincingly to preach the
blessings of our deeply incorporated civilization by the mouths of our
eight-inch guns, the mind of the nation shall be politically centred at
some capital; that is the function of prophecy, and I am only writing
literary history, on a very small scale, with a somewhat crushing sense
of limits.

Once, twice, thrice there was apparently an American literary centre: at
Philadelphia, from the time Franklin went to live there until the death
of Charles Brockden Brown, our first romancer; then at New York, during
the period which may be roughly described as that of Irving, Poe, Willis,
and Bryant; then at Boston, for the thirty or forty years illumined by
the presence of Longfellow, Lowell, Whittier, Hawthorne, Emerson, Holmes,
Prescott, Parkman, and many lesser lights. These are all still great
publishing centres. If it were not that the house with the largest list
of American authors was still at Boston, I should say New York was now
the chief publishing centre; but in the sense that London and Paris, or
even Madrid and Petersburg, are literary centres, with a controlling
influence throughout England and France, Spain and Russia, neither New
York nor Boston is now our literary centre, whatever they may once have
been. Not to take Philadelphia too seriously, I may note that when New
York seemed our literary centre Irving alone among those who gave it
lustre was a New-Yorker, and he mainly lived abroad; Bryant, who was a
New Englander, was alone constant to the city of his adoption; Willis, a
Bostonian, and Poe, a Marylander, went and came as their poverty or their
prosperity compelled or invited; neither dwelt here unbrokenly, and Poe
did not even die here, though he often came near starving. One cannot
then strictly speak of any early American literary centre except Boston,
and Boston, strictly speaking, was the New England literary centre.

However, we had really no use for an American literary centre before the
Civil War, for it was only after the Civil War that we really began to
have an American literature. Up to that time we had a Colonial
literature, a Knickerbocker literature, and a New England literature.
But as soon as the country began to feel its life in every limb with the
coming of peace, it began to speak in the varying accents of all the
different sections--North, East, South, West, and Farthest West; but not
before that time.


Perhaps the first note of this national concord, or discord, was sounded
from California, in the voices of Mr. Bret Harte, of Mark Twain, of Mr.
Charles Warren Stoddard (I am sorry for those who do not know his
beautiful Idyls of the South Seas), and others of the remarkable group of
poets and humorists whom these names must stand for. The San Francisco
school briefly flourished from 1867 till 1872 or so, and while it endured
it made San Francisco the first national literary centre we ever had, for
its writers were of every American origin except Californian.

After the Pacific Slope, the great Middle West found utterance in the
dialect verse of Mr. John Hay, and after that began the exploitation of
all the local parlances, which has sometimes seemed to stop, and then has
begun again. It went on in the South in the fables of Mr. Joel Chandler
Harris's Uncle Remus, and in the fiction of Miss Murfree, who so long
masqueraded as Charles Egbert Craddock. Louisiana found expression in
the Creole stories of Mr. G. W. Cable, Indiana in the Hoosier poems of
Mr. James Whitcomb Riley, and central New York in the novels of Mr.
Harold Frederic; but nowhere was the new impulse so firmly and finely
directed as in New England, where Miss Sarah Orne Jewett's studies of
country life antedated Miss Mary Wilkins's work. To be sure, the
portrayal of Yankee character began before either of these artists was
known; Lowell's Bigelow Papers first reflected it; Mrs. Stowe's Old Town
Stories caught it again and again; Mrs. Harriet Prescott Spofford, in her
unromantic moods, was of an excellent fidelity to it; and Mrs. Rose Terry
Cooke was even truer to the New England of Connecticut. With the later
group Mrs. Lily Chase Wyman has pictured Rhode Island work-life with
truth pitiless to the beholder, and full of that tender humanity for the
material which characterizes Russian fiction.

Mr. James Lane Allen has let in the light upon Kentucky; the Red Men and
White of the great plains have found their interpreter in Mr. Owen
Wister, a young Philadelphian witness of their dramatic conditions and
characteristics; Mr. Hamlin Garlafid had already expressed the sad
circumstances of the rural Northwest in his pathetic idyls, colored from
the experience of one who had been part of what he saw. Later came Mr.
Henry B. Fuller, and gave us what was hardest and most sordid, as well as
something of what was most touching and most amusing, in the burly-burly
of Chicago.


