I suppose you are all dreadfully stirred up about the Harper’s Ferry business.... In some respects, it is the most absurd and laughable event of the age; but I’m sorry for poor crazy Brown.
—w. d. howells to William C. Howells, October 20, 1859
On October 16, 1859, the abolitionist John Brown raided the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. His attempt to seize weapons for arming slaves failed, and ten of Brown’s men (including two of his sons) died fighting. Brutal and useless as it turned out, the abortive raid stirred passions across America. Not since Nat Turner’s 1831 call to arms had the Union seemed in such peril. Quick to take advantage of the incident, Democrats blamed Republican “fanatics” like Joshua Giddings and Salmon P. Chase for inciting anarchy. Howells, caught up in the politics of his father’s possible appointment to the Senate clerkship, did not at first appreciate the significance of what he called a “laughable event.” The more he thought about the insurrection, however, the more it aroused his sympathies and concern. In Columbus, an important stage in the main conduit to freedom in Canada, he had seen men and women seized. He had been appalled by the plight of Margaret Garner, who, having escaped to Cincinnati, killed her own daughter rather than let her be sent back to enslavement in Kentucky. Well over a century later, Garner’s story prompted Toni Morrison to write her novel
Ohio had more stations on the Underground Railroad than any other state, with lines converging at Ashtabula Harbor, Cleveland, Sandusky, and other ports on the shore of Lake Erie. Columbus citizens who met to consider disobeying the Fugitive Slave Law turned a blind eye to black steamboat workers smuggling their human cargo. In an age when people violently disagreed on the issue of slavery, law-abiding men and women were judged criminals or accomplices by their silence. A Howells family friend like Justice Swan felt obliged to uphold the constitutionality of the Fugitive Slave Law even as he pronounced it immoral.
Although Howells and his colleague Samuel R. Reed, as editors of the
sought to separate Brown from the policies of the Republican party, they shared the common view of the raid as a terrifying but logical outgrowth of an immoral system by which free citizens of Ohio could be kidnapped with impunity and transported to slave-owning states. “Now Brown with twenty-one men has carried into the South the war he began [in Kansas],” an October 17 editorial ran: “We have little zeal to demand vengeance on Brown, while these monsters live and control the government.” Another on November 4 protested “any backing down on the part of the democratic press.” It argued that the Harpers Ferry raid, representing the highest principles, gave Brown standing among patriots such as Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Patrick Henry. That left the Benedict Arnolds, Judases, and fratricides who denounced him. The irony that Brown saw his actions as steps toward the destruction of the federal government seems to have escaped his supporters, many of whom would &fight not to end slavery but to preserve the Union.
The story of Brown had become fabulous enough, Howells wrote his father in early November, to promote war between the states. Newspapers across the country carried accounts of the socially promiment Northerners called the “Secret Six,” who by financing the raid risked prosecution for treason. They included social activists with transcendentalist leanings such as Theodore Parker and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, both Unitarian ministers, as well as Samuel Gridley Howe, the director of the Perkins School for the Blind and the husband of Julia Ward Howe, whose “Battle Hymn of the Republic” later emerged as the anthem of the North. Howells’ identification with Brown aligned him with New England intellectuals and artists like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who saw Harpers Ferry as the whirlwind preceding the storm, before he met them personally. They would have appreciated the sentiment that led him to write to William, “If I were not your son, I would desire to be Old John Brown’s—God bless him!” Disappointed not “to see something violent in the
on the subject of Harpers Ferry,” he hoped that “Old Gid” would stand firm against the widespread revulsion.
William, who had lost other jobs because of his political partisanship, showed surprising restraint. Nonetheless, in an October 27
column that his son may have missed, he made clear the significance—some might say the righteousness—of Brown’s actions. “No settled peace can exist between Liberty and Slavery. The weapons and the form of the warfare may be varied; but the battle goes on . . . and never can end till Slavery ceases;— for Liberty, being of Divine gift, cannot die.... The Harpers Ferry skirmish should serve as a beacon light of warning.” Weighing the connections between what amounted to his own ardent pacifism and the ethical and political benefits of Brown’s violence, William felt troubled by the murders of innocent people and criticized Brown’s tactics as impractical, if not insane. His paper wrestled with issues of insurrection and justice until Brown’s hanging in December 1859.
It proved a difficult time for all opponents of slavery. As Republican sentiment turned against Brown, the initial backers of the raid took cover. Ger-rit Smith, one of the Secret Six, escaped trial for treason by pleading insanity and committing himself to a mental hospital. On December 1, the front page of the
featured Will Howells’ lyric tribute “Gerrit Smith,” an ode to Smith’s principles that ignored his extraordinary backpedaling. The month before Brown’s hanging on December 2, Howells could think of little else. “Old Lion! tangled in the net.... A captive but a lion yet,” he wrote in “Old Brown.” Thanks to this “hero of the noblest plan... men shall rise where slaves have trod.” How much Howells was drawn to Brown, Brown’s sons, and other supporters of the raid can be seen in his admiration for the English-born poet Richard Realf—a protégé of Lady Byron— who was then lecturing in the United States. Realf seemed a dashing figure, a young man not much older than Howells himself, whose career combined the arts and politics. The son of an agricultural day laborer, he had won appointment as secretary of state designate in Brown’s promised government.
The Howells family had profound sympathy for Brown, and they likely met him when Brown lectured in Jefferson, at Giddings’ request, several months before the raid. After the raid, residents spotted Brown’s accomplices on the streets of Jeferson. William, a self-described “life-long slavery abolitionist,” supposedly gossiped with John Brown Jr.’s pursuers as the outlaw crouched in the
s loft. When a new presidential campaign made Brown old news, William’s outspokenness again increased. In the March 14, 1860, issue of the
he asked people to attend a rally where John Brown Jr., Owen Brown, Barclay Coppoc, and James Redpath, every one an indicted fugitive, would mourn the hanging of their fellow conspirators Albert Hazlett and Aaron Stevens. He would like them “to feel safe to live in our country,” William wrote, “because there was not a man mean enough to betray them.” If decency failed, he said, stronger measures should be used to prevent treachery. John Brown Jr. acknowledged his indebtedness to the Howells family. “Give our very kind regards to your Sister Annie,” he wrote to Howells in 1874, “and say to her that we shall be more than glad to receive a visit from her next summer, and I will add from yourself, or from any of your Father’s family.”
Brown’s raid and Brown the man haunted Howells’ imagination, no doubt because of the unresolvable issues they represented. He warned his sister Aurelia, swept up in the antislavery movement, that people can become “bigoted and narrow about even the salvation of souls.” The advice to Aurelia may explain why Howells refused to lend his autograph to a memorial volume called
in which James Redpath reprinted his poem “The Pilot’s Story,” originally published in the
with pieces by Emerson, Whittier, and Thoreau. “The Pilot’s Story” dramatizes the suicide of a mulatto woman whose lover sells her to repay a gambling debt.
Sold me? sold me? sold—And you promised to give me my freedom!.... What will you say to our God?
Howells had mixed feelings not only about Redpath’s reprinting his poem but equally about the raid and its consequences, which his signature would have seemed to condone. “My sentiments with regard to John Brown remain unchanged,” he wrote his father; “but I am as yet a person of too little consequence to confer celebrity on a work by my connection with it; and, at any rate, I do not seek notoriety in any but a purely literary way.”
In his book of Ohio stories for schoolchildren, published in his sixtieth year, Howells summed up Brown for a younger generation: “Some think that Brown was mad, some that he was inspired, some that he was right, some that he was wrong; but whatever men think of him, there are none who doubt that he was a hero, ready to shed his blood for the cause he held just. His name can never die, so long as the name of America lives.” Brown also enters Howells’ fiction. In A Chance Acquaintance
(1873), he pitted the convictions of Boston against those of the West, to Boston’s disadvantage, and invoked Brown, oddly enough, to compare the oppression of African Americans with that of women in Boston’s hereditary aristocracy. He believed Brown’s legacy to be one of conscience and creed, preferring it to a genteel, intellectual alternative. When he wrote about Brown, he did not measure the horror or the triumph of the man’s life but marveled at the conviction necessary to kill and die for a belief.
