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.

Although each of the chapters was originally intended to be narrated by its central character (a rule that all subsequent contributors followed), Howells chose to present ‘The Father’ obliquely: the opening chapter is told from the point of view of a neighbouring newspaperman, and a good deal of it is understandably devoted to setting the family in its social context and to providing brief sketches of its members. Prominent inhabitants of a central New York town called Eastridge, the Talberts live in a big house with a mansard roof in the outdated ‘taste of 1875’ and derive their income from the Plated-Ware Works, where Mr Talbert – ‘materially the first man of the place’ – has worked his way up from manager to owner. The girl whose engagement has just been announced is the father’s favourite, but he also has an older son and daughter, both of whose spouses contribute to the narrative, and two younger ones. (It was the small boy whom Mark Twain had declined to impersonate: even if ‘he has a story to tell,’ he wrote to Jordan after reading the early chapters, ‘he is not moved to tell it through me.’) A grandmother on the mother’s side lives with the family, while the unmarried aunt is a frequent visitor. In addition to Howells, Freeman and Jordan herself, these roles were eventually filled by Henry James, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps and seven others whose names have largely disappeared from literary history: Mary Heaton Vorse, Mary Stewart Cutting, John Kendrick Bangs, Edith Wyatt, Mary R. Shipman Andrews, Alice Brown and Henry Van Dyke (‘the friend of the family’).

Apart from arranging for the girl to have met her fiancé at college, so that the gentleman in question remains a promising mystery to her relatives, Howells did little in his chapter to advance the plot. The arrival of the unmarried aunt, however, brought complications in abundance. Much admired for her tales of New England spinsterhood, Freeman was the obvious choice for this character, but probably for that very reason she was determined not to let Howells have his way with the stereotype. Instead of an ageing ‘maiden lady’ with the usual ‘disappointment’ in the distant past (‘a date so remote’, in Howells’s formula, ‘that it was only matter of pathetic hearsay, now’), Freeman made Elizabeth Talbert a pretty redhead of 34 with a habit of dressing in pink and a history of making men fall in love with her – a history that includes Howells’s newspaperman, as well, most recently, as her niece’s intended. Indeed, the ‘old-maid aunt’, she herself announces, ‘has ceased to exist’: the figure ‘is as much of an anomaly as a spinning-wheel’, though the old-fashioned Talberts do not know it. Howells was apparently not alone in protesting these developments, but both writers were valuable assets to their publisher; and opinion was sufficiently divided to persuade Jordan to let the chapter stand. The result was that subsequent contributors spent most of their energy coping with ‘the deadly Eliza’, as James was to call her. By the close of the novel their combined efforts have succeeded in reducing her to a joke: the hapless collegian takes off for the West, while the object of her former ‘disappointment’ surfaces just long enough to arrange his permanent escape to a monastery. Having exchanged her flamboyant pink for nun-like black, the redhead is last seen setting off to join forces with a sleazy medium named Mrs Chataway, who hopes to exploit her ‘enormous magnetism’.

In her thoughtful study of the project, June Howard suggests that it was the threat of women abandoning the home that most troubled the others in Aunt Elizabeth. But it seems more likely that they were put off by her combination of aggressive sexuality and self-centredness – effectively, a grab for attention on Freeman’s part that violated the unspoken rules of the narrative compact. (One contributor tried to convince herself that Freeman intended her chapter as a satire, though the evidence shows that it was offered quite seriously.) It can’t have helped that Freeman pointedly made Elizabeth of an age difficult to categorise, or that her bold first-person followed immediately on Howells’s indirect characterisation of the father. Among the ironic effects of Freeman’s intervention was the others’ tacit decision to break up the engagement: no young man who couldn’t choose between aunt and niece, they seem to have decided, could possibly be welcomed into the family. Presumably because this young man was still an outsider, Howells had never allotted him a chapter: he remained a cipher easily manipulated by the other writers before being ignominiously replaced at the eleventh hour by a more respectable suitor.