A survey of this sort imparts no just sense of the facts, and I own that
I am impatient of merely naming authors and books that each tempt me to
an expansion far beyond the limits of this essay; for, if I may be so
personal, I have watched the growth of our literature in Americanism with
intense sympathy. In my poor way I have always liked the truth, and in
times past I am afraid that I have helped to make it odious to those who
believed beauty was something different; but I hope that I shall not now
be doing our decentralized literature a disservice by saying that its
chief value is its honesty, its fidelity to our decentralized life.
Sometimes I wish this were a little more constant; but upon the whole I
have no reason to complain; and I think that as a very interested
spectator of New York I have reason to be content with the veracity with
which some phases of it have been rendered. The lightning-or the flash-
light, to speak more accurately--has been rather late in striking this
ungainly metropolis, but it has already got in its work with notable
effect at some points. This began, I believe, with the local dramas of
Mr. Edward Harrigan, a species of farces, or sketches of character,
loosely hung together, with little sequence or relevancy, upon the thread
of a plot which would keep the stage for two or three hours. It was very
rough magic, as a whole, but in parts it was exquisite, and it held the
mirror up towards politics on their social and political side, and gave
us East-Side types--Irish, German, negro, and Italian--which were
instantly recognizable and deliciously satisfying. I never could
understand why Mr. Harrigan did not go further, but perhaps he had gone
far enough; and, at any rate, he left the field open for others. The
next to appear noticeably in it was Mr. Stephen Crane, whose Red Badge of
Courage wronged the finer art which he showed in such New York studies as
Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, and George's Mother. He has been followed
by Abraham Cahan, a Russian Hebrew, who has done portraits of his race
and nation with uncommon power. They are the very Russian Hebrews of
Hester Street translated from their native Yiddish into English, which
the author mastered after coming here in his early manhood. He brought
to his work the artistic qualities of both the Slav and the Jew, and in
his 'Jekl: A Story of the Ghetto', he gave proof of talent which his more
recent book of sketches--'The Imported Bride groom'--confirms. He sees
his people humorously, and he is as unsparing of their sordidness as he
is compassionate of their hard circumstance and the somewhat frowsy
pathos of their lives. He is a Socialist, but his fiction is wholly
without "tendentiousness."

A good many years ago--ten or twelve, at least--Mr. Harry Harland had
shown us some politer New York Jews, with a romantic coloring, though
with genuine feeling for the novelty and picturesqueness of his material;
but I do not think of any one who has adequately dealt with our Gentile
society. Mr. James has treated it historically in Washington Square, and
more modernly in some passages of The Bostonians, as well as in some of
his shorter stories; Mr. Edgar Fawcett has dealt with it intelligently
and authoritatively in a novel or two; and Mr. Brander Matthews has
sketched it, in this aspect, and that with his Gallic cleverness,
neatness, and point. In the novel, 'His Father's Son', he in fact faces
it squarely and renders certain forms of it with masterly skill. He has
done something more distinctive still in 'The Action and the Word', one
of the best American stories I know. But except for these writers, our
literature has hardly taken to New York society.


It is an even thing: New York society has not taken to our literature.
New York publishes it, criticises it, and circulates it, but I doubt if
New York society much reads it or cares for it, and New York is therefore
by no means the literary centre that Boston once was, though a large
number of our literary men live in or about New York. Boston, in my time
at least, had distinctly a literary atmosphere, which more or less
pervaded society; but New York has distinctly nothing of the kind, in any
pervasive sense. It is a vast mart, and literature is one of the things
marketed here; but our good society cares no more for it than for some
other products bought and sold here; it does not care nearly so much for
books as for horses or for stocks, and I suppose it is not unlike the
good society of any other metropolis in this. To the general, here,
journalism is a far more appreciable thing than literature, and has
greater recognition, for some very good reasons; but in Boston literature
had vastly more honor, and even more popular recognition, than
journalism. There journalism desired to be literary, and here literature
has to try hard not to be journalistic. If New York is a literary centre
on the business side, as London is, Boston was a literary centre, as
Weimar was, and as Edinburgh was. It felt literature, as those capitals
felt it, and if it did not love it quite so much as might seem, it always
respected it.

