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Although William Dean Howells is most frequently credited with the advent of literary realism, the intricate ninth chapter of his well-known 1882 novel, A Modern Instance,(1) suggests that the "Dean of American Letters" also nostalgically embraced the lost ideals of Thoreauvian transcendentalism. For years, Howells' critics and biographers, such as Edwin Cady and Lewis P. Simpson, have noted the backwards-glancing sections of Howells' Literary Friends and Acquaintance that link the realist to the introspective yet outward-looking transcendentalist. Yet with the exception of "The Place of Walden in The Undiscovered Country," a two-page note by Rita K. Gollin, there have not appeared longer studies or books which trace the influence of Henry David Thoreau upon the novels of William Dean Howells.(2)

In 1860, William Dean Howells met Henry David Thoreau and was rendered dumbstruck. Apparently, an overawed young Howells thought that he was going to meet, and have his budding career blessed by, a romantic dreamer--a sort of ethereal, living martyr. The twenty-three-year-old could not have been more surprised by the actuality. John Brown's champion--the respected genius of Walden himself--kept the fawning Howells at a sobering distance by motioning the junior writer to a remote chair, one that, although "not quite so far off as Ohio,"(3) effectively eliminated the potential for any sort of comfortable intimacy. Disconsolate and flustered by Thoreau's cool, even-tempered reception, Howells rapidly fell to small talk, forgetting to ask his longtime idol many of the pressing social questions that he had prepared for the interview. Indeed, nothing that Nathaniel Hawthorne, who was acting as both guide and character-witness for Howells on his first literary tour of Boston, had done prepared the starry-eyed Ohioan for a frustrating first encounter with his imagined "demigod."(4)

Fortunately for Howells' future readers, the Thoreau sitting across the room in 1860 was both grounded and practical. The New Englander, who might perhaps even be characterized as bitterly but realistically negative about such crises as the John Brown incident and the slavery-enmeshed Mexican War, had particularly unromantic views about the responsibilities of an author with social vision, and he did not hesitate to burst young Howells' bubble about the supposed beauty of suffering. In short, Henry David Thoreau set the literary sycophant on his ear. Doing so--although unbeknownst to Howells at the time--was actually just the blessing that both the youth and his career needed. The unexpected conversation opened his eyes with respect to many things, including the relationships of both author and individual to the dangers of romancing a mass-market economy and mentality.

In A Modern Instance Howells, who often manipulates characterization in order to mimic and mock contemporary cultural tension, presents two characters--Bartley Hubbard and Kinney--engaged in heated discourse about the implications of and relationships between emerging capitalism and vanishing rural simplicity. As the protagonists discuss issues such as clothing, shelter, newspapers, food, and philosophy, Kinney--Howells' log-chopping prophet--develops an uncanny likeness to Henry David Thoreau. Kinney is an honest, self-motivated philosopher-woodsman who symbolizes the pastoral beliefs of a bygone era; Hubbard, Howells' amoral and self-promoting newspaperman whose name recalls Hubbard's Hill, the last steep barrier that Thoreau had to climb in order to reach Walden pond, embodies a sort of Emersonian "self-reliant" gone awry.

Although these likenesses are perhaps coincidental, timing, history, and circumstance suggest otherwise. Howells himself notes both that he read Walden in 1858 and that he longed to speak to Thoreau about it and John Brown.(5) Although their 1860 meeting during Howells' first visit to Boston did not lead to a personal friendship, Thoreau continued to influence Howells' writing for several decades. While Howells seems never to have reviewed directly a book by Thoreau, his reflective comments in other works of non-fiction as well as his fictional characterizations and settings suggest that Howells did consider him significant. For instance, in Howells' 1880 Atlantic Monthly review of Henry James' book on Hawthorne, Howells chastises his contemporary for "dealing lightly with the memory of Thoreau" and for declaring that Thoreau is "worse than provincial, he is parochial."(6) Howells further laments that James has ignored the "large-mindedness of Concord, as expressed in literature" like Thoreau's.(7) Perhaps James, like the youthful Howells, missed the mark. Unlike James, however, whose opinion of Thoreau never altered for the better, Howells' seems to have done exactly that over time.

