Firkins dismisses the story as "a tale whose careless brevity belies its weight and saps its power. More important, it reveals Howells' tendency to judge human values and behavior pragmatically, an attitude which pervades his entire career as a novelist. His best novels and stories resemble laboratory experiments in pragmatic ethics, in which he exposes the beliefs of his characters to the test of experience.
An Impersonal Explanation1 It was Thackeray2 who noted how actors, when they had a holiday, always went and saw a play. I fancy that they form the kindest and best part of the house at such times. They know how hard it is to do what the people on the stage are doing; if they are quick to what is ill-done, they are quick to what is well done, too; and from what I have seen of their behavior at actors matines,3 as they are called, when the profession pretty much fills the house, I am ready to say, that they are the most lenient, the most generous of all the spectators.
It is much the same, I believe, with novelists, whom I will assume for the purposes of illustration, to be so largely of my own mind and make, that I need not consider those who are otherwise.
In fact, I will assume, as a working hypothesis that I am exactly like every other novelist, and I will speak for the whole body of fiction-mongers in saying that when I get a day off from a novel of my own, there is nothing I like so much as to lose myself in the novel of some one else.
When I have not a whole day, I am very glad of a half day, or even such hours and halfhours as I can steal from sleep after going to bed at night, and before getting up in the morning.
I do not despise other kinds of reading. I like history, I like biography, I like travels, I like poetry, I like drama, I like metaphysics; but I suspect that if I could once be got to tell the whole truth, it would appear that I liked all these in the measure they reminded me of the supreme literary form, the fine flower of the human story, the novel; and if I have anywhere said anything else to the contrary, I take it back, at least for the time being.
You would have thought perhaps that having written so many novels myself,the procession has now been some twenty-five years in passing a given point,I would not care to read any; but we novelists, like the actors, are so in love with our art that we cannot get enough of it; and rather than read no novels at all, I would read my own, over and over again.
In fact I often do this, and I have probably read them more times than any person present, not because I admire them so very much, but because when I find myself in a difficult place in some new one, I can learn from the novel-writing and novel-reading an impersonal explanation of lost ones how I once behaved in another difficult place.
If I go to some other novelist's book to take a leaf from it, I am apt to become so interested in the story, that I forget what I went to it for, and rise from it as honest as I sat down. But I know the story in my own books so thoroughly that I can give myself without hindrance to the study of the method, which is what I want.
That is what we go to one another's novels for. We read them for pleasure, of course, but for a pleasure quite different from that which other readers find in them. The pleasure they yield is probably greater for us than for any other kind of reader; but again we are like the actors at the play: We may forget the shop, as I have just now pretended, but the shop does not forget us; sooner or later we find that we have had it with us; and here appears that chasmal difference between the author and the reader, which Goethe4 says can never be bridged.
The reader who is not an author considers what the book is; the author who is a reader, considers, will he, nill he, how the book has been done.
It is so in every art. The painter, sculptor, architect, musician feels to his inmost soul the beauty of the picture, statue, edifice, symphony, but he feels still more thoroughly theskill which manifests that beauty. This difference is from everlasting to everlasting, and it disposes instantly of the grotesque pretension that the artist is not the best critic of his art.
He is the best of all possible critics. Others may learn to enjoy, to reason and to infer in the presence of a work of art; but he alone who has wrought in the same kind can feel and know concerning it from instinct and from experience.
Construction and criticism go hand in hand. No man ever yet imagined beauty without imagining more beauty and less; he senses, as the good common phrase has it, the limitations to the expression of beauty; and if he is an artist he puts himself in the place of the man who made the thing of beauty before him, clothes himself in his possibilities, and lives the failure and the success which it records.
His word, if honest, is the supreme criticism. By beauty of course I mean truth, for the one involves the other; it is only the false in art which is ugly, and it is only the false which is immoral.
The truth may be indecent, but it cannot be vicious, it can never corrupt or deprave; and I should say this in defence of the grossest material honestly treated in modern novels as against the painted and perfumed meretriciousness of the novels that went before them.
I conceive that apart from all the clamor about schools of fiction is the question of truth, how to get it in, so that it may get itself out again as beauty, the divinely living thing, which all men love and worship.
So I make truth the prime test of a novel. If I do not find that it is like life, then it does not exist for me as art; it is ugly, it is ludicrous, it is impossible.
I do not expect a novel to be wholly true; I have never read one that seemed to me so except Tolstoy's5 novels; but I expect it to be a constant endeavor for the truth, and I perceive beauty in it so far as it fulfills this endeavor.
I am quite willing to recognize and enjoy whatever measure of truth I find in a novel that is partly or mainly false; only, if I come upon the falsehood at the outset I am apt not to read that novel.
But I do not bear such a grudge against it as I do against the novel which lures me on with a fair face of truth, and drops the mask midway. If you ask me for illustrations, I am somewhat at a loss, but if you ask me for examples, they are manifold. In English, some untruthful novelists, or those working from an ideal of effect, are Thackeray, Dickens, Bulwer, Reade, and all their living followers; in French, Dumas, Feuillet, Ohnet; in Spanish Valera; in Russian, measurably Dostoyevsky;6 in Norwegian, none that I know of.
It is right to say, however that of some of the untruthful novelists, and notably of Thackeray, that they were the victims of their period.
If Thackeray had been writing in our time, I have no question but he would have been one of its most truthful artists. The truth which I mean, the truth which is the only beauty, is truth to human experience, and human experience is so manifold and so recondite, that no scheme can be too remote, too airy for the test.
It is a well ascertained fact concerning the imagination that it can work only with the stuff of experience. It can absolutely create nothing; it can only compose.
The most fantastic extravagance comes under the same law that exacts likeness to the known as well as the closest and severest study of life.
Once for all, then, obedience to this law is the creed of the realist, and rebellion is the creed of the romanticist.
Both necessarily work under it, but one willingly, to beautiful effect, and the other unwillingly to ugly effect. For the reader, whether he is an author too, or not, the only test of a novel's truth is his ownknowledge of life. Is it like what he has seen or felt?William Dean Howells American novelist, critic, short story writer, essayist, travel writer, autobiographer, dramatist, poet, and biographer.
Alfred Habegger, "From Painful Cult to Painful Realism: Annie Ogle's A Lost Love and W. D. Howells's Ben Halleck and Penelope Lapham," in American Realism and the Canon, ed. Tom Quirk and Gary Scharnhorst (Newark: Univ. of Delaware Press, ), pp. – 3 Daniel T.
O'Hara, "Smiling through Pain: The Practice of Self in The Rise of Silas. 1 William Dean Howells, The Rise of Silas Lapham (New York: Viking Penguin, ), p.
2 Howells, "Novel-Writing and Novel-Reading: An Impersonal Explanation. Story: Novel-Writing and Novel_reading an Impersonal Explanation. construction and criticism go hand in hand. The readers "own experience of life" is the only test available to the audience.
10/ From Novel-Writing and Novel-Reading: An Impersonal Explanation, William Dean Howells. pgs – Sister Carrie, Theodore Dreiser. pgs – In Sister Carrie, the language used grabbed my attention right away. Publication date Note The 30 letters by Henry James, selected from the Elizabeth Jordan papers in the Manuscript Division of the New York Public Library, were written to her as editor of the Harper's bazaar between and