Another consequence of Aunt Elizabeth’s arrival was the virtual disappearance of what Howells had originally intended as a sober argument about coeducation. He had planned for the match to take place at college, he explained, because he wished ‘to indicate . . . that young people ought to know at least the workings of the male and female mind as fully as they can. Their natures are diverse enough, though not so diverse as we like to pretend, and the difference is exaggerated by the separate training.’ Though the father says something very like this in the opening chapter, almost nothing that follows suggests that minds of either sex have been much in attendance at college. Most of the contributors treat Peggy, the young girl, as little more than the guileless victim of female vanity and male confusion; by the time she gets to tell her own story in the penultimate chapter, the writer, Alice Brown, makes it hard to distinguish innocence from stupidity. Brown also transgresses a rule of composition well known to Jane Austen, by introducing at the last minute a character never previously mentioned in the narrative. This is Stillman Dane, a professor of psychology at the college, who arrives just in time to rescue the heroine from her broken engagement, though Peggy herself remains entirely oblivious to what is happening. Unlike Eleanor Tilney’s lover in Northanger Abbey, Dane has so far not even left a laundry bill as a token of narrative coherence. Brown assures us that he is a worthy candidate for Peggy’s hand by informing us that he is a good friend of her brother and that he resigned from the college when he learned of her engagement to his rival – whether to nurse a broken heart or to avoid interfering with the young couple, Brown does not say. (The reader needn’t worry about Peggy’s marriage to an unemployed academic: Brown also arranges for a timely inheritance.) Dane may be an expert in psychology, but about the girl he intends to marry he says things like: ‘It’s as if everybody, the world and the flesh and the Whole Family, had been blundering round and setting their feet down as near as they could to a flower. But the flower isn’t trampled yet. We’ll build a fence round it.’ The artifice of this chapter is further burdened by the fact that its immediate predecessor had already arranged a suitable match for Peggy in the person of the local doctor, a character who at least had the merit of figuring in one way or another in the course of the novel. In order to dismiss this alternative, Brown had to decide that its narrator, the small boy, was not really reporting what had happened but taking dictation from his romancing sister – who had a crush on the doctor and had been reading too much fiction.

Oddly enough, all the others apparently approved of Brown’s chapter – maybe out of gratitude for its tactful allusions to each of their narratives, as Howard suggests, or out of sheer relief that the whole thing was nearing its end. Even James professed to ‘do justice to Miss Brown’, despite the fact that by this time he had more or less despaired of the enterprise. A letter to Jordan half-seriously suggested that he had been tempted to ‘save the stuff’ by finishing the entire novel himself:

It was, & still is, I confess, for me, the feeling of a competent cook who sees good vittles messed – & all the more that he has been named as having had a hand in the dinner. I wince at the vision of the dinner being served – & this particular cook will at any rate, thereunder, stick very tight in the kitchen. Don’t think, however, I mean too tactlessly to discompose you as the hostess.

James was particularly scornful of Andrews’s ‘Small Boy’ and Wyatt’s ‘Mother’: ‘Does your public want that so completely lack lustre domestic sentimentality?’ he protested to Jordan after reading ‘The Mother’. What James dismissed as ‘a positive small convulsion of debility!’ was, ironically, Wyatt’s second try at the assignment: her first version of the mother had been so universally condemned that Jordan had attempted, unsuccessfully, to remove her from the family. Since that version has not survived, it is impossible to know why everyone thought it so bad – a Harper’s executive called it ‘this cruelly incompetent drivel’ – but the fact that it apparently consisted of a series of letters exchanged with the other characters, on the theory that a monologue was not an appropriate form for a mother, suggests that Wyatt may have compounded the problem by trying to speak in their voices. Howells, in any case, thought her revised chapter ‘charming’. However, he shared James’s impatience with Mary Andrews’s catalogue of boyish clichés, all toads and dirt and contempt for the other sex: ‘not so much like a boy as like what a girl would be if she were a boy’ was his verdict – not particularly surprising, given what he knew of its authorship.

