Annie Kilburn – William Dean Howells
Mr. Howells’ novel exhibits the influence of many disturbing elements upon the mind of the writer. What they call the “zeitgeist” in Germany is strongly reflected in the pages of “Annie Kilburn;” and the lenses through which current social phenomena are viewed are not those of optimism. The heroine is a not quite young woman, who, after a long residence abroad, returns orphaned to her old home. This is a New England manufacturing town in a transition state between colonial Puritanism and nobody knows what. Annie Kilburn stands for that peculiarly modern condition of mind in which dissatisfaction with social relations as they exist is rather paralyzed than tempered by the operation of a practical sense which teaches the futility of all the remedial agencies that suggest themselves. She strongly yearns to do good; to better the state of the poor; to equalize social conditions. With a woman’s impulsiveness she begins many things; with a New England woman’s intellectual alert ness she quickly realizes the uselessness of her experiments. But she is not alone in the desire to right wrongs and remove abuses. An atmosphere of restlessness, doubt, and perplexity surrounds the story, which is full of futile reformers and hypocrites and feeble essays at amelioration undertaken in dense misapprehension of what is really needed. Tolstoi dashed with anarchy might be said to be the most conspicuous flavors in the book. An ie Kilburn herself is a would-be philanthropist, who feels her hands tied by inevitable circumstances. The Rev. Mr. Peck is an evangelical dreamer who lacks administrative and coordinating power, and drifts into a deadly quarrel with the respectable hypocrites of his congregation. Gerrish, the head and type of these, is a vulgar, purse-proud, greedy, and overbearing tradesman, who demands “the promises” from his pastor, and is furious when the latter attempts to apply the teachings of Christ to conduct. Putney is an irregular genius, who is strongly drawn to the side of all the protestants against modern social conditions; who, as a lawyer, prefers to defend boycotting Knights of Labor, and who is the opposite of the Gerrish tribe, Bohemian against Philistine, a natural “revolte,” in short. Then there is Mrs. Munger, the social leader, who manages everybody, and wishing to start a social union for the benefit of the working people, pro poses to raise funds by an outdoor theatrical performance, followed by a supper and dance from which the beneficiaries are to be excluded. Mr. Howells’ art has never been more finely displayed than in the handling of the feminine elements of “Annie Kilburn.” The whole episode of Mrs. Munger’s call upon her friends for the purpose of gathering opinions as to the supper and dance plan is described with consummate humor and in sight. The visit of the three former girl friends to Annie upon her return from Rome is perhaps equally good. There is marvelous perception and skillful description in all this ; but there is also a certain want of humanity, which produces a slightly uncomfortable impression.
Excerpt from the text:
After the death of Judge Kilburn his daughter came back to America. They had been eleven winters in Rome, always meaning to return, but staying on from year to year, as people do who have nothing definite to call them home. Toward the last Miss Kilburn tacitly gave up the expectation of getting her father away, though they both continued to say that they were going to take passage as soon as the weather was settled in the spring. At the date they had talked of for sailing he was lying in the Protestant cemetery, and she was trying to gather herself together, and adjust her life to his loss. This would have been easier with a younger person, for she had been her father’s pet so long, and then had taken care of his helplessness with a devotion which was finally so motherly, that it was like losing at once a parent and a child when he died, and she remained with the habit of giving herself when there was no longer any one to receive the sacrifice. He had married late, and in her thirty-first year he was seventy-eight; but the disparity of their ages, increasing toward the end through his infirmities, had not loosened for her the ties of custom and affection that bound them; she had seen him grow more and more fitfully cognisant of what they had been to each other since her mother’s death, while she grew the more tender and fond with him. People who came to condole with her seemed not to understand this, or else they thought it would help her to bear up if they treated her bereavement as a relief from hopeless anxiety. They were all surprised when she told them she still meant to go home.
“Why, my dear,” said one old lady, who had been away from America twenty years, “this is home! You’ve lived in this apartment longer now than the oldest inhabitant has lived in most American towns. What are you talking about? Do you mean that you are going back to Washington?”
“Oh no. We were merely staying on in Washington from force of habit, after father gave up practice. I think we shall go back to the old homestead, where we used to spend our summers, ever since I can remember.”
“And where is that?” the old lady asked, with the sharpness which people believe must somehow be good for a broken spirit.
“It’s in the interior of Massachusetts—you wouldn’t know it: a place called Hatboro’.”
“No, I certainly shouldn’t,” said the old lady, with superiority. “Why Hatboro’, of all the ridiculous reasons?”
“It was one of the first places where they began to make straw hats; it was a nickname at first, and then they adopted it. The old name was Dorchester Farms. Father fought the change, but it was of no use; the people wouldn’t have it Farms after the place began to grow; and by that time they had got used to Hatboro’. Besides, I don’t see how it’s any worse than Hatfield, in England.”
“It’s very American.”
“Oh, it’s American. We have Boxboro’ too, you know, in Massachusetts.”
“And you are going from Rome to Hatboro’, Mass.,” said the old lady, trying to present the idea in the strongest light by abbreviating the name of the State.
“Yes,” said Miss Kilburn. “It will be a change, but not so much of a change as you would think. It was father’s wish to go back.”
“Ah, my dear!” cried the old lady. “You’re letting that weigh with you, I see. Don’t do it! If it wasn’t wise, don’t you suppose that the last thing he could wish you to do would be to sacrifice yourself to a sick whim of his?”