In "My First Visit to New England," first published in 1894,(8) Howells depicts himself at twenty-three as a writer who was still wet behind the ears and seeking integration into the Boston-Cambride-Concord literary community. At fifty-six, however, with years of literary success to his credit, Howells deems Thoreau a genius "who came somewhat before his time, "one whose "drastic criticism of [his] expediential and mainly futile civilization would find more intelligent acceptance" in the twentieth century than it did in the 1850s.(9) Looking back at this uncomfortable yet epiphanic interview some two decades after the fact, Howells attributes his feelings of disappointment to his own literary immaturity, mourning that it was his own "misfortune if [he] could not [then] profit" by Thoreau's words, but suggesting that "he could profit better by them now."(10) Indeed, the adult Howells praises his early hero as a sort of prototypical realist, declaring that Thoreau was monumental because he had "as clear a vision of the falsity and folly of society as we still have."(11) In Howells' opinion, Walden reflected most accurately the "hollowness," "hopelessness," and "unworthiness" of "the life of the world" as it existed in its state of "cruel and stupid vanity and luxury."(12) Yet more than one work by the elder author may have directly influenced Howells to include Thoreauvian parallels in A Modern Instance.

Early Spring in Massachusetts, a posthumous collection of passages from Thoreau's journals, edited by H. G. O. Blake, was published in April of 1881, thus inciting a revival of interest in Thoreau.(13) Instantly popular, the collection was reviewed in the Dial and the Nation, two journals that Howells undoubtedly read, at least upon occasion, as they quite frequently printed notices about his own works. Quite possibly Howells had his interest piqued by the appearance of Early Spring in Massachusetts. Moreover, oppressed by the then inexplicable and untreatable illness of his daughter Winifred, Howells was experiencing a severe loss of faith in both scientific technology and the merits of the city. As he sat down to write yet another novel, he was in great distress over the impersonality and sterility of life in the concrete jungle. For Howells, who owed his success largely to the patronage of the urban masses, "progress" seemed bittersweet. What could be better, under these circumstances, than a multivalent reconsideration of Walden? Using A Modern Instance as the site for his exploration, Howells asks both himself and his audience several pertinent questions exploring the implications of a Thoreauvian lifestyle for the 1880s. The bitter nostalgia of his text asks whether there can be a return to individualism and to nature that is utterly realistic, rather than sadly reflective or blindly utopian. Ultimately, Howells' characters force both the late nineteenth-century reader and his readers today to question whether "self-reliance" in the Thoreauvian sense has voluntarily surrendered to self-centered greed and the desire to use others for personal gain.

In order to navigate such queries and to demonstrate the increasing emphasis that others play in self- and world-definition, Howells offers his audience a sort of multi-stance, interactive dialogue in A Modern Instance, rather than the sole narrator associated with Walden. One interlocutor in this dialogue, Kinney, rises "bright and early," so that he may perform his daily tasks quickly and then be free to enjoy the "beautiful morning" (98). Like Thoreau, who finds it "wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time" because he has "a good deal of time to think when [he is] around by [him]self all day," Kinney thrives in his isolated habitat (135, 99). Also like his Transcendental counterpart, Kinney believes that "commun[ing] with nature" is essential to developing a "first-rate spiritual condition" (102). Howells' self-motivated naturalist has a heart "fed on ... metaphysics" and a soul "bouyed up by ... the maxims of Emerson" (99). Of these bits of wisdom, Kinney most specifically has a "dim recollection of language thrown out at the object," which he claims explains man's relationship to and role in nature (105). According to George N. Bennett, this reference espouses "Emerson's theory of language in Nature."(14) Yet it also bears an intriguing resemblance to Thoreau's contemplation of "the language which all things and events speak" in the "Reading" section of Walden (111).(15) Kinney symbolizes and actually lives by a variety of transcendental tenets, while his opposite in the dialogue, Hubbard, who is all capitalist, distorts such views for his own personal benefit.

Kinney declares that he "didn't take much of a fancy to Hubbard" because he "didn't like [Hubbard's] new clothes" (107), recalling Thoreau's cautionary maxim, "beware of all enterprises that require new clothes, and not rather a new wearer of clothes" (23). Hubbard, with his personal tailor and his twisted capitalist notion that the clothes make the man, is in direct conflict with Kinney, who holds the transcendental belief that outer appearance does not play as crucial a role in one's success as does inner motivation. Although Hubbard's superficial materialism is rapidly becoming common in A Modern Instance's realm of American business, Kinney clings to his Thoreauvian ideals and remains wary of what Thoreau called "sailing under false colors" (24).