Wisely, perhaps, Howells had not initially planned on asking James to join the family: the credit for signing him up belongs to Jordan, whose autobiography claims that they knew one another well enough for gossip to have linked them romantically. Written in a recognisable version of his late style, James’s ‘Married Son’ comes perilously close to self-parody. At one point he even plagiarises from his own contemporaneous preface to the New York Edition of Roderick Hudson, as the son looks over what he has written and concludes that ‘relations . . . positively stop nowhere’: ‘I’ve often thought I should like some day to write a novel,’ James continues mischievously, ‘but what would become of me in that case – delivered over, I mean, before my subject, to my extravagant sense that everything is a part of something else?’ Charles Edward is no novelist, only the scion of the family firm; but Jordan’s decision to assign the role to James was not as perverse as it may seem, since Howells had originally represented the son as a comparative failure at business, with the sort of ‘easy temperament’ that under other circumstances ‘would have left him no better than some kind of artist’. Charles Edward’s wife, Lorraine, is supposed to be a product of the Art Students’ League; and James has some good fun with the couple’s incapacity to be vulgar enough for the Plated-Ware Works, ‘it being now definitely on record that we’ve never yet designed a single type of ice-pitcher – since that’s the damnable form Father’s production more and more runs to . . . that has “taken” with their awful public.’ The ironic comedy of the ice-pitchers is also, of course, that of James’s own struggle with the marketplace – including, one imagines, the very Bazar in which he now found himself:

We’ve tried again and again to strike off something hideous enough, but it has always in these cases appeared to us quite beautiful compared to the object finally turned out, on their improved lines, for the unspeakable market; so that we’ve only been able to be publicly rueful and depressed about it, and to plead practically, in extenuation of all the extra trouble we saddle them with, that such things are, alas, the worst we can do.

In this case the worst that James can do still entails a trip to Europe, as Charles Edward and his wife plan to carry Peggy off with them on their long-awaited escape to Paris. ‘The Married Son’ has been criticised as doing little to advance the plot, but it did more or less provide subsequent contributors with a map for the ending. Alice Brown had only to decide that Stillman Dane just happened to be booked on the same ship, leaving the last contributor, Henry Van Dyke, to assure the propriety of the arrangement by seeing that Dane and Peggy are secretly married before they sail. Not that Van Dyke’s version of the international theme bears much resemblance to James’s: his character, ‘a peace correspondent for a famous newspaper’ just returned from the Orient, is given to patriotic effusions over everything from the strawberry ice-cream the Talberts feed him – ‘how good and clean it tasted after Ispahan and Bagdad!’ – to the joking argument around the dinner table: ‘how natural and wholesome it sounded after Vienna and Paris!’ (It was Van Dyke whose denunciation of Sinclair Lewis’s Nobel Prize provoked the latter’s attack on the genteel tradition.) For all its homage to the American family, however, this contribution does as much as any of the others to undermine the authority of its nominal head. Howells had characterised the father as a benevolent ‘despot’: but even as Van Dyke pays lip service to this ideal by representing a Talbert who settles down ‘on the bed-rock of his conscience’ and firmly forbids Peggy’s voyage to Europe, ‘The Friend of the Family’ plots to outwit him and send her on her way.

Like many these days, June Howard describes herself as ‘sceptical of grand narratives’: a helpful precondition, one is tempted to say, for sustained attention to The Whole Family. Though Howard begins by suggesting, somewhat ominously, that we need to ‘distance ourselves from the assumption that fiction succeeds by intensely expressing individual vision’, for the most part she sensibly avoids any aesthetic defence of the novel. Rather than dispute Jordan’s own verdict that the final result was a ‘mess’, Howard takes that mess as the instructive occasion for an exercise in microhistory. A collaborative text is a ‘forum for dialogue’, she contends; and in this case that dialogue concerned not only changing conceptions of the family and the independence of its women, but questions about the relation between art and commerce and the nature of sentimentality, among other topics. Howard is especially keen to complicate simple divisions between historical periods and between high and low culture; and the very heterogeneity of The Whole Family, like that of the forum in which it appeared, is grist to her mill. In her view, the novel was as much the product of a publishing house as of the individual writers who contributed to it; and the fact that several generations of official histories could represent Harper’s simultaneously as a family and as a business, or that The Whole Family’s old-fashioned mansard roof also covers the up-to-date Aunt Elizabeth, goes to show that earlier attitudes persist even under the rubric of ‘modernisation’. So, too, the fact that a chapter by Henry James was immediately followed with one by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps (a popular writer whose work he deplored), or that the Bazar could juxtapose pieces on fashion and ads for silver polish with a serious discussion of women’s higher education by the President of Harvard, serves to illustrate the ‘mixed and middling discourses’ that characterised print culture in turn-of-the-century America.