To be quite clear in what I wish to say of the present relation of Boston
to our other literary centres, I must repeat that we have now no such
literary centre as Boston was. Boston itself has perhaps outgrown the
literary consciousness which formerly distinguished it from all our other
large towns. In a place of nearly a million people (I count in the
outlying places) newspapers must be more than books; and that alone says

Mr. Aldrich once noticed that whenever an author died in Boston, the New-
Yorkers thought they had a literary centre; and it is by some such means
that the primacy has passed from Boston, even if it has not passed to New
York. But still there is enough literature left in the body at Boston to
keep her first among equals in some things, if not easily first in all.

Mr. Aldrich himself lives in Boston, and he is, with Mr. Stedman, the
foremost of our poets. At Cambridge live Colonel T. W. Higginson, an
essayist in a certain sort without rival among us; and Mr. William James,
the most interesting and the most literary of psychologists, whose repute
is European as well as American. Mr. Charles Eliot Norton alone survives
of the earlier Cambridge group--Longfellow, Lowell, Richard Henry Dana,
Louis Agassiz, Francis J. Child, and Henry James, the father of the
novelist and the psychologist.

To Boston Mr. James Ford Rhodes, the latest of our abler historians, has
gone from Ohio; and there Mr. Henry Cabot Lodge, the Massachusetts
Senator, whose work in literature is making itself more and more known,
was born and belongs, politically, socially, and intellectually. Mrs.
Julia Ward Howe, a poet of wide fame in an elder generation, lives there;
Mr. T. B. Aldrich lives there; and thereabouts live Mrs. Elizabeth Stuart
Phelps Ward and Mrs. Harriet Prescott Spofford, the first of a fame
beyond the last, who was known to us so long before her. Then at Boston,
or near Boston, live those artists supreme in the kind of short story
which we have carried so far: Miss Jewett, Miss Wilkins, Miss Alice
Brown, Mrs. Chase-Wyman, and Miss Gertrude Smith, who comes from Kansas,
and writes of the prairie farm-life, though she leaves Mr. E. W. Howe
(of 'The Story of a Country Town' and presently of the Atchison Daily
Globe) to constitute, with the humorous poet Ironquill, a frontier
literary centre at Topeka. Of Boston, too, though she is of western
Pennsylvania origin, is Mrs. Margaret Deland, one of our most successful
novelists. Miss Wilkins has married out of Massachusetts into New
Jersey, and is the neighbor of Mr. H. M. Alden at Metuchen.

All these are more or less embodied and represented in the Atlantic
Monthly, still the most literary, and in many things still the first of
our magazines. Finally, after the chief publishing house in New York,
the greatest American publishing house is in Boston, with by far the
largest list of the best American books. Recently several firms of
younger vigor and valor have recruited the wasted ranks of the Boston
publishers, and are especially to be noted for the number of rather nice
new poets they give to the light.


Dealing with the question geographically, in the right American way, we
descend to Hartford obliquely by way of Springfield, Massachusetts,
where, in a little city of fifty thousand, a newspaper of metropolitan
influence and of distinctly literary tone is published. At Hartford
while Charles Dudley Warner lived, there was an indisputable literary
centre; Mark Twain lives there no longer, and now we can scarcely count
Hartford among our literary centres, though it is a publishing centre of
much activity in subscription books.

At New Haven, Yale University has latterly attracted Mr. William H.
Bishop, whose novels I always liked for the best reasons, and has long
held Professor J. T. Lounsbury, who is, since Professor Child's death at
Cambridge, our best Chaucer scholar. Mr. Donald G. Mitchell, once
endeared to the whole fickle American public by his Reveries of a
Bachelor and his Dream Life, dwells on the borders of the pleasant town,
which is also the home of Mr. J. W. De Forest, the earliest real American
novelist, and for certain gifts in seeing and telling our life also one
of the greatest.

As to New York (where the imagination may arrive daily from New Haven,
either by a Sound boat or by eight or ten of the swiftest express trains
in the world), I confess I am more and more puzzled. Here abide the
poets, Mr. R. H. Stoddard, Mr. E. C. Stedman, Mr. R. W. Gilder, and many
whom an envious etcetera must hide from view; the fictionists, Mr. R. H.
Davis, Mrs. Kate Douglas Wiggin, Mr. Brander Matthews, Mr. Frank
Hopkinson Smith, Mr. Abraham Cahan, Mr. Frank Norris, and Mr. James Lane
Allen, who has left Kentucky to join the large Southern contingent, which
includes Mrs. Burton Harrison and Mrs. McEnery Stuart; the historians,
Professor William M. Sloane and Dr. Eggleston (reformed from a novelist);
the literary and religious and economic essayists, Mr. Hamilton W.
Mabie, Mr. H. M. Alden, Mr. J. J. Chapman, and Mr. E. L. Godkin, with
critics, dramatists, satirists, magazinists, and journalists of literary
stamp in number to convince the wavering reason against itself that here
beyond all question is the great literary centre of these States. There
is an Authors' Club, which alone includes a hundred and fifty authors,
and, if you come to editors, there is simply no end. Magazines are
published here and circulated hence throughout the land by millions; and
books by the ton are the daily output of our publishers, who are the
largest in the country.

