Harper’s, Twain, Howells, and the right word

I really do recommend subscribing to Harper’s — provided you have a week to fall into the archives as into a very deep well where your favorite dead authors happen to have stashed their work.

Which is to say: I thought I’d read all of Mark Twain’s essays, but no, no, and no. Here’s an excerpt from a joyous 1906 meditation on the writing of his friend William Dean Howells.

Is it true that the sun of a man’s mentality touches noon at forty and then begins to wane toward setting? Doctor Osler is charged with saying so. Maybe he said it, maybe he didn’t; I don’t know which it is. But if he said it, I can point him to a case which proves his rule. Proves it by being an exception to it. To this place I nominate Mr. Howells.

I read his Venetian Days about forty years ago. I compare it with his paper on Machiavelli in a late number of Harper, and I cannot find that his English has suffered any impairment. For forty years his English has been to me a continual delight and astonishment. In the sustained exhibition of certain great qualities — clearness, compression, verbal exactness, and unforced and seemingly unconscious felicity of phrasing — he is, in my belief, without his peer in the English-writing world. Sustained. I entrench myself behind that protecting word. There are others who exhibit those great qualities as greatly as he does, but only by intervaled distributions of rich moonlight, with stretches of veiled and dimmer landscape between; whereas Howells’s moon sails cloudless skies all night and all the nights.

In the matter of verbal exactness Mr. Howells has no superior, I suppose. He seems to be almost always able to find that elusive and shifty grain of gold, the right word. Others have to put up with approximations, more or less frequently; he has better luck. To me, the others are miners working with the gold-pan — of necessity some of the gold washes over and escapes; whereas, in my fancy, he is quicksilver raiding down a riffle — no grain of the metal stands much chance of eluding him. A powerful agent is the right word: it lights the reader’s way and makes it plain; a close approximation to it will answer, and much travelling is done in a well-enough fashion by its help, but we do not welcome it and applaud it and rejoice in it as we do when the right one blazes out on us. Whenever we come upon one of those intensely right words in a book or a newspaper the resulting effect is physical as well as spiritual, and electrically prompt: it tingles exquisitely around through the walls of the mouth and tastes as tart and crisp and good as the autumn-butter that creams the sumac-berry. One has no time to examine the word and vote upon its rank and standing, the automatic recognition of its supremacy is so immediate. There is a plenty of acceptable literature which deals largely in approximations, but it may be likened to a fine landscape seen through the rain; the right word would dismiss the rain, then you would see it better. It doesn’t rain when Howells is at work.

And where does he get the easy and effortless flow of his speech? and its cadenced and undulating rhythm? and its architectural felicities of construction, its graces of expression, its pemmican quality of compression, and all that? Born to him, no doubt. All in shining good order in the beginning, all extraordinary; and all just as shining, just as extraordinary today, after forty years of diligent wear and tear and use. He passed his fortieth year long and long ago; but I think his English of today — his perfect English, I wish to say — can throw down the glove before his English of that antique time and not be afraid.

I will got back to the paper on Machiavelli now, and ask the reader to examine this passage from it which I append. I do not mean examine it in a bird’s-eye way; I mean search it, study it. And, of course, read it aloud. I may be wrong, still it is my conviction that one cannot get out of finely wrought literature all that is in it by reading it mutely….

Editorial cartoon of Howells and Twain typing in adjacent beds appeared in a 1907 issue of Puck magazine.


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