Deadly Eliza

Ruth Bernard Yeazell

  • The Whole Family: A Novel by Twelve Authors by William Dean Howells et al
    Duke, 416 pp, £13.50, November 2001, ISBN 0 8223 2838 0
  • Publishing the Family by June Howard
    Duke, 304 pp, £13.50, November 2001, ISBN 0 8223 2771 6

We have good reason to be wary of paternal metaphors for authorship, but characterising W.D. Howells as the father of The Whole Family is hard to resist – if only because it reminds us of how little control a modern patriarch has over his offspring. A composite novel by 12 hands that originated in a suggestion from Howells to the editor of Harper’s Bazar (as the magazine was then called) in the spring of 1906, The Whole Family began its serial run the following year with a contribution by Howells himself. Though he had volunteered, unsurprisingly, to write the chapter called ‘The Father’, he had not intended to begin with his own contribution. As he had conceived the project, which was to be a realistic portrait of an American family ‘in middling circumstances, of average culture and experiences’, it would open with the voice of the grandmother and proceed in orderly sequence through the generations. But what with the refusal of some writers to join the enterprise – Mark Twain was an early dropout – and the work schedule of others, the engenderer was compelled to get the family under way. No sooner had he done so, however, than he was upstaged by an ‘old-maid aunt’: a character whom Howells had originally relegated to the tenth chapter, but who arrived in the next instalment, by Mary Wilkins Freeman, to drop what the editor later termed ‘a bomb-shell on our literary hearthstone’. Strenuously resisting Howells’s characterisation of the aunt even as she took unexpected charge of the plot, Freeman initiated the first of the quarrels that were to trouble the family both within the narrative and outside it. Howells’s letter to the magazine’s editor, Elizabeth Jordan, has not survived, but according to Jordan, it ‘almost scorched the paper it was written on’: ‘Don’t, don’t let her ruin our beautiful story!’

Howells’s original proposal for The Whole Family had devoted more attention to its multiple voices than to what was to happen in the narrative; though he did suggest that ‘the family might be in some such moment of vital agitation as that attending the Young Girl’s engagement, or pending engagement’, his imagination seems to have been chiefly engaged by the idea of rounding up a dozen leading writers, each of whom would treat a common subject ‘in character’. ‘There could be fun enough,’ he had added, ‘but each should try seriously to put himself or herself really into the personage’s place. I think the more seriously the business was treated, the better.’ The work that eventually resulted wasn’t the first or the last such collaborative effort. Some contemporary readers were reminded of Six of One by Half a Dozen of the Other (1872), a magazine serial whose most famous contributor was Harriet Beecher Stowe; and June Howard cites several other examples from the period, as well as more recent variations on the practice in the writing of detective novels and science fiction, among other genres. An experiment by cartoonists, subsequently published as The Narrative Corpse (1990), cited as precedent the game of Consequences, which the Surrealists used to play. In 1997, John Updike began a composite fiction on the Internet, and Amazon.com bankrolled a contest to continue it, with daily winners awarded a thousand dollars and a Grand Prize of $100,000 at the end for one of the contestants chosen by lottery. Harper’s Bazar does not appear to have been so extravagant, but it, too, marketed its project partly as a game: individual instalments were published anonymously, and readers invited to guess their authorship from the accompanying list of contributors. Indeed, given the gimmicky nature of the enterprise, what seems remarkable is not that Jordan decided to run with Howells’s idea but that he himself should have treated it with such apparent earnestness.

By the time he had written his own contribution, Howells was also prepared to suggest that the idea of The Whole Family might prove a salutary corrective to American individualism:

What I wish to imply is that an engagement or a marriage is much more a family affair, and much less a personal affair than Americans usually suppose. As we live on, we find that family ties, which held us very loosely in youth, or after we ceased to be children, are really almost the strongest things in life. A marriage cannot possibly concern the married pair alone; but it is in the notion that it can that most of our marriages are made. It is also in this notion that most of them are unmade.

There is nothing inconsistent about these various plans for the novel, but in retrospect, at least, it seems clear that parcelling out The Whole Family to 12 different writers was more likely to compound the ‘personal’ than to diminish it. The young girl’s relatives had no trouble making her engagement their business, too, but the more seriously the contributors took the injunction to throw themselves into their characters – not to mention the more seriously they took the need to produce a serial narrative – the more conflict of one sort or another became the defining feature of the family.

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