If these things do not mean a great literary centre, it would be hard to
say what does; and I am not going to try for a reason against such facts.
It is not quality that is wanting, but perhaps it is the quantity of the
quality; there is leaven, but not for so large a lump. It may be that
New York is going to be our literary centre, as London is the literary
centre of England, by gathering into itself all our writing talent, but
it has by no means done this yet. What we can say is that more authors
come here from the West and South than go elsewhere; but they often stay
at home, and I fancy very wisely. Mr. Joel Chandler Harris stays at
Atlanta, in Georgia; Mr. James Whitcomb Riley stays at Indianapolis; Mr.
Maurice Thompson spent his whole literary life, and General Lew. Wallace
still lives at Crawfordsville, Indiana; Mr. Madison Cawein stays at
Louisville, Kentucky; Miss Murfree stays at St. Louis, Missouri; Francis
R. Stockton spent the greater part of the year at his place in West
Virginia, and came only for the winter months to New York; Mr. Edward
Bellamy, until his failing health exiled him to the Far West, remained at
Chicopee, Massachusetts; and I cannot think of one of these writers whom
it would have advantaged in any literary wise to dwell in New York. He
would not have found greater incentive than at home; and in society he
would not have found that literary tone which all society had, or wished
to have, in Boston when Boston was a great town and not yet a big town.

In fact, I doubt if anywhere in the world there was ever so much taste
and feeling for literature as there was in that Boston. At Edinburgh (as
I imagine it) there was a large and distinguished literary class, and at
Weimar there was a cultivated court circle; but in Boston there was not
only such a group of authors as we shall hardly see here again for
hundreds of years, but there was such regard for them and their calling,
not only in good society, but among the extremely well-read people of the
whole intelligent city, as hardly another community has shown. New York,
I am quite sure, never was such a centre, and I see no signs that it ever
will be. It does not influence the literature of the whole country as
Boston once did through writers whom all the young writers wished to
resemble; it does not give the law, and it does not inspire the love that
literary Boston inspired. There is no ideal that it represents.

A glance at the map of the Union will show how very widely our smaller
literary centres are scattered; and perhaps it will be useful in
following me to other more populous literary centres. Dropping southward
from New York, now, we find ourselves in a literary centre of importance
at Philadelphia, since that is the home of Mr. J. B. McMasters, the
historian of the American people; of Mr. Owen Wister, whose fresh and
vigorous work I have mentioned; and of Dr. Weir Mitchell, a novelist of
power long known to the better public, and now recognized by the larger
in the immense success of his historical romance, Hugh Wynne.

If I skip Baltimore, I may ignore a literary centre of great promise, but
while I do not forget the excellent work of Johns Hopkins University in
training men for the solider literature of the future, no Baltimore names
to conjure with occur to me at the moment; and we must really get on to
Washington. This, till he became ambassador at the Court of St. James,
was the home of Mr. John Hay, a poet whose biography of Lincoln must rank
him with the historians, and whose public service as Secretary of State
classes him high among statesmen. He blotted out one literary centre at
Cleveland, Ohio, when he removed to Washington, and Mr. Thomas Nelson
Page another at Richmond, Virginia, when he came to the national capital.
Mr. Paul Dunbar, the first negro poet to divine and utter his race,
carried with him the literary centre of Dayton, Ohio, when he came to be
an employee in the Congressional Library; and Mr. Charles Warren
Stoddard, in settling at Washington as Professor of Literature in the
Catholic University, brought somewhat indirectly away with him the last
traces of the old literary centre at San Francisco.

A more recent literary centre in the Californian metropolis went to
pieces when Mr. Gelett Burgess came to New York and silenced the 'Lark',
a bird of as new and rare a note as ever made itself heard in this air;
but since he has returned to California, there is hope that the literary
centre may form itself there again. I do not know whether Mrs. Charlotte
Perkins Stetson wrecked a literary centre in leaving Los Angeles or not.
I am sure only that she has enriched the literary centre of New York by
the addition of a talent in sociological satire which would be
extraordinary even if it were not altogether unrivalled among us.

