A Broken Teacup

Amanda Claybaugh

  • William Dean Howells: A Writer’s Life by Susan Goodman and Carl Dawson
    California, 519 pp, £22.95, May 2005, ISBN 0 520 23896 6

At the end of his life, with his reputation already waning, William Dean Howells remarked that he would be remembered for the quantity of his writing, if not for its quality. He had published a hundred books: plays and poetry collections, memoirs and travel essays, novels and novellas. The plays are mostly undistinguished, the non-fiction writings good on the whole, the novels sharply divided between minor and major. The minor novels form a forgettable string of almost comically interchangeable titles (An Imperative Duty, A Fearful Responsibility, A Foregone Conclusion, A Counterfeit Presentment); the major ones include The Rise of Silas Lapham, one of the great novels of business, and A Hazard of New Fortunes, one of the great novels of city life. These two books are among the very best works of US literature in the postbellum period (1865-1914), but even they are not consistently taught on university courses, and they are very rarely read for pleasure.

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