My Literary Passions, by William Dean Howells

V. First Fiction and Drama

In my own case there followed my acquaintance with these authors certain Boeotian years, when if I did not go backward I scarcely went forward in the paths I had set out upon. They were years of the work, of the over-work, indeed, which falls to the lot of so many that I should be ashamed to speak of it except in accounting for the fact. My father had sold his paper in Hamilton and had bought an interest in another at Dayton, and we were all straining our utmost to help pay for it. My daily tasks began so early and ended so late that I had little time, even if I had the spirit, for reading; and it was not till what we thought ruin, but what was really release, came to us that I got back again to my books. Then we went to live in the country for a year, and that stress of toil, with the shadow of failure darkening all, fell from me like the horror of an evil dream. The only new book which I remember to have read in those two or three years at Dayton, when I hardly remember to have read any old ones, was the novel of ‘Jane Eyre,’ which I took in very imperfectly, and which I associate with the first rumor of the Rochester Knockings, then just beginning to reverberate through a world that they have not since left wholly at peace. It was a gloomy Sunday afternoon when the book came under my hand; and mixed with my interest in the story was an anxiety lest the pictures on the walls should leave their nails and come and lay themselves at my feet; that was what the pictures had been doing in Rochester and other places where the disembodied spirits were beginning to make themselves felt. The thing did not really happen in my case, but I was alone in the house, and it might very easily have happened.

If very little came to me in those days from books, on the other hand my acquaintance with the drama vastly enlarged itself. There was a hapless company of players in the town from time to time, and they came to us for their printing. I believe they never paid for it, or at least never wholly, but they lavished free passes upon us, and as nearly as I can make out, at this distance of time, I profited by their generosity, every night. They gave two or three plays at every performance to houses ungratefully small, but of a lively spirit and impatient temper that would not brook delay in the representation; and they changed the bill each day. In this way I became familiar with Shakespeare before I read him, or at least such plays of his as were most given in those days, and I saw “Macbeth” and “Hamlet,” and above all “Richard III.,” again and again. I do not know why my delight in those tragedies did not send me to the volume of his plays, which was all the time in the bookcase at home, but I seem not to have thought of it, and rapt as I was in them I am not sure that they gave me greater pleasure, or seemed at all finer, than “Rollo,” “The Wife,” “The Stranger,” “Barbarossa,” “The Miser of Marseilles,” and the rest of the melodramas, comedies, and farces which I saw at that time. I have a notion that there were some clever people in one of these companies, and that the lighter pieces at least were well played, but I may be altogether wrong. The gentleman who took the part of villain, with an unfailing love of evil, in the different dramas, used to come about the printing-office a good deal, and I was puzzled to find him a very mild and gentle person. To be sure he had a mustache, which in those days devoted a man to wickedness, but by day it was a blond mustache, quite flaxen, in fact, and not at all the dark and deadly thing it was behind the footlights at night. I could scarcely gasp in his presence, my heart bounded so in awe and honor of him when he paid a visit to us; perhaps he used to bring the copy of the show-bills. The company he belonged to left town in the adversity habitual with them.

Our own adversity had been growing, and now it became overwhelming. We had to give up the paper we had struggled so hard to keep, but when the worst came it was not half so bad as what had gone before. There was no more waiting till midnight for the telegraphic news, no more waking at dawn to deliver the papers, no more weary days at the case, heavier for the doom hanging over us. My father and his brothers had long dreamed of a sort of family colony somewhere in the country, and now the uncle who was most prosperous bought a milling property on a river not far from Dayton, and my father went out to take charge of it until the others could shape their business to follow him. The scheme came to nothing finally, but in the mean time we escaped from the little city and its sorrowful associations of fruitless labor, and had a year in the country, which was blest, at least to us children, by sojourn in a log-cabin, while a house was building for us.

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