Could one say too much of the literary centre at Chicago? I fancy, yes;
or too much, at least, for the taste of the notable people who constitute
it. In Mr. Henry B. Fuller we have reason to hope, from what he has
already done, an American novelist of such greatness that he may well
leave being the great American novelist to any one who likes taking that
role. Mr. Hamlin Garland is another writer of genuine and original gift
who centres at Chicago; and Mrs. Mary Catherwood has made her name well
known in romantic fiction. Miss Edith Wyatt is a talent, newly known, of
the finest quality in minor fiction; Mr. Robert Herrick, Mr. Will Payne
in their novels, and Mr. George Ade and Mr. Peter Dump in their satires
form with those named a group not to be matched elsewhere in the country.
It would be hard to match among our critical journals the 'Dial' of
Chicago; and with a fair amount of publishing in a sort of books often as
good within as they are uncommonly pretty without, Chicago has a claim to
rank with our first literary centres.

It is certainly to be reckoned not so very far below London, which, with
Mr. Henry James, Mr. Harry Harland, and Mr. Bret Harte, seems to me an
American literary centre worthy to be named with contemporary Boston.
Which is our chief literary centre, however, I am not, after all, ready
to say. When I remember Mr. G. W. Cable, at Northampton, Massachusetts,
I am shaken in all my preoccupations; when I think of Mark Twain, it
seems to me that our greatest literary centre is just now at Riverdale-


Leaven, but not for so large a lump
Mark Twain
Not lack of quality but quantity of the quality
Our deeply incorporated civilization

LITERATURE AND LIFE--The Standard Household-Effect Company

by William Dean Howells


My friend came in the other day, before we had left town, and looked
round at the appointments of the room in their summer shrouds, and said,
with a faint sigh, "I see you have had the eternal-womanly with you,


"Isn't the eternal-womanly everywhere? What has happened to you?"
I asked.

"I wish you would come to my house and see. Every rug has been up for a
month, and we have been living on bare floors. Everything that could be
tied up has been tied up, everything that could be sewed up has been
sewed up. Everything that could be moth-balled and put away in chests
has been moth-balled and put away. Everything that could be taken down
has been taken down. Bags with draw-strings at their necks have been
pulled over the chandeliers and tied. The pictures have been hidden in
cheese-cloth, and the mirrors veiled in gauze so that I cannot see my own
miserable face anywhere."

"Come! That's something."

"Yes, it's something. But I have been thinking this matter over very
seriously, and I believe it is going from bad to worse. I have heard
praises of the thorough housekeeping of our grandmothers, but the
housekeeping of their granddaughters is a thousand times more intense."

"Do you really believe that?" I asked. "And if you do, what of it?"

"Simply this, that if we don't put a stop to it, at the gait it's going,
it will put a stop to the eternal-womanly."

"I suppose we should hate that."

"Yes, it would be bad. It would be very bad; and I have been turning the
matter over in my mind, and studying out a remedy."

"The highest type of philosopher turns a thing over in his mind and lets
some one else study out a remedy."

"Yes, I know. I feel that I may be wrong in my processes, but I am sure
that I am right in my results. The reason why our grandmothers could be
such good housekeepers without danger of putting a stop to the eternal-
womanly was that they had so few things to look after in their houses.
Life was indefinitely simpler with them. But the modern improvements,
as we call them, have multiplied the cares of housekeeping without
subtracting its burdens, as they were expected to do. Every novel
convenience and comfort, every article of beauty and luxury, every means
of refinement and enjoyment in our houses, has been so much added to the
burdens of housekeeping, and the granddaughters have inherited from the
grandmothers an undiminished conscience against rust and the moth, which
will not suffer them to forget the least duty they owe to the naughtiest
of their superfluities."

"Yes, I see what you mean," I said. This is what one usually says when
one does not quite know what another is driving at; but in this case I
really did know, or thought I did. "That survival of the conscience is a
very curious thing, especially in our eternal-womanly. I suppose that
the North American conscience was evolved from the rudimental European
conscience during the first centuries of struggle here, and was more or
less religious and economical in its origin. But with the advance of
wealth and the decay of faith among us, the conscience seems to be simply
conscientious, or, if it is otherwise, it is social. The eternal-womanly
continues along the old lines of housekeeping from an atavistic impulse,
and no one woman can stop because all the other women are going on. It
is something in the air, or something in the blood. Perhaps it is
something in both."