If the mixed messages in Harper’s Bazar will surprise no one who has looked at a contemporary women’s magazine, that is in part Howard’s point. An interesting chapter on what she aptly terms ‘the sometimes-new woman’ takes up successive reappearances of this ambiguous figure, from late 19th-century debates about coeducation to a 1999 advertisement for the website of a now defunct magazine of the title at www.newwoman.com. Within The Whole Family, several characters are sometimes-new in Howard’s sense: while Peggy proves just ‘a perfect little decorative person’ – the phrase is James’s – despite her education, both her independent yet man-obsessed aunt and her quasi-bohemian sister-in-law, with her Art Students’ League training and her casual housekeeping, have intermittent claims on the status. But Howard’s main exhibit in this regard is Jordan herself, whose ability to manage a successful career as a journalist and editor, independent and unmarried, even as she remained a committed Catholic given to pro-family rhetoric in the pages of a fashion magazine, inspires her chronicler to remark that ‘she seems never to have met a contradiction she could not subdue (or at least blithely disregard).’

Such flickers of wit are relatively rare in Publishing the Family, which is more often engaged in soberly positioning itself in relation to other academic work in the field. Howard is a shrewd critic, and her resistance to simple conclusions is almost always salutary; but there is something dispiriting about the picture of American Studies that inadvertently emerges from her solemn efforts to spell out the obvious and to negotiate among conflicting factions. Should the author of any kind of historical analysis have to record her belief that ‘the engaged critic cannot afford to discard levers like logic’? Do readers have to be reminded that realism is a complex category and that ‘we need to resist the temptation to be for or against it’? Sometimes one suspects – or hopes – that Howard is engaged in shadow-boxing; though her argument for the unevenness of historical change is well taken, she offers her corrective to periodisation as if some scholars seriously believed that one day Victorians woke up, Orlando-like, and discovered they were Moderns. At other times, she indicts her field for parochialism, as when she chides fellow Americanists for failing to recognise that notions of sentimentality in the 19th-century US might have something to do with their antecedents in 18th-century Britain and the Continent. There are apparently honourable exceptions to this rule, including Philip Fisher and Jean-Christophe Agnew, ‘yet Americanists writing about sentimentality rarely cite them (nor, for that matter, do they cite each other).’

Howard’s own chapter on sentimentality makes a valiant effort to get beyond stale debates about whether women’s popular fiction in the period represented a debasement of cultural and political values or a progressive affirmation of female power. Rather than fruitlessly oppose ‘authentic’ feeling to mere convention, she argues, we would do better to acknowledge how difficult it is to separate them: the sender of a Hallmark card is not necessarily the less sincere in her sentiments because the vehicle she has chosen to represent them is a cliché. ‘When we call an artefact or gesture sentimental,’ Howard proposes, ‘we are pointing to its use of some established convention to evoke emotion; we mark a moment when the discursive processes that construct emotion become visible.’ This is genuinely helpful, but one doubts that it would have made Henry James any happier with the ‘stuff’ produced by his fellow contributors. Though Duke has generously marked its publication of Howard’s book by reprinting a 1986 edition of The Whole Family (with an introduction by Alfred Bendixen), it seems unlikely that many readers will wish to go back to it. The making of that collective project may have been a revealing cultural phenomenon, but the results still add up to a pretty awful novel.