Given his fascination with Brown, it seems almost preordained that on his &first trip to Boston Howells should have spied the conspirator Barclay Coppoc asleep in the coach. Making this encounter the centerpiece in one of his travel “letters,” he was struck by Coppoc’s vulnerability more than by his strength or determination. In a letter dated June 30, 1860, he quoted from Walt Whitman: “You are the same as I / You are no different from me.” Where, after all, was
the line that one man crossed and another did not? Harpers Ferry taught Howells the significance of basic principles on the one hand and public harmony, along with due process, on the other. “No man or order of men,” he would write in old age, “can pervert a whole people without their complicity.”
As Columbus grows old to me, it seems to contract, and I begin to feel here the gnawing discontent that I felt in Jefferson. Father need not be afraid that I should be seduced by Bohemianism in New York.
—w. d. howells to his family, April 21, 1860
For some months the Ohio State Journal had been on the verge of failing, and in the ensuing reorganization Howells lost both his ten-dollar-a-week salary and the prospect of collecting back wages of about two hundred dollars (which he received the following year). Casting around for a job in the spring of 1860, he found one as “professional reader” for the publishing house of Follett, Foster & Company, editing and sometimes entirely rewriting manuscripts. He worked with Joshua Giddings to promote his antislavery message and with William Coggeshall, the state librarian and booster of regional literature, on The Poets and Poetry of the West (1860), an edition that included poems by Howells. Follett & Foster had published, with little success, Howells’ first book of poetry, Poems of Two Friends (December 1859). Motivated by the Atlantic’s acceptance of “Andenken,” he had turned to John J. Piatt, a journalist he knew from his early years with the Ohio State Journal. In those days he had admired his friend’s aim with wet sponges thrown whenever Piatt’s uncle, Charles Scott, left the two apprentices unsupervised. Piatt had since won modest success as a poet, selling several pieces to the Atlantic. Howells would live to sigh about “poor Piatt,” whose demands for preferential treatment from the magazine grew so persistent they seemed to exceed the debts of several lifetimes. In 1859 it was Howells who sought the favors. On September 19, he first approached Piatt about adding Piatt’s poems to a Follett & Foster holiday book. Three days later he wrote: “When you are here, we can look your poems over together; and I constituting myself an awful judge of what you propose to print, could be a sort of pre-public to you. There, too, we might decide about publishing our verses together.” Within the space of two sentences, he moved from friendly editor to critic, and from literary agent to coauthor, as if in response to Piatt’s invitation.
Howells’ collaboration with Piatt added to his literary standing at a time when he may have lacked the confidence (or a sufficiently large body of work) to attempt a volume on his own. Overseeing the marketing of their book, he asked his more successful collaborator to approach Eastern publications such as the New York Post and Boston Courier, so that when their book came out editors would mention Piatt as a contributor and give them both free advertising. Having learned from his father to push his own wares if he wanted them sold, he saw no conflict of interest in touting Piatt’s genius when he wrote a long review of their book for the Ohio State Journal (in December 1859).
Howells’ relationship with Follett & Foster proved to be one of those happy accidents that change the course of a life. Follett suggested that How-ells write a campaign biography of Abraham Lincoln, then struggling against Northern opponents and Southern hostility in his bid for the presidency. Follett & Foster, who had published—in fact built their house upon—the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, hoped for another coup. Howells had little enthusiasm for an assignment he treated as hack work and that came with an early deadline: the book had to be finished within a month of Lincoln’s nomination on May 18, 1860. Nor did he take Lincoln seriously as a candidate. Like most citizens of Columbus, he supported his mentor, Senator Chase, a scholarly man known for his good looks, social graces, and ardent antislavery positions, in comparison with whom Lincoln appeared awkward and uncommitted. Declining to interview or correspond with Lincoln or Lincoln’s running mate, he wrote The Lives and Speeches of Abraham Lincoln and Hannibal Hamlin from published materials and from notes gathered by a law student named James Quay Howard. Follett & Foster advertised that everything in the book came from either Lincoln’s lips or those of his closest friends. Lincoln’s backwoods-Quaker background and his self-deprecating tenacity hit home, however, and Howells soon came to admire his subject. He later regretted having missed a “great chance” of a meeting with Lincoln when too young to see its importance.
With Eastern readers in mind, Howells remakes Lincoln, smoothing the rough edges, scorning the need to trace one’s ancestors back to the Mayflower, and toning down accounts of the squalor of frontier living. He applauds Lincoln’s efforts at self-improvement and rising above his station—qualities he would emphasize in his own autobiographies. A reviewer for the Journal observed that the Lincoln biography, with its abbreviated history of the Republican party and homey anecdotes, made for more interesting and entertaining reading than anyone could have imagined. The proud William Cooper Howells reprinted the review in the July 11 issue of the Sentinel.
From Howells’ biography the Lincoln of legend emerges: the boy who could clear a field in a day, the golden-tongued orator who could swap tall tales with the best, the self-taught scholar who read Shakespeare by the flickering fire, and the man whose name became synonymous with moral courage. “In faith,” ends Lincoln’s Cooper Union address, “let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.” Moved by the “good-na-tured” man and his personal struggle, Howells played down the shrewd politician who saw the need to preserve the Union at any cost, including at times the suppression of civil rights, and highlighted instead the democratic process that made possible Lincoln’s rise to power. “It is true,” he writes, “that simply to have mauled rails, and commanded a flat-boat, is not to have performed splendid actions. But the fact that Lincoln has done these things, and has risen above them by his own force, confers a dignity upon them; and the rustic boy, who is to be President in 1900, may well be consoled and encouraged in his labors when he recalls these incidents in the history of one whose future once wore no brighter aspect than his own wears now.” The less cluttered writing, the immediate connection to audience, and the portraits of American types—such as an emigrant at the head of a team of slow oxen dragging “his household goods toward the setting sun”—anticipated Howells’ writing in years to come.
He finished his biography in a little more than a week. “When one has written a hurried book,” he explains in the preface, “one likes to dwell upon the fact, that if the time had not been wanting one could have made it a great deal better. This fact is of the greatest comfort to the author, and not of the slightest consequences to anybody else.” However hastily written, his biography, the ninth to appear, proved an important resource for scholars because Lincoln himself borrowed and annotated the Library of Congress’s copy on two separate occasions. Lincoln had the book in his possession shortly before his assassination, and historians have assumed, rightly or wrongly, that he found the unannotated sections accurate.
The biographer’s task done, Howells left Lincoln’s future to “Providence and to the people, who often make history without the slightest respect to the arrangements of sagacious writers.” He could not have guessed how much of his own future would be tied to Lincoln’s presidency. The biography sold well enough for his publisher to suggest that he use $175 of his earnings to travel through Canada, New York, and New England to gather material for a book on the unlikely topic of “manufacturing industries of the northeast.” With a $50 advance and a letter of credit addressed to Eastern publishers for $190 more, he set off, unaware that in an era of state banking, his Ohio dollar would buy only eighty-&five or ninety cents in Boston. Even with less money, he would have left in high spirits for what promised to be a glamorous holiday.