"Yes," said my friend, quite as I had said already, "I see what you mean.
But I think it is in the air more than in the blood. I was in Paris,
about this time last year, perhaps because I was the only thing in my
house that had not been swathed in cheese-cloth, or tied up in a bag with
drawstrings, or rolled up with moth-balls and put away in chests. At any
rate, I was there. One day I left my wife in New York carefully tagging
three worn-out feather dusters, and putting them into a pillow-case, and
tagging it, and putting the pillow-case into a camphorated self-sealing
paper sack, and tagging it; and another day I was in Paris, dining at the
house of a lady whom I asked how she managed with the things in her house
when she went into the country for the summer. 'Leave them just as they
are,' she said. 'But what about the dust and the moths, and the rust and
the tarnish?' She said, 'Why, the things would have to be all gone over
when I came back in the autumn, anyway, and why should I give myself
double trouble?' I asked her if she didn't even roll anything up and put
it away in closets, and she said: 'Oh, you mean that old American horror
of getting ready to go away. I used to go through all that at home, too,
but I shouldn't dream of it here. In the first place, there are no
closets in the house, and I couldn't put anything away if I wanted to.
And really nothing happens. I scatter some Persian powder along the
edges of things, and under the lower shelves, and in the dim corners, and
I pull down the shades. When I come back in the fall I have the powder
swept out, and the shades pulled up, and begin living again. Suppose a
little dust has got in, and the moths have nibbled a little here and
there? The whole damage would not amount to half the cost of putting
everything away and taking everything out, not to speak of the weeks of
discomfort, and the wear and tear of spirit. No, thank goodness--I left
American housekeeping in America.' I asked her: 'But if you went back?'
and she gave a sigh, and said:

"'I suppose I should go back to that, along with all the rest. Everybody
does it there.' So you see," my friend concluded, "it's in the air,
rather than the blood."

"Then your famous specific is that our eternal-womanly should go and live
in Paris?"

"Oh, dear, not" said my friend. "Nothing so drastic as all that. Merely
the extinction of household property."

"I see what you mean," I said. "But--what do you mean?"

"Simply that hired houses, such as most of us live in, shall all be
furnished houses, and that the landlord shall own every stick in them,
and every appliance down to the last spoon and ultimate towel. There
must be no compromise, by which the tenant agrees to provide his own
linen and silver; that would neutralize the effect I intend by the
expropriation of the personal proprietor, if that says what I mean. It
must be in the lease, with severe penalties against the tenant in case of
violation, that the landlord into furnish everything in perfect order
when the tenant comes in, and is to put everything in perfect order when
the tenant goes out, and the tenant is not to touch anything, to clean
it, or dust it, or roll it up in moth-balls and put it away in chests.
All is to be so sacredly and inalienably the property of the landlord
that it shall constitute a kind of trespass if the tenant attempts to
close the house for the summer or to open it for the winter in the usual
way that houses are now closed and opened. Otherwise my scheme would be
measurably vitiated."

"I see what you mean," I murmured. "Well?"

"Some years ago," my friend went on, "when we came home from Europe, we
left our furniture in storage for a time, while we rather drifted about,
and did not settle anywhere in particular. During that interval my wife
opened and closed five furnished houses in two years."

"And she has lived to tell the tale?"

"She has lived to tell it a great many times. She can hardly be kept
from telling it yet. But it is my belief that, although she brought to
the work all the anguish of a quickened conscience, under the influence
of the American conditions she had returned to, she suffered far less in
her encounters with either of those furnished houses than she now does
with our own furniture when she shuts up our house in the summer, and
opens it for the winter. But if there had been a clause in the lease, as
there should have been, forbidding her to put those houses in order when
she left them, life would have been simply a rapture. Why, in Europe
custom almost supplies the place of statute in such cases, and you come
and go so lightly in and out of furnished houses that you do not mind
taking them for a month, or a few weeks. We are very far behind in this
matter, but I have no doubt that if we once came to do it on any extended
scale we should do it, as we do everything else we attempt, more
perfectly than any other people in the world. You see what I mean?"

