Indian Summer – William Dean Howells
Mr. Howells is giving us in ‘ Indian Summer’ some of the very best work he has ever done ; full of the same dainty piquantness, but alive with deeper sympathies and meanings. This is full, not merely of what average people say and do, but of what average people think and feel behind what they say and do. The difference between ‘Silas Lapham’ and ‘Indian Summer’ is like the difference between a pearl and an opal : the opal has a soul. Nothing could be more entertaining than the letter of Mrs. Bowen as a perfect illustration of a poor woman trying to be just, but unconsciously adding a touch to make it seem that the other woman has not won so much after all; while Colville’s bright talk, Mr. Howells’s allusion to his own work, and bits of description of the beautiful old garden, are as amusing as anything Mr. Howells has ever given; and to all this there is added a depth of significance lending dignity to the funniness.
Excerpt from the text:
Midway of the Ponte Vecchio at Florence, where three arches break the lines of the little jewellers’ booths glittering on either hand, and open an approach to the parapet, Colville lounged against the corner of a shop and stared out upon the river. It was the late afternoon of a day in January, which had begun bright and warm, but had suffered a change of mood as its hours passed, and now, from a sky dimmed with flying grey clouds, was threatening rain. There must already have been rain in the mountains, for the yellow torrent that seethed and swirled around the piers of the bridge was swelling momently on the wall of the Lung’ Arno, and rolling a threatening flood toward the Cascine, where it lost itself under the ranks of the poplars that seemed to file across its course, and let their delicate tops melt into the pallor of the low horizon.
The city, with the sweep of the Lung’ Arno on either hand, and its domes and towers hung in the dull air, and the country with its white villas and black cypresses breaking the grey stretches of the olive orchards on its hill-sides, had alike been growing more and more insufferable; and Colville was finding a sort of vindictive satisfaction in the power to ignore the surrounding frippery of landscape and architecture. He isolated himself so perfectly from it, as he brooded upon the river, that, for any sensible difference, he might have been standing on the Main Street Bridge at Des Vaches, Indiana, looking down at the tawny sweep of the Wabash. He had no love for that stream, nor for the ambitious town on its banks, but ever since he woke that morning he had felt a growing conviction that he had been a great ass to leave them. He had, in fact, taken the prodigious risk of breaking his life sharp off from the course in which it had been set for many years, and of attempting to renew it in a direction from which it had long been diverted. Such an act could be precipitated only by a strong impulse of conscience or a profound disgust, and with Colville it sprang from disgust. He had experienced a bitter disappointment in the city to whose prosperity he had given the energies of his best years, and in whose favour he imagined that he had triumphantly established himself.
He had certainly made the Des Vaches Democrat-Republican a very good paper; its ability was recognised throughout the State, and in Des Vaches people of all parties were proud of it. They liked every morning to see what Colville said; they believed that in his way he was the smartest man in the State, and they were fond of claiming that there was no such writer on any of the Indianapolis papers. They forgave some political heresies to the talent they admired; they permitted him the whim of free trade, they laughed tolerantly when he came out in favour of civil service reform, and no one had much fault to find when the Democrat-Republican bolted the nomination of a certain politician of its party for Congress. But when Colville permitted his own name to be used by the opposing party, the people arose in their might and defeated him by a tremendous majority. That was what the regular nominee said. It was a withering rebuke to treason, in the opinion of this gentleman; it was a good joke, anyway, with the Democratic managers who had taken Colville up, being all in the Republican family; whichever it was, it was a mortification for Colville which his pride could not brook. He stood disgraced before the community not only as a theorist and unpractical doctrinaire, but as a dangerous man; and what was worse, he could not wholly acquit himself of a measure of bad faith; his conscience troubled him even more than his pride. Money was found, and a printer bought up with it to start a paper in opposition to the Democrat-Republican. Then Colville contemptuously offered to sell out to the Republican committee in charge of the new enterprise, and they accepted his terms.
In private life he found much of the old kindness returning to him; and his successful opponent took the first opportunity of heaping coals of fire on his head in the public street, when he appeared to the outer eye to be shaking hands with Colville. During the months that he remained to close up his affairs after the sale of his paper, the Post-Democrat-Republican (the newspaper had agglutinated the titles of two of its predecessors, after the fashion of American journals) was fulsome in its complimentary allusions to him. It politely invented the fiction that he was going to Europe for his health, impaired by his journalistic labours, and adventurously promised its readers that they might hope to hear from him from time to time in its columns. In some of its allusions to him Colville detected the point of a fine irony, of which he had himself introduced the practice in the Democrat-Republican; and he experienced, with a sense of personal impoverishment, the curious fact that a journalist of strong characteristics leaves the tradition of himself in such degree with the journal he has created that he seems to bring very little away. He was obliged to confess in his own heart that the paper was as good as ever. The assistants, who had trained themselves to write like him, seemed to be writing quite as well, and his honesty would not permit him to receive the consolation offered him by the friends who told him that there was a great falling off in the Post-Democrat-Republican. Except that it was rather more Stalwart in its Republicanism, and had turned quite round on the question of the tariff, it was very much what it had always been. It kept the old decency of tone which he had given it, and it maintained the literary character which he was proud of. The new management must have divined that its popularity, with the women at least, was largely due to its careful selections of verse and fiction, its literary news, and its full and piquant criticisms, with their long extracts from new books. It was some time since he had personally looked after this department, and the young fellow in charge of it under him had remained with the paper. Its continued excellence, which he could not have denied if he had wished, seemed to leave him drained and feeble, and it was partly from the sense of this that he declined the overtures, well backed up with money, to establish an independent paper in Des Vaches. He felt that there was not fight enough in him for the work, even if he had not taken that strong disgust for public life which included the place and its people. He wanted to get away, to get far away, and with the abrupt and total change in his humour he reverted to a period in his life when journalism and politics and the ambition of Congress were things undreamed of.