Howells took a train to Erie, Buffalo, and Niagara, then traveled by steamer across Lake Ontario and down the Saint Lawrence to Montreal and Quebec. Stopping at Niagara Falls, ostensibly to study hydropower, he stayed for the views. He contributed fourteen travel letters to the Cincinnati Daily Gazette and the Ohio State Journal that trace his journey through July and August 1860. The early pieces from Niagara might be seen as the first installment of his developing argument against sentimentality. He advises readers to get over the first necessarily hackneyed look, which can never live up to expectations, then return to look again. Essentially he urges a new and independent angle of vision, something almost impossible at Niagara Falls given its popularity in magazines and paintings and its advertising images stamped on everything from picture postcards to ashtrays. Some of his aesthetic ideas Howells picked up from Godfrey and John Frankenstein, artists from Ohio whom he happened to meet at Niagara. By teaching him to see with a painter’s eye and value the accuracy of his own observations, the Frankensteins kindled his lifelong interest in the visual arts. Together the three men walked to the usual tourist sites —the Falls, the Whirlpool, and Goat’s Island—but the Frankensteins also took him to hidden nooks and thickets where, shielded by fragrant cedars, he could almost forget that Niagara had been made into a commercial center.
Visitors in the thousands crowded the town’s hotels, boardwalks, and food stalls. The Prince of Wales returned for the second year in a row, and the Frenchman Charles Blondin, who had begun the year before to stage his death-defying feats on a tightrope, had, with increasing theatricality, crossed the falls pushing a wheelbarrow, walking backward, and with a man on his back, stopping midway to cook an omelet. Ordinary men and women climbed into wooden barrels and plunged over the falls or through the whirlpools. In after years, Howells associated the Whirlpool with Blondin, whom he saw “cross the river above the frantic Rapids not far from it” as if he were dancing on a dwindling thread for half a mile through space. Howells focused not on the man’s face but on his feet, which seemed the most intelligent in the world, “pliable, sinuous, clinging, educated in every fibre, and full of spiritual sentience.” Later he wondered why the government permitted a spectacle that courted death; at the time he went back to his room and devoted a whole letter to Blondin’s exploits.
Howells knew that his readers would also expect a description of one favorite tourist stop, the mist-covered, crumbling precipice called Table Rock. Weeks earlier a carriage full of people had dislodged a large piece of the formation, and the path that he himself trod would vanish within the next three months. On his visit to Table Rock, he came upon a long line of spectators taking turns to peer over the lip of the precipice. Suffering from vertigo, he crawled forward with dif&ficulty and made out a corpse in blue overalls sprawled below. Imagining the dead man’s green-and-yellow face swimming up toward his, he still managed to scribble a note before retreating to safety. The incident deeply disturbed him. He held the story back until 1893, when, with Mark Twain and Nathaniel S. Shaler, he published The Niagara Book.
Standing on the Canadian border, Howells thought about the Underground Railroad and the slaves who fled north. His guide, on the other hand, cared mainly about his livelihood. Apart from the fact that freed blacks in Canada got “uppity” and even married whites, he told Howells, they hurt the tourist trade. In protest and afraid of losing their human property, Southerners came to Niagara in smaller numbers. Not persuaded by the guide’s arguments, Howells listened carefully and reported what he heard to his readers at home. And of course he had the last word: Intermarriage is the business of the individuals concerned, he wrote, whereas everyone shares the problem of slavery. After crossing to Quebec, Howells took a more or less direct route to Boston, by way of Portland, Maine, the birthplace of his boyhood idol, Longfellow. Throughout the United States, England, and Europe, people from every walk of life read Longfellow’s books. Howells himself began writing poetry based on the thumping rhythms of Hiawatha. With the audacity of an adopted son, he had signed some of his columns for the Ohio State Journal “Chispa,” the Spanish for “spark” and the name of Longfellow’s miscreant servant in his poetic drama The Spanish Student. Howells’ passion for languages might also have been a conscious imitation of Longfellow, who was professor of foreign languages at Harvard. In any case, the young poet wanted to pay homage to Longfellow by visiting his house in Portland.
On the shore along Portland’s Commercial Street, where fishermen unloaded flounder and haddock and ink-black heaps of mussels in the early morning light, Howells got his first glimpse of the Atlantic. Looking out at the islands dotting Casco Bay and the cobbled alleyways leading from the docks, he caught the competing odors of fish waste, drying seaweed, and engine oil. The landscape, with its slanted light, reminded him of the gentle valleys and uplands of southwestern Ohio. He came to think even the Western Reserve “a bit of New England flattened out along the lake shore,” its villages “as scrupulously clean as any in Massachusetts,” and the streets leafy tunnels of maples. He had long imagined New England scenes. “I have never been able to see much difference between what seemed to me Literature and what seemed to me Life,” he wrote some thirty years later. In 1860, it mattered little to him that Longfellow had never lived in the house he found. Just as the poetry of the old seaport merged with the Portland of Longfellow’s poetry, one venerable house served as well as another.
New England, which offered a strange mix of poets, changeable weather, cod&fish, and shoe-pegging machines, resisted easy reportage. So did New England traditions. Howells had never felt himself so surrounded by or so close to drowning in history as he did in Salem, Massachusetts, home to Nathaniel Hawthorne, the Custom House, and the witch trials. He began to learn—in the words of Henry James—that “it takes an endless amount of history to make even a little tradition, and an endless amount of tradition to make even a little taste.” His encounter with New England altered his scale of things. In the West people scurried to acquire histories by seeking out ancestors from the Eastern settlements. In New England he saw houses that for generations had belonged to the same families, to men and women who measured their inheritance by centuries. When people spoke their owners’ names with awe, he understood the force of received privilege, a commodity (as The Rise of Silas Lapham suggests) that could be neither earned nor bought. When he walked the streets of Portland or Salem or Boston, he felt his own insignificance and, as perhaps never before, the sense of being at home.
He had taken a chance coming to Boston. Without friends in the area or letters of invitation, he checked into the Tremont House on August 1. Then—like Lemuel Barker, the countrified protagonist of The Minister’s Charge (1886)—he took a horsecar to Cambridge. Howells did not wear Barker’s outmoded pantaloons, but he had exchanged his Western broadcloth for a suit ordered from New York. Whatever confidence his new suit conferred soon evaporated. He intended to present himself to James Russell Lowell, the one man in Boston he knew through correspondence with the Atlantic, and had no idea where Lowell lived.
The rest of this story forms the Howells legend recounted in his own Literary Friends and Acquaintance. He eventually found the Apollo-browed Lowell, who quizzed him like a schoolmaster and admitted to delaying the publication of “Andenken” until he could be sure it was Howells’ own work and not a translation of Heine. When Howells made the mistake of admitting that he had once wanted to believe himself a literary descendant of the well-known travel writer Sir James Howell, Lowell—who scorned pretenders of any sort—removed a volume of Howell’s Familiar Letters to point out the diªerent spellings of their last names. Nine years after their meeting, Lowell would respond to one of Howells’ books by saying that its author deserved to have “James Howell on one side of him and Charles Lamb on the other—not to keep him warm, but for the pleasure they will take in rubbing shoulders with him.” Now Lowell may have felt trapped by his own kindness. As the wife of the minister in The Minister’s Charge tells her husband: “You had no right to give the poor boy false hopes. You ought to have discouraged him—that would have been the most merciful way—if you knew the poetry was bad.... He will go on building all sorts of castles in the air on your praise, and sooner or later they will come tumbling about his ears.” At the end of their interview, Lowell walked his guest across a stretch of ground to a fence, which Howells bounded over. Lowell, who normally took the fence in stride, fell back twice, then succeeded on the third try. Before they parted he invited his visitor to lunch at the Parker House, the grand hotel on the corner of School and Tremont Streets in the heart of Boston.