"I am not sure that I do. But go on."

"I would invert the whole Henry George principle, and I would tax
personal property of the household kind so heavily that it would
necessarily pass out of private hands; I would make its tenure so costly
that it would be impossible to any but the very rich, who are also the
very wicked, and ought to suffer."

"Oh, come, now!"

"I refer you to your Testament. In the end, all household property would
pass into the hands of the state."

"Aren't you getting worse and worse?"

"Oh, I'm not supposing there won't be a long interval when household
property will be in the hands of powerful monopolies, and many
millionaires will be made by letting it out to middle-class tenants like
you and me, along with the houses we hire of them. I have no doubt that
there will be a Standard Household-Effect Company, which will extend its
relations to Europe, and get the household effects of the whole world
into its grasp. It will be a fearful oppression, and we shall probably
groan under it for generations, but it will liberate us from our personal
ownership of them, and from the far more crushing weight of the moth-
ball. We shall suffer, but--"

"I see what you mean," I hastened to interrupt at this point, "but these
suggestive remarks of yours are getting beyond--Do you think you could
defer the rest of your incompleted sentence for a week?"

"Well, for not more than a week," said my friend, with an air of
discomfort in his arrest.


--"We shall not suffer so much as we do under our present system," said
my friend, completing his sentence after the interruption of a week. By
this time we had both left town, and were taking up the talk again on the
veranda of a sea-side hotel. "As for the eternal-womanly, it will be her
salvation from herself. When once she is expropriated from her household
effects, and forbidden under severe penalties from meddling with those of
the Standard Household-Effect Company, she will begin to get back her
peace of mind, and be the same blessing she was before she began

"That may all very well be," I assented, though I did not believe it, and
I found something almost too fantastical in my friend's scheme. "But
when we are expropriated from all our dearest belongings, what is to
become of our tender and sacred associations with them?"

"What has become of devotion to the family gods, and the worship of
ancestors? Once the graves of the dead were at the door of the living,
so that libations might be conveniently poured out on them, and the
ground where they lay was inalienable because it was supposed to be used
by their spirits as well as their bodies. A man could not sell the
bones, because he could not sell the ghosts, of his kindred. By-and by,
when religion ceased to be domestic and became social, and the service of
the gods was carried on in temples common to all, it was found that the
tombs of one's forefathers could be sold without violence to their
spectres. I dare say it wouldn't be different in the case of our tender
and sacred associations with tables and chairs, pots and pans, beds and
bedding, pictures and bric-a-brac. We have only to evolve a little
further. In fact we have already evolved far beyond the point that
troubles you. Most people in modern towns and cities have changed their
domiciles from ten to twenty times during their lives, and have not paid
the slightest attention to the tender and sacred associations connected
with them. I don't suppose you would say that a man has no such
associations with the house that has sheltered him, while he has them
with the stuff that has furnished it?"

"No, I shouldn't say that."

"If anything, the house should be dearer than the household gear. Yet at
each remove we drag a lengthening chain of tables, chairs, side-boards,
portraits, landscapes, bedsteads, washstands, stoves, kitchen utensils,
and bric-a-brac after us, because, as my wife says, we cannot bear to
part with them. At several times in our own lives we have accumulated
stuff enough to furnish two or three house and have paid a pretty stiff
house-rent in the form of storage for the overflow. Why, I am doing that
very thing now! Aren't you?"

"I am--in a certain degree," I assented.

"We all are, we well-to-do people, as we think ourselves. Once my wife
and I revolted by a common impulse against the ridiculous waste and
slavery of the thing. We went to the storage warehouse and sent three or
four vanloads of the rubbish to the auctioneer. Some of the pieces we
had not seen for years, and as each was hauled out for us to inspect and
decide upon, we condemned it to the auction-block with shouts of
rejoicing. Tender and sacred associations! We hadn't had such light
hearts since we had put everything in storage and gone to Europe
indefinitely as we had when we left those things to be carted out of our
lives forever. Not one had been a pleasure to us; the sight of every one
had been a pang. All we wanted was never to set eyes on them again."

"I must say you have disposed of the tender and sacred associations
pretty effectually, so far as they relate to things in storage. But the
things that we have in daily use?"