At that period he was a very young architect, with an inclination toward the literary side of his profession, which made it seem profitable to linger, with his Ruskin in his hand, among the masterpieces of Italian Gothic, when perhaps he might have been better employed in designing red-roofed many-verandaed, consciously mullioned seaside cottages on the New England coast. He wrote a magazine paper on the zoology of the Lombardic pillars in Verona, very Ruskinian, very scornful of modern motive. He visited every part of the peninsula, but he gave the greater part of his time to North Italy, and in Venice he met the young girl whom he followed to Florence. His love did not prosper; when she went away she left him in possession of that treasure to a man of his temperament, a broken heart. From that time his vague dreams began to lift, and to let him live in the clear light of common day; but he was still lingering at Florence, ignorant of the good which had befallen him, and cowering within himself under the sting of wounded vanity, when he received a letter from his elder brother suggesting that he should come and see how he liked the architecture of Des Vaches. His brother had been seven years at Des Vaches, where he had lands, and a lead-mine, and a scheme for a railroad, and had lately added a daily newspaper to his other enterprises. He had, in fact, added two newspapers; for having unexpectedly and almost involuntarily become the owner of the Des Vaches Republican, the fancy of building up a great local journal seized him, and he bought the Wabash Valley Democrat, uniting them under the name of the Democrat-Republican. But he had trouble almost from the first with his editors, and he naturally thought of the brother with a turn for writing who had been running to waste for the last year or two in Europe. His real purpose was to work Colville into the management of his paper when he invited him to come out and look at the architecture of Des Vaches.
Colville went, because he was at that moment in the humour to go anywhere, and because his money was running low, and he must begin work somehow. He was still romantic enough to like the notion of the place a little, because it bore the name given to it by the old French voyageurs from a herd of buffalo cows which they had seen grazing on the site of their camp there; but when he came to the place itself he did not like it. He hated it; but he stayed, and as an architect was the last thing any one wanted in Des Vaches since the jail and court-house had been built, he became, half without his willing it, a newspaper man. He learned in time to relish the humorous intimacy of the life about him; and when it was decided that he was no fool—there were doubts, growing out of his Eastern accent and the work of his New York tailor, at first—he found himself the object of a pleasing popularity. In due time he bought his brother out; he became very fond of newspaper life, its constant excitements and its endless variety; and six weeks before he sold his paper he would have scoffed at a prophecy of his return to Europe for the resumption of any artistic purpose whatever. But here he was, lounging on the Ponte Vecchio at Florence, whither he had come with the intention of rubbing up his former studies, and of perhaps getting back to put them in practice at New York ultimately. He had said to himself before coming abroad that he was in no hurry; that he should take it very easily—he had money enough for that; yet he would keep architecture before him as an object, for he had lived long in a community where every one was intensely occupied, and he unconsciously paid to Des Vaches the tribute of feeling that an objectless life was disgraceful to a man.
In the meantime he suffered keenly and at every moment the loss of the occupation of which he had bereaved himself; in thinking of quite other things, in talk of totally different matters, from the dreams of night, he woke with a start to the realisation of the fact that he had no longer a newspaper. He perceived now, as never before, that for fifteen years almost every breath of his life had been drawn with reference to his paper, and that without it he was in some sort lost, and, as it were, extinct. A tide of ridiculous home-sickness, which was an expression of this passionate regret for the life he had put behind him, rather than any longing for Des Vaches, swept over him, and the first passages of a letter to the Post-Democrat-Republican began to shape themselves in his mind. He had always, when he left home for New York or Washington, or for his few weeks of summer vacation on the Canadian rivers or the New England coast, written back to his readers, in whom he knew he could count upon quick sympathy in all he saw and felt, and he now found himself addressing them with that frank familiarity which comes to the journalist, in minor communities, from the habit of print. He began by confessing to them the defeat of certain expectations with which he had returned to Florence, and told them that they must not look for anything like the ordinary letters of travel from him. But he was not so singular in his attitude toward the place as he supposed; for any tourist who comes to Florence with the old-fashioned expectation of impressions will probably suffer a disappointment, unless he arrives very young and for the first time. It is a city superficially so well known that it affects one somewhat like a collection of views of itself; they are from the most striking points, of course, but one has examined them before, and is disposed to be critical of them. Certain emotions, certain sensations failed to repeat themselves to Colville at sight of the familiar monuments, which seemed to wear a hardy and indifferent air, as if being stared at so many years by so many thousands of travellers had extinguished in them that sensibility which one likes to fancy in objects of interest everywhere.