The contrasts between the two characters' convictions appear on virtually every page of Howells' text, thus emphasizing the desirability--yet improbability--of a return to an all but abandoned way of life. For example, while Hubbard expresses dissatisfaction with his small yet modernized Boston home, Kinney, who grew up in the same Maine woods that Thoreau so fondly recalled visiting, revels in his "long, low structure of logs" (101). Like Thoreau regarding life at Walden Pond, Kinney feels that--at least temporarily--he has come "home ... to the woods" just miles from Equity, the fictionalized Boston suburb which Howells most probably intended to represent Concord (101)--"Equity," suggesting equal or balanced, echoing "Concord," that which is in harmony or balanced. Although it is immediately obvious to Hubbard that Kinney's "terribly peaceful" lakeside hut consists of but one room, Kinney invites his skeptical guest to "come into the dining room and sit down in the parlor" (102); again, this scene simultaneously echoes Walden and precludes a return to such a naturalistic state. Just as Thoreau, in the "House-Warming" section of Walden, extolls his tiny rustic dwelling, Kinney, who gives Hubbard the step-by-step grand tour of his single-roomed domicile, reasserts Thoreau's claim that "all the attractions of a house [are] concentrated in one room.., kitchen, chamber, parlor, and keepingroom" (242). Kinney shares Thoreau's appreciation for a place "where you can see all the treasures of the house at one view," one "where you can see so necessary a thing as a barrel or ladder ... and pay your respects to the fire that cooks your dinner and the oven that bakes your bread" (243-44).

But Kinney's Thoreauvian philosophy of living is not the norm in late nineteenth-century New England. In fact, Thoreau's own frustrated fear that the closed-doored, multi-roomed "modern palace" may replace his own more organic, open ideal seems to have been realized in A Modern Instance. For most late nineteenth-century readers, if there is a contemporary hero to be found in Howells' work, it is Bartley Hubbard, the social-climbing, self-promoting dandy, the "college bred" reporter in search of a big story and a bigger house. Often harsh and disappointed in his description of Hubbard, Howells nostalgically seems to appreciate the time when Kinney's way of life was heroic, yet he reluctantly acknowledges that simplicity and character have been replaced by ostentation and cut-throat capitalism. This substitution, however, is not necessarily for the better. Whereas Kinney, like Thoreau, is able to move comfortably between the artificiality of the city and his natural retreat, Bartley cannot.

As Bartley, who feels confined enough in his own larger and more modern city apartment, attempts to enter the woodsman's domicile, "a curious feeling possessed him: sickness of himself as of some one else; a longing, consciously helpless, to be something different" (101). For Bartley, capitalist greed and the back-stabbing marketplace seem to have made transcending materialism impossible; upon crossing the threshold of Kinney's home, he experiences "a sense of captivity to habits and thoughts and hopes that centered in himself, and served him alone" (101). Like the slick, cigarette-inhaling urban gents in The Undiscovered Country, Hubbard is "out of place at Walden."(16) Moreover, Kinney's grocery-list itemization of furniture sounds like the one given by Thoreau in "Economy." Howells' character values his own freedoms from the trappings of new wealth, and he seems to agree with Thoreau that "most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind" (Walden, 14). Such minimalism and thrift are vulgar in the materialist eyes of Hubbard, yet even the crudest item, a board-topped barrel-desk, plays a vital role in Kinney's life; it is where he "compose[s] his favorite works" (103). When asked by the city slicker to explain the appeal of such utilitarian surroundings, Kinney "laughs in unselfish enjoyment," and simply states that "any man engaged in intellectual pursuits wants to come out and commune with nature, every little while" (101-2). The allusions to Thoreau and Walden seem deliberate and clear.

At this point in Kinney's and Hubbard's encounter, Howells defends Kinney--and by association, Thoreau--from expected negative commentary. The author asserts that Kinney, like Thoreau, is far from a hermit or a crackpot; rather, Howells' cabin-dweller lives within close enough "proximity to the village" that he might "loaf in upon civilization at least once a week" to glance at newspaper headlines and converse with friends (100). This scene, which appears to be a direct reference to Walden's "The Village," serves a dual purpose: it both negates the notion of Kinney as anti-social and introduces Howells' Thoreauvian ambivalence about newspapers and journalists. According to Thoreau, "gossip" travels "from newspaper to newspaper" (167). Although Kinney initially likes both newspapers and his visitor, who is a reporter for The Equity Free Press, Hubbard's later theft and unauthorized publication of Kinney's life-story rapidly align the nature-lover's views on gossip and tabloid reporters with those asserted by Thoreau in "The Village." Kinney--and Howells himself--seem to have inherited such uneasiness and mistrust of a literary economic marketplace directly from Thoreau. Each appears wary of mass consumerism, and each longs for a more personal and honest society.

This yearning for a more earthy simplicity is perhaps nowhere more evident than in Kinney's impassioned monologue about beans. His diatribe on vegetable growing suggests, as does Thoreau's chapter "The Bean-Field," that farming for one's subsistence is "steady and self-respecting ... [a] small Herculean labor" (155). Kinney, who appreciates the occasional piece of pie, elaborates that people may take pleasure in consuming sweets, but they can "regularly live on beans" (104). Moreover, beans, according to Kinney, are inspirational; a "brain-food" to be cherished, the worthy poetic subjects of "those ancients--old Horace or Virgil" (104), beans even have their own "philosophy" (105). Superficially light in tone, this episode itself carries weighty philosophic implications. For Howells, the "bean scene" is about self-sufficiency, man's relationship with nature, and the ethics of individualism, and although Howells does not go so far as to dig in the dirt or chase off crop-stealing animals and scavenging birds, he does--by way of beans--manage to emphasize the same sort of values inherent to Thoreau and Walden.