"It is exactly the same with them. Why should they be more to us than
the floors and walls of the houses we move in and move out of with no
particular pathos? And I think we ought not to care for them, certainly
not to the point of letting them destroy our eternal-womanly with the
anxiety she feels for them. She is really much more precious, if she
could but realize it, than anything she swathes in cheese-cloth or wraps
up with moth-balls. The proof of the fact that the whole thing is a
piece of mere sentimentality is that we may live in a furnished house for
years, amid all the accidents of birth and death, joy and sorrow, and yet
not form the slightest attachment to the furniture. Why should we have
tender and sacred associations with a thing we have bought, and not with
a thing we have hired?"

"I confess, I don't know. And do you really think we could liberate
ourselves from our belongings if they didn't belong to us? Wouldn't the
eternal-womanly still keep putting them away for summer and taking them
out for winter?"

"At first, yes, there might be some such mechanical action in her; but it
would be purely mechanical, and it would soon cease. When the Standard
Household-Effect Company came down on the temporal-manly with a penalty
for violation of the lease, the eternal-womanly would see the folly of
her ways and stop; for the eternal-womanly is essentially economical,
whatever we say about the dressmaker's bills; and the very futilities of
putting away and taking out, that she now wears herself to a thread with,
are founded in the instinct of saving."

"But," I asked, "wouldn't our household belongings lose a good deal of
character if they didn't belong to us? Wouldn't our domestic interiors
become dreadfully impersonal?"

"How many houses now have character-personality? Most people let the
different dealers choose for them, as it is. Why not let the Standard
Household-Effect Company, and finally the state? I am sure that either
would choose much more wisely than people choose for themselves, in the
few cases where they even seem to choose for themselves. In most
interiors the appointments are without fitness, taste, or sense; they are
the mere accretions of accident in the greater number of cases; where
they are the result of design, they are worse. I see what you mean by
character and personality in them. You mean the sort of madness that let
itself loose a few years ago in what was called household art, and has
since gone to make the junk-shops hideous. Each of the eternal-womanly
was supposed suddenly to have acquired a talent for decoration and a gift
for the selection and arrangement of furniture, and each began to stamp
herself upon our interiors. One painted a high-shouldered stone bottle
with a stork and stood it at the right corner of the mantel on a scarf;
another gilded the bottle and stood it at the left corner, and tied the
scarf through its handle. One knotted a ribbon around the arm of a
chair; another knotted it around the leg. In a day, an hour, a moment,
the chairs suddenly became angular, cushionless, springless; and the
sofas were stood across corners, or parallel with the fireplace, in
slants expressive of the personality of the presiding genius. The walls
became all frieze and dado; and instead of the simple and dignified
ugliness of the impersonal period our interiors abandoned themselves to a
hysterical chaos, full of character. Some people had their doors painted
black, and the daughter or mother of the house then decorated them with
morning-glories. I saw such a door in a house I looked at the other day,
thinking I might hire it. The sight of that black door and its morning-
glories made me wish to turn aside and live with the cattle, as Walt
Whitman says. No, the less we try to get personality and character into
our household effects the more beautiful and interesting they will be.
As soon as we put the Standard Household-Effect Company in possession and
render it a relentless monopoly, it will corrupt a competent architect
and decorator in each of our large towns and cities, and when you hire a
new house these will be sent to advise with the eternal-womanly
concerning its appointments, and tell her what she wants, and what she
will like; for at present the eternal womanly, as soon as she has got a
thing she wants, begins to hate it. The company's agents will begin by
convincing her that she does not need half the things she has lumbered up
her house with, and that every useless thing is an ugly thing, even in
the region of pure aesthetics. I once asked an Italian painter if he did
not think a certain nobly imagined drawing-room was fine, and he said
'SI. Ma troppa roba.' There were too many rugs, tables, chairs, sofas,
pictures; vases, statues, chandeliers. 'Troppa roba' is the vice of all
our household furnishing, and it will be the death of the eternal-womanly
if it is not stopped. But the corrupt agents of a giant monopoly will
teach the eternal-womanly something of the wise simplicity of the South,
and she will end by returning to the ideal of housekeeping as it prevails
among the Latin races, whom it began with, whom civilization began with.
What of a harmless, necessary moth or two, or even a few fleas?"

"That might be all very well as far as furniture and carpets and curtains
are concerned," I said, "but surely you wouldn't apply it to pictures and
objects of art?"

"I would apply it to them first of all and above all," rejoined my
friend, hardily. "Among all the people who buy and own such things there
is not one in a thousand who has any real taste or feeling for them, and

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