When, on the appointed day, Howells arrived at two o’clock, he found the private room above the white marbled foyer and a table laid for four people. Lowell greeted him and turned to introduce a slight man of Napoleonic height. Like any literate American, Howells already knew about Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.—the Parkman Professor of Anatomy and Physiology and the dean of Harvard’s medical school—as “the Autocrat of the Breakfast Table,” the pundit of fictionalized conversations set in a Boston boardinghouse. A contemporary described him as “the delight and ornament of every society he enters, buzzing about like a bee, or fluttering like a hummingbird, exceedingly difficult to catch unless he be really wanted for some kind act, and then you are sure of him.” Soon after, the bearish, affable owner of the Atlantic, James T. Fields, arrived. His pictures show a Byronic cast of face with full, pouting lips and long, curling hair swept up oª a high brow. Howells had already met Fields at his office, where he had stopped to introduce himself and to collect, from Fields’ partner Benjamin Ticknor, the five half-eagles of gold—each worth five dollars—owed to him for “The Pilot’s Story.”
Howells had never entered a building like the Parker House. The first Boston hotel to import a French chef, it had for several years provided the room where Emerson, Longfellow, Hawthorne, and John Greenleaf Whittier met on the last Saturday afternoon of each month for food and wine, readings and conversation. “Such feasts!” Holmes wrote over two decades later. “Such guests! What famous names its record boasts.” Howells flattered himself that he “breathed in that atmosphere as if in the return from life-long exile.” Not even at the governor’s house in Columbus had dinner been served in separate courses. And the talk! When Holmes laughingly remarked to Lowell that “this is something like the apostolic succession... the laying on of hands,” Howells felt that he had indeed been chosen. The meal lasted four hours, ending as pleasantly as it had begun, with coffee and small glasses of cognac topped with ﬂaming sugar. How-ells left drunk with dreams, sure that he had made a triumphant start. After all, Lowell’s hospitality might have had a practical purpose. With over a hundred unanswered letters on his desk, the Atlantic editor could have used an assistant, for which the dinner provided an informal interview. Tomorrow he was to breakfast with Fields and take tea with Holmes, who lived just a few doors away on Charles Street. Lowell promised that if Howells meant to go to Concord, he would write a letter of introduction to Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Howells presented himself at 37 Charles Street the following day. The Fieldses’ house, packed with literary memorabilia, old portraits, editions, letters, and illustrations, appeared to have its very walls inscribed. Every surface held cherished objects gathered from their travels abroad. The room that Ole Bull had slept in one night might shelter Hawthorne or William Makepeace Thackeray the next. You found, as one friend wrote, “Christine Nillson or Celia Thaxter or Rebecca Harding or Mrs. Stowe... your vis-a-vis at breakfast or at dinner.” Known for her charm, Annie Fields showed Howells the library, which ran the whole length of the house with alcoves on either side. The moss-green carpet and draperies gave another writer, Harriet Prescott Spofford, the sensation of stepping into an “enchanted wood” owned by “a rarer race of beings.” Mrs. Fields pointed out books she thought Howells would find interesting, nearly all autographed by friends and contributors, including Longfellow. To be attended in that setting by the young and beautiful wife of the Atlantic’s owner flattered his dream of early success. Neither now nor later had he any clue to Annie Fields’ impression that he lacked the “true poetic temperament” or sensibility she thought a writer and editor must have. Her husband’s editorial decisions helped to shape public taste, and she not only advised him, she also reigned over Boston’s most famous literary salon (where “you heard the latest word from the world of books and book-men, and caught the first glimmer” of new talent). She was, in Henry James’ phrase, “the literary and social executor of a hundred ghosts.” Years passed before How-ells recognized the provinciality of the Fields household, and of Boston and Cambridge, as a determined remoteness from the larger America.
Holmes’ assurance, the day before, that literary Boston had room for newcomers, even for Westerners, highlights just how the Atlantic’s circle functioned. Taking “the autocrat” at face value, Howells saw the city as a mecca for anyone with artistic aspirations. He would learn to what extent it endured as a Yankee stronghold where family connections and educational background mattered most. When the idea for publishing Who’s Who in America first arose, one Bostonian reportedly asked, “Wouldn’t Harvard’s catalog of graduates for the last five years answer every purpose?” In Boston, and especially in the presence of Lowell, Howells felt “conscious of an older, closer and stricter civilization” than his own, a traditional and closed world that might be said to value the principle of democracy rather than its practical reality. A more sardonic Howells came to believe that Calvinism had shriveled the New England heart without affecting its outward hospitality. But not that morning at breakfast. Fields fed him his &first blueberry cakes before sending him along to Holmes, who soon knew the story of Howells’ troubled youth and uncertain health.
Howells left Boston with the introduction from Lowell in his pocket. After a brief stop in Lowell, Massachusetts, he boarded a stage to Concord, where he presented himself to Nathaniel Hawthorne. “I have no masonic claim upon you,” Lowell had written, “except community of tobacco, and the young man who brings this does not smoke. But he wants to look at you, which will do you no harm, and him a great deal of good.” As might be expected, the two fumbled for conversation before Hawthorne sent him on to Emerson and Thoreau with his endorsement: “I find this young man worthy.” Thoreau made no effort to talk with him, and Emerson, whom he saw earlier the same day, humiliated him by searching back volumes of the Atlantic Monthly for his poems and then staring blankly at them and their author. When Howells took his leave, Emerson tried to dissuade him from future heartache. Poetry was worth “a pleasant hour... now and then.” “A pleasant hour to poetry!” Howells protested. He meant to give it “all time and all eternity.” Much as they agreed about slavery, politics, the business of authors’ royalties, and the unconscionable piracy of books, Emerson and Howells never took to one another. Howells dismissed Emerson’s imperfect understanding of the West and Westerners and spoke of his “defective sense” of literature. Emerson managed consistently to forget How-ells’ name. Still, the meeting had not been the waste of time Howells thought. He went back to Boston with his tail between his legs, little knowing that Emerson’s faint and secondhand praise of his poetry would help to secure him a coveted appointment abroad.
From Boston, he headed for New York to explore “the literary situation in the metropolis.” In retrospect he thought that the August morning of his arrival must have been as sweltering as the day he was writing Literary Friends and Acquaintance, thirty years later. He could not remember. What he did remember was the “Niagara roar of the omnibuses” thundering night and day. The city struck him as dirty, squalid, yet startlingly beautiful with its elegant and imposing buildings. His little knowledge of New York came from a woman who had stayed with the family for a month while painting his mother’s portrait. She told him about transplanted Ohio writers, the literary Carey sisters and the journalist he came to befriend: George W. Curtis, author of Lotus Eating and The Howadji in Syria. Now and later, he looked for Ohio connections wherever he went, in fact for any connections that promised to help his career. He did not see Curtis but did seek out those he called the Bohemians, especially Henry Clapp, the editor of the Saturday Press. Clapp had accepted a few of his poems and called him a genius, though not of the highest order. Unlike the two paying magazines, the Atlantic in Boston and Harper’s Monthly in New York, Clapp paid in promises. A born Yankee, in the words of a reporter for the New York Leader, he spoke French like a Frenchman, played poker like a Westerner, drank like a &fish, smoked like a Dutchman, and conducted himself with the manners of a Russian. An open and avowed cynic, Clapp was the reigning spirit of Pfaff’s beer cellar on Broadway, just north of Bleecker Street and not far from the New York Free Love League.
It seemed to Howells that the staff of the Saturday Press spent their time drinking beer and holding the rest of the world, especially Boston’s old guard, in contempt. “How did he find Hawthorne?” Clapp asked. “Shy,” Howells answered, like himself. “Oh, a couple of shysters!” Clapp retorted. The experience at Pfaff’s muddied Howells’ response to Walt Whitman, a favorite with the Saturday Press set and with Clapp, who published poems from the forthcoming 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass. Clapp took credit for being Whitman’s first supporter—beating the English, as Howells said, who claimed the honor.
Walt Whitman greeted him at Pfaff’s by leaning back in his chair and extending his hand. Even sitting down, the man seemed gargantuan, with his “Jovian hair” and “branching beard and mustache, and gentle eyes that looked most kindly into mine.” By the time he met Whitman, Howells had already reviewed an early edition of Leaves of Grass. “Who is Walt Whitman?” he had asked, and responded with the poet’s self-inventory:
Walt Whitman, an American, one of the rough, a kosmos. Disorderly, ﬂeshy, sensual, eating, drinking, breeding. No sentimentalist—no stander above men and women, or apart from them. No more modest than immodest.
