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Carl Van Doren (1885–1950).  The American Novel.  1921.


Page 138

however, as the series lengthened, that Howells was not doing full justice either to his material or to himself. The conventions of Boston restricted him. He who hardly ever portrayed a Bostonian of the respectable classes in anything but unlovely attitudes; he who, though an outsider, had as editor of the Atlantic inherited the power in a declining literary society—he fell too much into Boston habits and confined his art too much within the respectable reticences of Boston. Not without some complaint he nevertheless accepted the fate of writing largely for women—Boston women; he came to the decision that “the more smiling aspects of life … are the more American.” A subsequent critical generation has accused him of thus vitiating his practice while contending for a realistic precept. He dared for the sake of truthfulness to represent human beings in their “habitual moods of vacancy and tiresomeness” but was not willing to represent them in the hardly less habitual moods which make mankind so often illicit or savage or sordid. As a matter of fact he never consciously compromised, for he held that the lawless moods of men belong to those “heroic or occasional phases” which he left to the romancers. His novels in effect pay an extraordinary compliment to civilization on its success with mankind. Sterner critics call his compliment flattery and his shrinking from ugliness and vice a womanish defect. It has not generally been remarked how closely he stood with Emerson in the orthodox New England optimism which governed opinion in Boston at the end of its classic period—closing Boston eyes to evil and disease and pointing to theosophical anodynes.



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