Several famous philosophers and prominent literary figures directly mentioned in "Economy," "Reading," and other sections of Walden are discussed in Hubbard's visit to Kinney in A Modern Instance. Howells lets his reader know that Kinney may be a bit rustic, but he is well-read. Virgil, Horace, Darwin, Agassiz, and "old Gutty" (Goethe) are each briefly positively referred to by Kinney, as are Greeley and Emerson, two of the twenty-three men invited by Thoreau to speak at the Concord Lyceum during 1842-43.(17) Poets and metaphysics are praised repeatedly, and the French and German thinkers are lauded as "smart, active people," a kind of "missing link" (106). Significantly, Kinney adds to Thoreau's collection of philosophers and belief systems Sir Edward Burnett Tylor and his theory of "survival" (107). According to Tylor's work Anthropology: An Introduction to the Study of Men and Civilization (1881), civilizations "evolve out of their pasts and are not static."(18) As if theorizing Howells' staging of the fictional rebirth of Thoreau and Walden in A Modern Instance, Tylor claims that "looking closely into the thoughts, arts and habits of any nation, the student finds everywhere the remains of old things out of which they arose" (107). Predictably, Hubbard rejects the very ideas that his fictional interlocutor, Kinney, seems to champion. For Hubbard, "civilization" involves a radical departure from the old.

The Thoreauvian philosophy so obviously associated with Kinney sharply contrasts with Howells' picture of Hubbard--a message which seems to indicate the moral dilemma that late nineteenth-century American society was faced with, and which merits closer scrutiny. Nevertheless, in this dialogic ninth chapter of A Modern Instance, Howells manages to convey an impinging sense of loss; he romanticizes Thoreau and America's Transcendental past even as he sadly acknowledges that the growth of capitalism and the city must ever change the nature of man--and man's relationship to nature.


(1) William Dean Howells, A Modern Instance (1882; Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1977). Hereafter cited parenthetically.

(2) Rita K. Gollin, "The Place of Walden in The Undiscovered Country," Thoreau Society Bulletin 137 (Fall 1976), 7-8. My dissertation traces the influences--both direct and indirect--of Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, and various other transcendentalist writers upon several realist novels, including Howells' A Modern Instance, The Undiscovered Country, The Altrurian Romances, and Vacation of the Kelywyns.

(3) This meeting is described in detail in William Dean Howells, Literary Friends and Acquaintance (1900; Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1968).

(4) Howells, Literary Friends and Acquaintance, 55.

(5) Howells, Literary Friends and Acquaintance, 53.

(6) William Dean Howells, "Review of Henry James' Hawthorne," Atlantic Monthly 45 (February 1880), 282-83.

(7) Howells, Atlantic Monthly, 283.

(8) William Dean Howells, "My First Visit to New England," Harper's Monthly 89 (1894), 441-51; repr. in Literary Friends and Acquaintance, 1900. Subsequent notes cite the essay as reprinted.

(9) Howells, Literary Friends and Acquaintance, 15.

(10) Howells, Literary Friends and Acquaintance, 55.

(11) Howells, Literary Friends and Acquaintance, 54.

(12) Howells, Literary Friends and Acquaintance, 53.

(13) See Gary Scharnhorst, Henry David Thoreau: An Annotated Bibliography of Comment and Criticism Before 1900 (New York: Garland, 1992). According to Scharnhorst, Blake had begun regularly reading from Thoreau's journals and printing previously unpublished excerpts as early as August 7, 1879. In addition, papers such as the Boston Daily Advertiser, The New York Times, and the New York Tribune printed lengthy reviews of both Blake's lectures at the Concord School of Philosophy and of his 1879 and 1880 partial reprints of Thoreau's manuscripts.

(14) George N. Bennett, "Textual Commentary," A Modern Instance, 463-85.

(15) Henry D. Thoreau, Walden (1854; Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1989). Herafter cited parenthetically.

(16) Gollin, 7-8.

(17) Franklin Benjamin Sanborn, Recollections of Seventy Years: Vol. 2 (Boston: R. G. Badger, 1909), 569-70.

(18) Sir Edward Burnett Tylor, Anthropology: An Introduction to the Study of Man and Civilization (1881; D. Appleton and Company, 1896).

Susan M. Stone University of South Carolina
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Author:Stone, Susan M.
Publication:Studies in American Fiction
Article Type:Critical Essay
Date:Sep 22, 1999

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