“This,” he had written, “is frank but not altogether satisfactory.” Realizing that he liked the “man-about-horses—slouch, insolent, ‘cute,’ coarse,” he was at a loss for words. Did he need to announce himself as a recent reviewer, and an unfavorable one at that? He decided not. But he had no interest in pursuing Whitman as he pursued Lowell or Emerson, or engaging with the group at Pfaff’s. In 1885, he sent ten dollars for a subscription to buy Whitman a buggy, stipulating that his donation not be taken as an endorsement of the man’s poetry or opinions.
The “lawless, measureless, rhymeless, and inscrutable” Whitman confounded Howells as he did so many readers. If he were a poet, what could Howells himself be? The answer to that seems obvious enough from a later perspective, but Howells still defined himself and his future by his writing of poetry. Without wanting to associate himself with the prudes or “Misses Nancy of criticism,” he struggled with what he believed to be Whit-man’s repellent, egotistical genius. How could he separate the man from the poet who celebrated catalogues and bodies electric and a broad, fleshy democratic vista? Whitman might have applauded Howells’ summary of his work as “shaggy, coarse, sublime, disgusting, beautiful, tender, harsh, vile, elevated, foolish, wise, pure and nasty to the four hundred and fifty-sixth page, in a book most sumptuously printed and bound.” Howells himself struggled with a power he could not identify.
He would have disavowed Whitman’s inﬂuence on his own writing, yet his call for an inclusive American literature written in natural language and his rejection of New England parochialism indicate that something may have rubbed off. Once he had met the man and liked him, he felt inclined to excuse what he saw as Whitman’s horrendous breach of ethics: his publishing, without Emerson’s consent, the famous letter extending a cordial greeting to the world of letters. He did not change his mind about the poetry. To his friend Edmund Stedman, who had himself enjoyed evenings at Pfaff’s, he wrote: “The small but enthusiastic admirers of Walt Whitman could not make him a poet if they wrote all the newspapers and magazines in the world full about him. He is poetical as the other elements are, and just as satisfactory to read as earth, water, air and &fire.” Instead of embracing Whitman as the pioneering writer he himself called for, Howells saw him a liberating force, an “anarch,” whose prose he preferred to his verse and whose self he preferred to both.
New York’s Bohemia, with its imported French theories and affected cynicism, depressed him. Years later he parodied Clapp’s circle in The Coast of Bohemia (1893), the story of a village girl with a real but limited artistic gift who goes to New York to study painting. Coming from small towns himself, he liked the conceit that everyone in Cambridge knew Lowell or Holmes on sight, whereas New York bred a petty sel&fishness. “The Bohemians were the beginning of the story for me, and to tell the truth I did not like the story. I remember as I sat at that table under the pavement, in Pfaff’s beer-cellar, and listened to the wit that did not seem very funny, I thought of the dinner with Lowell, the breakfast with Fields, the supper at the Autocrat’s, and felt that I had fallen very far.” Intimidated by New York, he did not yet feel the lure of the metropolis that drew men like Stedman and Thomas Bailey Aldrich, or in times to come himself.
“Better &fifty years of Boston than a cycle of New York,” he wrote Fields from Ohio. “The truth is, there is no place quite so good as Boston—God bless it! and I look forward to living there some day—being possibly the linchpin in the hub. I wonder if I could not &find enough writing there, on different journals, literary and otherwise, to employ me, and support me in comfortable poverty?” Howells did his best to keep himself before his Boston acquaintances, corresponding with Holmes’ son and namesake about art and religion (to the younger Holmes’ discomfort), and mailing Lowell a copy of the recently published Poets and Poetry of the West in hopes of a review. Lowell declined to review the book but praised Howells’ poems, the only poetry he found among the “rhyme-&-water,” and urged him to stay in the West (to make himself “scarce”) on the principle that native voices needed native soil. Howells, who would change his views, protested that “the conditions in the west are rather against poetry, I think. It is hardly possible to assimilate and poetize the crude, harsh life we live.” Lowell had nothing to oªer him beyond suggesting that the Atlantic might be interested in travel articles if Howells had the funds to do the research.
From a distance, New York seemed to have had fun at his expense. Boston, which appeared more generous, remained a citadel, the façades of townhouses along the Common forming a wall as impenetrable to the young man as the Great Wall of China. Not until he wrote Suburban Sketches ( published in 1871) would he explore Boston’s—or rather Cambridge’s—neighborhoods of Irish, Italians, and freed blacks and come to appreciate that not all Bostonians were Brahmins (to use Oliver Wendell Holmes’ word for Boston intellectuals) or that few outsiders had received the same welcome.
He falters on the threshold,
She lingers on the stair.
—w. d. howells, “Convention,” 1860
Howells arrived in “dear, little” Columbus glad to be home and among friends, and at the same time wanting to be free of both. “Home,” whether Columbus or Jefferson, had become the place he dreamed of but not the place he cared to live. Impatient with the “meanness and hollowness” of provincial life, he celebrated his homecoming by avoiding the people he had previously wooed, shunning invitations, and putting any free time left from the Journal into his writing.
Much of his discontent went into a novel he called “Geoffrey: A Study of American Life,” which begins with the titular character’s return to “Dulldale” after an absence of seven years. “It is hard to say with what feeling a young man goes back to the home of his boyhood after so long an absence,” the narrator declares. “With his tenderest sentiment for the things of the past, is mingled a half contempt of them.” However much Geoªrey despises Dulldale, he settles there, takes over the town newspaper, marries his widowed cousin, and lives unhappily ever after. After his wife’s death, he is left responsible for a stepdaughter and the young woman who looks after her. In a typical romance, Geoffrey would have married the woman; instead he grows old in “apathetic seclusion,” while she makes “her life an unthanked service” to him. The book’s subtitle—“a Study of American Life”—suggests that its author linked his own and his character’s malaise with the state of the nation, and certainly a feeling of unease infected his countrymen in the years leading to the Civil War. Though fighting in Kansas had given way to drought, war seemed imminent in the new territories or along the Texas border with Mexico, and, worse, in established states divided on the issue of slavery. Americans already sensed the gathering violence that erupted with the secession of South Carolina and the bombardment of Fort Sumter.
The United States had become both more intimate and more diverse. The Pony Express raced in an unthinkable eleven days from Saint Louis to Sacramento and railroad workers labored to tie the Eastern seaboard with the far West. Emerging cities like Chicago, Cincinnati, and San Francisco reflected the country’s changing demographics. San Francisco seemed to build itself in a matter of weeks; Cincinnati grew so wantonly that within a few blocks one could hear more languages than William Dean Howells could read. By 1860 America’s center of population (then roughly 30,500,000) lay about a hundred miles east of Cincinnati and fifty miles south of Columbus, near Chillicothe, Ohio. Two million immigrants had arrived in the United States during the 1850s, nearly 70,000 of them from China—before the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Across the land, dreams of gold mountains brought 100,000 fortune seekers to the Rockies in 1859 chanting “Pike’s Peak or Bust.” Silver drew con men and entrepreneurs to Nevada’s Comstock Lode, where some emerged, like the father of William Randolph Hearst, millionaire. Others, like Mark Twain, left empty-handed and went on to rich careers.