The kindness expressed in the words touched Annie Kilburn. She had a certain beauty of feature; she was near-sighted; but her eyes were brown and soft, her lips red and full; her dark hair grew low, and played in little wisps and rings on her temples, where her complexion was clearest; the bold contour of her face, with its decided chin and the rather large salient nose, was like her father’s; it was this, probably, that gave an impression of strength, with a wistful qualification. She was at that time rather thin, and it could have been seen that she would be handsomer when her frame had rounded out in fulfilment of its generous design. She opened her lips to speak, but shut them again in an effort at self-control before she said—
“But I really wish to do it. At this moment I would rather be in Hatboro’ than in Rome.”
“Oh, very well,” said the old lady, gathering herself up as one does from throwing away one’s sympathy upon an unworthy object; “if you really wish it—”
“I know that it must seem preposterous and—and almost ungrateful that I should think of going back, when I might just as well stay. Why, I’ve a great many more friends here than I have there; I suppose I shall be almost a stranger when I get there, and there’s no comparison in congeniality; and yet I feel that I must go back. I can’t tell you why. But I have a longing; I feel that I must try to be of some use in the world—try to do some good—and in Hatboro’ I think I shall know how.” She put on her glasses, and looked at the old lady as if she might attempt an explanation, but, as if a clearer vision of the veteran worldling discouraged her, she did not make the effort.
“Oh!” said the old lady. “If you want to be of use, and do good—” She stopped, as if then there were no more to be said by a sensible person. “And shall you be going soon?” she asked. The idea seemed to suggest her own departure, and she rose after speaking.
“Just as soon as possible,” answered Miss Kilburn. Words take on a colour of something more than their explicit meaning from the mood in which they are spoken: Miss Kilburn had a sense of hurrying her visitor away, and the old lady had a sense of being turned out-of-doors, that the preparations for the homeward voyage might begin instantly.
Many times after the preparations began, and many times after they were ended, Miss Kilburn faltered in doubt of her decision; and if there had been any will stronger than her own to oppose it, she might have reversed it, and stayed in Rome. All the way home there was a strain of misgiving in her satisfaction at doing what she believed to be for the best, and the first sight of her native land gave her a shock of emotion which was not unmixed joy. She felt forlorn among people who were coming home with all sorts of high expectations, while she only had high intentions.
These dated back a good many years; in fact, they dated back to the time when the first flush of her unthinking girlhood was over, and she began to question herself as to the life she was living. It was a very pleasant life, ostensibly. Her father had been elected from the bench to Congress, and had kept his title and his repute as a lawyer through several terms in the House before he settled down to the practice of his profession in the courts at Washington, where he made a good deal of money. They passed from boarding to house-keeping, in the easy Washington way, after their impermanent Congressional years, and divided their time between a comfortable little place in Nevada Circle and the old homestead in Hatboro’. He was fond of Washington, and robustly content with the world as he found it there and elsewhere. If his daughter’s compunctions came to her through him, it must have been from some remoter ancestry; he was not apparently characterised by their transmission, and probably she derived them from her mother, who died when she was a little girl, and of whom she had no recollection. Till he began to break, after they went abroad, he had his own way in everything; but as men grow old or infirm they fall into subjection to their womenkind; their rude wills yield in the suppler insistence of the feminine purpose; they take the colour of the feminine moods and emotions; the cycle of life completes itself where it began, in helpless dependence upon the sex; and Rufus Kilburn did not escape the common lot. He was often complaining and unlovely, as aged and ailing men must be; perhaps he was usually so; but he had moments when he recognised the beauty of his daughter’s aspiration with a spiritual sympathy, which showed that he must always have had an intellectual perception of it. He expressed with rhetorical largeness and looseness the longing which was not very definite in her own heart, and mingled with it a strain of homesickness poignantly simple and direct for the places, the scenes, the persons, the things, of his early days. As he failed more and more, his homesickness was for natural aspects which had wholly ceased to exist through modern changes and improvements, and for people long since dead, whom he could find only in an illusion of that environment in some other world. In the pathos of this situation it was easy for his daughter to keep him ignorant of the passionate rebellion against her own ideals in which she sometimes surprised herself. When he died, all counter-currents were lost in the tidal revulsion of feeling which swept her to the fulfilment of what she hoped was deepest and strongest in her nature, with shame for what she hoped was shallowest, till that moment of repulsion in which she saw the thickly roofed and many towered hills of Boston grow up out of the western waves.
She had always regarded her soul as the battlefield of two opposite principles, the good and the bad, the high and the low. God made her, she thought, and He alone; He made everything that she was; but she would not have said that He made the evil in her. Yet her belief did not admit the existence of Creative Evil; and so she said to herself that she herself was that evil, and she must struggle against herself; she must question whatever she strongly wished because she strongly wished it. It was not logical; she did not push her postulates to their obvious conclusions; and there was apt to be the same kind of break between her conclusions and her actions as between her reasons and her conclusions. She acted impulsively, and from a force which she could not analyse. She indulged reveries so vivid that they seemed to weaken and exhaust her for the grapple with realities; the recollection of them abashed her in the presence of facts.
With all this, it must not be supposed that she was morbidly introspective. Her life had been apparently a life of cheerful acquiescence in worldly conditions; it had been, in some measure, a life of fashion, or at least of society. It had not been without the interests of other girls’ lives, by any means; she had sometimes had fancies, flirtations, but she did not think she had been really in love, and she had refused some offers of marriage for that reason.