My Literary Passions, by William Dean Howells

XXVI. George Eliot, Hawthorne, Goethe, Heine

I got back health enough to be of use in the printing office that autumn, and I was quietly at work there with no visible break in my surroundings when suddenly the whole world opened to me through what had seemed an impenetrable wall. The Republican newspaper at the capital had been bought by a new management, and the editorial force reorganized upon a footing of what we then thought metropolitan enterprise; and to my great joy and astonishment I was asked to come and take a place in it. The place offered me was not one of lordly distinction; in fact, it was partly of the character of that I had already rejected in Cincinnati, but I hoped that in the smaller city its duties would not be so odious; and by the time I came to fill it, a change had taken place in the arrangements so that I was given charge of the news department. This included the literary notices and the book reviews, and I am afraid that I at once gave my prime attention to these.

It was an evening paper, and I had nearly as much time for reading and study as I had at home. But now society began to claim a share of this leisure, which I by no means begrudged it. Society was very charming in Columbus then, with a pretty constant round of dances and suppers, and an easy cordiality, which I dare say young people still find in it everywhere. I met a great many cultivated people, chiefly young ladies, and there were several houses where we young fellows went and came almost as freely as if they were our own. There we had music and cards, and talk about books, and life appeared to me richly worth living; if any one had said this was not the best planet in the universe I should have called him a pessimist, or at least thought him so, for we had not the word in those days. A world in which all those pretty and gracious women dwelt, among the figures of the waltz and the lancers, with chat between about the last instalment of ‘The Newcomes,’ was good enough world for me; I was only afraid it was too good. There were, of course, some girls who did not read, but few openly professed indifference to literature, and there was much lending of books back and forth, and much debate of them. That was the day when ‘Adam Bede’ was a new book, and in this I had my first knowledge of that great intellect for which I had no passion, indeed, but always the deepest respect, the highest honor; and which has from time to time profoundly influenced me by its ethics.

I state these things simply and somewhat baldly; I might easily refine upon them, and study that subtle effect for good and for evil which young people are always receiving from the fiction they read; but this its not the time or place for the inquiry, and I only wish to own that so far as I understand it, the chief part of my ethical experience has been from novels. The life and character I have found portrayed there have appealed always to the consciousness of right and wrong implanted in me; and from no one has this appeal been stronger than from George Eliot. Her influence continued through many years, and I can question it now only in the undue burden she seems to throw upon the individual, and her failure to account largely enough for motive from the social environment. There her work seems to me unphilosophical.

It shares whatever error there is in its perspective with that of Hawthorne, whose ‘Marble Faun’ was a new book at the same time that ‘Adam Bede’ was new, and whose books now came into my life and gave it their tinge. He was always dealing with the problem of evil, too, and I found a more potent charm in his more artistic handling of it than I found in George Eliot. Of course, I then preferred the region of pure romance where he liked to place his action; but I did not find his instances the less veritable because they shone out in

“The light that never was on sea or land.”

I read the ‘Marble Faun’ first, and then the ‘Scarlet Letter,’ and then the ‘House of Seven Gables,’ and then the ‘Blithedale Romance;’ but I always liked best the last, which is more nearly a novel, and more realistic than the others. They all moved me with a sort of effect such as I had not felt before. They veers so far from time and place that, although most of them related to our country and epoch, I could not imagine anything approximate from them; and Hawthorne himself seemed a remote and impalpable agency, rather than a person whom one might actually meet, as not long afterward happened with me. I did not hold the sort of fancied converse with him that I held with ether authors, and I cannot pretend that I had the affection for him that attracted me to them. But he held me by his potent spell, and for a time he dominated me as completely as any author I have read. More truly than any other American author he has been a passion with me, and lately I heard with a kind of pang a young man saying that he did not believe I should find the ‘Scarlet Letter’ bear reading now. I did not assent to the possibility, but the notion gave me a shiver of dismay. I thought how much that book had been to me, how much all of Hawthorne’s books had been, and to have parted with my faith in their perfection would have been something I would not willingly have risked doing.

Of course there is always something fatally weak in the scheme of the pure romance, which, after the color of the contemporary mood dies out of it, leaves it in danger of tumbling into the dust of allegory; and perhaps this inherent weakness was what that bold critic felt in the ‘Scarlet Letter.’ But none of Hawthorne’s fables are without a profound and distant reach into the recesses of nature and of being. He came back from his researches with no solution of the question, with no message, indeed, but the awful warning, “Be true, be true,” which is the burden of the Scarlet Letter; yet in all his books there is the hue of thoughts that we think only in the presence of the mysteries of life and death. It is not his fault that this is not intelligence, that it knots the brow in sorer doubt rather than shapes the lips to utterance of the things that can never be said. Some of his shorter stories I have found thin and cold to my later reading, and I have never cared much for the ‘House of Seven Gables,’ but the other day I was reading the ‘Blithedale Romance’ again, and I found it as potent, as significant, as sadly and strangely true as when it first enthralled my soul.

In those days when I tried to kindle my heart at the cold altar of Goethe, I did read a great deal of his prose and somewhat of his poetry, but it was to be ten years yet before I should go faithfully through with his Faust and come to know its power. For the present, I read ‘Wilhelm Meister’ and the ‘Wahlverwandschaften,’ and worshipped him much at second-hand through Heine. In the mean time I invested such Germans as I met with the halo of their national poetry, and there was one lady of whom I heard with awe that she had once known my Heine. When I came to meet her, over a glass of the mild egg-nog which she served at her house on Sunday nights, and she told me about Heine, and how he looked, and some few things he said, I suffered an indescribable disappointment; and if I could have been frank with myself I should have owned to a fear that it might have been something like that, if I had myself met the poet in the flesh, and tried to hold the intimate converse with him that I held in the spirit. But I shut my heart to all such misgivings and went on reading him much more than I read any other German author. I went on writing him too, just as I went on reading and writing Tennyson. Heine was always a personal interest with me, and every word of his made me long to have had him say it to me, and tell me why he said it. In a poet of alien race and language and religion I found a greater sympathy than I have experienced with any other. Perhaps the Jews are still the chosen people, but now they bear the message of humanity, while once they bore the message of divinity. I knew the ugliness of Heine’s nature: his revengefulness, and malice, and cruelty, and treachery, and uncleanness; and yet he was supremely charming among the poets I have read. The tenderness I still feel for him is not a reasoned love, I must own; but, as I am always asking, when was love ever reasoned?

I had a room-mate that winter in Columbus who was already a contributor to the Atlantic Monthly, and who read Browning as devotedly as I read Heine. I will not say that he wrote him as constantly, but if that had been so, I should not have cared. What I could not endure without pangs of secret jealousy was that he should like Heine, too, and should read him, though it was but an arm’s-length in an English version. He had found the origins of those tricks and turns of Heine’s in ‘Tristram Shandy’ and the ‘Sentimental Journey;’ and this galled me, as if he had shown that some mistress of my soul had studied her graces from another girl, and that it was not all her own hair that she wore. I hid my rancor as well as I could, and took what revenge lay in my power by insinuating that he might have a very different view if he read Heine in the original. I also made haste to try my own fate with the Atlantic, and I sent off to Mr. Lowell that poem which he kept so long in order to make sure that Heine had not written it, as well as authorized it.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38