Howells, too, hoped to better his life, as indicated by his trip to Boston and New York. Wishing to profit from the acquaintances he made, he had in a sense gone east under false colors and been made to feel the whimsy of others’ power. He knew that when an opportunity came, as it did in 1861, he would have to make decisions. But deciding appeared to depend on something or someone beyond himself: a benefactor, a calamity, a new situation, or an unaccountable stroke of luck. He remained green when it came to closed social worlds and customs, overrating his ability to charm men like James Fields and powerful society women like Isabelle (“Belle”) Carter, whose wrath he felt in Columbus. Irritated by his snubs, she and her friends kept him from meeting Abraham Lincoln, who had expected to see his biographer at entertainments in Columbus. Howells swallowed his pride, made the rounds again, and—thanks to the generosity of Senator Chase and Susan Smith, the wife of Howells’ doctor—won forgiveness from Columbus society.
The return to favor coincided with new difficulties. Among James Russell Lowell’s sundry pieces of advice, which included a warning not to “print too much & too soon,” had been the recommendation, “Don’t get married in a hurry.” A few months later, Howells’ evident attraction to Elinor Mead, Laura Platt’s cousin and guest for the winter, set Columbus tongues wagging. The two met sometime in December 1860, about a month after Elinor’s arrival. Coming from a “good” family in Brattleboro, Vermont, Elinor shone in Columbus drawing rooms as well as those of New England. Clever, amusing, and short in stature like himself, she would oªer Howells almost everything he longed for, except, to be sure, a job.
Her hosts, the Platts, knew the Meads through the future president of the United States, Rutherford B. Hayes. Hayes’ grandfather was Elinor’s great-grandfather, a relationship that made her and Hayes, according to the byways of genealogy, first cousins twice removed. In his Ohio storybook for children, Howells would describe Hayes as “a great lawyer, a great soldier, a great statesman, a great philanthropist, a man without taint or stain.” Howells admired his friend so much he gladly wrote a campaign biography for Hayes before the 1876 election—as close and bitter as that of 2000. Hayes never lived down the taunt that “Tilden was elected, Hayes took his seat”—that he had in fact stolen the presidency. In 1858, not yet a politician or a major general in the Union army, Hayes paid a visit to the Meads’ large and eccentric family and wrote a vivid account in his letters home. According to Hayes, Larkin Goldsmith Mead (1795ñ1869), Elinor’s father, seldom stopped laughing or marveling at his good fortune in being alive. An older brother had saved him from drowning when they were boys, and Hayes heard the story of Mr. Mead’s escape from death so many times that his shoulder ached from the older man’s affectionate slapping. To Hayes, the children seemed a ragtag assortment, none of them alike. Particularly fond of Elinor, he called her “witty, chatty, and capital company.” Some thought her “sarcastic,” he wrote his niece, “but as she is not ill-natured in her satire, I like it. I did not expect them to enjoy me as much as I did them, but when I left was pleased to hear Eleanor say: ‘Your visit has been perfectly splendid.’”
The Platt-Hayes family probably considered Elinor, the fourth of nine children, a suitable guide through the social season for Laura, whose mother, Hayes’ sister, had died. The visit served Elinor equally well. Though Brattleboro’s numbers swelled in the summer with wealthy Boston and New York visitors seeking the country’s most expensive water cure (at eleven dollars a day), the town could be stifling. In Columbus, “Squire Mead’s daughter” became Laura Platt’s cousin without any loss of status, and possibly the opposite. Laura’s father presided over the Columbus Gas Company. In their Italianate mansion surrounded by three acres of park, the Platts lived on a grander scale than the Meads, whose modest colonial on Main Street overflowed with children.
If Elinor had been brought up to take the amenities of society in stride, the young man who now courted her had not. The Platt mansion must have seemed a long way from the house in Jefferson, let alone the dark, smoky cabin at Eureka Mills. Whether or not Howells saw Elinor as the embodiment of Boston or New York—and he probably did—she had the independence and artistic ambitions he associated with Eastern life.
The two heard about one another before they actually met. Surprised to find a copy of the Atlantic Monthly in her cousin’s parlor, Elinor had been gently informed that at least one contributor to the magazine might be encountered among Columbus friends. By then Howells’ résumé included five Atlantic poems. When they did meet, he saw a pert and pretty woman slightly shorter than himself; she saw a “tasty dresser” sporting long brown sideburns. Each looked into piercing blue eyes.
Beyond the physical attraction, Howells and Elinor shared similarities of taste and temperament as well as quirks of family history. Elinor had grown up in a family with the social, intellectual, and artistic pretensions of the Howellses, along with pride in living differently from their neighbors. Indeed they had once, like the family in Jefferson, skirted the edges of respectability. The year Elinor turned ten, the quiet, prosperous life of her family had been threatened by the arrest of her uncle, John Humphrey Noyes, for adultery. The spiritual leader of a utopian community in Put-ney, Vermont (and later in Oneida, New York), Noyes preached the doctrines of “perfectionism,” a belief that individuals can free themselves of sin through will and religious conversion, and of “complex marriages,” by which every man became the husband of every woman, and every woman the wife of every man. Several months before her brother’s arrest, Elinor’s mother, Mary Mead, made a public confession of salvation from sin and accepted his interpretation of the Bible. The breaking scandal forced her to defend her beleaguered brother and appease her husband, who did his best to make light of the situation. “To all I hear of Putney affairs,” Mead wrote to one of his brother-in-law’s followers, “I have only to say I am not able yet to associate in my mind the names of my dear family friends there with adultery.” He remained no less skeptical about Noyes, and Mary herself soon sided against her brother. Noyes blamed the defection on her husband, whereas other members of the community credited their escape from imprisonment to Larkin Mead’s intervention.
Having grown up in a household brushed by religious fanaticism and sexual scandal, Elinor knew the importance—and the absurdity—of social proprieties, in which regard she and Howells were well matched. He had felt the shame of belonging to a family that remained, whatever its shifting status, eccentric and impecunious. Elinor’s father, now solidly middle-class— one son attended Amherst College—had, besides “lawyering,” kept a guest tavern in Chesterfield. Family parallels can be a source of mutual sympathy but also of secrets and awkwardness. Whatever they discussed privately in the years to come, neither Howells nor Elinor willingly disclosed their connection to Noyes and his experimental communities.
Elinor’s appeal to Howells did not lie in her discretion. Describing himself as “always having a great deal to say without much disposition to say it,” he called Elinor someone who had nothing to “say with the greatest possible desire to talk.” She was, he later joked, the one person he knew who could chat while a dentist worked on her teeth. Mark Twain, in full agreement, imitated for his wife’s amusement the zany logic of Elinor’s talk. Elinor had just recovered from an ailment with the help of a hypnotist who treated her with the so-called mind-cure, and Twain reported the conversation to Livy.
“People may call it what they like, but it is just hypnotism & that’s all it is— hypnotism pure and simple. MIND-CURE!—the idea! Why, this woman that cured me hasn’t got any mind. She’s a good creature, but she’s dull & dumb and illiterate and—”“Now Eleanor!” [Howells inevitably demurred]... “A-n-d—when she tilts up her nose—well, it’s—it’s—well it’s that kind of a nose that—” “Now ELEANOR!—the woman is not responsible for her nose—& it’s not fair for you to —”& so-on & so-on. Lord, it was just like the old days over again, & it didn’t seem to me I had any right to be having this feast & you not there to have your share, sweetheart.
Twain’s mimicry of his friends matches Howells’ fictional portraits of married couples, especially Basil and Isabel March, whom he loosely based on Elinor and himself. In A Hazard of New Fortunes, he wrote of the middle-aged Marches: “They often accused each other of being sel&fish and indifferent, but she knew that he would always sacri&fice himself for her and the children; and he, with many gives and mockeries, wholly trusted in her.” This passage, published when the Howellses had been married for twenty-seven years, grew out of shared values but equally out of great and dividing personal anguish.
