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Saturday, 2 March 2013

Praise from the praiseworthy

Saturday, March 2nd., Villa des Nefliers.

William Dean Howells, has recently written a long piece about me in "Harper's".

William Dean Howells (1837 – 1920) was an American realist author and literary critic. Nicknamed "The Dean of American Letters", he was particularly known for his tenure as editor of the Atlantic Monthly as well as his own prolific writings, including the Christmas story "Christmas Every Day" and the novel The Rise of Silas Lapham. In addition to his own creative works, Howells also wrote criticism, and essays about contemporary literary figures such as Henrik Ibsen, Émile Zola, and, especially, Leo Tolstoy, which helped establish their reputations in the United States. In his "Editor's Study" column at the Atlantic Monthly and, later, at Harper's, he formulated and disseminated his theories of "realism" in literature. Howells viewed realism as "nothing more and nothing less than the truthful treatment of material." In defense of the real, as opposed to the ideal, he wrote, "I hope the time is coming when not only the artist, but the common, average man, who always 'has the standard of the arts in his power,' will have also the courage to apply it, and will reject the ideal grasshopper wherever he finds it, in science, in literature, in art, because it is not 'simple, natural, and honest,' because it is not like a real grasshopper. But I will own that I think the time is yet far off, and that the people who have been brought up on the ideal grasshopper, the heroic grasshopper, the impassioned grasshopper, the self-devoted, adventureful, good old romantic card-board grasshopper, must die out before the simple, honest, and natural grasshopper can have a fair field."

Whilst he makes errors of fact in his article, the sentiments expressed are very satisfying to me and I have taken the unusual step of writing to him in acknowledgement:

My dear Sir,
One does not usually acknowledge criticism, even when it is very generous or very just. But you are you; not merely the first essayist & the first novelist in America, but the beloved 'W. D. Howells', whose work has been enjoyed, almost as part of the planetary movement, ever since Harper's Magazine first came regularly into a certain house in the Five Towns (not far from Clayhanger's) 26 or 27 years ago. Hence I give myself the pleasure of writing to you in order to acknowledge your 'Easy Chair' article in this month's Harper's. I need not try to explain to you how much pleasure it has given me. You, being an imaginative writer, will know all about that. But I am charmed to have this excuse for communicating with one who gave me some of my first notions of what subtlety can be in literature. Do you remember "The Mousetrap"? It is conceivable that you only half remember it. But I can well remember how my brother & I agreed, after reading it in Harper's, that it had set up a new standard of 'subtlety' for us. Also I feel it is my duty to reassure an observer so friendly as you are, on the subject of the pseudo-Arnold Bennett, author of unserious books. The need of money was the sole & sufficient explanation of those books. Although I flatter myself that I live to write, I should be ashamed if I did not write to live. The last of those books was written some years ago, & has just been published. Denry the Audacious. I must tell you, however, that I consider Buried Alive, though as you say a farce, as a quite serious 'criticism of life', & that I mean to continue at intervals in this vein. And further I want to rebut the charge of excessive length brought against Clayhanger. Everybody believes & says it is longer than The Old Wives Tale. far from being longer it is 40,000 words (20 per cent) shorter. The optical illusion of excessive length is due to the typographical ingenuity of the publishers, who apparently decided to convince the American public that this book is the first third of 'a million word novel'. (See preliminary puffs.) As a fact, it is 160,000 words long (exactly) - that is to say, less than a third of the length of Anna Karenina, La Chartreuse de Palme, Vanity Fair, etc. It may seem long. For that I accept the blame. I did not begin fiction writing by collaboration with our friend Phillpotts. I had written 15 or 20 books before he suggested to me the collaboration as a remunerative & colossal joke. Which it proved to be indeed. But we only did two books.
  Well, I must try to live up to 'The Easy Chair'.
    Believe me,
      Your old, admiring & obliged reader, Arnold Bennett

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