Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Howells, William Dean (1837–1920)
Author:
Berkove, Lawrence I.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

William Dean Howells early established and long maintained an ambivalent, grudging, and limited appreciation of Whitman. An advocate of realism, and inclined by training and taste to favor form and refinement in literature, Howells first criticized Whitman's poetry as too raw and barbaric, but he ultimately recognized Whitman as a fact of growing influence in literature and conceded that his poetry was vigorous and sometimes beautiful.

Howells's first review (1860) of a Whitman poem, "Bardic Symbols," complained that it was confusing because the poet discarded forms and laws. Later in 1860, in another review of Leaves of Grass, Howells sounded his distinctive note of ambivalence when he characterized Whitman as a bull in the china shop of poetry and, ironically, the critics as fretful "Misses Nancy" (1:12). For Howells, Whitman was both overrated and underrated. Although he disapproved of Whitman's excessive frankness, he found passages of great beauty in the poems and decided to leave the final judgment to posterity. The 1865 review of Drum-Taps granted pathos and "purity" to the collection (1:49), but concluded that its contents were only the stuff of poetry—embryonic poems—and that Whitman's rich possibilities were thwarted by his erroneous theories. The 1889 review of November Boughs was more kindly, perhaps because Howells realized that Whitman was near the end of his life. While Howells still denied that Whitman succeeded in freeing poetry from form, he admitted that Whitman dealt literary convention a permanent injury and produced a "new kind in literature" (2:108).

Howells was never comfortable with Whitman's poetry, but became broad-minded and gracious enough to concede potentialities for greatness in it that he could not grasp.

Bibliography

Cady, Edwin H. The Realist at War: The Mature Years, 1885–1920, of William Dean Howells. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse UP, 1958.

———. The Road to Realism: The Early Years, 1837–1885, of William Dean Howells. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse UP, 1956.

Howells, William Dean. Selected Literary Criticism, Volume 1:1859–1885. Ed. Ulrich Halfmann, Christopher K. Lohmann, Don L. Cook, and David J. Nordloh. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1993.

———. Selected Literary Criticism, Volume II: 1886–1897. Ed. Donald Pizer, Christopher K. Lohmann, Don L. Cook, and David J. Nordloh. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1993.

Madsen, Valden. "W.D. Howells's Formal Poetics and His Appraisals of Whitman and Emily Dickinson." Walt Whitman Review 23 (1977): 103–109.


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