In 1860, they were merely two young people getting to know one another during one of the city’s “brilliant” social seasons. Howells remembered pleasure seekers transforming the gymnasium at the Starling Medical College into a ballroom where, under the eye of a lone matron, couples danced in the glow of white candles to the music of Negro fiddlers. With the strains of the last song echoing in their ears, young men escorted Miss Julia or Sally or Elinor home, then gorged themselves on oysters at Ambos’s, an eatery Howells described as an “uptown” restaurant. Because of a relatively mild winter, with the snow clinging only to shadowed streets, How-ells planned his days around walks with Elinor. Together they traversed the city, laughing in the delighted, secret way lovers do. “You are like two children,” Laura told them. “What do we care?” Howells responded. Their open affection and general ﬂouting of conventions drew enough attention for Belle Carter to pass on the gossip to the family in Jefferson, who immediately doubted Elinor’s character. Howells grew defensive. He sensed that the “proper people” they met on their walks looked at them askance— as well they might have if etiquette book warnings against private meetings and hasty courtships were taken seriously. Belle Carter, who had disliked Elinor or the idea of her from the outset, called the fun-loving New Englander a bluestocking.
As for Belle Carter’s motives, they can only be guessed. Howells claimed in letters home that he preferred her to the younger women he met through her, and before Elinor arrived he had flirted with a number of his hostess’s protégés. Seven years older than Howells, she paid him unusual attention and may well have been hurt by his sudden neglect. When Howells eulogized her in Years of My Youth, he wrote as if she had been the one he loved, and clearly he regretted his behavior toward her, no matter how innocent. The second wife of a wealthy man seventeen years her senior, Belle Carter seemed, as Howells remembered her, too young to be accepted by her stepdaughters as their mother. They preferred to call her “cousin.” To Howells, she had “a social genius which would have made her in any great-worldlier capital the leader she was in ours.... [She was] herself a flower-like and bird-like presence.” Henry Adams’ wife, Clover, who met Mrs. Carter at the Hayeses’ White House twenty years later, saw a different woman. To her, Mrs. Hayes’ guest “looked like a powder puff; fortunately, ﬂour is cheap west of the Alleghenies.”
For all her impeccable reputation, Belle Carter had her own dreams, as she admitted to Aurelia: “It was always a fancy of mine if Will never married, that someday—when all my brood of girls were settled with husbands— to take him here with the Dr. and me—either here, or perhaps, somewhere in Europe.” Even if she was not a woman spurned, Mrs. Carter acted like one. Perhaps she had something to do with Howells’ reluctance to propose to Elinor. While common wisdom said that no sensible couple should marry on short acquaintance, Howells’ and Elinor’s public show of affection, not to mention the apparent improprieties of the courtship, promised a quick resolution—and still nothing happened. On Elinor’s leaving Ohio at the end of March, her relatives thought that “Nelly” Mead had enjoyed her stay. Howells may not have known what to think. He, who supposedly discussed everything with his family, including details about his laundry, remained silent about “the Angel” from Vermont, calling the rumors of a “violent ﬂirtation” exaggerated, and falling back on evasive platitudes. “When I think of the good, unsel&fish life you live, devoting yourself to poor little Henry,” he told Vic, “I am quite ashamed of myself, and want to do something better than achieve reputation, and be admired of young ladies who read the ‘Atlantic.’”
Vic and the others were understandably concerned. Howells virtually hid Elinor from his family and neglected to introduce her to his father when the two overlapped in Columbus. The mild-mannered William allowed himself anger at his son’s behavior. Mary Howells —unless her letters from this period were destroyed— showed her disapproval with a telling silence. Marriage to a woman with apparently low morals and high expectations spelled a catastrophic loss of income. In April 1861, worried that he would not be paid by the Journal, Howells wrote a desperate letter about providing. “Of course, dear mother, if I get this money, I will buy that carpet for you.... I am almost sick when I think of my labor being wasted, and of the disappointment you will feel in hearing of this.” Whether or not he regretted his conduct, he felt powerless to make Elinor or anyone else happy. On her part, neither Elinor nor her Columbus relatives wrote candidly about Howells to Larkin and Mary Mead. Elinor may have been embarrassed not to have received the expected proposal or worried about her family’s acceptance of a man with few prospects. Or perhaps Howells’ behavior— or Mrs. Carter’s coolness—gave her pause.
Always alert to the importance of money and position in a world where a woman’s status depended upon her husband’s, Elinor believed in marrying but also insisted that a woman with a career could lead a happy life unmarried. She herself grew up nursing dreams of being an illustrator or a portraitist. Her parents kept paints and paper on the dining room table for the children to use at odd hours, and they often communicated by drawing pictures for one another. Her brother Larkin had dazzled the citizens of Brattleboro: they awakened one winter’s morning to find an eight-foot-high angel sculpted in glazed snow, which led to the Vermont legislature’s giving him his first commission. He would win national renown for his sculpture in Springfield, Illinois, of Lincoln grasping the Emancipation Proclamation. Another brother, the architect William, went on, with his partners Charles McKim and Stanford White, to give late-nineteenth-century America many of its splendid private houses and public buildings. In 1902, King Victor Emmanuel honored him for designs that brought the Roman and Italian Renaissance to American civic institutions.
Elinor’s knowledge of art was extensive, and Larkin, who treated her like an apprentice, had no doubt about her talent. “Yes I should think you might undertake to paint the head from Mother’s portrait.... If you paint it I shall want it to hang in my room. But you of course know what it will be exposed to [the scrutiny of other artists], therefore work honestly and long, discover all of the beautiful modeling which there is in your mother’s face.” Just two years her senior, Larkin sounded more like a father than a brother. The year he worked with the sculptor Henry Kirke Brown (1855), he wrote his mother that he expected Nell “to be very studious this winter. I hope so, for I am sure she is capable of doing great things and she must shake oª the sleepy way of living.” “All artists make time, they catch at every spare moment.” And here he had a point. Elinor nurtured few illusions about being able to pursue a career if she married, though she would later provide some of the sketches for her husband’s books and supervise the design, building, and renovation of various houses. She did not find the time or have the single-minded concentration her brother thought necessary for an artist.
All the Meads grew up talking about books. Larkin liked to recommend books his father should order for the town library, and, unlike his future brother-in-law, he idolized Walt Whitman. “Have you seen ‘Leaves of Grass’?” he wrote Elinor. “I suppose that is one of the greatest books ever written in this country.... Walt is a printer here in Brooklyn and printed his own book. Mr. Brown has the book on the parlour table and any one coming in must have a few pages read. The first line is this—I celebrate myself,—the third line is this—I loafe and invite my soul.” Elinor shared both her brother’s passion for reading and his critical faculty. She was, How-ells said, an artist “in all but the profession of art.” With her genius for knowing what did and did not succeed, she epitomized everything “aesthetically perfect.”
Marriages require readjustments, as Howells already knew. Many years later, possibly with Elinor in mind, he wrote in The Story of a Play (1898) about a woman who marries a journalist turned playwright:
Though she never dreamed of giving him up again, she sometimes wished she had never seen him.... She believed that she understood his character better than any one else, and would know how to supplement it with her own. She had no ambition herself, but she could lend him a more telescopic vision in his, and keep his aims high, if his self-concentration ever made him short-sighted. He would write plays because he could not help it, but she would inspire him to write them with the lofty sense of duty she would have felt in writing them if she had his gifts. Fiercely protective of her husband, Elinor seems to have shared this view of her own role. She left no hint that she ever doubted her husband’s talents. As things are, marriage is very haphazard.... The belief that there is destiny in it—that there is only one person in the world you could truly love will not hold water.
—w. d. howells, interview, 1897
Howells’ and Elinor’s uncertain courtship took place in the months just prior to America’s greatest calamity, though neither they nor anyone else anticipated its toll. “None of the rumors of war had distracted us from our pleasures or affairs,” Howells remembered, “at least so far as the eyes of youth could see. With our faith in the good ending, as if our national story were a tale that must end well... we had put the day’s anxieties by and hopefully waited for the morrow’s consolations.” A young man in Howells’ position might have found the Civil War a temporary reprieve, perhaps even a way out of an awkward personal situation. Like many in the North and South, he believed the war would be over in sixty days. Reporting on troop maneuvers in Ohio for the New York World, he had a passing idea about entering the “adventure,” chiefly because “business and especially literature” promised to be dull for the next year. A friend of his had been in Columbus trying to get an infantry company he raised accepted for three years’ service, and Howells informed his mother that he might sign on as a lieutenant. The friend failed to get the commission and had to earn his rank in battle. Long before this, however, Howells had decided against soldiering. His brothers Sam and Johnny, meanwhile, joined the Squirrel Hunters, a volunteer force armed mostly with shotguns, recruited to discourage Confederate guerrilla soldiers from penetrating the borders. In a deleted passage from Years of My Youth, Howells wrote: “I still thought of volunteering, and one night, as Price and I sat waiting for the latest dispatches, I was in question so extreme that I said to my fellow-editor, ‘Price, if you will volunteer, I will.’ ‘Well,’ he answered, ‘I won’t,’ and that, for such reason as it had, seemed to close the question.”
As a man determined to be a writer of literature, he did not see the army as a logical stepping stone. “War,” he told Vic, “is always stupid and fool-ish.” Yet his every comment on the war has to be seen as a reflection of his guilt, or at least ambivalence. Not fighting or sacrificing oneself for a noble cause carried its penalties. “Every loyal American who went abroad during the first years of our great war,” he would write in A Fearful Responsibility, “felt bound to make himself some excuse for turning his back on his country in the hour of her trouble.” The fact that the Union cause, no less than the Confederate, soon depended on military conscription makes clear that vast numbers of citizens declined, like Howells, to fight.
For reasons of money as well as principle, Howells made a shrewd decision. Citing his Republican credentials, notably his campaign biography of Lincoln, he enlisted the help of friends and wrote to the German-born George (actually John George) Nicolay, one of President Lincoln’s private secretaries, requesting the post of consul to Munich, Bavaria. Howells not only admired German authors, but he also knew the language. “I want to go [to] Munich,” he wrote, “to pursue the study of German literature, and to have four years’ opportunity. I do not conceive that I have any claims upon the president... but have thought that the rank I held in the ‘noble army of ’ biographers might at least commend me to his notice.” Support for his application came from William Dennison, the governor of Ohio; Salmon P. Chase, now serving as secretary of the treasury; James A. Garfield, still a member of the Ohio Senate; and Charles Sumner, secretary of state. In other words, Howells and his father called in every outstanding Republican debt. Joshua Giddings testified to Howells’ ability and integrity but emphasized William’s service to the party. Those who signed a petition to Lincoln cited Howells’ literary ambitions as evidence of his fitness; as Giddings remarked, “He is a regular poetic contributor to the ‘Atlantic Monthly’—and holds a high place in the estimation of James Russell Lowell and O. W. Holmes.” Moncure Conway, the editor of the Dial, wrote that “Howells’ friends—of whom I am one—love him very much; and covet for him a chance to pursue more freely the studies which they know may end in giving the West what she has not had— one real poet. Emerson told me last summer that he held Howells to be a high promise to us.” No one commented on the irony of his going to Europe to write about the American West. Howells himself must have spread a glowing story of his reception in Boston, which informs these exaggerated, though self-prophetic tributes. His supporters pressed his appointment— anointment may be the better word—expecting him to promote “the growth and influence of American literature.” It became his lifelong work.
The response to his application came from John Hay, at that time another of Lincoln’s young assistant secretaries, later a novelist and biographer and secretary of state under two presidents. Hay told him that although no one else appeared to be so “well supported,” it would be “easier to predict the destination of a thunderbolt than of an office.” He warned How-ells to be ready for either an alternative post, maybe Vienna, or outright disappointment. Vienna or Munich? Did it matter? Any foreign consulate meant a job, almost a sinecure, and for a man of twenty-four who had seldom enjoyed a steady income and may have been thinking of marrying, the stipend seemed handsome. At the least it was a poor man’s answer to the grand tour. He replied to Hay in a letter (of June 24, 1861) calculated to get whatever he could. “Vienna, I notice, is a consulate of $1,500 while Munich is only $1000. I would rather have had the latter at the lesser salary, for though I am certainly poor enough, money was not at all what I wanted. Indeed, I would rather go to almost any other German city than Vienna. Leipzig—is that spoken for? . . . I am acquainted with the Spanish language. Is Cadiz gone the way of Munich?”
As the summer months dragged on, he heard nothing, until an envelope arrived without explanation for the “Consul at Rome, now at Columbus, Ohio.” Since this position seemed to provide no salary except fees the consul himself collected, Howells had no idea how much he might earn. Reluctantly, he accepted the offer, “the inevitable,” as he later wrote, adding that he had never been courageous about the appointment, only dogged. In September, he set off for Washington to negotiate in person but won only George Nicolay’s promise to inquire about the consulate at Venice. Before returning home he stopped in Boston, where he met once again with Lowell and visited James Fields, hoping to find a place for the poems and travel accounts he could send from Europe, or, better yet, a last-minute opportunity for employment.
“After seeing Boston,” he wrote to Dr. and Mrs. Smith, “I re-turned to
N.Y. and so came home.” The “re-turned” implies a visit to Elinor, for a trip through New York allowed an easy stop in Brattleboro. He may or may not have gone to propose to Elinor; if that was his intent, he must have weighed his frustrated sexual attraction and reckless courtship against the consequences of a distant wedding day—to say nothing of the embarrassment and apprehensions of the visit. For the past several months he had made payments on insurance policies, presumably with a view toward marriage, though perhaps to provide for his family in Jefferson should he die abroad. April Hopes, his sardonic look at the obstacles to courtship—the clinging parents, disapproving siblings, and temperamental lovers—recalls his own waverings about the woman he came to see. Could he and should he commit himself ? And did he or did he not come to an understanding with Elinor before leaving the Mead house? At the least, they agreed to write.
The uncertainties in Washington, DC, matched those in Brattleboro. At the time of Bull Run and widespread national crisis, State Department inef&ficiency made any planning dif&ficult. As a condition of his consulship Howells had posted a bond, which somehow got lost and was found again when he arrived from Jefferson with a new one. The bond found, he lost Rome, again without explanation. The political lottery decided, Venice became his destination. “In that simple day of a united North,” he wrote, patronage determined all such jobs, regardless of quali&fications or expertise. It was no “simple day”—in a far from “united North”—but it was a time when “office, like osculation” went “by favor,” and when young men, avoiding the war and cashing in their political chips, seized the opportunity to serve themselves, the Republican party, and their country abroad.
It has been said, not necessarily with malice, that Howells spent the Civil War in a Venetian gondola. Certainly he resided in Venice through those years, and he owned a gondola. But what others have seen as his happy escape, he regarded as daunting. He knew little of the Italian language and nothing of Venice, except that he would be posted to a city still straining under Austrian rule. Desperate for company on his voyage, the consul designate postponed his departure by a week to accommodate the plans of Harrison B. Brown, the new assistant consul at Civita Vecchia, the main port of Rome. With a stipend of $1,500 and a month’s pay in advance, he spent ten days in New York with Quincy Ward, the friend he had met in Ohio, who was, like Larkin Mead, a student of Henry Kirke Brown. His Columbus walks with Elinor had frequently included a stop at Ward’s studio. Now, giving a sympathetic ear to stories of interrupted courtship or lost opportunities, Ward tried to ease his friend’s anxiety about the impending voyage and life in a country he had never seen. Howells’ arrangement with Elinor to correspond gave him some consolation, though for how long or on what basis they would write remained in doubt. In one of his last requests before sailing, he asked that his mother tear his poems out of the Atlantic and have them bound into a chapbook. After years abroad, he wanted a past to return to.